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Des sources du savoir aux médicaments du futur

 | 
Jacques Fleurentin
, 
Jean-Marie Pelt
, 
Guy Mazars

2. Élaboration des pharmacopées

Societies living in a dream world: nature, knowledge and life skills in shamanic societies

Eric Navet

Résumé

Abstract
The Amerindian societies conceive and live the Creation as a complex whole in a precarious balance, including visible and invisible parts which are all interelated and interdependent. The ethics which allows and organizes the living defines it, according to the Ojibay Indians, as a totality “beautiful, well ordered and harmonic”. In this framework, the myth stages the human being as a troublemaker. Between an ideal unattainable in this world -the “terre sans mal” of the Tupi-Guarani- and the constraints of the living, the chaman, keystone of the edifice, thanks to a knowledge drawn from many sources -from human and non-human natures-, and a backward and forward motion between theses worlds that the rational thinking distinguishes as “real” and “imaginary”, appears, in a holistic way, as the only agent of regulation of a system constantly threatened with chaos.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Servier: 333.
  • 2 One of the many purposes of this contribution is specifically to show that traditional communities (...)
  • 3 The term is used here in its etymological meaning, as derived from Latin relegere “collect” and re (...)
  • 4 These data are borrowed from the work by Basil Johnston, the ethnologist of Obijway communities: O (...)
  • 5 The Ojibway (also known as Ojibwa, Ogibwé, Chippewa) ranks third as a Native American ethnic commu (...)
  • 6 Johnston: 13.

1The ethnologist Jean Servier writes in a cursive way: “the primeval myth is the only interesting story in traditional cultures1. The Ojibway Indians’ historical-mythical2 way of thinking indicates that he may be right as all essential elements are contained in the tale they tell about the creation of the world and the myth sets the principles of a true moral code which serves itself as a foundation for a way of being and a way of thinking that is highly “religious” 3. The Ojibway living in the Great Lakes Area say4 in abridged form that the Great Spirit, Kiche Manitu, had a vision -in fact, a dream- of a beautiful, ordered and harmonious” world, this world corresponds to the real Ojibway5 environment, composed of woods, lakes, rivers, etc. The myth thus creates the elements, the heavenly bodies, the landscapes with its vegetal and animal components, and finally Man “weakest in bodily powers”6 but endowed with the ability to dream.

2So the world is not an ex nihilo creation made by a god looking down on humankind, it is rather the materialisation of a vision; there is no creator nor creature, and creation is just a permanent occurrence in a circular “space-time” setting. The consequences of this Weltanschauung are quite important, as we will now examine.

  • 7 Due to lack of space, we cannot get into details about the various stages of the process of Creati (...)
  • 8 Johnston: 16.

3After a few failed attempts indicating that there are limitations to Kitche Manitu’s dream -leading to a series of disasters cancelling the first creations, the final one corresponding to the mythem of the Great Flood7- the original state of the world is indeed that of “heaven on earth” as close as could be to the aspirations of the Great Spirit: “in the first year, the animal beings nourished and nurtured the infants and the spirit woman [...] For all their needs, the spirit woman and her children depended upon the care and dood-will of the animals. The bears, wolves, foxes, deer and beaver brought food and drink; the squirrels, weasels, racoons and cats offered toys and games; the robins, sparrows, chickadees and loons sang and danced in the air; the butterflies, bees and dragonflies made the children smile. All the animals beings served in some tangible way...8

  • 9 Servier: 333.

4The Ojibway give here support to another point made by J. Servier: “all traditional cultures have an impression that they have lost an original “paradise” and think of themselves as collapsing. The terms of the myth can vary from culture to culture but some common features are recurrent: - man was immortal; he did not have to work to have food as trees took cared of his subsistence; the sky was close to the earth and all the animals were meek grass-eaters obeyed man. 9

  • 10 According to mythology, a character named Ogauns - the archetypical figure of a shaman - laves the (...)
  • 11 Inverted commas are necessary in this context as data have relative value from the cultural point (...)

5There is apparently no society that do not refer to some sort of “paradise lost”, an ideal world similar to what Kiche Manitu saw in a vision. But the myth also tells in clear terms that such an ideal world could not possibly exist down here, life and the living is necessarily based on binary oppositions or dyads: there is no life without death10; as there are grass-eaters, there are also carnivorous animals, light is necessarily opposed to darkness, heat implies coldness and pain goes with pleasure, good luck with bad luck, benevolence with malevolence, and God, the figure of good, has the Devil, the figure of evil as an antonym. This entails that the creation of the world, the transition from “dream” to “reality”11 -imagination becoming a driving force- is a development from unity to diversity, a loss of adequacy with the original meaning, as the latter can exist only in the world beyond life and relativity.

6There is even more to it: whereas it is natural for plants, animals and other creatures to abide spontaneously by the “rules of nature” -which are basically the rules applying to the living, as we will see later on- the myth depicts the human being involved in a symphony emerging thought, desired and written by the Creator, in the guise of a would-be sorcerer, as a trouble-maker. If the creation of the world, of life, implies differences and gaps, if a dream world is not the world itself, human beings in the Ojibwa myth, just do as they please, do not care about the advice given by the Great Spirit and seem to make great efforts to widen the gap between us and the world, to enlarge the empty space separating man, because of his nature, from the other creatures and elements of the Creation. The Ojibwa ethnologist Basil Johnston, in the description of the myth that we have already mentioned, tells us how human beings became alienated from animals, their “brothers”, why the latter, angry about being enslaved, and after a trial staged in due form decided to let human beings down so that they had to hunt and chase animals as game; the myth explains why human societies and languages dispersed, become different from one another, how human beings lost immortality, and why the world was finally delivered to evil, as God had abandoned it for a better one in keeping with their dreams...

