Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Religion
Fervid belief in spiritual powers controlled the lives of coastal Carolina Algonquians. Two gods were especially important.
Algonquians believed in the existence of a distant, benevolent creator. The Powhatans of Virginia called him Ahone. William Strachey, Secretary of the Virginia Council at
from 1610-1611, wrote that Ahone was
believed to be a “‘good and peaceable god’ who required ‘no such dutyes, nor
needs to be sacrificed unto, for he entendeth all good unto them, and will doe
no harme’” (Oberg 24). Ahone made the sun rise. He had
created the moon and the stars to be his companions. Having provided what was good in the
universe, he did not interfere with the activities of humans. He was not, consequently, feared. Jamestown
The second primary god was a frequently malevolent force that the Carolina Algonquians called Kiwasa. He was the cause of sickness, disappointments, losses, hunger, every misfortune that humans suffered. It was incumbent that Kiwasa be placated, appeased, bribed. “Wingina’s people engaged in ritual to appease Kiwasa and deflect his wrath … These rituals, Strachey observed later, the Indians considered so essential ‘that if they should omit them they suppose their Okeus [Kiwasa] and all their … other gods [of lower station] would let them have no deare, Turkies, Corne, nor Fish’” (Oberg 25). Kiwasa was present in the air, in the thunder, in storms. Anyone who displeased him was punished, even for minor offenses. He caused -- among other misfortune -- illness, the loss of crops through storms, and the infidelity of wives. He could reward hunters by showing where game was present. He could punish them by letting them be scratched by briars. People made offerings to him when they were faced with difficulties and they rendered thanks to him when their problems were eliminated.
“Specifically qualified specialists -- overseers of the religious life of the village -- ensured that the people properly performed the necessary rituals.” English observers indentified them as priests and “conjurors.” “Both had acquired special bonds with the immense variety of natural and supernatural forces in the Algonquian cosmos” (Oberg 25). Thomas Harriot, who reported so much of what we know about the Carolina Algonquians, described them as men “‘well stricken in years’ … Their dress and appearance distinguished them from the rest of the community.”
“Priests wore ‘their heare cutt like a crest, on the topps of their heads as other doe, but the rest are cut shorte, saving those which growe above their foreheads in manner of a periwigge.’ Priests hung objects from piercings in their ears, and wore ‘a shorte cloke made of fine hares skinnes quilted with the hayre outwarde.’ They wore nothing else” (Oberg 25). See artist John White’s depiction: http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/white41.html. They spent most of their time alone contemplating in temples dedicated to Kiwasa. A human image of Kiwasa was prominently displayed. They maintained a fire in the temple near to its east end, where the sun rose. They had great power and status. They communicated with Kiwasa and, therefore, were believed capable of predicting favorable and forestalling adverse outcomes. Powhatan weroances actually competed to bring the best of priests to their villages.
“When priests left their temples, “they remained apart from commoners. They wandered along the rivers, ‘to kill with their bowes, and catch wilde ducks, swannes, and other flowles,’ creatures who could move between the realms of earth, air and water” (Oberg 25).
Conjurors dressed differently; they wore nothing except a “‘skinne which hangeth downe from their girdle and covereth their privities,’ and they affixed ‘a small black birde above one of their ears as a badge of their office.’” http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry/white_48_big.GIF. “They had been called to their position and given special powers by forces in the spiritual world. … They could predict the actions of enemies and disorient their opponents. They could find lost objects and foretell the future. They could cure disease and detect its cause. With proper rituals, they could control the weather” (Oberg 25-26).
John Smith “wrote that during violent storms the ‘conjurors’ ran down to the shore, if they were not already in canoes, and after making ‘many hellish outcryes’ threw tobacco, puccoon, or copper trinkets into the water to appease the god causing the storm.” On one occasion in 1611 Englishmen, exploring new territory, met resistance from the Algonquian Nansemond tribe. “The Nansemonds saw their arrows merely ricocheting off the Englishmen’s armor, and knowing that English guns used fire or sparks, they called on their priest [or conjuror] to make rain that would neutralize those weapons. Accompanied by a ‘mad crew’ of dancing warriors, the priest ran along the shoreline with his rattle, throwing fire into the air out of a censer [a vessel made for burning incense] and making ‘many dyabolicall gestures’ and incantations. An Indian accompanying the English expedition recognized the ritual and announced that there would soon be rain. And so there was, ‘exceeding thunder and lighteninge and much raine,’ but it fell five miles away” (Rountree 132-133).
Some conjurors, while communicating with their spiritual helpers, became possessed. The conjuror in John White’s painting wore an animal skin pouch at his right hip that probably contained tobacco, and, perhaps, curable herbs. Native tobacco had a high nicotine content. Ingestion triggered “an ecstatic visionary-trance state.” Hariott wrote “that they believed it was beloved of their gods and cast the precious powder on the water and in the air as a sacrifice to them: ‘but all done with strange gestures, stamping, sometimes dancing, clapping of hands, holding vp of hands, & staring vp into the heavens, vttering therewithal and chattering strange words & noises’” (Sloan 128).
