Secret poems of the CherokeeWritten by George Ellison
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I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart.
The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells ... were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”
Here is a formula of this type I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. The model for the “black owl” would have been the great-horned owl.
Your name is night.
I am the black owl
that hunts the darkness
for your heart and soul.
Your name is the night.
I am the black owl
hunting your soul.
This is my favorite. It is rendered from various late 19th and 20th century English translations, etc., as a composite approximation of Cherokee sacred formulas intended to “remake” or “rebeautify.” In this instance the formula is also a love incantation.
CALLING LIKE A DISTANT BIRD
Dressed in the sunrise
I might sing like a red bird.
But I shake my clothing until it fades
so that you and I are dressed alike.
Our souls are aligned.
Be thinking of me.
We are as the red bird.
We are as the blue bird.
We are as the yellow bird.
We are as the mythic bird.
Look at me ... talk with me ... no apartness.
In the middle of the morning we stand.
Each day we walk in splendor
within the heart of a rainbow.
Each day we are remade by
the spirit that never dies.
Some Cherokees believed that after death the soul could go to a place seven days to the west where the ghost people (their ancestors and others) resided in Night Land. Going there was apparently an option. One had to make up one’s mind. Neither a heaven nor a hell, it seems to have been a sort of parallel universe in which there were chiefs, warriors, wise women, dances, songs, animals, plants, and, most importantly, deceased ancestors with whom one could commune. In this poem a woman is explaining to her great-grandmother about where and how she made up her mind.
Speak to me.
I have made up my mind.
She stood listening before smiling
and nodding as the mist burned away and
sunlight turned the sycamore-lined Tuckaseigee
into a track of light within which she arose
on out-spread arms and down-turned hands
above the indifferent grasping currents and
was transposed as if on the wings of a radiant hawk.
Many years later when her great-grandmother asked
when she had made up her mind, she smiled and replied:
“I grew tired missing you and grandfather and my uncles.
I made up my mind while fording the river.
I asked my other grandfather
the river to ask my heart.
My heart told my mind to place
My soul with the ghost people.
Thinking always starts in the heart.
I made up my mind in the river
to come and live with you
here in the Night Land.