7In spite of the Creator’s efforts, the ideal model cannot be actualised in this world; a second pole is also required, a “world hereafter” that exists beyond the human being and the created world that are submitted to restrictions, excessive “rules” so that the bitters that enable us to navigate in this world are held down. The idea of “God” is associated to and complemented by the idea of a “lost paradise”, in the same way, it is necessary. Nonetheless, as Life imposes restrictions -by which it is determined- and as human beings do not make good use of their power, and alienate the rest of creation instead of integrating -this the main lesson of the myth- it appears that “paradise” is not possible in this world; consequently, we still have the possibility, or even a duty, to create a pleasant world provided there is a minimum -which is also necessary- of “order”, “harmony”, and “beauty”. For that matter, the Ojibwa morality -as defined by this treble criteria and apparently proper to all traditional cultures- forms a strong contrast to the ideals of an industrial society based on the principle of man dominating not only nature - in the common sense of the word- but also human nature, as we will now see.

8The Ojibwa make a distinction between:

  • the Primary Laws ruling the movement of heavenly bodies, the passing seasons and the rising and setting of light and darkness, the activity of rock, fire, water, and wind. These are the laws of Nature and human beings, just as all other creatures, have to comply with them;
  • the Secondary Laws, depending on the former ones, regulating the actions of human and animal beings. There is room here for possible choices, provided they are compatible with the Primary laws.
  • 12 Johnston: 139.
  • 13 The first world created by Kiche Manitu happened to be destroyed by the scorching heat from the su (...)
  • 14 Johnston: 139.

9B. Johnston, to whose presentation we refer here, adds that any life is organized in a cycle “birth -development- decline” and a “there was harmony between the operations of the secondary laws and the primary”12. Of course human beings are not exempted from from general rules: “men were dependent for their well-being upon the harmonious operations of laws, primary and secondary; and upon the cosmic bodies and species remaining within their proper spheres. And though the seasons, nights and days tended towards balance, there were times when the winters were too long and the days too cold. There were occasions when too much rain fell and killed everything; when the sun was too hot and scorched everything13; when excessive variations took place, birth, growth, fullness were in the plant and animal orders delayed, obstructed and even impaired. Over such changes; man had no control; he had to endure and labour and adjust to the change. ”14

10So we can see the emergence of an ethics of life based on taking into account the fact that man is only a living species among other ones and that, as for the other ones, the condition for his survival is having a philosophy and a way of life -a way of being and thinking- based, consciously or not, on an eagerness to yearn for and maintain a triple balance:

  1. the balance in human relationships, individually and as members of a community, with the rest of the world, non-human, visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious;
  2. the balance in the relationships established between the human beings themselves, within and between the communities;
  3. the balance between the conscious part of the mind of individuals with the unconscious part.
  • 15 Homeostasis is traditionally defined as “the self-regulating process by which biological systems t (...)
  • 16 An ecosystem is defined as “the elementary structural unit of the biosphere. It is composed of a p (...)
  • 17 Malaurie, 1985: 152.

11In fact, the point is to respect the principle of homeostasis15 ruling life forms, and there is no contradiction between these “laws” defined by the Ojibwa and the rules laid down by Western science. Jean Malaurie, a geologist and anthropologist, showed that the Inuit society, in their attempt to adapt as harmoniously as possible in a rather hostile environment, acted in a way similar to that of physical phenomena in the Arctic area: “in the course of some ten centuries, the history of the society of the Eskimo Inuit in Thule, has developed as if it had been genetically programmed and has been the vehicle of an willingness to maintain the balance of an old classless society in a system following the principles of anarchy and pure community living. In pragmatic terms, it is actually an ecosystem16 strongly reminding that of rocks (in particular when being fragmented) and, in particular, that of the scree that I have studied at long length because of their state of instability. In such regions where man is submitted to various constraints and, as a social being, is modelled by nature, the organisational and ordering structures seem to be in the image of the great physical systems”.17

  • 18 Lévi-Strauss, 1983: 35.

12Claude Lévi-Strauss supports this opinion -that I call the “theory of the three balances”- when he writes: “up to now, I have examined only the factors for internal balance, of both demographic and sociological nature. But we should add to this these vast systems of rituals and beliefs which may appear as ridiculous superstitions, but whose effect is to maintain the balance between the human community and their environment. A plant should be regarded as respectable beings that cannot be picked without legitimate reason, and not until its spirit has been appeased with offerings; an animal being hunted to serve as food is placed, according to the species it belongs to, under the protection of corresponding supernatural masters who punish the hunters that made themselves guilty of abuse because they killed too many or did not spare the females and the young offspring; finally, the idea that men, animals and plants share a common life capital, so that any abuse committed at the expense of a species is necessarily to be translated, in the philosophy of Natives, as a corresponding reduction in the life expectancy of men themselves; all these facts testify in a somewhat naive way but still with great effectiveness, to a well-conceived form of humanism that does not begin by itself, but offers to man a reasonable position in nature, instead of letting him crown himself as its master or destroys it, without even having any consideration for the most evident needs and interests of the future generations”18

  • 19 Jenness, 1935.
  • 20 Werner Muller,a German anthropologist who focussed his investigation on Native Americans, writes c (...)
  • 21 The spelling used here is the spelling suggested by D. Jenness.

13The way of being, thinking and acting of the Ojibwa thus corresponds clearly to the model defined by the ethnologist. Numerous interdicts or regulations, in this culture, governed the relationships between human beings and their natural environment. The Canadian ethnologist Diamond Jenness sets up a long list of such provisions in his book on the Parry Island Ojibwa19; it is, for example, prohibited to kill pregnant females, be cruel to animals, and natural resources are managed according to truly environmental principles based not only on the need, but also sincere respect for the living world. Significantly, the Ojibwa had a very broad definition -broader than that of Western people- of the living world20, as it includes the mineral, animal, vegetable worlds, etc. In the likeness of human beings, animals, plants, elements (water, fire,...), and even certain objects such as the canoes made of birch bark, are composed of three parts: a physical body, wiyo, that will eventually decompose and end up disappearing after death, a “soul”, udjitchog, which is likely “to travel” to other worlds, and a “shade”, udjibbom.21

14How could human beings possibly contribute to ensuring “order”, “harmony” and “beauty” in the world as he himself, among all other creatures, embodies the being who poses the greatest threat to all its foundations? How can he learn to understand the world? the worlds?

