Day 54: Cherokee Sacred Formulas

Facsimile from the “Swimmer Manuscript”


I’ve mentioned James Mooney and his works several times before, but I haven’t really ever talked about his “Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees”. This work, much like his “Myths of the Cherokee” is a great resource for those who are interested in Cherokee traditional beliefs and folk medicine. Mooney does a great job of collecting information from first-hand accounts. He interviews not only medicine men and women, but also storytellers and knowledge-keepers who are well known in their communities. One of the most useful and amazing parts of his works is his language examples and transliteration. Mooney made sure to include transliterations of traditional names rather than substituting in an English translation. An example of this that I can think of is including in the wordDagûlʻkû rather than translating it to “goose” like many ethnographers would. “Goose” doesn’t incorporate in the mythology behind the Dagûlʻkû, and therefore the word just falls flat. Because of this, his works are seen as very accurate representations of Cherokee language and belief.

Now, I will say that while the information is presented in a great way, there are inaccuracies. Mooney’s collections are often seen as representative of the entirety of the Cherokee Nation, when in fact it represents the collected knowledge from only a handful of people. He does a good job of explaining the different bands of the Nation, but his information should be seen as only representing a small portion of this very large group of people. That is to say, his “Myths of the Cherokee” are the stories told by only a portion of the population, they are not the myths of the entire Nation. But, that being said, his collections are very good and even though they were written over a hundred years ago they still stand out in a world where indigenous beliefs and culture are so often subjected to infantilism and whitewashing.

Mooney’s “Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees” is a collection of medical knowledge that he gathered from living healers for the Bureau of Ethnology.  At around 1932 the work was completed and revised by Frans M. Olbrechts. The first version of the work can be found online, and Olbrechts longer version is still being published today. I have mixed feelings about this work. First, I feel like the information is presented in a very respectful way which is surprising considering other works on indigenous medicine written at the same time which speak in a very condescending tone about the “primitive people’s superstitions.” That’s to say I can read through Mooney’s works without cringing. It should be noted, however, that while the information is accurate and presented in a good way, it is still lacking as it is being filtered through the words of a non-Cherokee and a non-healer. As a healer myself I approach this work with natural suspicion. The verbal formulas and medicinal knowledge collected would normally be passed on only between a healer and their student. The fact that the information is being shared and then written down, makes me a little uncomfortable. But, that in mind, from the standpoint of an ethnographer, this information was collected from willing informants, and in several cases Mooney translated formulas from manuscripts written in Cherokee by medicine men themselves. So on the one hand the willingness to share traditional knowledge with an outsider makes me uncomfortable, but the fact that this information was shared with someone who would treat it with respect makes me less frustrated.

Now, after that long-winded rambling I’d like to give an example of the formulas collected by Mooney. More information about his work can be found online, and his collections that are in public domain can be accessed through Gutenberg online.

Note: the Cherokee transcription will be included as an image as Mooney’s phonetic system is hard to represent in text form.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 10.07.02 AM

Formula for Treating the Crippler (Rheumatism)

Listen! Ha! In the Sun Land you repose, O Red Dog, O now you have swiftly drawn near to hearken. O great ada´wĕhĭ, you never fail in anything. O, appear and draw near running, for your prey never escapes. You are now come to remove the intruder. Ha! You have settled a very small part of it far off there at the end of the earth.

Listen! Ha! In the Frigid Land you repose, O Blue Dog. O now you have swiftly drawn near to hearken, O great ada´wĕhĭ, you never fail in anything. O, appear and draw near running, for your prey never escapes. You are now come to remove the intruder. Ha! You have settled a very small part of it far off there at the end of the earth.

Listen! Ha! In the darkening land you repose, O Black Dog. O, now you have swiftly drawn near to hearken. O great ada´wĕhĭ, you never fail in anything. O, appear and draw near running, for your prey never escapes. You are now come to remove the intruder. Ha! You have settled a very small part of it far off there at the end of the earth.

Listen! On Wa´hală you repose. O White Dog. Oh, now you have swiftly drawn near to hearken. O great ada´wĕhĭ, you never fail in anything. Oh, appear and draw near running, for your prey never escapes. You are now come to remove the intruder. Ha! You have settled a very small part of it far off there at the end of the earth.

Listen! On Wa´hală, you repose, O White Terrapin. O, now you have swiftly drawn near to hearken. O great ada´wĕhĭ, you never fail in anything. Ha! It is for you to loosen its hold on the bone. Belief is accomplished.


Lay a terrapin shell upon (the spot) and keep it there while the five kinds (of spirits) listen. On finishing, then blow once. Repeat four times, beginning each time from the start. On finishing the fourth time, then blow four times. Have two white beads lying in the shell, together with a little of the medicine. Don’t interfere with it, but have a good deal boiling in another vessel—a bowl will do very well—and rub it on warm while treating by applying the hands. And this is the medicine: What is called Yâ´na-Utsĕ´sta (“bear’s bed,” the Aspidium acrostichoides or Christmas fern); and the other is called Kâ´ga-Asgû´ntagĭ (“crow’s shin,” the Adianthum pedatum or Maidenhair fern); and the other is the common Egû´nlĭ (another fern); and the other is the Little Soft (-leaved) Egû´nlĭ (Osmunda Cinnamonea or cinnamon fern), which grows in the rocks and resembles Yâna-Utsĕ´sta and is a small and soft (-leaved) Egû´nlĭ. Another has brown roots and another has black roots. The roots of all should be (used).

