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American Religions, Native

Those who romanticize the religious traditions of the natives of North America (often called American Indian or Amerind) identify them as ecological, involving a profound reverence for nature. Although true, it is overly simplistic.

Certainly, the theme of appreciation — even reverence — for nature was an important aspect of the religious ideas of the natives of North America, but other than that there are considerable variations in their beliefs. And the religions of the natives of Central and South America — especially of the highly developed Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec, Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations — differ significantly from them. Most of the religions of the Americas existed only in oral traditions, since very few of the tribes had a written language. There may have been as many as 600 different languages in North America, 300 more in Central America, and 1400 in South America, of which more than two-thirds have become extinct since the arrival of the Europeans. Even those which had a literature, such as the Mixtecs, Mayas, and Aztecs, lost much of it when it was destroyed by Spanish conquerors.

It is common to classify Native American customs, mode of life, social structure, and religious beliefs according to 15 geographic areas which differ significantly in climate, vegetation, terrain, and availability of food. The usual order of listing of them is: arctic, subarctic, northeast (or eastern woodlands), southeast, plains (or prairies), plateau, northwest coast, great basin, California, southwest, middle America (or Mesoamerica), Caribbean, Andes, tropical forest, and South American marginal. Differences in religion tend to be associated with these different general areas. For purposes of this encyclopedia, there will be a four-fold division: North America, Central America, South America, and Maya. Only the Māyā and Inca receive any extensive discussion in early theosophical writings. Recently, there have been theosophical publications concerning the natives of North America, but even those do not explore the religious ideas theosophically. This article shall cover the Central American and North American Indian Religions. For the others, see entries on MAYAN RELIGION; and INCA, AND OTHER RELIGIONS OF SOUTH AMERICA.

It is hypothesized by some anthropologists that humans migrated to the Americas as long as 35,000 years ago by way of the Bering Straits during the glacial period because the ice mass covering North America had caused the ocean levels to recede significantly, affording a solid land bridge where there are now a chain of islands (the Aleutians). The theosophical view, as articulated by Blavatsky, suggests that the migration came westward much earlier from Europe and northern Africa (IU I:552), since she claims similarities between ideas among “the Mexican Indians” (presumably Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs) and the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians in the use of the tau (IU II:254; cf. I:555, 572), the name of their priests (IU I:556; SD II:213), some religious ideas (IU I:551, 553-4, 557-60), and certain taboos relating to fire, which either came from or spread to other areas, such as the Sioux in the plains of North America (IU I:248). And there is the obvious similarity between the pyramids of Egypt and those in Mexico and Central America. But she also states that there was a direct contact between the American continent and the Euro-African continent during the Atlantean period (IU I:558; SD II:407 fn) and that the ideographs used by the “Red Indians,” i.e., the hieroglyphics used by Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, and Mayans, are related to Senzar, the sacred language of the Atlanteans (SD II:439). She claims that “man has lived in America at least 50,000 years ago” (CW II:335). That would mean the ancestors of those people migrated to what are now the Americas millennia ago mainly by land. Probably both theories are correct, the native tribes of North America coming eastward from Asia as descendants of the “Nagas, the Serpents of Wisdom” (SD II:182), and the more highly developed Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations coming westward from what was then Atlantis. This would account for the difference in their ideas as well as the great difference in the levels of their civilization. There is archeological and linguistic evidence that the Aztecs migrated into Mexico from North America. They, then, would represent an intermixing of the two streams, since they obviously got much of their culture from the older Mayan civilization.

The name “Indian” for the natives of the Americas is derived from Christopher Columbus’ belief that he had discovered a western sea route to the “Indies” (which, to Europeans at that time, included India, China, Japan, and the Malay archipelago) when he landed, in 1492, first on Watling Island in the Bahamas and subsequently on Cuba and Hispañola, then in his second expedition also on the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica in 1493, then also on Trinidad on his third expedition in 1498, and finally also on the coast of Central America on his fourth expedition in 1502. Obviously, the natives themselves did not, until recently, adopt that name. In fact, in North America, some of the tribal names translate as “human being” (e.g., Anishnabe, Inuit, Dene, or Numuna, the first being the name the Ojibwa and Chippewa had for themselves; the last being the name the Comanches had for themselves). “Lenape” (sometimes called the Delaware) means “genuine people” and “Lenni Lenape,” another name they called themselves, means “really genuine people.” In Central and South America, many of the civilizations were named after an area in which remains of their culture were discovered. Specific articles, therefore, will follow the current practice of naming.