  • 22 See, for instance, the “foetalisation theory” developed by the Danish anatomist L. Bolk and the co (...)
  • 23 This idea is presented by G. Roheim as the “dual unity” concept (cf. Roheim, 1967).
  • 24 J.-J. Rousseau, just as the Romantics he announced, was in the line of traditional thinking when h (...)

15Biologists and psychologists fully demonstrated that the prolonged physical22 and affective dependence of human beings on their family23 and social environment -the physical impairment as it is mentioned in the Ojibwa myth- forces, or enables them to develop other intellectual abilities, reason on things, or in more philosophical terms, develop a “free will” of their own, and compels them to reason. For some cultures, like those describing themselves as “modern” or “post-modern”, this keeping apart or detaching from things is a pre-condition for the emergence of a rational and scientific thought, the only one likely to give us access to knowledge, whereas for the other so-called “traditional” ones, the loss of adequacy between human beings and the rest of the world widens the gap -not irretrievably, as explained afterwards- between us and the divinity, i.e. the creative outburst and the force driving us to act, which are essential to give a meaning to what is thought, told and done in this world24. This widening gap from the human and the non-human environment the lack of immediate answers to the questions besetting us, are responsible for any anxiety. Once again, answers are to be found only beyond a world that is necessarily contingent, limited, conditioned, alienated and confined in the narrow space and time boundaries which serve as a framework for the living.

  • 25 Eastern philosophies would rather claim that the point is to liberate oneself from desire but we c (...)
  • 26 Freud referred to this tendency as “death drive” or “death instinct” (Freud, 1920).
  • 27 Jung links up the images generated in dreams to the main mythical themes, the archetypes; in his o (...)

16As all living creatures are beings with needs, human beings are submitted to this condition; but, additionally, they are beings with yearnings, due to the incompleteness of their nature. It is obviously more difficult to harmonise yearnings than needs. And frustration generates anxiety too. It can easily be shown that, concerning individuals and communities, there is a universal eagerness to escape such anxiety and fulfil one’s desires25 through a flashback to the moment of the vision, before it has taken shape, before the world comes to existence. Naturally, this previous condition - or more specifically - this state beyond life is not -as Freud thought- death26 but refers rather to what Jung27 called a “Nirvana impulse” urging us continually to creating dream-like worlds.

17The specific nature of human beings expresses itself in this tension between a better world which they never really cease to yearn for in secret, as it is the place where meaning emerges, and necessity, raised to the status of a moral system and by which he is firmly rooted in tangible reality, to maintain “order”, “harmony” and “beauty” as long as possible in this world. In Ojibwa society, the young boy or girl needs to learn, in a very pragmatic way, to understand the world he/she is moving in day after day, and at the same time keep open the paths leading to unconsciousness or, in other words, to the “world of spirits”, to the “country of the dead”.

  • 28 Spaces for the performance of rituals are often a symbolic reproduction of the mother’s body. This (...)

18For the Ojibwa as for the other traditional peoples, death clearly takes us back to the initial state of bliss, via the mother’s body28, beyond any set time and place. The world and nature -in the ordinary sense of the terms- have to be tamed; this also applies to the inner world as we have to understand the nature of ours yearnings and representations, the manido which inhabit the imaginary worlds, and that man envisions to have a better control on them.

  • 29 Morriseau: 61.

19Dreaming is the golden way to unconsciousness”, said Freud. But, in other languages -that of traditional peoples- it is also the expressway to invisible worlds. For obvious reasons, it is necessary for Kiche Manitu, after abandoning a world which is definitely too far away from perfection, to bestow upon human beings -who live in dearth- the capacity to dream so that they are no longer “exiles from nowhere”, as the poet Hölderlin put it. Dreaming is a way to daily replenish one’s forces from the loci of meaning and perfection, not to err aimlessly, as the pawguk, the Ojibwa brand of ghosts do; after dying, the latter are doomed to roaming between this world and the other one, as a sanction for some crime that they might have committed, and this obviously a rather uncomfortable destiny. Dreaming, possibly associated to ritual, allow us to regain access to the hence part of the living world, in the bliss of the maternal womb and in perfect communion with the world. The next dream, as related by the Ojibwa artist Norval Morriseau, is more than just the dream of returning to the mother’s womb: “I remember the tim I was in my mother’s womb. The heart of my mother was thunder. When my mother passed water it was my river. I felt as if I lived in a wigwam. I had my door and the belly for a window. I was a woman at the time, but because my feet were crooked and that would spoil my appearance if I were a woman the Great Spirit spoke to me through my mother and said: “Red Sky”, I will let you be a man instead of a woman. ”29

  • 30 Jenness: 47.

20D. Jenness insists on the cultural role of dream in Ojibwa society: “Le Grand Esprit donna aux Indiens le don d’approcher le monde surnaturel et d’obtenir des connaissances et des pouvoirs à travers le rêve, quand le corps sommeille et que l’âme est libérée de tous les problèmes qui l’assaillent quand il veille. En conséquence, l’Ojibwé accorde une grande importance au rêve, et il abandonnait sans hésitation les plus importantes entreprises si quelque rêve ou vision semblait présager l’infortune. Ils tenaient aussi les noms qu’ils donnaient à leurs enfants des rêves, et ils attribuaient à la même source la plupart de leurs connaissances médicales. Un homme, par exemple, rêvait qu’une certaine herbe guérissait les rhumatismes, et il devenait un spécialiste de ce mal, transmettant son remède secret à ses enfants. Le maïs et le tabac furent donnés aux Indiens par des rêves”.30

  • 31 Tantaquidgeon: 91.
  • 32 Ibid.: 51.
  • 33 Ibid.: 105.

