Iroquois Religious Traditions

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IROQUOIS RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The League of the Iroquois consisted, at the time of contact with Europeans, of five "nations" (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca). In 1724, these groups were joined by the Tuscarora to form the Six Nations of the Iroquois. These tribes form part of a larger complex of Iroquoian-speaking peoples. The northern language group of which the members of the league are a part also includes the Saint Lawrence Iroquois, Huron, Wyandot, Susquehanna, Nottoway, Erie, Wenro, and Neutrals. The Cherokee form the southern language group. The separation between the northern and southern groups probably occurred between three and four thousand years ago, with further dialects developing over time.

Geographically, the early-seventeenth-century Iroquois inhabited the area from 42° to 44° north latitude and from 74° to 78° west longitude. In the late seventeenth century, the League of the Iroquois controlled territory from the Mohawk Valley in the east to Lake Erie in the west, and from Lake Ontario in the north to the mountains of western and south-central New York State and northwestern Pennsylvania in the south.

At contact the Iroquois were a matrilineal and matrilocal people living in clusters of longhouses situated on hilltops. The villages were usually palisaded and semipermanent. The men involved themselves in hunting, fishing, and making war; the women took care of the fields and gathered berries, nuts, and roots. The clan mothers elected the fifty sachems, or chiefs, who guided the external policies of the league from Onondaga.


The cosmological structuring of space into three tiers provides the Iroquois with the basic categories with which to interpret human experience. The sky world and the underworld represent extremes of both a spatial and an existential nature. The sky world is order, goodness, warmth, light, and life. The underworld is chaos, evil, coldness, darkness, and death. In the in-between worldthe world of ordinary human experiencethe qualities of both worlds are intertwined in a myriad of ways. One of the ways is cyclical, as when night follows day; another is antagonistic, as when good struggles with evil.

Mythically, this world was the creation of two twins, one good and the other evil. The former, the Master of Life, was the creator of flora and fauna. He held the sky world in mind at all times while creating living things, and he gave customs to humans modeled after those of the sky world. His brother tried to imitate his creative acts, but what issued instead were all of the nasty, noxious, and monstrous forms of life. The evil twin is described as cold and hard, like ice and flint, and his influence is believed to infect all areas of existence. Each of the twins left behind spirit-forces and other manifestations of his orientation and power. The general thrust of Iroquois religion is toward increasing and renewing the power of those forces that sustain life and reducing or eliminating those forces that diminish life, such as disease and pain.

Community Rituals

To live in harmony with the spirit-forces is the essential requirement of Iroquois religion. These fundamental relationships that sustain community life are renewed, intensified, and celebrated in the calendrical cycles of the Longhouse religion. This final form of the Iroquois ceremonial cycle crystallized in the nineteenth century under the influence of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake (17351815). The Longhouse religion, as it is practiced today, is a synthesis of elements from the hunter-gatherer traditions of the Middle Woodland and early Late Woodland periods (3001000 ce) and the agricultural complex that gradually took hold during the Late Woodland period (10001500 ce).

The fundamental attitude of the Iroquois community toward the benevolent spirit-forces of the universe is thanksgiving. Thus all Iroquois ceremonies begin and end with a thanksgiving address, a paean to all the forces of earth, sky, and the sky world that create, support, and renew life. The address is divided into three main parts. The first part includes prayers of thanksgiving for the earth, waters, plants and trees, animals, birds, and the "three sisters" (the staple Iroquois foodstuffsmaize, beans, and squash). The second section gives thanks to those spirit forces that have greater power: wind, thunder, sun, moon, and stars. The final section gives thanks to the spiritual guides of the Iroquois: Handsome Lake, the creator, and the Four Beings (protectors of humans and messengers from the creator to Handsome Lake).

The epitome of the synthesis represented by the Longhouse religion is the Midwinter festival. Concentrated into its eight days are all of the major themes and components of Iroquois ceremonialism. The first half of the Midwinter rite is the older and contains many elements from the hunting-forest complex that centered on shamanic practices. It is given over to the symbolic expulsion of the old year through rites of confession, ashes-stirring, and dream fulfillment, as well as medicine-society curing ceremonies, False Face society rituals, and the White Dog sacrifice (no longer practiced). These expiatory and cathartic rituals clear the path for the new year and for the second half of the festival, whose structure largely reflects the farming-village complex. The "four sacred rituals"a feather dance, a skin (or drum) dance, a personal chant, and a bowl gameare considered the gifts of the creator, modeled after ceremonies in the sky world. A tobacco invocation, a kind of thanksgiving address, beseeches all of the spirit-forces to bless the people during the coming year. Both the Our Sustenance Dances and the performance by the Husk Faces anticipate a fruitful agricultural season. The yearly ceremonial cycle unfolds from the Midwinter festival and returns to it.