It is commonplace in theosophical literature to find an essential unity underlying all the various religions of the world. Blavatsky says of the caves of Ellora in western India and the temples found in the Deccan of India as well as temples at Chichén Itzá in the Mexican Yucatán or at Copán in Guatamala, “They present such features of resemblance that it seems impossible to escape the conviction that they were built by peoples moved by the same religious ideas, and that had reached an equal level of highest civilization in arts and sciences” (IU I:561). And she adds that even if they were not racially or culturally connected, they were “at least of the same religion — the one taught in the oldest Mysteries” (ibid., 567) because, she says, “There never was, nor can there be more than one universal religion; for there can be but one truth concerning God. Like an immense chain whose upper end, the alpha, remains invisibly emanating from a Deity — in statu abscondito with every primitive theology — it encircles our globe in every direction; it leaves not even the darkest corner unvisited, before the other end, the omega, turns back on its way to be again received where it first emanated. On this divine chain was strung the exoteric symbology of every people. Their variety of form is powerless to affect their substance, and under their diverse ideal types of the universe of matter, symbolizing its vivifying principles, the uncorrupted immaterial image of the spirit of being guiding them is the same” (IUI:560).

The specific articles referred to above attempt to point out parallels with theosophy wherever possible since one does find hints of esoteric ideas — mystery teachings — in the myths of many of the ancient cultures of the Americas. Yet, it is also obvious that some of the tribes and civilizations had religious views, as well as practices such as human sacrifice and cannibalism, significantly different from theosophy and unrelated to any mystery teachings or esoteric ideas.


The earliest natives of Mexico and Central America of which we have any knowledge were the Olmecs (“Rubber People”), whose name seems to have been given to them because that area is where people later learned to tap the trees for making rubber. They are sometimes called the La Venta culture after the site in Mexico where remains of their civilization were first discovered. Evidence suggests that their territory extended from central Mexico to El Salvador, with its cultural center primarily in the coastal areas of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. Their empire and culture lasted at least from 1200 BCE to 300 CE. Although they possessed hieroglyphic writing, an accurate calendar, and exquisite sculpture and gem carving, little is known about their religious beliefs. They carved huge stone heads, presumably anthropomorphic representations of their gods, weighing up to 36,000 pounds (16,300 kg.) which they transported more than 50 miles (80 km.) to their present locations. Carvings show the sun, carrying a child in the form of a jaguar (perhaps representing the planet Venus), emerging from the mouth of a giant animal which represents the earth. They constructed pyramids for ceremonial purposes and also as burial sites of important persons, since skeletal remains and funerary objects have been found in rooms under the pyramids. Since these practices are also found in Mayan culture, it has been assumed that the Mayans adopted at least some of the Olmec beliefs. There is also evidence that Mayan culture was influenced, probably at a later time, by invasions from areas around present-day Mexico City, i.e., from the Toltecs and early Aztecs. The Mayans, in turn, also influenced the Aztecs.

Following the Olmecs was the Izapan culture located along the western side of what is now Guatemala. Since Izapan writing and stone monuments are similar to those of the Mayas, it is assumed that they were the immediate antecedents of Mayan culture, which emerged around the fourth century in the Chiapas province of Mexico and adjoining area of Guatemala, whose name is the modern form of the Nahuatl word “Cuautemallan” or “place of many trees.”

Another Mexican culture, the Mixtec (pronounced “Mish-tek”), lived in Oaxaca, Puebla, and part of Guerrero in southwest Mexico. Their origin is obscure. They were probably influenced by Olmecs and flourished prior to arrival in their area of the Toltecs. They had extended periods of warfare with their rivals, the Zapotecs, as well as with the Aztecs, before they were subjugated by the Spanish. Little is known of their religious beliefs and neither the Mixtecs nor Zapotecs are mentioned in theosophical literature. The religious pantheon of the Zapotecs was headed by the rain god Cosijo who is represented iconographically by a combination of an earth-jaguar and a sky-serpent, symbols common to many of the Mesoamerican cultures. Possibly they have an esoteric significance, the jaguar, a stealthy predator, representing the impermanence of the physical world and the serpent, often associated with the occult force known in Sanskrit as kuṇḍalinī (literally “serpentine”), representing the permanence of the spiritual.

The Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs, whose name means “master builders,” flourished in central Mexico and the Yucatan between the 10th and 13th centuries. Their early history is obscure, but they seem to have had links with the Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Their religion centered around Quetzalcoatl (lit. “serpent with feathers of the quetzalbird”), who was a god of civilization identified with the planet Venus and wind. He is depicted in iconography with what appear to be rattles on his tail, so must have been considered a feathered rattlesnake. He represented forces of goodness and light and was pitted against Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”), a deity associated with the night sky, moon, and stars, and who represented the forces of darkness, evil, and destruction. One myth has Tezcatlipoca driving Quetzalcoatl out of the Toltec capital city of Tula (in central Mexico), whereupon the latter wandered for many years until he reached his homeland on the east coast of the country. According to one version of the myth he was consumed by fire there, rising in the sky to become the planet Venus; according to another version he sailed off to a mythical land with a promise to return. Blavatsky notes that it was common among ancient cultures to represent “wisdom and immortality” as a serpent (IU I:553), which would indicate that there is an esoteric interpretation of the Quetzalcoatl myth. Since the snake was, as noted above, mythologically associated with the sky (symbolizing a heavenly or spiritual state of consciousness), it was depicted as bird-like, i.e., feathered. What his association with a rattlesnake might indicate, however, is not at all clear.

Toltec ceremonies included a sacred ball game (tlatchli), which the Mayans and Aztecs also played, sun worship, and human sacrifice. It is believed by anthropologists that the name Quetzalcoatl was originally the name of a Toltec ruler, but Blavatsky suggests that the influence is the reverse, rulers and priests often taking the name of their deity (IU I:550). C. A. Burland (Montezuma: Lord of the Aztecs, 1973, pp. 23-4) supports the latter claim, the first Toltec ruler taking the name of the god, followed later by eight others who did the same. The Toltecs went into decline in the 13th century as a result of invasions by the Chichimecs who, in turn, were then conquered by the Aztecs. There is only passing mention in early theosophical literature (cf. IU I:552) of the Toltecs and their ancient urban center, Tula, which includes impressive pyramidal structures, one of which is dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The Chichimecs are not mentioned at all.

The Mayan civilization does have several references in theosophical literature and deserves a separate entry along with its principle text Popul Vuh or “Council Book,” so it will not be detailed here. See MAYAN RELIGION.

The term Aztec was applied to the last of the great empires of Mexico by a Spanish historian, Francisco Xavier Clavijero, in the 18th century. The Aztecs called themselves Mexíca (pronounced “Me-shee-ka”) who around 1100-1160 CE migrated into the area of central Mexico from a place they called Aztlán, which gives us the word “Aztec.” It is from their name for themselves that the word Mexico (pronounced “Mey-hi-co”) is derived. Convention, however, now dictates that we refer to them as Aztecs. Our knowledge of them is based on a few codices written in hieroglyphics, post-conquest copies of lost manuscripts (many of which were burned as “works of the devil” by priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores), and a verbal tradition. Unfortunately, there are inconsistencies between these sources so reconstructing their religious beliefs must be considered somewhat tentative. And the post-conquest writings were done by people familiar with the Old Testament, so they often attempted, quite improbably, to connect the Aztecs with one of the lost tribes of Israel (cf. J. Eric S. Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Mayan Civilization, 2nd ed. 1966, p. 33, who attributes the claim to an eccentric Englishman, Lord Kingsborough [Antiquities of Mexico, 1831]; cf. also Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: a History, 1974, p. 9, who quotes a Spanish historian).

The chief deity of the Aztecs was the war god Huitzilopochtli (“Blue [or Southern] Hummingbird”), who is said to have guided them, by communicating in dreams with their priests, during their migration from Aztlán into central Mexico. Huitzilopochtli, who is also a sun god reborn every morning from the womb of his mother the earth goddess Coatlicue (“Serpent-Skirted,” also known as Tonantzin, “Our Mother”), is depicted in iconography as hideous. The Aztecs propitiated him with human sacrifices, usually enemies captured in war. There is a temple dedicated to him at the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán (lit. “Beside Cactus Rock”) which the Columbia Encyclopedia extols as “a great architectural achievement of pre-Columbian America.” Later Aztecs associated Huitzilopochtli with the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl. Huitzilopochtli is indirectly associated with rain, since the Aztecs noted that the hummingbird (huitzilin) makes its appearance there in the rainy season. But they also had a rain god, Tlaloc, to whom human sacrifices (especially of young children) were performed; his sister (or wife), Coyalxauhque (“Jade-Skirted”), was the goddess of water. Xiuhtecuhtli ( the Fire God who was “Lord of Life”) was thought to bring the soul into existence. There were many other gods as well, one of which was another sun god, Tonatiuh (lit. “The Sun”), whose face appears in the center of the famous Aztec Stone; surrounding him are four panels representing the four previous “creations” of the world, which were destroyed by jaguars (symbolic of earth and represented by Tezcatlipoca, god of night), wind (represented by Ehécatl, sometimes associated with Quetzalcoatl), fire (represented by Chalchiuhtlicue), and water (represented by Tlaloc, god of rain), in other words one each of the four classical elements. In fact, the Aztecs, like the Mayans, identified gods and goddesses which presided over all aspects of their lives. As in Hinduism, they often appear as couples, “based on the ever-present Mexican principle of duality,” as Davies puts it (op. cit., p. 143). The highest of these, the original creator pair residing in a remote heaven called Omeyocan (“Two-Place”), were Omecihuatl (“Two-Lord”) and Omecihuatl (“Two- Lady”). Little more than lip-service was given them. A male god whose name suggests a duality was Ometochtli (“Two Rabbit”), god of the sacred intoxicating drink pulque, made from the agave fruit; he is also associated with the moon, since Aztecs, like Hindus, perceived the shadows on the full moon to form the shape of a rabbit. Somewhat related to the idea of a life-death duality are Tlazolteotl (“Goddess of Extrusion [or Emission]”) who was associated with birth, sexual pleasure, and evacuation, to whom people would make confession at the end of their lives, and Mictlantecuhtil (“Lord of the Place of Death”) who ruled the underworld and is depicted as a skeleton.

