Witchcraft Pamphlets and Mother Goose: Early Communication in Print

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The early Jesuit records are particularly condescending toward medicine people. Understandably, shamans were the greatest adversaries faced by missionaries. The venerable Medicine-man, Shadayence, was the most cunning antagonist that I ever had among the Indians.

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As long as independent religious vitality survived, it filled Indians with a sense of their own identity and cultural importance, with a power that defied alien control. As mentioned previously, the earliest missionaries had little interest in the stories they were being told about marvelous medicine powers. They usually shrugged them off as folk tales or tricks. Consequently, the French Jesuits in their written records commonly used the term jongleurs, as in a circus act, for medicine persons.

They have been seen to fall into convulsions [trances], to assume tones of voice [spirit possession], and to perform actions, which were seemingly superior to human strength, and which inspired with an unconquerable terror, even the most prejudicial spectators [doubters]. Their first inclination was to come up with a rational explanation for such powers. These are sent for by the sick and wounded; and by their diabolical spells, mutterings, exorcisms, they seem to do wonders…These powwows [shamans] are reputed, and I conceive justly, to hold familiarity with the dead; and therefore are by the English laws, prohibited the exercise of their diabolical practices within the English jurisdiction, under the penalty of five pounds.

Perhaps the earliest recorded account of a medicine power ceremony comes from a Father Pijart. Yet I saw a savage put it in his mouth so that there was more of it inside than out; he carried it some distance and, after that, it was still so hot, that when he threw it to the ground sparks of fire issued from it.

Pijart also retrieved the stone and inspected it. Pijart then sent this stone on to his superior, Father Le June, who in turn sent it to France, where it probably still rests on some dusty shelf. In this same year Le June as well began to realize that some of the Indian shamans had real powers.

He wrote in his report:.

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If what I am about to tell you is true, there is no doubt that the Demons sometimes manifest themselves to them; but I have believed until now that in reality the devil deluded them, filling their understandings with error and their wills with malice, though I persuaded myself that he did not reveal himself visible, and that all the things their Sorcerers did were only Deceptions they contrived, in order to derive there from [sic] some profit.

I am now beginning to doubt, even to incline to the other side. For the next years this was the attitude of most missionaries, albeit a few clung to the view that it was fakery. There is no denying that the devil had a part in their tricks. For example, Father A. Trappers and traders often returned to tell how they had been healed by an Indian ceremony. Meanwhile, the missionaries were living among their converts, and had ample opportunity actually to witness many medicine power displays, while the general public merely had brief encounters with medicine people.

Of course, they never could figure them out. Despite this prevailing attitude of trickery, there were people other than missionaries who came to believe in medicine powers, especially in their ability to heal. Since the earliest contact period through the present there are numerous accounts of Indian medicine people who could not only heal, but were successful in cases where western physicians had failed.

Consequently, the existence of medicine powers became widely known to the general public throughout the course of the 18th century. For example, near the end of the century, around , the Menomini and Ojibwa medicine people were involved in a rising movement that involved the display of fire-handling abilities. They were becoming a common topic in local newspapers. Take for example American statesman Lewis Cass, who had become a brigadier general in the War of He had an encounter with medicine powers.

By President Monroe had appointed him governor of the Michigan territory, where he became familiar with the Indians of that area. Henry Schoolcraft, who later published five large volumes on the American Indians, traveled as a topographical engineer on expeditions with Cass at this time. He was well aware of the many reports of their medicine powers, but viewed them as mere quackery. Eyes have not been wanting to see, tongues to relate, nor pens to record, the [medicine power] incidents which from time to time have occurred.

The eating of fire, the swallowing of daggers, the escape from swathed buffalo skins, and the juggling incantations and ceremonies by which the lost is found, the sick healed, and the living killed [witchcraft], have been witnessed by many, who believed what they saw, but who were grossly deceived by their own credulity, or by the skill of the Indian wabeno.

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Many years later, in , anthropologist Walter James Hoffman reported an incident he had heard of several times, from both the Menomini and the Ottawa, concerning this same Lewis Cass. It occurred during a meeting of the Ottawa Grand Medicine Society in Michigan, obviously at some point in time after the above speech.