While the ceremonial cycle may vary slightly from longhouse to longhouse, a representative list would include the Midwinter festival, the Bush Dance, and the Thanks-to-the-Maple, Seed Planting, Strawberry, Raspberry, Green Bean, Thunder, Little Corn, Green Corn, and Harvest ceremonies.

Medicine Societies

Not only has Iroquois religion been concerned with affirming and intensifying life, it has also been concerned with countering those things that diminish life. The spirit-forces that assist humans in this battle revealed themselves long ago and entered into covenants with individuals, families, and societies. Through fasting, dream-visions, and ecstatic states, the ancient shamans sought to divine the causes of illness, pain, famine, and sudden or widespread death. Other shamanic specialists had their own ceremonies and skills that brought healing power. At times groups of shamans who possessed similar secrets joined together into sodalities. With the demise of individual shamanism, these "medicine societies" grew in importance in Iroquois life and became the preserver of the ancient shamanic traditions.

The significance of medicine society rituals in Iroquois life differs from that of the communal ceremonies. The latter are thanksgiving-celebrative, follow the agricultural cycle, are directed toward the major spirit-forces, and are held in the longhouse. The former are power-evocative and occasional, invoke the tutelary spirit of the particular medicine society, and are usually conducted in private homes. Membership in a society is generally limited to those who have been cured by one of that society's rituals. The medicine societies have their own myths, songs, dances, prayers, costumes, and ritual paraphernalia. A listing of Iroquois medicine societies and their major characteristics follows.


The Society of Medicine Men (also known as Shake the Pumpkin) is the largest medicine society. Most members of the other societies also belong to it. The society began with a covenant relationship between the medicine animals and its founders. In return for feasts offered in their honor, the animals promised to cure diseases, ease pain, and get rid of bad luck. Practices of this society, such as juggling red-hot coals and wearing masks without eye holes, are quite ancient.


The Company of Mystic Animals includes the Buffalo, Otter, Bear, and Eagle societies. In varying degrees the members imitate their tutelary animals in their dances, songs, and practices. They continue the shamanic tradition in which humans and animals communicate with, and can be transformed into, one another.


The Little Water Medicine society, like its ally in the Eagle society, was originally associated with war and the healing of wounds received in war. The Iroquois say that its medicine, concocted from parts of animals, birds, and plants, is the most potent made by any society. Ceremonies are held at night, several times a year, to renew the medicine.


The Little People society (also known as Dark Dance) also holds its ceremonies at night. This society fosters a good rapport with the jo-ga-oh ("little people"), elflike spirits who help humans in a variety of ways and who adopt many different forms for mischievous purposes.


The False Face society is the favorite of the Iroquois. The wooden masks worn by its members are filled with power. Reverence and ritual surround both their carving and their care. The most common practices of the Faces today were noted among the Huron by seventeenth-century observers: blowing ashes, handling hot coals, imitating hunchbacks, and carrying sticks. It is quite possible that the Faces came to the Iroquois from the Huron. The False Face society holds rites for cleansing the community of disease in the spring and fall. It sponsers rites at Midwinter both for its own members and for the broader community in the longhouse and performs individual curing rites when needed.


The Husk Faces are dedicated to the agricultural spirits. They also cure by blowing ashes and handling hot coals. During Midwinter they burst into the longhouse and announce that they are going to the other side of the world to till the crops.


The Towii'sas society is a woman's society honoring corn, beans, and squash. It participates in the Green Corn ceremony and also has its own curing ceremonies.


The Ohgiwe society conducts ceremonies for people who have been dreaming of ghosts. A feast is held to feed the ghost and to dissuade it from bothering the living. Just as the sharing of food brings harmony into human relationships, so does it harmonize relations between living and dead. The Iroquois both respect and fear the dead and therefore conduct a number of feasts for them. In addition to the feasts conducted by the Ohgiwe society, there is a community Feast of the Dead (also called Ohgiwe) that is held annually or semiannually. All souls, but especially those of the recently deceased, are invited. Songs and dances are performed, and a post-midnight feast is held. There are also frequent family feasts for the dead during the winter months. These celebrations both fulfill the family's obligations to the dead and serve as a means of bringing together relatives of the deceased.

The Individual

In traditional (i.e., pre-nineteenth-century) Iroquois lore, access to the power and guidance of the spirit-forces was not limited to the community (through its collective ceremonial life) nor to the curing societies. The individual Iroquois had an array of spiritually vital allies, including charms, medicine bundles, guardian spirits, and his or her own soul.

