Cherokee Formula to Destroy Life

Listen! Now I have come to step over your soul. You are of the ________ clan. Your name is __________. Your spittle I have put at rest under the earth. Your soul I have put at rest under the earth. I have come to cover you over with the black rock. I have come to cover you over with the black cloth. I have come to cover you with the black slabs, never to reappear. Toward the black coffin of the upland in the Darkening Land your paths shall stretch out. So shall it be for you. The clay of the upland has come (to cover you. (?)) Instantly the black clay has lodged there where it is at rest at the black houses in the Darkening Land. With the black coffin and with the black slabs I have come to cover you. Now your soul has faded away. It has become blue. When darkness comes your spirit shall grow less and dwindle away, never to reappear. Listen!

Explanation of the Formula to Destroy Life

This formula is from the manuscript book of A’yû´nini, who explained the whole ceremony. The language needs but little explanation. A blank is left for the name and clan of the victim, and is filled in by the shaman. As the purpose of the ceremony is to bring about the death of the victim, everything spoken of is symbolically colored black, according to the significance of the colors as already explained. The declaration near the end, “It has become blue,” indicates that the victim now begins to feel in himself the effects of the incantation, and that as darkness comes on his spirit will shrink and gradually become less until it dwindles away to nothingness.

When the shaman wishes to destroy the life of another, either for his own purposes or for hire, he conceals himself near the trail along which the victim is likely to pass. When the doomed man appears the shaman waits until he has gone by and then follows him secretly until he chances to spit upon the ground. On coming up to the spot the shaman collects upon the end of a stick a little of the dust thus moistened with the victim’s spittle. The possession of the man’s spittle gives him power over the life of the man himself. Many ailments are said by the doctors to be due to the fact that some enemy has by this means “changed the spittle” of the patient and caused it to breed animals or sprout corn in the sick man’s body. In the love charms also the lover always figuratively “takes the spittle” of the girl in order to fix her affections upon himself. The same idea in regard to spittle is found in European folk medicine.

The shaman then puts the clay thus moistened into a tube consisting of a joint of the Kanesâ´la or wild parsnip, a poisonous plant of considerable importance in life-conjuring ceremonies. He also puts into the tube seven earthworms beaten into a paste, and several splinters from a tree which has been struck by lightning. The idea in regard to the worms is not quite clear, but it may be that they are expected to devour the soul of the victim as earthworms are supposed to feed upon dead bodies, or perhaps it is thought that from their burrowing habits they may serve to hollow out a grave for the soul under the earth, the quarter to which the shaman consigns it. In other similar ceremonies the dirt-dauber wasp or the stinging ant is buried in the same manner in order that it may kill the soul, as these are said to kill other more powerful insects by their poisonous sting or bite. The wood of a tree struck by lightning is also a potent spell for both good and evil and is used in many formulas of various kinds.

Having prepared the tube, the shaman goes into the forest to a tree which has been struck by lightning. At its base he digs a hole, in the bottom of which he puts a large yellow stone slab. He then puts in the tube, together with seven yellow pebbles, fills in the earth, and finally builds a fire over the spot to destroy all traces of his work. The yellow stones are probably chosen as the next best substitute for black stones, which are not always easy to find. The formula mentions “black rock,” black being the emblem of death, while yellow typifies trouble. The shaman and his employer fast until after the ceremony.

If the ceremony has been properly carried out, the victim becomes blue, that is, he feels the effects in himself at once, and, unless he employs the countercharms of some more powerful shaman, his soul begins to shrivel up and dwindle, and within seven days he is dead. When it is found that the spell has no effect upon the intended victim it is believed that he has discovered the plot and has taken measures for his own protection, or that, having suspected a design against him-as, for instance, after having won a girl’s affections from a rival or overcoming him in the ball play-he has already secured himself from all attempts by counter spells. It then becomes a serious matter, as, should he succeed in turning the curse aside from himself, it will return upon the heads of his enemies.

The shaman and his employer then retire to a lonely spot in the mountains, in the vicinity of a small stream, and begin a new series of conjurations with the beads. After constructing a temporary shelter of bark laid over poles, the two go down to the water, the shaman taking with him two pieces of cloth, a yard or two yards in length, one white, the other black, together with seven red and seven black beads. The cloth is the shaman’s pay for his services, and is furnished by his employer, who sometimes also supplies the beads. There are many formulas for conjuring with the beads, which are used on almost all important occasions, and differences also in the details of the ceremony, but the general practice is the same in all cases. The shaman selects a bend in the river where his client can look toward the east while facing up stream. The man then takes up his position on the bank or wades into the stream a short distance, where-in the ceremonial language-the water is a “hand length” (awâ´hilû) in depth and stands silently with his eyes fixed upon the water and his back to the shaman on the bank. The shaman then lays upon the ground the two pieces of cloth, folded into convenient size, and places the red beads-typical of success and his client upon the white cloth, while the black beads-emblematic of death and the intended victim-are laid upon the black cloth. It is probable that the first cloth should properly be red instead of white, but as it is difficult to get red cloth, except in the shape of handkerchiefs, a substitution has been made, the two colors having a close mythologic relation. In former days a piece of buckskin and the small glossy, seeds of the Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) were used instead of the cloth and beads. The formulistic name for the bead is sû´nikta, which the priests are unable to analyze, the ordinary word for beads or coin being adélâ.