21There is remarkable consistency in the American Indian world concerning the perception and the cultural application of dreams; if we restrict ourselves to the Algonquin societies living in the North- East, here are some quotations from the work by Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan ethnologist from Connecticut: “The Mohegans regard all dreams as significant. My informants expressed belief in dreams as signs or omens of future events, as did our ancestors. Through dreams one received advice and guidance from those “in the spirit world31; “All dreams are regarded as significant by the Delaware. Some indicate good fortune and long life, while others foretell sickness and death [...] It is customary for the Delaware to learn in dreams names suitable for their children32; “Dreams and their significance form an interesting topic of conversation in the typical Nanticoke household. One informant stated, “Some are born to see sights. If their veil (caul) is saved, they can talk with the dead; if lost, they will be timed and cannot talk with those in the other world. People who have such power aren’t afraid of ghost. A number of Nanticoke rely upon their dreams for advice along various lines.33

  • 34 E. Barrie Kavash has founded in 1978 an ethnobotanical herbarium at the Institute for American Ind (...)
  • 35 Barrie Kavasch: 24.

22Everywhere people would consider that dream has foreboding value; it stems from a circular conception of space and time, so that, at whatever point on the circle your are, whatever happens will happen again and what will happen is not so new any more and looks like the already-seen, the already-experienced. Another aspect is even more difficult to apprehend by logical minds: the idea that such an abstract experience as dreaming, can possibly be a way to capture the outer world and tangible realities. However, there is widespread belief that the therapeutic properties of plants, which in all places are part of a very impressive pharmacopoeia, can be revealed in the course of dreaming. The Delaware Indians, for instance, say that they have been informed in a dream about the healing properties of Canadian helianthus (Heliantherium canadense) used as a poultice to cure sore throats. The ethno-botanist E. Barrie Kavash34 shows that such an approach refers to a global philosophy based on the principle of universal harmony: “The American Indian world view generally considered all of life a circle, and within the sacred circle, each person worked to keep things in a balance. Illness often caused, or was caused by, a lack of balance, hence special attention and understanding were necessary to regain one’s well-being. Countless generations of searching within North American environments brought the understanding of many kinds of organisms useful to restore this balance [...] Dreaming was a guiding principle in divining sources of wisdom, from organisms and treatments to pathways of ceremonies and religious concepts. Remarkable dimensions of knowledge travel through dream channels”35

  • 36 Densmore: 322.

23In a rather comprehensive book dating back to 1928 about the use of plants among the Chippewa (Ojibwa), Frances Densmore also propounds the idea that the belief in a dreamlike revelation of the medicinal properties of plants should be backed up empirically: “It must be conceded that the use of plants by the Indians was based upon experiment and study. The Indians say that they “received this knowledge in dreams”, but the response of the physical organism was the test of a plant as a remedy”, and he adds “As the physical organism is the same in both races it should not be a matter of surprise that some of the remedies used by the Indians are found in the pharmacopoeia of the white race”.36

  • 37 Morriseau: 52.
  • 38 Jenness: 24.
  • 39 See Morriseau: 55.

24Thus we can see that the Amerindian peoples, just like most other traditional peoples, there have been two main ways to have access to knowledge; they were not opposed, but rather complementing each other at all times. The first one is more intuitive, introspective, being largely channelled by dream and visions - it corresponds to the ideal of an immediate apprehension / understanding of the world and to “the yearning for the lost paradise”; the second one is more empirical, possibly more experimental, being based on the natural world, especially that of animals, plants, etc. that spontaneously follow the “Natural laws”. Thus the Ojibwa of Lake Nipigon claimed that they had discovered a remedy facilitating childbirth by observing a pregnant female moose37. Like many arctic and subarctic populations, the Parry Island Ojibwa, in Georgian Bay, those of Lake Nipigon, hold the bear in high regard: it is “very close to men”38, it is an “intellectual guide”, a permanent inspirer; they owe him in particular the discovery of edible berries - it likes them - and hundreds of medical plants39 such as sage, balsam, the gum of several species of conifers, etc., that can cure colds or snake bites, treat constipation, etc.

  • 40 Caldwell, 1958.
  • 41 Farb: 252-253.
  • 42 Yarnell, 1964.
  • 43 See Barrie Kavasch, 1996.

25Altogether, the Amerindians had a vast, accurate and well-specified knowledge of their natural environment and they could make the best of it. Using data borrowed from J R. Caldwell40, the American anthropologist Peter Farb writes: “at the time when the explorers reached the Great Lakes region, the descendants of this antiquated population used two hundred and seventy-five vegetable species on a purely medical basis, a hundred and thirty as food, thirty-one for magic practice, they smoked twenty-seven sorts of them, they used twenty-five as dyes, eighteen in drinks and as perfumes, and fifty-two more for various uses”41. Richard A. Yarnell42 analyzes 364 vegetable species used traditionally by the Indians of the Great Lakes region, among which many mushroom species.43

  • 44 See Redsky: 102-103.

26James Redsky and Norval Morriseau, both members of the Ojibwa community, emphasise the role of the bear in the creation of the “Great medicine society” or the Midewiwin of the Ojibwa. The bear is indeed the being which, with great difficulty, has travelled across the four underworlds and, coming on earth, planted in the middle of the mide-wigan -the Midwiwin ritual lodge- the tree, as a symbol of eternal life and the centre of the ritual44 area. The Midewiwin, which is undoubtedly Canada’s first “medicine society”, was one of the most complex solutions developed by the Great Lakes Indians in response to the threats and aggressions imposed by colonists. Among such aggressions, the importation of microbes and alcohol were probably the worst as they made many more victims than wars. Some diseases (including smallpox, and pulmonary illnesses, etc.), made worse because of the promiscuity prevailing in religious missions, decimated ethnic communities from the 17th century onwards.

  • 45 Concerning this, Gerald Vizenor, an Ojibway ethnologist, writes: “The Anishinaabeg drew pictures t (...)
  • 46 Vennum: 760.

