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Belief systems of the Southeast Indians

The cosmos, basic categories and concepts.
The world: a great flat island resting on the surface of the water and suspended from the
vault of the sky by four cords at each of the cardinal directions, north, south,east and
west. The island is circular and cross cut by four directions.
Above this world is the sky vault, an inverted bowl of rock which rose and fell each day at
dawn and dusk so that the moon and sun could pass beneath it.
There were three worlds: this world, the upper world, the sky vault and the under world
beneath the earth and waters.
This world had seven layers or concentric stepped levels within the bowl. At the
beginning there was only the upper world and under world, this world was created later.
The upper world is categorized by expectableness, predictability, consistency, and is
grander and purer than this world. The upper world is characterized by boundaries, limits,
periodicity, stability, and past time. Creatures in the upper world were larger but had
many of the same features. There were also chiefs and councils in the upper world but
they were capable of magical transformations.
The underworld was a world of ghosts, monsters, cannibals and man killer witches. The
underworld was an inverted upper world, and the opposite of this world, for example the
seasons in the underworld were opposite the seasons in this world.
The under world was associated with disorder, change, inversions, madness invention,
fertility and future time.
The occupants of the upper world include the sun, as a god, sometime male, sometime
female (Cherokee), the apportioner as in day and night and life and death. The earthly
representative of the sun was fire, sometimes an old woman. Like the sun, it was
appropriate to feed a piece of each meal to her. One could become sick if they urinated
into a fire. The sun, and fire was addressed as “ancient red” and ancient white.”
Among the Creek the sun was the principal deity, the master of breath, they believed that
if anyone did anything wrong in the presence of a fire the sun would be immediately
The Choctaw believed the sun watched with its “great blazing eye” and that as long as the
eye was on them they were all right.
Some groups built fires in the shape of a cross, the four directions, and some built fires in
a circle, encompassing everything.
The moon had different associations for different groups.

animals and plants. frogs. They also called the moon our grandparent. pressing always. . restless to attain a certain goal and speaking in murmurs only a priest could interpret. Each category was broken down so that Indians had names for all the species that were important to them. There were symbolic associations with some animals. The bird was said to swoop down and kill its victims with its large sharp breast. they began to degenerate. Analyzing this story what we have is that ideal types. men. Many of the upper world saw what was happening and left. Fire. The falcon can dive and kill instantly. but the ones who had degenerated could not leave and became the creatures we have in this world now. This is an interesting story if one considers the early megafauna that went extinct and makes one wonder if this story is an artifact of that long ago time. The falcon was also the model for the “tlanuwa” a huge bird of prey in Cherokee oral traditions. from the upper world. This world became populated with three non-spiritual beings. It was up to man to keep the two apart. Men and plants became friends while men and animals are opposed. this world was created.The Cherokee called the moon the sun’s brother with implications of an incestuous relationship. fish and insects. Creek hunters would carry a pouch with red ochre and a crystal. There were three categories of animals: four footed such as deer. The creatures of the upper world saw the middle world and came down to live. The Cherokee had an origin story in which there was only the upper and under worlds. however. birds such as eagles and vermin such as snakes. lizards. and menstruation To live in this world meant trying to maintain a balance between the upper and under worlds. The Cherokee had a river deity. fertility. consequently the forked eye design found on gorgets as far back as the Hopewellian period. Plants are very important in treating disease and in medicine among the Cherokee. leaving behind less than ideal types who degenerated into the forms the Cherokee knew. a giant with his head in the foothills and his feet far down in the lowlands. Then the middle. bigger animals came down to the earth to live but left. to grow smaller. They would open the pouch to the rays of the sun and then paint marks around their eyes in the likeness of the forked falcon eye. from the under world. the long man. When they came to the middle world. was opposed to water. Other groups associated the moon with things female. rain.

waterfalls and mountain caves. Colors also had symbolic meaning: Brown: upward Yellow and blue: trouble . peace. lakes. cunning and war. souls of the dead. Under world monsters would come up from the under world through rivers. East: the sun. The wild turkey was also associated with war. happiness The Cherokee believed thunder. Kanati was opposed to the red man. trouble and defeat South: warmth. the red man lived above the sky vault in the east. blood. The uktena combined features of all three categories of animals. blue or purple. The koasatis was a snake – crawfish. red. The kingfisher flies down and plucks fish out of the water. black. Buzzards were invoked in healing because the Turkey Buzzard is able to expose itself to dead things and live. death North: cold. Southeast Indians believed that the four cardinal directions were associated with certain forces and entities. The red man was good and only killed white men. They called him “white “ so as not to offend him. white. deer horns and wings and it had a diamond shaped crest on its forhead. The ivory billed woodpecker was often depicted in motifs and may have had a similar meaning. sacred fire. a snake with horns that lived in streams and would climb up on the shore and wrap itself around a body and pull it into the water. One of the war hoops sounded like a turkey gobble. black man. The kingfisher was invoked by Cherokee shamans to pluck out objects from peoples bodies that have magically intruded.The eagle was associated with the upper world and peace and perfect order. The long eared owl was considered an ill omen and a witch The red bellied woodpecker was associated with swiftness. above the vault in the west. Kanati. life success West: moon. a scaly body.

however. pine. they did not plant anything or cook their food. these were plants that ate bugs unlike other plants. All the animals tried to get to the island and get the fire. cedar. as if they were hunting plants. It seems there was a tribe of people who saw that the animals did not have to work to live. black bear Number also had symbolic meaning Four: everything in the known world Seven: the highest degree of ritual purity. So the tribe decided to go live in the woods like the animals. red bear. laurel holly The cougar was the most perfect four footed animal. they began to degenerate and become less like people and more like animals. There were ambiguous animals and plants that because they exhibited characteristics from more then one category made them powerful or dangerous or both. Indians ascribed power to the roots of these plants. to a state in between people and animals. bat Also some ambiguous plants: the Venus flytrap. The bear was a four footed animal that ate the same things as people and could go on two feet.The upper world also had four quadrants: Red man. When they saw what was happening to them they tried to go back but they had degenerated too far. in essence. as in different from the other animals. They did not make shelters. All the animals were gathered on the shore of a large lake. but only the spider was able to spin a sail and be carried by the wind to the island. Once people had fire they became civilized. . a level only the owl and cougar could attain and certain plants: spruce. Other ambiguous animals: flying squirrel. There was an interesting story about the origin of bears. bears. In the middle of the lake was an island with fire. After a while. Cedar was used to make litters for the dead in Cahokia and Spiro Fire sets man apart from the another animals There is a story among the Cherokee that illustrates the importance of fire in setting man apart from the other animals. red sparrow and hawk: East West: black man. Cedar was pure and sacred because it was aromatic and did not rot. The spider was an ally in the story above and spiders also appear often on motifs. pitcher plant. and then capture the fire in a web and bring it back and give it to the people.

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