Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sacred Fire and Things

Swimmer, Cherokee Medicine Man

Cherokee Sacred Fire, as told by
Swimmer to James Mooney, 1887-1890.

"The mound was then built up with earth, which the women brought in baskets, and as they piled it above the stones, the bodies of their great men, and the sacred things, they left an open place at the fire in the center and let down a hollow cedar trunk, with the bark on, which fitted around the fire and protected it from the earth. This cedar log was cut long enough to reach nearly to the surface inside the townhouse when everything was done. The earth was piled up around it, and the whole mound was finished off smoothly, and then the townhouse was built upon it. One man, called the Firekeeper, stayed always in the townhouse to feed and tend the fire. When there was to be a dance or a council, he pushed long stalks of atsil sun ti (fleabane), "the fire maker" down through the opening in the cedar log to the fire at the bottom. He left the ends of the stalks sticking out and piled lichens and punk around, after which he prayed, and as he prayed, the fire climbed up along the talks until it caught the punk. Then he put on wood, and by the time the dancers were ready there was a large fire blazing in the townhouse. After the dance he covered the hole over again with ashes, but the fire was always smoldering below. Just before the Green corn dance, in the old times, every fire in the settlement was extinguished and all the people came and got new fire from the townhouse. This was called atsi’la galunkw it’yu "the honored or sacred fire." Sometimes when the fire in a house went out, the woman came to the Firekeeper, who made a new fire by rubbing an ihya’ga stalk against the under side of a hard dry fungus that grows along locust trees.

"Some say this everlasting fire was only in the larger mounds at Nikwasi, Kitu’hwa, and a few other towns, and that when the new fire was thus drawn up for the Green Corn dance it was distributed from them to the other settlements. The fire burns yet at the bottom of these great mounds, and when the Cherokee soldiers were camped near Kitu’hwa during the Civil War, they saw smoke still rising from the mound."

In ancient times, individual sacred fires in the villages were extinguished and restarted from the
sacred fire from the Townhouse.  This was done in conjunction with the Green Corn Ceremony honoring "Selu", the Corn Mother.  No corn was eaten before the ceremony.  Before the ceremony, each clan would supply seven mature ears of corn.  The chief and seven councilors began fasting seven days prior to the ceremony.  On the seventh day, fires were extinguished and rekindled from the sacred fire.  Kernels from the corn from the clans were sacrificed with a deer's tongue.  A feast was prepared in the Townhouse from the clan corn the chief and councilors and villagers feasted.  For the next six days, the chief and councilors could only eat corn harvested the previous year.  For the great dance, a pit was dug in the center of the sacred circle and a wood struck by lightning was lit to start the great fire.  Dancers would perform rounds of sacred dances and the men performed the War Dance and other dances symbolizing the planting and harvesting of the corn.  Finally, all villagers joined in on a "Running Dance" around the fire.  Minor infractions of the religious and clan law, as well as debts were typically forgiven during green corn between parties as a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.

Video of Cherokee Corn Dance

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