27Midewiwin formed itself probably at the end of the 17th century in Chequamegon -which was then the Ojibwa “capital” on the southern shore of Lake Superior- as an esoteric hierarchical society with therapeutic objectives. This institution provides evidence of the remarkable ability of Amerindian societies -in particular the Ojibwa- to adapt. In some way, the idea was to counterbalance detrimental foreign influences and, even more, to combat diseases; the mide (or mite) -the men and women who were members of this society- made up a “clergy” to whom this therapeutic knowledge and ritual songs had been transmitted. But they were also the guarantors of the historical and mythical tradition of the group, symbolised by a shell recalling the Atlantic origins of the Ojibwa, and engraved in the form of pictograms on birchbark scrolls45: “As the story of the migration became an integral part of the original legend, the mite priesthood, wishing to maintain a written record of the historic trek, traced symbolic “maps” [...] onto birchbark scrolls. Such migration charts were as important to a priest “library” as his song scrolls, medicinal recipes, and ritual instruction charts, for, in joining the Society, the mite became responsible for more than pharmacopoeia and cosmology. As “preserve-man” (kanawencikewinini), he was also expected to retain knowledge of the Ojibwa past” 46

28Each of the eight society grades could be accessed after a long period of education, an initiation taught by an “elder” and paid in kind or, in more recent times, in cash. Thus the mide had the occult power of curing by learning a repertory of healing songs and by developing a thorough knowledge of the therapeutic virtues of plants:

  • 47 Densmore: 322.
  • 48 Barrie Kavasch: 66.

29The medicinal use of herbs was handed down for many generations in the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Lodge of the Chippewa. It is a teaching of the Midewiwin that every tree, bush, and plant has used,” noted Frances Densmore in 191847, 48.

  • 49 Sr. Bernard M. Coleman, a nun and ethnologist, expressed in 1929 the view that Midewiwin had been (...)

30In a world that had become hostile, the Midewiwin society had to insure individuals and communities that they represented a hope for some “well-being”, or at least of a “better-being”, according to the enduring principles of an overall philosophy of relational harmony including, as we saw above, all living beings and the whole cosmos. The rituals and creeds associated to the Midewiwin combined elements drawn from pre-existing shamanism and others borrowed from Christianity, taken over and vested with a new meaning. The Midewiwin gathered strength in resistance to Christianity, being rightly associated to the most negative aspects of colonisation49.

  • 50 For more details, I refer to my paper: Navet, 1988.
  • 51 The fly agaric is a common item for Xmas decoration and fantasy, appearing on logs, in fir-trees; (...)

31Obviously, resorting to systems such as Midewiwin, even if they assume new, syncretistic forms, are still linked to ancient cultural features. All traditional societies create spaces and times for celebration and revelling, breaking the rules - of anomy - which, through music and dance and consuming psychotropic substances, give access to what Westerners, who are also in quest of other more pleasant worlds, call “artificial paradises”. This condition can be obtained, for example, by using hallucinogenic mushrooms; for that purpose, the Indians of the Great Lakes give preference to the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)50. A myth tells how a young Ojibwa discovered, on the occasion of a casual journey in the Other world, the psychedelic virtues of the “magic mushroom”, this being the expression used by this ethnic community for this red mushroom with white spots which is so ubiquitous in the imagination of so many Western peoples51 and other traditions. This discovery was the origin of a full-blown cult with priests and zealots.

  • 52 Cf. H. Clastres, 1975.

32As there is a correspondence, an equivalence, or even a unity by nature between all the elements -even when dissociated from one another- of Creation, it is also logical and even rational, to observe that the truth of a part can be recognised in another part. The ideal world -or rather the world of mental ideas- is located beyond the world where we live, and the solutions to the problems of whatever nature that disturb it can be found only in this “land of no evil” -which is the name given by the Tupi-Guarani of Southern America to this “paradise”52- or, at least, in the non-human world.

  • 53 Radin: 213.

33Among these “problems”, these reasons for disharmony, malfunctioning, some are related to natural mechanisms, others to social life, and others to the psycho-physiological evolution of human beings. The Ojibwa believe that the new-born is already endowed with free will and his/her strongest yearning is to find his/her way back to the world of spirits, via his/her mother’s womb. The idea is therefore to rouse his/her interest in this world in the first hours of life, to induce him/her to stay with us because of all the pleasures this world can offer. It is only after some time that he/she will be given a name -which, as mentioned above, will often be revealed in a dream- that will give him/her full membership of the living and the social community. A long time before Freud applied this principle to Western societies, traditional peoples -and in particular the Amerindians- had established that “life is full of crises” ”53 and puberty is a stage in life that is very hard to overcome. The transformations, the maturation of body functions experienced by adolescents run parallel with a disruption of psychological balance who, very often during this phase of life, is found day-dreaming and engrossed in his/her thoughts. This period also corresponds to the almost irreversible transition from “pleasure ” to “reality” as the principle governing life.

  • 54 Johnston: 139.

34In all traditional societies, masculine and/or female puberty is marked out with rituals tending to bring to light and enhance the true personality of individuals. For most Indians in North America, this was the time for the “quest for the vision” that the Sioux called hanblechia. While children were encouraged to dream, the “great vision” was an event of such importance for the adolescents that the Ojibwa considered that: “The first period of life, childhood and youth, was a time for preparation and the quest for the vision”.54

  • 55 It seems that only boys were involved in this “quest”, as the Native Americans generally consider (...)
  • 56 Johnston: 125.

35The adolescent55 would leave for an isolated place (woods for North American Indians, the top of a hill for the Indians of the Plains) and fast for several days until he would have have the visit of “spirits”. B. Johnston tells us about the deep meaning of this quest: “In solitude he endeavoured to bring his inner being and body together in accord as he attempted at the same time to be conjoined with the earth and the animal creatures and plant beings who resided in the place of vision. To be at one with the world, or to discover one’s meaning through peace and silence, was not easy”.56

36The objective is finding oneself again, not through self-analysis, but, on the contrary, by merging into the environment. This provides a better knowledge of ourselves and, at the same time, of the rest of Creation. For this reunion, the individual has to be freed from biological laws (fasting) and social laws (solitude and reclusion) which are necessary in this life but impose restraints and limitations on us; our “fear-apprehension” must replace our “understanding-apprehension” of the world.