The most common medium for communication with these forces was the dream-vision. During puberty rites of shamanic training a guardian spirit would reveal itself to the individual through the dream-vision. The spirit could take the form of a human being, or animal, or a bird such as a raven or crow. An intimate and powerful relationship was established between the person and the guardian spirit. A person who had such a friendship had greater inner power and confidence than one who did not. The guardian spirit revealed its desires in dreams. To ignore this ally or to fail to understand its desires could result in illness. Such an illness signified a dangerous disruption of the relationship between spirit-forces and humans. Should someone become ill, his dreams would be consulted to ascertain what the guardian spirit desired. Sometimes the efforts of everyone in the community would be needed to fulfill the dream. They willingly undertook this.

Similarly, an alienation could occur between a person's ego and soul. The Iroquois believed that the soul was the source of biological as well as mental well-being. Dreams were its language. To lose touch with or deny the desires of the soul could cause it to revolt against the body. Dreams were carefully investigated in order to avoid such a possibility or to remedy it when illness occurred. The dream-guessing rite that even today forms a part of the Onondaga Midwinter festival was performed quite frequently by the seventeenth-century Huron. The ill person's soul's desire would be given in riddle form; whoever guessed it correctly had to fulfill the desire. This might involve an object, a feast, the performance of a particular ritual, or any of a number of other actions.

Dreams were also thought to contain warnings about future eventsevents whose actual occurrence might be prevented by acting out the dream and thereby fulfilling it. Thus, a warrior who dreamed that he had been captured, bound, and tortured by an enemy might, upon waking, ask his fellow tribesmen to tie him up and make cuts or burns in his flesh in order that the greater pain and shame predicted by the dream might be avoided. Dreams also affected hunting, fishing, military, and political plans.

There was no aspect of life among the ancient Iroquois and Huron that was not touched by the dream. Religiously it played both a conservative and an innovative role. That is, it confirmed within an individual's experience the culturally transmitted religious system while also initiating changes in the beliefs and rituals that constituted this system. It would not be going too far to say that most of Iroquois religion was constructed of dream material. Through this building process, the individual hierophany became symbolized and available to all. The last series of significant changes introduced into Iroquois life by the dream resulted from the revelations given to Handsome Lake, which were eventually institutionalized into the present-day Longhouse religion.

Today the majority of Iroquois live on reservations in Canada and New York State. Perhaps one-fourth of the approximately twenty thousand Iroquois adhere to the traditionalist Longhouse religion. In addition to the ceremonies described above, they perform partial recitations of the Gaiwiio ("good word") of Handsome Lake on the first mornings of both the Midwinter festival and the Green Corn ceremony. This formalization of the dream-vision revelations received by the prophet from 1799 until his death in 1815 provides the moral, ceremonial, social, and theological context in which followers of the Longhouse religion live. A complete recitation by an authorized preacher may occur every other fall at a meeting of the Six Nations, depending upon which longhouse is sponsoring the meeting.

See Also

Handsome Lake.


The main source for information on seventeenth-century Huron religion, which also provides some insight into Iroquois life, is The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 39 vols. (18961901), edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (New York, 1959). The nineteenth century marked the beginning of modern studies on Iroquois religion. Midcentury produced Lewis H. Morgan's classic The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851; reprint, New York, 1966). The most complete collection of Iroquois cosmological stories is found in J. N. B. Hewitt's "Iroquois Cosmology," which was published in two parts in the Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 21 (18991900) and 43 (19251926). An excellent, thorough study of the Midwinter festival is found in Elisabeth Tooker's The Iroquois Ceremonial of Midwinter (Syracuse, N.Y., 1970). For an introduction to and translation of a thanksgiving address, see Wallace L. Chafe's "Seneca Thanksgiving Rituals," Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 183 (1961). A much more thorough, if complex, comparison of several thanksgiving addresses along with a study of other events in the ritual cycle is M. K. Foster's From the Earth to Beyond the Sky: An Ethnographic Approach to Four Longhouse Speech Events (Ottawa, 1974). Valuable information on the medicine societies, along with the only full translation at present of "The Code of Handsome Lake" (i.e., the Gaiwiio ), is found in a collection of Arthur C. Parker's writings, entitled Parker on the Iroquois, edited by William N. Fenton (Syracuse, N.Y., 1968). Fenton has done this century's most important work among the Iroquois. Among his numerous articles, special mention should be made of "An Outline of Seneca Ceremonies at Coldspring Longhouse," Yale University Publications in Anthropology 9 (1936): 322; and "Masked Medicine Societies of the Iroquois," in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C., 1940), pp. 397430. An indispensable collection of articles on the Iroquois and their neighbors can be found in the Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast (Washington, D.C., 1978).

Donald P. St. John (1987)