Begin doctoring early in the morning; let the second (application) be while the sun is still near the horizon; the third when it has risen to a considerable height (10 a.m.); the fourth when it is above at noon. This is sufficient. (The doctor) must not eat, and the patient also must be fasting.


As this formula is taken from the manuscript of Gahuni, who died nearly thirty years ago, no definite statement of the theory of the disease, or its treatment, can be given, beyond what is contained in the formula itself, which, fortunately, is particularly explicit; most doctors contenting themselves with giving only the words of the prayer, without noting the ceremonies or even the medicine used. There are various theories as to the cause of each disease, the most common idea in regard to rheumatism being that it is caused by the spirits of the slain animals, generally the deer, thirsting for vengeance on the hunter, as has been already explained in the myth of the origin of disease and medicine.

The measuring-worm (Catharis) is also held to cause rheumatism, from the resemblance of its motions to those of a rheumatic patient, and the name of the worm wahhĭlĭ´ is frequently applied also to the disease.

There are formulas to propitiate the slain animals, but these are a part of the hunting code and can only be noticed here, although it may be mentioned in passing that the hunter, when about to return to the settlement, builds a fire in the path behind him, in order that the deer chief may not be able to follow him to his home.

The disease, figuratively called the intruder (ulsgéta), is regarded as a living being, and the verbs used in speaking of it show that it is considered to be long, like a snake or fish. It is brought by the deer chief and put into the body, generally the limbs, of the hunter, who at once begins to suffer intense pain. It can be driven out only by some more powerful animal spirit which is the natural enemy of the deer, usually the dog or the Wolf. These animal gods live up above beyond the seventh heaven and are the great prototypes of which the earthly animals are only diminutive copies. They are commonly located at the four cardinal points, each of which has a peculiar formulistic name and a special color which applies to everything in the same connection. Thus the east, north, west, and south are respectively the Sun Land, the Frigid Land, the Darkening Land, and Wă´hală´, while their respective mythologic colors are Red, Blue, Black, and White. Wáhală is said to be a mountain far to the south. The white or red spirits are generally invoked for peace, health, and other blessings, the red alone for the success of an undertaking, the blue spirits to defeat the schemes of an enemy or bring down troubles upon him, and the black to compass his death. The white and red spirits are regarded as the most powerful, and one of these two is generally called upon to accomplish the final result.

In this case the doctor first invokes the Red Dog in the Sun Land, calling him a great adáwehi, to whom nothing is impossible and who never fails to accomplish his purpose. He is addressed as if out of sight in the distance and is implored to appear running swiftly to the help of the sick man. Then the supplication changes to an assertion and the doctor declares that the Red Dog has already arrived to take the disease and has borne away a small portion of it to the uttermost ends of the earth. In the second, third, and fourth paragraphs the Blue Dog of the Frigid Land, the Black Dog of the Darkening Land, and the White Dog of Wáhală are successively invoked in the same terms and each bears away a portion of the disease and disposes of it in the same way. Finally, in the fifth paragraph, the White Terrapin of Wáhălă is invoked. He bears off the remainder of the disease and the doctor declares that relief is accomplished. The connection of the terrapin in this formula is not evident, beyond the fact that he is regarded as having great influence in disease, and in this case the beads and a portion of the medicine are kept in a terrapin shell placed upon the diseased part while the prayer is being recited.

The formulas generally consist of four paragraphs, corresponding to four steps in the medical ceremony. In this case there are five, the last being addressed to the terrapin instead of to a dog. The prayers are recited in an undertone hardly audible at the distance of a few feet, with the exception of the frequent ha, which seems to be used as an interjection to attract attention and is always uttered in a louder tone. The beads—which are here white, symbolic of relief—are of common use in connection with these formulas, and are held between the thumb and finger, placed upon a cloth on the ground, or, as in this case, put into a terrapin shell along with a small portion of the medicine. According to directions, the shell has no other part in the ceremony.

The blowing is also a regular part of the treatment, the doctor either holding the medicine in his mouth and blowing it upon the patient, or, as it seems to be the case here, applying the medicine by rubbing, and blowing his breath upon the spot afterwards. In some formulas the simple blowing of the breath constitutes the whole application. In this instance the doctor probably rubs the medicine upon the affected part while reciting the first paragraph in a whisper, after which he blows once upon the spot. The other paragraphs are recited in the same manner, blowing once after each. In this way the whole formula is repeated four times, with four blows at the end of the final repetition. The directions imply that the doctor blows only at the end of the whole formula, but this is not in accord with the regular mode of procedure and seems to be a mistake.

The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the roots of four varieties of fern, rubbed on with the hand. The awkward description of the species shows how limited is the Indian’s power of botanic classification. The application is repeated four times during the same morning, beginning just at daybreak and ending at noon. Four is the sacred number running through every detail of these formulas, there being commonly four spirits invoked in four paragraphs, four blowings with four final blows, four herbs in the decoction, four applications, and frequently four days’ gaktun´ta or tabu. In this case no tabu is specified beyond the fact that both doctor and patient must be fasting. The tabu generally extends to salt or lye, hot food and women, while in rheumatism some doctors forbid the patient to eat the foot or leg of any animal, the reason given being that the limbs are generally the seat of the disease. For a similar reason the patient is also forbidden to eat or even to touch a squirrel, a buffalo, a cat, or any animal which “humps” itself. In the same way a scrofulous patient must not eat turkey, as that bird seems to have a scrofulous eruption on its head, while ball players must abstain from eating frogs, because the bones of that animal are brittle and easily broken.

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