Cass had asked that he be permitted to attend their medicine ceremony and watch it. Cass is said to have observed an old Ojibwa medicine woman, who had come up at each dance to actively participate in the exercises, he asked someone near by why this old woman took such an active part, as she appeared rather uninteresting and had nothing to say, and apparently nothing to do except shake her snake-skin medicine bag.

In an instant she threw the dry snake-skin bag toward the offender, when the skin became a live serpent which rushed at Mr. Cass and ran him out of the crowd. The snake then returned to the medicine woman, who picked it up, when it appeared again as a dry skin bag. This is somewhat unusual as it was also the century in which we had the most contact with American Indian medicine powers. Nevertheless, they remained a source of bewilderment to those who encountered them.


For example, fur trader Peter Ogden had the hazardous job of charting new fur trading territories for the great Hudson Bay Company. In he was appointed to explore the area south of the Columbia River down to California, then Spanish territory.

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The local Tsimshians requested assistance from the fort for supplies in trade to help support all their visitors, and received it. To this end they constructed a large ceremonial house about a hundred yards away from the fort.

One morning, because of their assistance, those living at the fort were formally invited to attend the entertainment of the day, which was to begin around noon that day. After much discussion about possible treachery it was decided that Ogden and the fort surgeon would attend as representatives of the fort. To this they added six men to be their bodyguards. Finally, to make clear they were prepared to revenge any treachery, they aimed two cannons in the blockhouse at the nearby ceremonial house.

They were lead to the front of a large stage at one end where they were seated in a couple of chairs that had been reserved for them. Once seated Ogden began to attempt a count of the number present when he was suddenly stopped.


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On the stage, boldly erect, stood the lord of the banquet, recognizable by his lofty stature and the stately proportions which imparted a peculiar grace and dignity to his bearing. On his face he wore a grotesque mask of wood. More interesting still, his head was surmounted by an emblematical [totem] figure, representing the sun, rendered luminous by some simple contrivance in the interior.

As all eyes were turned upon him, the stage was so arranged that he gradually disappeared beneath it, bearing with him the source of light by which our artificial little world was illuminated, and leaving us in total darkness; a state of affairs which, knowing the savagely treacherous characters with whom we were associated, was by no means agreeable to us white men. The matter was so contrived, however, that daylight presently began to appear again, until, by slow degree, our Indian Phoebus, bearing the bright orb of day, whose temporary absence we had deplored, stood erect before us in all the meridian splendour of his first appearance.

Three times was this alternate setting and rising of the sun repeated, each repetition eliciting rounds of rapturous applause, expressed by shouts, screams, howlings, and gesticulations, most indescribably appalling, and such as might cause a momentary shudder to the stoutest heart. To do our entertainer justice, his performance, simple as it was, was most creditably carried through, and spoke much in favour of the native talent of its originator.

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The deception by which the gradual appearance and disappearance of the light was imitated, was indeed most complete, and productive of much satisfaction to us all. This curiosity is what kept them coming back. As hostilities ended and it became safer to be among Indians, more curiosity seekers came onto the scene. They are very superstitious.

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Besides their magic, or medicine lodge, in which they have a great collection of magic, or sacred things, every one has his private magic in his lodge, or about his person. Each band [medicine society] had its special type of sleight of hand, which had a connection with the type of cures in which it specialized. Trying to figure out just how their tricks worked became a very popular form of local entertainment.

Again, they failed to figure them out. It was definitely the golden age of American anthropology with hundreds of unstudied cultures throughout the land. This was a time when Indian cultures still retained many of their traditional ceremonies such that medicine powers were still quite active, even if practiced by only a few remaining shamans. After much of the recorded material was taken from elders who only recalled from their youth having participated in ceremonies that were by then extinct.

Although more detailed than the early historical accounts, most of the recorded material on medicine powers was still quite incomplete. First, there was a general reluctance among traditional Indians to talk about spirit powers. Neither did they like to talk about medicine powers.

It was common for shamans not to talk about their medicine powers for fear of losing them.