  • 57 D. Vazeilles offers a scientific interpretation for this cultural fact: “Hypoglycaemia, dehydratio (...)
  • 58 A famous example of this devious type of behaviour in Native American societies is that of the mal (...)

37The state of physical deficiency due to fasting induces visions57 -some might say “hallucinations”- which, for traditional peoples and for psychoanalysts, betray our suppressed yearnings and our secret pulses, and allow us to evaluate a form of collective education that has to cope with more personal genetic factors. If the aim of education is to have boys and girls comply with some model of a “basic personality” corresponding to specific choices, but also, -possibly above all else- to the constraints of a given environment, it never shies away from manifestations of deviation and marginalisation. These are brought to light in visions and deliberately accepted as such by the community58.

  • 59 Jenness: 49.

38The vision determines the life of the visionary; for instance, he who dreams of Pawaganaks, the “creatures out of dreams”, is to become a shaman. Other forms of visions were the foundation of specific powers in adult life. For instance, D. Jenness reports about the story told by an Ojibwa from Parry Island in the 1930’s; the tale also shows that a dream, a vision, being out of any space and time, can take us back to the origin of Creation: “I had a friend on the Indian reserve at Shawanaga, a splendid fisherman and hunter, who told me before he died that he had acquired his skill through a dream in boyhood. He had dreamed that the land was partly covered with water, wich extended to where one may see today a line of boulders; that the country was full of islands but had few inhabitants, that animals were so plentiful, and so tame, that they continued grazing, even when the Indians approached close up to them; and that he himself, could move with great rapidity from place to place”.59

39All cultures develop a specific “grammar of the living”, a code understood by everyone and allowing to structure the world, to talk about it and deal with it; at the same time, there exists a necessity to invent a model to interpret imaginary worlds; this model takes in particular the form of a “key to explain dreams”, a demonology an whose foundations are universal -the human body and its functions- and that obviously exist under similar forms in all human societies. To be meaningful and efficient, the dream cannot not remain a personal matter; as any manifestation of the living (cultural and/or natural), it should be considered in a holistic context that encompasses all of the human and non-human world; it should be seen basically as a means for communication and therefore to understand the meaning of the world, the other people and oneself.

40Theses necessities imply another necessity: viz. to identify and give official status to specialists of the “transition” from one world to the other one, mediators, i.e. specialists of dreams and visions, people capable of deciphering and interpreting them to make them meaningful: they are the shamans.

  • 60 We find several spellings for the name of this godlike character of the Ojibway: Nanabozho, Nenebu (...)
  • 61 The trickster is a ubiquitous character in Native American traditions; he serves as a middleman be (...)
  • 62 Wenonah is Nokomis’s daughter, the “grand-mother” who is, according to some versions, a figure of (...)

41D. Jenness reports about a myth that tells how the Ojibwa from Parry Island describe the establishment of the first shaman. The Ojibwa have created the figure of Nanabush60, the trickster61, the son Wenonah62, a demi-woman and Epingishmook, the Spirit of the Western Wind, a creature who is altogether a kind of obstetrician for thoughts, a demi-god and a psychopump, able to combine what is basically incompatible by creating -but not as a god but rather as a medium between humankind and deity- a world that is as “beautiful, ordered and harmonious” as possible. To achieve this, he will have to challenge his own father in a fantastic struggle ending up as a draw. To symbolise and stabilise this new situation of balance -it will then be everyone’s duty to maintain it- Epingishmook will present his son with the sacred Pipe as an object quintessentially symbolising the way of living and thinking that is proper to the American Indians.

42When offering the Pipe, Epingishmook, blowing from the Realm of the Dead (the West) establishes the necessary link between the world of the Living and the other worlds which are invisible. The Pipe is the symbol of the shamanic functions of Nanabush, and all other shamans. The Pipe is like a microcosm enabling people to communicate with the rest of the world, human and non-human, visible and invisible. Smoking the Pipe is a warrant to strike an ideal balance that assumes various forms. But the gift offered by Epingishmook to his son Nanabush endows him with a basically shamanic power / knowledge, enabling him to enthuse “order, harmony and beauty” to Creation, in compliance with the original project of the Great Spirit. The Ojibwa living on Parry Island claimed that it was Nanabush who, for instance, had endowed numerous plants, with curative powers so that human beings could live many many years...

  • 63 Hehaka Sapa, 1953: 31-32.

43The Sioux Hehaka Sapa provided information about the symbolic value of the Pipe: “ With this mysterious Pipe you will be able to wander on the Earth as the Earth is your Mother and your Grandmother and she is hallowed. Each step that you take on it should be as a prayer. The base of this Pipe is made of red stone; it represents the Earth. This young buffalo engraved in stone and looking to the centre represents the four-legged animals living on Earth. And the twelve feathers hanging from the place where the pipe* is plugged into the base* represent Wambali Galeshka, or the Spotted Eagle. They represent the Eagle and all the winged creatures living in the air. All these peoples and all the things in the universe are linked to you as you are smoking the Pipe; and all of them send their words to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe you pray for all the things and with them”.63

  • 64 People smoked the Sacred Pipe in particular when treaties were ratified between the colonists and (...)

44This “philosophy of the Pipe” expresses itself through a specific life ethic. Having the Pipe in your hands, smoking it is a religious act that creates a bond and ties all elements of the Creation together. People smoke the sacred Pipe as a prayer, binding individuals to the invisible world, to draw up an agreement between human beings who are separated by conflicts64.