The Aztec priests believed in both magic and prophesy. Their “sacred book of fate,” as Burland terms it (op. cit., p. 50), was the Teoamoxtli which priests alone could read and which they consulted on all important occasions. Priestly education for boys was at a special school called calmecac, and involved rigorous training not only in liturgics and study of the sacred mythology, but also masochistic ordeals that would prepare them to endure hardships, since the religious students had to accompany soldiers into battle to carry spears, war clubs, and other equipment. On certain ritual occasions, priests would purify the altar with their own blood by piercing their bodies and tongues with bone awls and agave spines. Postulants had to go out at night to catch scorpions and poisonous spiders, roast them, and then grind the results into a black powder which priests spread over their bodies; it contained a substance which deadened pain and produced a state of euphoria during ritual performances. Aztec priests, unlike Mayan priests, were celibate.

Aztec mythology claimed that the world has undergone five “creations,” the first four being destroyed by jaguars (symbolic of earth), a hurricane (wind), volcanic eruptions (fire), and a flood (water), the four elements represented in the Aztec Stone. If one identifies these as analogous to the theosophical idea of the Root Races, the Aztec notion that we are in the fifth of those “creations” is essentially the same as one finds in The Secret Doctrine. It also suggests that the Aztecs, unlike the Mayans, thought of themselves as post-Atlantean. Flood myths, of course, are common to many cultures around the world and may be interpreted either allegorically as signifying being overwhelmed by psychic experiences during the Fourth Root Race, with the result that the intellect now prevails in the Fifth Root Race, or else as literally referring to an actual flood which occurred when the island of Poseidonis, the last remnant of the continent of Atlantis, sank about 12,000 years ago (SD II:765). The Aztecs believed the fifth “creation” will end with earthquakes. In order to forestall that catastrophe, they believed, human victims had to be sacrificed at certain important festivals and their hearts cut out and offered to the appropriate god.

The Aztecs cremated their dead (cf. Davies, p. 58, 151), as do the Hindus, unlike the Mayans who buried their dead (cf. Thompson, p. 68 ff). But since the Aztecs propitiated a god of the underworld, they (like the Mayans) obviously believed in a kind of life after death, which Blavatsky says is in the form of a “living spirit” (yuli) which issues from the body through the mouth or head at the moment of bodily death (CW II:171-2). Blavatsky cites a claim that they, like other pre-Spanish Mexicans, “believed in numerous spirit-abodes, into one of which the shades of innocent children were placed until final disposal; into another, situated in the sun, ascended the valiant souls of heroes, while the hideous spectres of incorrigible sinners were sentenced to wander and despair in subterranean caves, held in the bonds of the earth-atmosphere, unwilling and unable to liberate themselves. They passed their time in communicating with mortals, and frightening those who could see them” (IU I:313).

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Central American religious practices for modern man to understand is that of human sacrifice, especially of young children. It is easy for us to see it as barbaric. And from a theosophical point of view it is — or is, at the very least, misguided. But one must put it in the context of the fact that Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese immolated servants and slaves in the tombs of royalty, devout Catholics burned at the stake people they considered heretics, and contemporary devout Muslims “martyr” themselves in acts of terrorism against “infidels.” And, as Davies points out, “It is probably not incorrect to maintain that [sacrificial victims] were offered at times to Huitzilopochtli as the sun, but, in the main, the victims tended themselves to become the god to whom they would be sacrificed. . . . In a sense, therefore, they died as the god, not for the god. . . . The personification of the god by the victim helps explain the apparent lack of resistance to being sacrificed” (Davies, p. 171). In fact, the victim was often first honored as a “son of the sun” and then dressed in clothing associated with the deity, sometimes even made to perform actions identified with the deity, before being ceremonially killed. It was believed, then, that this action not only propitiated the deity, but also helped maintain the natural order (keep the sun rising, bring rain, forestall the eventual earthquake that is to destroy our present “creation,” etc.). It also guaranteed the victim a place in a delightful paradise, as depicted in Aztec frescoes. It must, however, also be noted that human sacrifices became more barbaric and numerous following the four-year famine of 1450-1454; wars with neighboring city-states were often waged merely for the purpose of capturing men to be sacrificed, sometimes 500 or even 1000 at a time (cf. Davies, pp. 96-8, 163, 167, 169, 218), and even willing sacrificial victims were drugged beforehand with pulque (cf. Davies, p. 101).

