The Sacred Fire of the Iroquois

Sacred Fire. The Sun a Symbol of Divine Intelligence.

It was a striking peculiarity of the ancient religious system of the Iroquois that, once a year, the priesthood supplied the people with sacred fire. For this purpose, a set time was announced for the ruling priest s visit. The entire village was apprized of this visit, and the master of each lodge was expected to be prepared for this annual rite. Preliminary to the visit, his lodge fire was carefully put out and ashes scattered about it, as a symbolic sign of desolation and want. Deprived of this element, they were also deprived of its symbolic influence, the sustaining aid and countenance of the supreme power, whose image they recognized in the sun.

It was to relieve this want, and excite hope and animation in breasts which had throbbed with dread, that the priest visited the lodge. Exhibiting the insignia of the sacerdotal office, he proceeded to invoke the Master of Life in their behalf, and ended his mission by striking fire from the flint, or from percussion, and lighting anew the domestic fire. The lodge was then swept and garnished anew, and a feast succeeded.

This sacred service annually performed, had the effect to fix and increase the reverence of the people for the priestly office. It acted as a renewal of their ecclesiastical fealty; and the consequence was, that the institution of the priesthood among these cantons was deeply and firmly seated. Whether this rite had any connection with the period of the solstices, or with the commencement of the lunar year, is not known, but is highly probable. That men living in the open air, who are regardful of the celestial phenomena, should not have noted the equinoxes, is not probable. They must have necessarily known the equinoxes by the observation of capes and mountains, which cast their shadows from points and describe angles so very diverse at the periods of the sun s greatest recession, or return. Yet we know not that the time of such extreme withdrawal and return marked and completed the circle of the year. Their year was, in all the Algonquin tribes, a lunar year. It consisted of thirteen moons, each of which is distinctly named. Thirteen moons of 28 days each, counting from visible phase to phase, make a year of 364 days, which is the greatest astronomical accuracy reached by the North American tribes.

That the close of the lunar series should have been the period of putting out the fire, and the beginning of the next, the time of relumination, from new fire, is so consonant to analogy in the tropical tribes, as to be probable.

The rite itself offers a striking coincidence, with that solemn performance at the close of each year, by the Azteek priests, in the valley of Mexico, and may not unreasonably be supposed to denote a common origin for the belief. The northern tribes had, however, dropped from the ritual, if it ever was in it, that of their remote ancestors, the horrid rite so revolting in the Azteek annals, of human sacrifice. For although prisoners were burned at the stake, this was not an act of the priesthood. It was a purely popular effervescence of revenge for losses of friends in war, or some other acts done by the enemy. Such sacrifices appeased the popular cry all classes, young and old, rejoiced in them. They were looked on alone as an evidence of their nation s power; and by it the warriors also showed their regard for the relations of the bereaved . The widow of the warrior dried her tears. The children rejoiced they hardly knew why it was the triumph of the nation. And they were thus educated to regard the public burning of prisoners as a proper and glorious deed. Women, indeed, rejoiced in it apparently more than men. It seemed a solace for the loss of their progeny. And all authors agree in attributing to the older females the most extravagant and repulsive acts of participation and rejoicing in these warlike rites.

Iroquois, Religion,

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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