45This ritual as most rituals entails respect for all creatures, a feeling of communion with natures, even if life is characterised by diversity. The master of ceremony, who is shaman, operates at all levels, human and non-human, visible and invisible, whenever order is jeopardised, in various areas such as the weather, objects or people being lost, lovers quarrelling, and obviously in case of illness, whether physical or mental, etc. He assumes all the functions that doctors have in Western societies, being at the same time an expert phyto-therapist, a psychoanalyst, a priest, a political leader or an officer contributing to the government of the community, etc.

46In accordance with general conceptions and philosophy, the functions of each component of Creation could not possibly be separated from one another; Creation is a reality and this fact -which is both scientific and intuitive as much as intuitive- is duly acknowledged and serves as a justification for the shaman’s function and an explanation for its manifestations. The shaman helps society to be ecological (regulating the relationship with the non-human environment), religious (relationship with the invisible) and human (relationship with the other human beings). This threefold function corresponds to the three forms of balance that every human society should strive to uphold: the “order”, “harmony” and “beauty” of the world, entailing an ideal of the “proper measure” and a condemnation of excesses...

  • 65 Following the classification provided by D. Jenness (1935) concerning the Parry Island Ojibway, wa (...)
  • 66 La Barre: 352.

47The shaman assumes a key position indispensable for the proper course of the world and society. He operates as the embodiment and the repository of a way of being and thinking, he symbolises and expresses the ideal of the “threefold balance” characteristic of Amerindian societies. This is a way to claim implicitly that all traditional societies -not only the Amerindian ones that serve as the main reference here- harbours and recognizes characters, both male and/or female, whose function is to maintain this balance and these harmonies of all natures, and who has the power of having access to knowledge. Functions and power may be shared, as is the case with the Ojibwa who make a distinction between several (from two to four) categories of shamans, each of them having specific attributes and therapeutic techniques65, but we can everywhere identify “traditional” societies that have incorporated a shaman as an active component of their culture. We fully agree with Weston La Barre when he writes: “Shamanism in its essence is both the most ancient and the most recent of religions as it is the de facto source of all religions”.66

  • 67 A comparison with the Christian tradition of the Garden of Eden seems to be appropriate here.
  • 68 Muller: 247.

48We have seen that sources of knowledge are numerous and varied in traditional societies; some are purely empirical and they offer a deep-going knowledge of the environment; others are less steeped in reasoning, e.g. the fact of observing animals to make decisions about the diet or prophylactic practices. These peoples give pride of place to the unconscious, the dream as a substitute source of knowledge. The world of fantasy, when shared, gives rise to the myth as a true source of inspiration for everyday life as well as for ritual activities, so that the myth can be updated. We are obviously taken away from our criteria of rationality and scientific solidity. The dream and the “land with no evil” to which it gives access are clearly conceived as a place providing meaning and offering bliss67, a place for a justification of beliefs. Werner Müller expresses this in clear terms: “The Indian, does not content himself either with tradition, as other people, he needs to always nurture it with experience. This one culminates in dream, and throughout Northern America; throughout this continent, dream is the ultimate and decisive sign: dreams are at the origin of liturgies; they determine the selection of priests and bestow the status of shaman; they are the source of medical science [my italics] the name that will be given to children and taboos, they decide on wars, hunting parties, death sentences and the support to be provided, they are the only ones having right of access to eschatological obscurity”68

49Such an approach is obviously based on a different conception of time, another conception of the bonds between human beings and the other creatures which are still remarkably consistent even though they do not comply with the strict criteria of rationality. A society is no longer “traditional” when powers are indiscriminately distributed among an excessive number of people, when it forfeits its holistic vision of the world and no longer considers that any disorder affecting a component of Creation -be it ecocidal (destroying a natural environment) or ethnocidal (destroying culture) or ego- cidal (destroying the person)- has necessarily an impact, however modest it might be, on the whole of Creation and thus jeopardises the sustainability of Creation.

Bibliographie

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(1980) Dictionnaire Hachette de la langue française, Paris, Hachette.

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Notes

1 Servier: 333.

2 One of the many purposes of this contribution is specifically to show that traditional communities, as shown in this expression, do not make a clear distinction between “reality” and “fantasy”

3 The term is used here in its etymological meaning, as derived from Latin relegere “collect” and religare “link up”.

4 These data are borrowed from the work by Basil Johnston, the ethnologist of Obijway communities: Ojibway Heritage (1976).

5 The Ojibway (also known as Ojibwa, Ogibwé, Chippewa) ranks third as a Native American ethnic community (in terms of numbers) in the USA and Canada, just after the Navajo in the South-West and the Cree in the North. Their traditional habitat includes the major part of the Great Lakes Area and also a vast portion of the territories north and west of Lake Superior.

6 Johnston: 13.

7 Due to lack of space, we cannot get into details about the various stages of the process of Creation. For further information, readers can refer to B. Johnston’s work.

8 Johnston: 16.

9 Servier: 333.

10 According to mythology, a character named Ogauns - the archetypical figure of a shaman - laves the community in quest of immortality and his mission fails just as he was very close to his goal (Jenness, 1935).

11 Inverted commas are necessary in this context as data have relative value from the cultural point of view.

12 Johnston: 139.

13 The first world created by Kiche Manitu happened to be destroyed by the scorching heat from the sun.

14 Johnston: 139.

15 Homeostasis is traditionally defined as “the self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The process applies physiological constants (blood and lymph concentrations, blood pressure, etc.) independently from the variations of the external environment” (Dictionnaire Hachette de la Langue française).

16 An ecosystem is defined as “the elementary structural unit of the biosphere. It is composed of a part of the earth covered by land and water, having homogeneity from the point of view of topography, microclimate, botany, zoology, hydrology and geochemistry” (George, 1974: 144- 145).

17 Malaurie, 1985: 152.

18 Lévi-Strauss, 1983: 35.

19 Jenness, 1935.

20 Werner Muller,a German anthropologist who focussed his investigation on Native Americans, writes concerning the Algonkin in general: “The religious stance allowing the maintenance of these rituals is the fact that the Indians are convinced that they live in a world which is basically a house where everything is endowed with life. For Algonkins, nothing is just dead and everything in their environment that they can perceive with their senses as being reel have a life of their own. ” (Krickeberg, Müller...: 242).

