Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cherokee Witchcraft: Nûñ'yunu'wï

Part 1: Nûñ'yunu'wï

Voodoo Devil
Mankind seems to have an inherent fascination with witchcraft.   From Merlin in King Arthur’s court to Voo Doo in the Carribean it is celebrated in some cultures and, as with the Salem Witches, denounced by others.  The Cherokee had their share of witches.  Sometimes the difference between a witch and a medicine man was a very fine line.  But the distinction was important because the medicine man was revered, but the witch was reviled. 

Swimmer, Cherokee Medicine Man
Although James Adair made mention of Cherokee witchcraft in 1775, it wasn’t until 1891 that any serious research was published.   James Mooney’s monumental works, “Myths of the Cherokee”, “Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees”  were the culmination of 36 years of research living among the Cherokee while working for the Bureau of American Ethnology.  These works are still the most comprehensive and authoritative publications on the subject.  His notes were later the subject of the book "The Swimmer Manuscript".

In the 1960’s, the subject was comprehensively studied by two distinguished scholars, Dr. Jack Frederick Kilpatrick and his wife, Mrs. Anna Gritts Kilpatrick, both Cherokee.  They interviewed hundreds of Cherokee and collected texts and notes written in native script (Sequoyah syllabary).  They translated these texts and published numerous books and monographs.  Later, their son, Alan Kilpatrick, studied their work and collection and wrote a very enlightening book, “The Night Has a Naked Soul”,  that looks at traditional Cherokee religious practices from a Cherokee anthropologist’s point of view.

Kokopelli with his magic cane
used sometimes as a flute
other times as a planting stick
In this Native American Antiquity series, I want to pull from these sources and take a look at what the characteristics of a Cherokee witch were.  Let’s start with Nûñ'yunu'wï, which translates as “Stone Clad”.   Quoting from Mooney, “This is what the old men told me when I was boy.

“Once when all the people of the settlement were out in the mountains on a great hunt one man who had gone on ahead climbed to the top of a high ridge and found a large river on the other side. While he was looking across he saw an old man walking about on the opposite ridge, with a cane that seemed to be made of some bright, shining rock. The hunter watched and saw that every little while the old man would point his cane in a certain direction, then draw it back and smell the end of it. At last he pointed it in the direction of the hunting camp on the other side of the mountain, and this time when he drew back the staff he sniffed it several times as if it smelled very good, and then started along the ridge straight for the camp. He moved very slowly, with the help of the cane, until he reached the end of the ridge, when he threw the cane out into the air and it became a bridge of shining rock stretching across the river. After he had crossed over upon the bridge it became a cane again, and the old man picked it up and started over the mountain toward the camp.

Mayan ballplayer
with stone "donut" around his body

“The hunter was frightened, and felt sure that it meant mischief, so he hurried on down the mountain and took the shortest trail back to the camp to get there before the old man. When he got there and told his story the medicine-man said the old man was a wicked cannibal monster called Nûñ'yunu'wï, "Dressed in Stone," who lived in that part of the country, and was always going about the mountains looking for some hunter to kill and eat. It was very hard to escape from him, because his stick guided him like a dog, and it was nearly as hard to kill him, because his whole body was covered with a skin of solid rock. If he came he would kill and eat them all, and there was only one way to save themselves …”

I love this story because I think it is an excellent example of the creative story-telling of the Cherokee.  Next week, we will find out what one thing could stop Nûñ'yunu'wï and then discuss the characteristics this amazing witch may share with other witches and what the implications may be.

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