Thursday, May 10, 2018

Huron God by Jean de Brebeuf

Father de Brebeuf spent nearing twenty-three years among the Hurons. They didn’t pay much attention to what he had to say but he did them. His account is the most extensive in Jesuit Relations. I can only hope to read the whole of it.  At any rate, at the dawn of history God was either of the sky or of the storm, and usually had a wife or sister who tempered his anger or delivered his benevolence. Lately, God developed much more abstract and also personal qualities.

“As these poor Indians are men, they have not been able to deny the existence of God altogether. Because given to vice, however, they are only able to form conceptions of him that are unworthy of his greatness. They have neither sought nor recognized him except on the surface of created things, in which they have hoped to find fortune or dreaded misfortune. The address themselves to the earth, the rivers, the lakes, the dangerous rocks, and, above all, to the sky, in the belief that these things are animate and that some spirit [ or ‘demon’ as the good father calls it] resides in them.

 They are not content simply to make wishes; rather, they often accompany these with a sort of sacrifice. I have noticed two kinds of these. On type is to render the spirits propitious and favorable, and the other is to appease them when  they have received what they imagine to be some disgrace from them or believe they have incurred their anger or indignation. Here are the the ceremonies they employ in these sacrifices. They throw some tobacco into the fire, and if it is, for example, to the sky that they address themselves, they say,  Aronhiate onen aonstaniwas taitenr, ‘O sky, here is what I offer thee in sacrifice, Have pity on me, assist me.” If it is to implore health, Taenguiaens, ‘Heal me.’

 They have recourse to the sky for almost all their needs, and respect the great bodies in it above all creatures, and remark in it in particular something divine. Indeed, it is, after man, the most vivid image we have of divinity. There is nothing which represents divinity to us so clearly. We perceive its omnipotence in all the prodigious effects the heavens cause on this earth, its immensity in the sky’s vast extent, its wisdom in the orderly movement of the heavenly bodies, its goodness in the benign influences it sheds continually  over all creatures, and its beauty in the sun, and in the aspect of the of the stars. I say this to show how easy it would be, with time and divine aid, to lead these peoples to a knowledge of their Creator, since they already give special honor to a part of His creation which is such a perfect image of Him.

And, furthermore, I may say it is really God whom they honor, though blindly, for they imagine in the heavens an oki, that is to say a demon or power which rules the seasons of the year, which holds in check the winds and waves of the sea, which can render favorable the course of their voyages and assist them in every time of need. They even fear his anger and invoke him as a witness in order to render their faith inviolable when they make some promise of importance, or agree to some bargain or treaty of peace with the enemy. Here are the terms they use: Hakrihotwe ekaronhiate tout Icwakhier ekentate, ‘The sky knows what we are doing today.’ And they think that if, after this, they should violate their word or break their alliance, the sky would certainly chastise them . . .”

“They have a faith in dreams which surpasses all belief. If Christians were to put into execution all their divine inspirations with as much care as our Indians carry out their dreams, no doubt they would very soon become great saints. They look upon their dreams as ordinances and irrevocable decrees; to delay the execution of them would be a crime. An Indian of our village dreamed this winter, shortly after he had fallen asleep, that he ought straightaway to make a feast. Though it was the middle of the night, he immediately arose and came and woke us to borrow one of our kettles. The dream is the oracle that all these poor people consult and listen to, the prophet which predicts future events, the Cassandra which warns of misfortunes threatening them, the physician which treats them in their sicknesses, the Aesculapius and Galen of the whole country. It is their absolute master . . .”

 Father Brebeuf’s accounts the laws governing the prosecution of crimes among the Huron quite extensively. The family of the victims and the village of which he is a member must receive a whole series of lavish [ one might say ‘publicaly funded’]  gifts, ritually imparted if the application of the principle ‘eye for eye/tooth for tooth’ and the cycles of revenge and wholesale murders which often attend it are to be avoided. Observing  how well Huron law  works in that respect ,  the father concludes that ‘their procedure is scarcely effective than is the death penalty in other places.’

“ If, however, the relatives of the dead man avenge themselves for the injury by the death of him who struck the blow, all the punishment falls of them, and they also must make presents to those who were the first murderers, without the later being obliged to give any satisfaction. This is to show how much they regard vengeance as detestable, for the blackest crimes, such as murder, appear as nothing in comparison. Vengeance wipes them all away and brings upon itself all the punishment that they merit.”

In Huron society, however, a crime estranges not just the individuals directly effected. “For it is not here as in France and elsewhere, where the public and whole city do not generally take part in the quarrel of an individual. Here you can not insult any one of them without the whole country resenting it and taking up the quarrel against you, and even against an entire village. Hence arise wars, and it is more than sufficient reason for taking up arms against some village if it refuses to make satisfaction by proper presents for the killing of one of your friends.”

Of course father Brebeuf did witness the gruesome tortures inflicted on those captured in war: “The inhumanity is altogether intolerable; indeed, many people are unwilling to attend these fatal banquets.” In the end, the Iroquois subjected him to it, though it seems unlikely the he would have sung out his contempt for his tormentors from beginning to end as most victims did.

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