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Impearls: HIC 3.14: Formulas

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Formulas   by A. L. Kroeber

A trait of Yurok formulas is that while those devoted to the same end run along closely patterned lines, no two are alike.  One man may even know several formulas serving the same purpose.  Thus an old man at Orekw has three formulas for releasing from corpse contamination.  One, that of wertspit, the insect responsible for death, calls on the spirits of only 3 spots; another names 12 localities; the third, 22, beginning far upstream, proceeding to the mouth of the river, then south along the coast, and ending beyond Orekw.

A Weitspus formula serving the same purpose calls on the spirits in 18 rocks.  They are:

  1. Ayomok, far up the river.
  2. At the Karok village Inam.
  3. At the Karok village Ashanamkarak.  (Pl. 6.)
  4. At the Karok village Amaikiara.  (Pl. 7.)
  5. At Atskergun-hipurayo, a short distance below.
  6. At Wetsets, 2 miles above the Karok village Panamenits.
  7. At the Karok village at Camp Creek, Yurok Olege'l.
  8. At Otsepor, Bluff Creek, in Yurok territory.
  9. Houksorekw, in the river, half a mile above Weitspus.
  10. Oreuw, opposite Weitspus at Ertlerger.  (Fig. 2 2.)

Here the mourner is washed.  The recitation resumes:

  1. Otsep, above Kenek.
  2. Okegor, at Kenek.  (Pl. 4.)
  3. Tsekwa, at Merip.
  4. Awiger, below Sa'a.
  5. The hill at the mouth of Blue Creek.
  6. Sa'aitl, at the entrance to the world of the dead.
  7. Below Ho'opeu, perhaps at Omenoku.
  8. Oregos, a bold column at Rekwoi, at the very mouth of the river.  (Pl. 5.)

A similar formula belonging to a Rekwoi man names 10 spirits:

  1. At the Karok village Kasheguwaiu.
  2. At the Karok village Ashanamkarak.
  3. At the Karok village Ka'arier at Orleans.
  4. At or opposite Weitspus.
  5. Okegor at Kenek.
  6. Tsekwa at Merip.
  7. Merhkwi at Kepel.
  8. Awiger below Sa'a.
  9. Kemenai at Omenoku.
  10. Oregos at Rekwoi.

The spirits in these rocks did not wish human beings to die when “those through whom we die” had their way.  The fifth, sixth, and eighth — corresponding to numbers 12, 13, 14 in the preceding list — objected so strongly that they became the ones who refuse to allow a corpse to pass them on the river.  The tenth found a plant which makes the mourners' spoiled body good once more.

With these formulas may be compared one of the same character recorded in both the Hupa and Yurok languages from a Hupa woman of Yurok ancestry.  It is clear from this instance of translation that the exact sound of the words seems of little moment to the Indians, the sense being the effective means of the formula.  This recitation addresses rocks at the following spots on the river bank.

  1. Kohtoi, Hupa Haslinding, on the Trinity above Hupa Valley.
  2. Below.
  3. Petsohiko, Hupa Djishtangading.
  4. Ergerits, Hupa Tseyekehohuhw.
  5. Oknutl, Hupa Honsading.
  6. Below and opposite.
  7. Pekwututl.
  8. Merip (compare 6 in the last list).
  9. Nohtsku'm.
  10. Wetlkwau, at the mouth opposite Rekwoi.
  11. Rekwoi-kas, probably the same as Oregos at Rekwoi.

Six of these places are on the Trinity in Hupa territory, 5 among the Yurok on the Klamath.  This is the Yurok version.  The recorded Hupa original or translation speaks of 10 places, but actually names 12, only 5 of them on the Trinity, the second in the above list being omitted.  The 7 in Yurok territory are:

  1. Hotuwaihot, Pekwututl.
  2. Chwichnaningading.
  3. Senongading-tanedjit, Nohtsku'm.
  4. Kyuwitleding, Sregon.
  5. Kitlweding, Sa'aitl.
  6. Tsetlcheding, Wetlkwau.
  7. Mukanaduwulading, Rekwoi.

It thus appears that the formulas are not absolutely memorized as to content, even the framework of names and places fluctuating somewhat in the mind of the reciter.  The change which a formula can undergo in a few generations of transmission is therefore considerable.  It seems that the innumerable formulas known among the Yurok and their neighbors fall into a rather limited number of types, in each of which the idea is identical, but the skeleton as well as the precise wording individually different and unstable.  Beyond this, there is a marked fundamental similarity of concepts, and even of stock expressions, extending to practically all formulas irr[es]pective of their purpose.  For instance, spirits or plants so powerful that dentalia come to them and remain voluntarily under the most adverse circumstances, such as the presence of human bones, are likely to be mentioned in any kind of a formula.

