Iroquois Belief in a Future State After Death

Last Updated on July 31, 2013 by Dennis

The Iroquois belief in a future state after death was thus related by Morgan : ” The religious system of the Iroquois taught that it was a journey from earth to heaven of many days’ duration. Originally, it was supposed to be a year, and the period of mourning for the departed was fixed at that term. At its expiration, it was customary for the relatives of the deceased to hold a feast; the soul of the departed having reached heaven, and a state of felicity, there was no longer any cause for mourning. The spirit of grief was exchanged for that of rejoicing. In modern times the mourning period has been reduced to ten days, and the journey of the spirit is now believed to be performed in three. The spirit of the deceased was supposed to hover around the body for a season, before it took its final departure; and not until after the expiration of a year according to the ancient belief, and ten days according to the present, did it become permanently at rest in heaven. A beautiful custom prevailed in ancient times, of capturing a bird, and freeing it over the grave on the evening of the burial, to bear away the spirit to its heavenly rest. Their notions of the state of the soul when disembodied, are vague and diversified; but they all agree that, during the journey, it required the same nourishment as while it dwelt in the body. They, therefore, deposited beside the deceased his bow and arrows, tobacco and pipe, and necessary food for the journey. They also painted and dressed the body in its best apparel. A fire was built upon the grave at night, to enable the spirit to prepare its food.” Morgan also referred to the ancient custom ” of addressing the dead before burial, under the belief that they could hear, although unable to answer. The near relatives and friends, or such as were disposed, approached the body in turn; and after the wail had ceased, they addressed it in a pathetic or laudatory speech. The practice has not even yet fallen entirely into disuse.” It will be recalled that at the Seneca town of Tsonnontouanne, in 1731, the French traveler Le Beau witnessed this peculiar ceremony, which had already been described by Lahontan a generation before. Another strange custom of these people was mentioned by the same writer when describing their dances. lie said: “An occasional and very singular figure was called the Dance for the Dead. It was known as the O-ke-wa. It was danced by the women alone. The music was entirely vocal, a select band of singers being stationed in the center of the room. To the songs for the dead, which they sang, the dancers joined in chorus. It was plaintive and mournful music. This dance was usually separate from all councils, and the only dance of the occasion. It commenced at dusk, or soon after, and continued until towards morning, when the shades of the dead, who were believed to be present and participate in the dance, were supposed to disappear. This dance was had whenever a family, which had lost a member, called for it, which was usually about a year after the event. In the spring and fall, it was often given for all the dead indiscriminately, who were believed then to revisit the earth and join in the dance.” This ceremony agrees with the Keutikaw of their neighbors to the eastward. Such were the customs of the people of the Five Nations.

Iroquois, Religion,

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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