The shaman now takes a red bead, representing his client, between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, and a black bead, representing the victim, in like manner, in his left hand. Standing a few feet behind his client he turns toward the east, fixes his eyes upon the bead between the thumb and finger of his right hand, and addresses it as the Sû´nikta Gigage´i, the Red Bead, invoking blessings upon his client and clothing him with the red garments of success. The formula is repeated in a low chant or intonation, the voice rising at intervals, after the manner of a revival speaker. Then turning to the black bead in his left hand he addresses it in similar manner, calling down the most withering curses upon the head of the victim. Finally looking up he addresses the stream, under the name of Yû´nwi Gûnahi´ta, the “Long Person,” imploring it to protect his client and raise him to the seventh heaven, where he will be secure from all his enemies. The other, then stooping down, dips up water in his hand seven times and pours it upon his head, rubbing it upon his shoulders and breast at the same time. In some cases he dips completely under seven times, being stripped, of course, even when the water is of almost icy coldness. The shaman, then stooping down, makes a small hole in the ground with his finger, drops into it the fatal black bead, and buries it out of sight with a stamp of his foot. This ends the ceremony, which is called “taking to water.”

While addressing the beads the shaman attentively observes them as they are held between the thumb and finger of his outstretched hands. In a short time they begin to move, slowly and but a short distance at first, then faster and farther, often coming down as far as the first joint of the finger or even below, with an irregular serpentine motion from side to side, returning in the same manner. Should the red bead be more lively in its movements and come down lower on the finger than the black bead, he confidently predicts for the client the speedy accomplishment of his desire. On the other hand, should the black bead surpass the red in activity, the spells of the shaman employed by the intended victim are too strong, and the whole ceremony must be gone over again with an additional and larger quantity of cloth. This must be kept up until the movements of the red beads give token of success or until they show by their sluggish motions or their failure to move down along the finger that the opposing shaman can not be overcome. In the latter case the discouraged plotter gives up all hope, considering himself as cursed by every imprecation which he has unsuccessfully invoked upon his enemy, goes home and-theoretically-lies down and dies. As a matter of fact, however, the shaman is always ready with other formulas by means of which he can ward off such fatal results, in consideration, of a sufficient quantity of cloth.

Should the first trial, which takes place at daybreak, prove unsuccessful, the shaman and his client fast until just before sunset. They then eat and remain awake until midnight, when the ceremony is repeated, and if still unsuccessful it may be repeated four times before daybreak (or the following noon?), both men remaining awake and fasting throughout the night. If still unsuccessful, they continue to fast all day until just before sundown. Then they eat again and again remain awake until midnight, when the previous night’s program is repeated. It has now become a trial of endurance between the revengeful client and his shaman on the one side and the intended victim and his shaman on the other, the latter being supposed to be industriously working countercharms all the while, as each party must subsist upon one meal per day and abstain entirely from sleep until the result has been decided one way or the other. Failure to endure this severe strain, even so much as closing the eyes in sleep for a few moments or partaking of the least nourishment excepting just before sunset, neutralizes all the previous work and places the unfortunate offender at the mercy of his more watchful enemy. If the shaman be still unsuccessful on the fourth day, he acknowledges himself defeated and gives up the contest. Should his spells prove the stronger, his victim will die within seven days, or, as the Cherokees say, seven nights. These “seven nights,” however, are frequently interpreted, figuratively, to mean seven years, a rendering which often serves to relieve the shaman from a very embarrassing position.

With regard to the oracle of the whole proceeding, the beads do move; but the explanation is simple, although the Indians account for it by saying that the beads become alive by the recitation of the sacred formula. The shaman is laboring under strong, though suppressed, emotion. He stands with his hands stretched out in a constrained position, every muscle tense, his breast heaving and voice trembling from the effort, and the natural result is that before he is done praying his fingers begin to twitch involuntarily and thus cause the beads to move. As before stated, their motion is irregular; but the peculiar delicacy of touch acquired by long practice probably imparts more directness to their movements than would at first seem possible.

Cherokee Original


Sge! Nâ´gwa tsûdantâ´gi tegû´nyatawâ´ilateli´ga. Iyusti (0 0) tsilastû´’li Iyu´sti (0 0) ditsadâ´ita. Tsûwatsi´la elawi´ni tsidâ´histani´ga. Tsûdantâgi elawi´ni tsidâ´histani´ga. Nû´nya gû´nnage gûnyu´tlûntani´ga. A’nûwa´gi gû´nnage´ gûnyu´tlûntani´ga. Sûntalu´ga gû´nnage degû´nyanu´galû´ntani´ga, tsû´nanugâ´isti nige´sûnna. Usûhi´yi nûnnâ´hi wite´tsatanû´nûnsi gûne´sâ gû´nnage asahalagi´. Tsûtû´neli´ga. Elawâ´ti asa´halagi´a´dûnni´ga. Usinuli´yu Usûhi´yi gûltsâ´te digû´nnagesta´yi, elawâ´ti gû´nnage tidâ´histi wa’yanu´galûntsi´ga. Gûne´sa gû´nage sûntalu´ga gû´nnage gayu´tlûntani´ga. Tsûdantâ´gi ûska´lûntsi´ga. Sa’ka´ni adûnni´ga. Usû´hita atanis´se´ti, ayâ´lâtsi´sesti tsûdantâ´gi, tsû´nanugâ´isti nige´sûnna. Sge!


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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