Despite their practice of human sacrifice, Blavatsky points out the fact that, “the Aztecs appeared in more than one way to have resembled the ancient Egyptians in civilization and refinement. Among both peoples magic or the arcane natural philosophy was cultivated to the highest degree” (IU I:560). As for “natural philosophy,” they, like other cultures which preceded them in Mexico and Central America, had a considerable knowledge of astronomy and a more accurate calendar (both solar, based on 365 days, and ceremonial, based on 260 days divided into 20 weeks of 13 days each) than their Spanish conquerors (cf. IU I:11). As for “magic,” the only indication of that in scholarly sources is the claim that the priests received frequent instructions in their dreams from Huitzilopochtli. Aztec priests enjoyed considerable social status, practically on a par with the nobility; the ruler himself was, in fact, of the priestly class. In addition to conducting rites, priests were educators and also warriors. One of their functions was to march at the head of the regular troops, carrying images of their gods on their backs, and blow shell horns to signal the attack (Davies, p. 187).

The Aztecs (along with other Mesoamericans), as can be seen in their iconography, conceived of their gods in anthropomorphic (as well as zoomorphic) ways, thus when the Spanish conquistadores arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519 they were greeted as gods. Some even considered Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl returned from the sea (cf. Davies, pp. 237, 239-40) and reported such to the Aztec ruler Mohtecuzomatzin or Moctezuma (usually anglicized “Montezuma”). Although ambivalent that this white-faced man at the head of his small white-faced army was really Quetzalcoatl, when Cortés finally entered the capital city Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma, dressed in regal splendor, greeted him as if he were the god returning to his “own land” (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Bernal Díaz Chronicles, p. 138; cited in Davies, p. 255). Whether he really believed that, however, is doubtful (cf. Davies, pp. 258-261). In any event, Moctezuma could hardly have foreseen that the Aztecs and their neighbors were soon to be conquered by the Spanish, the images of their gods destroyed, and their people converted, often forcibly, to Catholicism (Davies, pp. 300-1). Nevertheless, priests called “daykeepers” (ajq’ij) still maintain some of the old religious traditions, though without human sacrifice.


When the first Europeans contacted the native Americans in the early 16th century there were as many as 600 different tribes in North America with a total population of several millions. Most of these natives of North America believed that things in their environment — animals, rivers, mountains, seas, the sun, the moon — had spirits. Their shamans, often called “medicine men” (or in some cases “medicine women”), were thought to have some control over this spirit world. In many tribes, they were thought to be able to contact spirits, both benign and evil, in their soul journeys and utilize them in their healing practice. The description of their visions sounds very much like some of the siddhis mentioned in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (e.g., IV.26, 39, 43). Some of the descriptions sound like clairvoyance.

Ceremonies, such as dances, were also performed by the whole tribe to influence weather, agriculture, and success in hunting. When hunters killed animals for food, they, like the Mayans of Mesoamerica, thanked the spirits of those animals. In many tribes, boys (and in some tribes girls also) went on a “vision quest” in which they attempted to contact the nature spirit they were associated with and named after, which would be that boy’s guardian throughout his life. Sacred bundles symbolizing the boy’s special relation to that spirit were worn and thought to give him a special power. Initiation ceremonies, usually involving some test of bravery or endurance, were conducted for boys in their early teens, passing which admitted them to adulthood. There were also rites performed for girls to prepare them for womanhood (cf. Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Ogala Sioux, 1953 &1985, chapt. vii).