21 The spelling used here is the spelling suggested by D. Jenness.

22 See, for instance, the “foetalisation theory” developed by the Danish anatomist L. Bolk and the commentary by the Hungarian anthropo-psychoanalyst G. Roheim (1967).

23 This idea is presented by G. Roheim as the “dual unity” concept (cf. Roheim, 1967).

24 J.-J. Rousseau, just as the Romantics he announced, was in the line of traditional thinking when he wrote: “What is even more cruel is that - as whatever progress made by man steadily widens the gap separating him from his primeval state - as we enlarge the stock of knowledge we acquire, we deprive ourselves of the means to capture the most important component; in a way, excessive investigation on man has made us unable to have a good understanding of him” (1968 (1755): 7).

25 Eastern philosophies would rather claim that the point is to liberate oneself from desire but we can suggest that the fulfilment of all desires leads to an elimination of desire itself.

26 Freud referred to this tendency as “death drive” or “death instinct” (Freud, 1920).

27 Jung links up the images generated in dreams to the main mythical themes, the archetypes; in his opinion, as opposed to Freud’s, dreams betray much more than just the aetiology of a case of neurosis.

28 Spaces for the performance of rituals are often a symbolic reproduction of the mother’s body. This is particularly clear in the case of the purification ceremony in the sweat lodge staged by numerous Native American communities, (see, for instance, Lame Deer, 1995).

29 Morriseau: 61.

30 Jenness: 47.

31 Tantaquidgeon: 91.

32 Ibid.: 51.

33 Ibid.: 105.

34 E. Barrie Kavash has founded in 1978 an ethnobotanical herbarium at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Conn..

35 Barrie Kavasch: 24.

36 Densmore: 322.

37 Morriseau: 52.

38 Jenness: 24.

39 See Morriseau: 55.

40 Caldwell, 1958.

41 Farb: 252-253.

42 Yarnell, 1964.

43 See Barrie Kavasch, 1996.

44 See Redsky: 102-103.

45 Concerning this, Gerald Vizenor, an Ojibway ethnologist, writes: “The Anishinaabeg drew pictures that reminded them of ideas, visions, and dreams, that were tribal connections to the earth. These song pictures, especially those of the Midewiwin, or the Grand Medicine Society, were incised on the soft inner bark of the birch tree. These birch scrolls of pictomyths and sacred songs are taught and understood only by members of the Midewiwin, who believe that music and the knowledge and use of herbal medicine extend life” (Vizenor: 35).

46 Vennum: 760.

47 Densmore: 322.

48 Barrie Kavasch: 66.

49 Sr. Bernard M. Coleman, a nun and ethnologist, expressed in 1929 the view that Midewiwin had been the main obstacle to Christianity as, for instance, after initiation, the young person “was pressed not to accept any of the teachings provided by the religions of other races and not to disclose any of the secrets about Midewiwin” (Coleman: 45).

50 For more details, I refer to my paper: Navet, 1988.

51 The fly agaric is a common item for Xmas decoration and fantasy, appearing on logs, in fir-trees; in the tales ranging from Alice in Wonderland to the Smurfies, this mushroom is often associated to goblins, and to fantasy in folk representations, both ancient and modern.

52 Cf. H. Clastres, 1975.

53 Radin: 213.

54 Johnston: 139.

55 It seems that only boys were involved in this “quest”, as the Native Americans generally consider that women are naturally closer to natural forces and the “world of spirits”, and, due to potential motherhood, they are essentially “shamanic” in nature.

56 Johnston: 125.

57 D. Vazeilles offers a scientific interpretation for this cultural fact: “Hypoglycaemia, dehydration, hyperactivity, insufficient sleep, overoxygenation or von the contrary, violent exposure to extreme temperatures and the ensuing feeling of exhaustion have an impact on the nervous system causing a modification of the mode of perception of reality” (Vazeilles: 50).

58 A famous example of this devious type of behaviour in Native American societies is that of the male transvestite (known in French under the generic term berdache) and represented in numerous communities, though each of them may use a proper term (agokwa among the Ojibway, winkte among the Sioux, etc.).

59 Jenness: 49.

60 We find several spellings for the name of this godlike character of the Ojibway: Nanabozho, Nenebush, Nanabush, etc.

61 The trickster is a ubiquitous character in Native American traditions; he serves as a middleman between “spirits” and human beings, having human sensitivity, experiencing their contradictions and their excesses, coming very close to absurdity and suffering a form of madness on the verge of wisdom, which gives them the power to bring harmony to the world and its embellishment.

62 Wenonah is Nokomis’s daughter, the “grand-mother” who is, according to some versions, a figure of the moon.

63 Hehaka Sapa, 1953: 31-32.

64 People smoked the Sacred Pipe in particular when treaties were ratified between the colonists and the resisting Amerindian communities.

65 Following the classification provided by D. Jenness (1935) concerning the Parry Island Ojibway, wabeno were often traditional practitioners using medicinal plants, making “lucky charms” (for hunting, love, etc.) and interpreting dreams (when in trance); les kusabindugeyu (or nanandawi) were visionaries, “diviners” who knew how to cure by suction; djiskiu (or djasakid) were diviners and healers, and their typical technique was the ‘shaking lodge’, a structure made of birch bark in which the shaman could “summon” the spirits that then caused the edifice to shake (see the above-mentioned authors and Grim, 1983). We should also mention the category of mede, or Midewiwin “priests”.

66 La Barre: 352.

67 A comparison with the Christian tradition of the Garden of Eden seems to be appropriate here.

68 Muller: 247.

Auteur

Université Marc Bloch de Strasbourg, Institut d’Ethnologie 22, rue René Descartes 67084 Strasbourg Cedex

© IRD Éditions, 2002

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540