Priests and conjurors were believed to have curative powers. They possessed an extensive knowledge of vegetative and herbal remedies. For instance, Liquidamber Styraciflua (sweet gum) was used by the
Rappahannock for dysentery; the Cherokee for diarrhea,
sores, and ulcers; the Carolina Indians for herpes; and the Lumbee for loose
teeth. Symplocarpus Foetidus (swamp cabbage) was used by the as a local
anesthesia, the Mohegan for epilepsy, and the Dakota as an expectorant for
consumption. Typha (cattails) was used by the Pawnee for scalds
and burns, the Delaware
for kidney stones, the Ojibwa for boils and carbuncles, and the
Algonquians for wounds. In “Alsoome and
Wanchese”-- my work in progress -- a conjuror applies a salve made from the
rhizomes of cattail to a wound caused by the passage through the thigh of the
arrowhead and part of the shaft of an arrow. Delaware
Ritual was considered essential to preserve order and balance in the cosmos. Rituals were performed “to acquire the spiritual power necessary to prosper. Rituals surrounded the conduct of warfare. Priests and conjurors provided the weroance with advice on tactics and strategy. They carried, according to Harriot, a statue of Kiwasa into battle, asking it for support and strength. If the Indians treated Kiwasa with respect, and followed the accustomed rituals, they did not believe that misfortune could find them. … Wingina’s people celebrated as well elaborate, demanding, and time-consuming rituals of death and the afterlife” (Oberg 26-27). Death was believed to be an important part of life.
Algonquians believed in punishment and reward after life. Harriot “learned of two occasions where Algonquian individuals had traveled beyond the earth, one to a region called Popogusso, an Algonquian hell, and the other to a celestial paradise. Both spiritual voyagers returned from their journeys with vital information to teach their ‘friends what they should doe’” (Oberg 29). The first man had been “dead and buried, after a wicked life [but had returned] to earth after being saved by one of the gods from ‘hell.’” The second man, “rising from the dead,” had given “an account of a pleasant and homely ‘heaven’ where he met his father, but was given leave to return to earth to extol the pleasures of the other world” (Quinn 225).
“The bodies of weroances and, perhaps, other high-ranking individuals received elaborate treatment after death. Working on scaffolds erected in the temples, priests disemboweled the body and removed the internal organs. Then, according to Harriot, they removed the skin in its entirety, and ‘cutt all the fleshe clean from the bones, wich they drye in the sonne, and well dryed they inclose in Matts, and place at their feet.’ They covered the bones, ‘remayninge still fastened together with the ligament whole and uncorrupted’ with leather, and worked to shape it ‘as yf their flesh wear not taken away.’ Finally, they wrapped each corpse in its skin, and laid the body next to ‘the corpses of the other cheef lordes,’ which also were preserved in the temple. Kiwasa stood guard, keeping ‘the dead bodyes of their cheefe lordes that nothinge may hurt them.’” Mumbling prayers day and night, priests “watched over the community’s deceased leaders” (Oberg 27). http://blog.encyclopediavirginia.org/files/2012/11/white_temple.jpg
Non-elite Algonquians received ordinary burials “with the deceased wrapped in skins and mats and buried in the ground.” At an archaeological site on
Roanoke Island some “were laid in their graves on the
left side, in a semi-flexed position.
Others were buried after receiving much more extensive mortuary
treatment—the removal of the skin and the soft parts of the body.” This site may have been an ossuary burial, “a
‘collective, secondary deposit of skeletal material representing individuals
initially stored elsewhere,’ which contains ‘the remains of all or most of the
members of the group who had died since the last collective burial’” (Oberg
“Ossuaries are common along the Carolina Sounds. They hold the remains of men and women, young and old. They include fully articulated remains and entirely disarticulated bundles, as well as a scattering of bones. … We know from descriptions of the ceremonies accompanying ossuary reburial in other locations that it required the participation of the community. … The ceremony took time, the expenditure of resources in the form of gifts, and a commitment to care for and tenderly clean the decayed remains of dead ancestors. [The first scene of the first chapter of “Alsoomse and Wanchese” has the seventeen-year-old lead female character Alsoomse cleaning the bones of her deceased mother] Death, and the resulting grief, could disrupt a community, leaving those who mourned bereft of reason. The reburial of all who had died since the last ceremony served to unify the community and tie it to the land it lived upon. … All belonged, and all were worthy of being remembered and reintegrated after death into the village community. Ossuary burial … helped set things right, and preserved balance between the world of the seen and the unseen, the natural and the supernatural, and the living and the dead” (Oberg 28).
Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand.
Philadelphia, Press, 2008. Print. University of Pennsylvania
Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for
Chapel Hill, The Roanoke Press,
1985. Print. University
of North Carolina
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of
: Their Traditional Culture. Norman, Virginia
Press, 1989. Print. University of Oklahoma
Sloan, Kim. A New World:
First View of . Chapel Hill, The America Press, 2007. Print. University of North