Most native North American tribes, especially those of the Plains, believed that there was one ultimate spirit power or “Great Spirit,” called by the Iroquois Orenda, by the Sioux Wakonda or Wakan-tanka (literally “Great Sacred Power”), by the Anishnabe Gichi-Manido, by the Pawnee Tirawa, and by the Hopi Taiowa. Blavatsky states that “the ‘Great Spirit’ of the poor, untutored Indian, is the manifested Brahma of the Hindu philosopher” (IU I:560). This Supreme Being was also known as Napi or “Old Man” by the Montana Blackfeet and as “Father” or “Grandfather” by other tribes. According to Black Elk (or Hehaka Sapa in Lakota), the Great Spirit “is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples [i.e., birds]; and even more important, we should understand that He is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He intends” (Brown, p. xx). In other words, as it is put in Mother Earth, Father Sky: Native American Myth (Time-Life Books, 1997, p. 21), “human beings were created as the companions, not the masters, of all other creatures.” And again, “To live on the Earth, to breathe and drink and feed from its resources, and to be among the plants and animals, is to be part of a sacred cosmic unity” (ibid., p. 47). This theosophical attitude toward nature is at variance with the usual Western belief that Nature is there merely for human beings to exploit.

The interconnectedness of all things was often indicated in pictographs as a series of concentric circles, a symbol common to a number of other cultures. In the words of Black Elk, “Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. . . . The life of man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves” (quoted in The Way of the Spirit: Nature, Myth, and Magic in Native American Life, Time-Life Books, 1997, p. 98). It was also expressed in ceremonies. As Mother Earth, Father Sky puts it, “Native Americans have traditionally believed that a spirit world influences the world of waking consciousness. Sickness or health, starvation or abundance, depend on the proper functioning of the spirits and on their right relationships with humans” (p. 109). This has at least a partial analogy in the Bhagavad-Gītā (3.11-14), especially in terms of rainfall producing food crops, where Śrī Krishna tells Arjuna about the reciprocal influence between the devas and man by means of sacrificial offerings.

Because native Americans depended heavily on animals for food, fur clothing, and bone tools, they considered the relation between humans and animals to be very close. Many tribes believed the souls of the animals they killed, if the animal body was thanked and its body butchered “cleanly,” would return as a spiritual power to the hunter. In fact, the “bridge” between the physical world and the “hereafter” was considered by the Senel of California to be guarded by a buffalo bull who allowed people who led a good life to pass by him, but who would attack those whose life had been wicked. And the Ojibway of the Great Lakes area conceived that bridge to be in the form of a huge snake spanning the river between this life and the next. If one thinks of the “astral” or psychic world as “watery” or fluid, perhaps this conception hints at the connection of the “serpent power” (i.e., kuŠalin…) between the physical and psychic realms.

John Matthews has pointed out in The Summer Solstice: Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest (Quest Books, 2002, pp. 46-7) that many tribes had special ceremonies, often performed daily, to honor the sun. Some, such as the Iroquois, had a practice called “smoking the sun” in which a circle of warriors took turns drawing on the sacred pipe and blowing puffs of smoke which were thought to carry their prayers up to the sun god. (In fact, smoking a pipe was widely used by many tribes for various purposes; the pipe was filled with a mixture of tobacco and other plant substances — such as cedar bark, sweet grass, or Sweet Ann root — called in Algonquin kinnikinnick, “that which is mixed,” or in Sioux chanshasha.) The Apalachees of Florida released birds during their worship of the sun for the same purpose. Others, such as the ancient Anasazi of the Southwest used rock carvings, which were illumined by the sun at certain times, to mark the passage of time and determine favorable times for planting and harvest. The Tipai of Baja California had a petroglyph which was illumined only at noon on the summer solstice. Corn festivals, related especially to solar cycles, were common among many tribes (including some in Mesoamerica and South America), since corn (or maize) was a staple of the diet of many tribes (cf. Matthews, pp. 117-8 and 140). And the Hopi depicted the movement of the sun in their rock carvings by means of a swastika.

The North American native “medicine man” (or “medicine woman”) had some knowledge of medicine and could set broken bones or cure certain diseases with herbal remedies. He was called pejuta wacasa by the Lakota Sioux, as contrasted with the tribal priest, who was called wichash wakan (“holy man”). Some, such as the Navaho, would make a circular design (“healing circle” or “medicine wheel,” sometimes called “sand painting” or “dry painting”) out of colored sand, powdered minerals, colored seeds, sacred objects, etc. and perform a healing ritual for the patient sitting within it. Modern medical practitioners tend to ridicule such practices, but there is evidence that they were often effective. Whether that was due to some occult influence unrecognized by modern medicine or merely to mental suggestion has not yet been sufficiently explored. In some other tribes, the medicine man would use herbs or suck out through the skin a foreign object that he perceived in trance was the cause of the illness. Such practitioners often underwent lengthy training, though some shamans seem to have assumed their role without any training because of a special gift they were perceived to have.

