Language of the Cherokee Formulas

A few words remain to be said in regard to the language of the formulas. They are full of archaic and figurative expressions, many of which are unintelligible to the common people, and some of which even the shamans themselves are now unable to explain. These archaic forms, like the old words used by our poets, lend a peculiar beauty which can hardly be rendered in a translation. They frequently throw light on the dialectic evolution of the language, as many words found now only in the nearly extinct Lower Cherokee dialect occur in formulas which in other respects are written in the Middle or Upper dialect. The R sound, the chief distinguishing characteristic of the old Lower dialect, of course does not occur, as there are no means of indicating it in the Cherokee syllabary. Those who are accustomed to look to the Bible for all beauty in sacred expression will be surprised to find that these formulas abound in the loftiest nights of poetic imagery. This is especially true of the prayers used to win the love of a woman or to destroy the life of an enemy, in which we find such expressions as-“Now your soul fades away-your spirit shall grow less and dwindle away, never to reappear;” “Let her be completely veiled in loneliness-O Black Spider, may you hold her soul in your web, so that it may never get through the meshes;” and the final declaration of the lover, “Your soul has come into the very center of my soul, never to turn away.”

In the translation it has been found advisable to retain as technical terms a few words which could not well be rendered literally, such as ada´wehi and ugista´’ti. These words will be found explained in the proper place. Transliterations of the Cherokee text of the formulas are given, but it must be distinctly understood that the translations are intended only as free renderings of the spirit of the originals, exact translations with grammatic and glossarial notes being deferred until a more extended study of the language has been made, when it is hoped to present with more exactness of detail the whole body of the formulas, of which the specimens here given are but a small portion.

The facsimile formulas are copies from the manuscripts now in possession of the Bureau of Ethnology, and the portraits are from photographs taken by the author in the field.

Note On The Orthography And Translation of Formulas

In the Cherokee text both d and g have a medial sound, approximating the sounds of t and k respectively. The other letters are pronounced in regular accordance with the alphabet of the Bureau of Ethnology. The language abounds in nasal and aspirate sounds, the most difficult of the latter being the aspirate ‘l, which to one familiar only with English sounds like tl.

A few words whose meaning could not be satisfactorily ascertained have been distinctively indicated in the Cherokee text by means of italics. In the translation the corresponding expression has been queried, or the space left entirely blank. On examining the text the student can not fail to be struck by the great number of verbs ending in iga. This is a peculiar form hardly ever used excepting in these formulas, where almost every paragraph contains one or more such verbs. It implies that the subject has just come and is now performing the action, and that he came for that purpose. In addition to this, many of these verbs may be either assertive or imperative (expressing entreaty), according to the accent. Thus hatû´ngani´ga means “you have just come and are listening and it is for that purpose you came.” By slightly accenting the final syllable it becomes “come at once to listen.” It will thus be seen that the great majority of the formulas are declarative rather than petitional in form-laudatory rhapsodies instead of prayers, in the ordinary sense of the word.

Cherokee, Medicine,

Mooney, James. Sacred Formulas Of The Cherokees. Published in the Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 301-399. 1886.

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