The Yurok-Hupa recitative just mentioned is an example.  It begins thus:

“Hahahahaha — I come to you who sit at Kohtoi.  You are said to be the wise one.  I am thus as it was left for us of the human world.  My body frightens human beings.  They make a fireplace while I have none.  I make my fire alone.  I do not eat what they eat.  I do not look about the world.  My body frightens them.  Therefore, I tell you, let your mind be sorry for me.”

“Yes,” is the spirit's answer, “I saw him running downstream across the river with string about his head.  No, I am not the one.  I shall tell you who is the wise one, but in return you must leave for me that which makes human beings happy (tobacco).  Hurry on to him who sat down opposite Dyishtangading.”

The mourner makes the same appeal and receives a similar answer from each of the other spirits, until he repeats his request to the one at the mouth of the river, adding that he has been in vain at nine (sic) other places, and at each has been told that another is the really wise one.  Then the Rekwoi spirit replies:

“I hear you.  Do not be afraid.  You shall travel again in the human world.  You shall eat what people eat.  Where they make a fire, you shall have yours.  You shall look about in the world.  Your body will be new.  I shall lend you this my herb and with it my medicine.  You shall hunt and the deer will lie still for you; and it will be the same with dentalia.  Now look, here it (my herb) stands outside my house.  When it commences to be dark, it is grown high.  And to-morrow in the morning it will be eaten down.  Deer will have come to feed on it.  Look at this, too, which stands erect behind my fire.  Dentalia cut it down.  At dawn it has grown up again.  It has come to my head that it will be so with you (i.e., you have the medicine, food and riches will seek you as if you had never been contaminated).  Take my herb with you.  I thought that I would lend it.  But there will not be many who will know that (formula) by means of which my mind will be made sorry for human beings of the world.  Well, take this my herb with you.  But leave for me much of that (tobacco) which makes people happy with its body.”

There is certainly sufficiency of direct appeal in this to suggest prayer.  But it is notable that the spirits' answers are also given; and it is in these recited replies, and in the herb or root with which the formulist has previously provided himself, that the efficacy of the procedure is believed to reside.  In fact, the whole, including the minute offerings of tobacco, is a dramatic enactment of a journey believed to have been actually performed by an afflicted ancient in search of relief.

Such, at any rate, is the obvious character of most northwestern formulas, and these differ among one another chiefly in the degree to which they are preponderatingly in the narrative form of a myth or pure dramatic dialogue.  A Hupa “brush dance” formula illustrates the tale-like type.

“In the world's middle she and her granddaughter lived.  And after a time a person grew in her (granddaughter's) body.  ‘Hei!  Human beings are about to come into being, it seems; their smoke is everywhere,’ she said.  And the (unborn) child became sick from her.  And it came from her.  And she thought, ‘With what is it that we shall steam this child?’”

Thereupon the old woman sent her granddaughter out to find the necessary medicine.  The girl saw wild ginger, dug it, and when the baby was steamed it evinced greater animation.  The old woman then found pitch-pine sticks, lit and waved them over the child (as is done in the dance).  Then she thought:

“Human beings will soon come into existence.  Perhaps their children will become sickly from them.  They will think of our bodies.  With what is it that we can make them think of us?  Yes.  One night will pass before (the final night of the dance).  There will not be only one herb (in all the ceremony).”

So again she told her granddaughter to look.  The girl went east, and at the foot of Mount Shasta saw a basket floating, but it was empty.  She followed, lost it, and found it again at Kitokut, then at Kilaigyading, then, still going down the Klamath, successively at Otsepor, above Weitspus, at Weitspus, Kenek, Kepel, Pekwan, north of Rekwoi on the ocean, south of Orekw, and finally, near by, at Freshwater Lagoon, where it came to shore.  The basket was still empty, but now she saw a house in which she found an old woman who said she had been thinking of her and her troubles.

“‘There in the corner is your basket,’ the old woman said, put her hand on it, held it up toward the sky, and (the girl) saw something (yellow pine bark, the desired second medicine) fall into it.  She held that (bark) up pointing crosswise and gave it to her and said:  ‘Take it and put it in your child's mouth.’”

With that attainment ends the formula, which is now used with the vegetables and brands mentioned in curing sickly children.

It is significant of the interrelations of the northwestern tribes that the 12 localities mentioned by name in this Hupa formula are in Shasta, Karok, Yurok, and Coast Yurok territory.  On the other hand, the first of eight places designated in an analogous Yurok formula for the brush dance is in Chilula land.  The spots are:

Plokseu, on the Bald Hills.
Oreuw, at Ertlerger.
Okegor, at Kenek.
Awiger, near Sa'a.
Oso, a hill opposite the mouth of Blue Creek.
Oka, a mountain downstream from Blue Creek.
Sa'aitl, opposite Turip.
Terwer, at the mouth of the creek of that name.

Several of these spots are prominent in the corpse purification formula and definitely associated with death taboos.  It is therefore clear that any religious landmark was likely to be seized upon and worked into a formula, irrespective of what it primarily suggested to the native mind.

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