The tribal ceremonies, especially of the tribes living south of the Arctic, commonly consisted of a ritual dance accompanied by chanting or songs. Participants often dressed in special costumes or wore masks. For example, the kachina masked dancers of the Pueblo would visit the dwellings of children early in the new year to ask whether they had been good or bad; if good, they would give the children gifts and if bad they would scold them. The kachina (sometimes spelled katchina) are considered to be invisible life spirits which influence weather (e.g., bring rain for spring crops). Some researchers have counted as many as 335 different kachinas among the Hopis, although it is impossible to fix the number precisely since some (like the kami of Shintō) go out of existence while others come into being — some are now even associated with Europeans — and they differ from village to village even in an understanding of their nature. Their message also changes over time; recently, kachina dancers address modern social problems, such as alcoholism and drugs. A dancer portraying a kachina wears an elaborate mask, often covering his whole head, which represents a particular kachina. The sun dance, lasting several days, was a principal ceremony of the Plains Indians. All such ceremonies were accompanied by various musical instruments, such as drums, clappers, rattles, or flutes.

Legends of the spirits and ancestors were passed on as an oral tradition, since most of the natives of North America lacked written languages. The myths often concerned creation and stories about how humans first came to be on earth. But such myths are, as Henry Kammler puts it in his contribution to the encyclopedic Cultures of Native North Americans (pub. by Köneman, 2000), “as varied as the peoples of North America who tell them” (p. 14). For discussion of the myths of the natives of the various areas of North America, one should consult that reference or relevant portions of Donna Rosenberg, World Mythology: an anthology of great myths and epics (National Textbook Co., 1996 ed) since, other than Matthews’ recent book, there is almost nothing concerning them in theosophical literature. A generous sampling of them may also be found in the Time-Life Book Mother Earth, Father Sky.

Several religious ideas deserve mention, however. A belief in reincarnation was widespread among the older members of tribes such as the Eskimo, Aleut, Haida, Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Tsimshian in the Arctic and Northwest Coastal areas. Some cases involving a memory of a past life are discussed in Ian Stevenson’s Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966, rev. ed. 1974). Also, Arctic tribes believed that animals, like people, had souls (inue; sing. inua), except that animals had a communal or group soul rather than, like humans, an individual soul, a common theosophical idea. They, therefore, asked permission of the group soul before killing an animal. The same belief was held by tribes in other areas as well. Among the Algonquins in the east part of the Arctic area, shamans used a cylindrical shaped tent which would shake when spirit guides were invoked. As Sonja Lührmann observes in her contribution to The Cultures of Native North Americans, “The onlookers would listen to the spirit helper’s conversations in a language only understood by the tent shaker. Sometimes the outline of one of their body parts would even become visible on the wall of the tent” (p. 86). This is very similar to reports of some phenomena in Spiritualist circles, which gave rise to religious sects like the Shakers and Quakers.

It was a widely-held belief by Northwest tribes that humans are tri-partite, having a physical body, a vital energy (usually termed “breath”), and a soul or “shadow body.” The vital body was involved in health and disease; a shaman (or the person’s guardian spirit) was thought to be able to cure disease by restoring or recapturing the “breath.” And it was the “shadow body” which was said to reincarnate. These beliefs are very similar to theosophical teachings.

For many of the tribes in the Northeast area, as well as the Pawnee in the Plains, the world consists of three levels — sky, earth, and underworld — each ruled by gods. In the upper realm dwelt a creator god who was considered so far removed from everyday life that he played only a minor role in religious practices. Of more immediate religious concern were the spirit beings known collectively in Algonquin as manito. They were thought to manifest in various natural phenomena (e.g., thunderbirds in storms) as well as inhabit plants and animals. This is very similar to the theosophical idea of devas and nature spirits. An object thus inhabited was called manitowok. The hero of the Micmac (who called themselves Lnu’k or “people”), Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy of Maine and New Brunswick was Gluskap who, among other things, created humans and then taught them the use of certain tools and formed them into families. He, like the Hindu god ViŠu, was said to intervene when the world is endangered and will return again.

The Cheyenne in the Plains area called their creator god Maheo and conceived of him as residing in the highest of five realms. It is interesting that Hindus also conceived of the manifested world as consisting of five realms (cf. Taittīriya Upaniṣad 1.7.1) and theosophy considers the realm of personality to consist of five “planes” as well. The tribes in the area of eastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and western Ontario (Ojibwa, Menominee, Potawatomi, Winnebago) believed that humans had two souls, a “vital soul” residing in the heart which was responsible for various bodily functions and a “free soul” residing in the head which gave one individual consciousness. This is very similar to the Chinese notion of a yin-soul (p’o) and a yang-soul (hun) as well as to the theosophical idea of the etheric double and the “astral” body or kāma-manas. The “free soul” was considered able to leave the body during sleep and might appear as a ghost after death, again very much like theosophical teachings. One finds similar ideas among tribes of the Great Basin area as well.

Another remarkable similarity with Hindu ideas occurs in the mythology of the Sioux who conceive the world as going through four phases depicted as a buffalo standing first on four legs, then three, then two, then only one. The buffalo also undergoes color changes, the last of which is black (cf. Brown, p. 9). This may be compared with the Hindu yuga theory of four ages depicted as a bull standing on four, three, two, and finally one leg (a parallel which Brown points out in a footnote). The final age in Hindu mythology is called Kāli Yūga or the dark (i.e., black) age.

In the Southeast area, the Seminoles had an interesting myth, obviously of relatively late origin, in which the Creator attempts three times to create humans out of baked clay: the first was too pale and was given a box containing feathers, ink, and paper; the second was too dark and was given a box filled with axes and hoes; the third was the perfect red man and was given a box with tomahawks, knives, and bows. This myth, used to justify the superior status of the Native American and inferior status of the Negro, is reminiscent of a Vedic hymn (Ṛg Veda 10.90.12) used to justify the class (vara) system, except that in the Seminole version the white — obviously a European — is not placed foremost, as is the brahmin in India, although the black — obviously an imported African slave — is placed at the bottom, as is the śūdra of India. The Seminole also conceived the world as triune, much as did tribes in the Northeast Area.

It was common among many tribes for men and teen-aged boys to undertake a vision quest by withdrawing to an isolated spot, fasting, and praying until a spiritual being would reveal itself to them, give them a song by means of which they could summon the spirit in the future, and teach them how to make a “medicine” which would confer upon them special powers (of protection, success in war or a hunt, winning a woman, etc.). Since the vision was often symbolic, they would go afterwards to a specialist to have it interpreted. Sometimes substances which had a mind-altering nature, were imbibed to aid in that vision quest, but more often a purificatory practice involved a “sweat lodge,” reminiscent of the Finnish sauna. (A detailed description of this ritual may be found in Brown, ch. iii.) One also finds this method of purification mentioned in ancient Hindu literature. In some tribes, only religious specialists would undertake drug-induced trances. In those states, it was believed that the person was possessed by spirits, usually thought of as guardians (perhaps similar to the “controls” of 19th century Western Spiritualists).

According to Navajo myth, there have been five worlds, but unlike Cheyenne mythology these worlds were created sequentially, as in the theosophical concept of Rounds and Races. In our current fifth world, the people saved themselves from a great flood by ascending inside a reed that was growing high into the sky. In the third world, called yellow, perhaps metaphorical for a developing intellect, the sexes were divided (as mentioned in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and other theosophical literature) in order, they believed, that they would always have to reunite according to the eternal principle of life.

With the arrival of the Europeans, there appeared a new type of religious leader, called by Europeans a prophet because of his prediction of (or warning about) the future. Sometimes these prophets would urge tribes to kill the white settlers, sometimes call upon the tribes to separate themselves from the Europeans (and their destructive habits like drinking liquor) in order to retain their traditional ways, and sometimes encourage peace with the white man. Among the more famous prophets are Hiawatha, who helped form the Iroquois League (consisting of the Mohawk, Onandaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Cayuga) to end intertribal warfare; Handsome Lake, an Iroquois who founded the Long House or Good Word (Gaiwiio) religion in 1799, combining elements of traditional Iroquois religion with Christianity; Popé, a Pueblo who led a successful revolt against the Spanish in 1680; and Wovoka, a Paiute who revived the Ghost Dance religion in 1889, claiming that reunion with their ancestors could be achieved through dancing and peaceful co-existence with the white man. Unfortunately, this latter movement was misinterpreted to mean that the Great Spirit would restore the Indian world to its pre-European state through a resurrection of the dead, which, of course, did not happen. The movement ended in December, 1990 in the tragic massacre of the Lakota Sioux by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the Native American Church was started among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes of the southwest United States and then spread to the Navaho of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah as well as across the Plains to other tribes. It formally incorporated in 1918 and may include as many as 80% of the Navaho. It blends fundamentalist Christianity, general Native American moral ideas, and the use of peyote as a hallucinogen. Its success can partly be explained by the hallucinogenic effects of eating peyote being considered the same as a vision quest. Although it was declared illegal by the Navaho Tribal Council in 1940, it continued to exist — and even flourish — as an underground movement until 1967 when the Council reversed its decision. It was made famous — or infamous, depending on one’s point of view — in a series of books by the anthropologist Carlos Casteñeda. However, the Sun Dance, a celebration of the renewal of the earth held at the beginning of summer is currently attracting many Amerinds away from the Native American Church according to Mother Earth, Father Sky (p. 129).




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