Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": PRE-EXISTENCE AND INCARNATION AMONG NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS


It is in several places common for the breath of life to be conceived as proceeding from the Creator and returning to Him after death. Even without the connection with the breath being specified, the origin of the soul is ascribed to the Creator or the culture hero. The Bella Coola and Wind River Shoshoni thus consider that the Supreme Being is the giver of life and the life-soul. The Sauk Indian refers to his Creator as 'he that gave us life.' Also the kinsmen of the Sauk, the Fox, believe that the life-soul is a gift of the Great Spirit.

In the majority of our sources speak of the creation of the life soul -or rather of life-but we also have data concerning the origin of the free-soul. The Supreme Being of the Bella Coola 'made a soul for each of those about to be born; one of the minor gods fashioned its face; and a goddess rocked it, and sent it below to be born.' The dreamsoul of the Sinkaietk is conceived to have come from God-in contradistinction to the supernatural power, which is acquired from the animals. The Fox believe that just as the Supreme Being has given the life-soul, so the culture hero has given the free-soul. . . . The sky god Skan of the Oglala has given man the whole of his psychic equipment, including the life-soul and free-soul. The Wind River Shoshoni describes the free-soul as the gift of the supreme god. . . .

Where the direct statements fail us we with advantage have recourse to the remarks in the mythological tradition concerning the creation of the first human beings: the events of the primeval cosmic era are in many points repeated in the occurrences of later epochs, and the souls of the first man and modern man are of course conceived as having the same origin. Thus we are told in the Navajo myth concerning the first human beings: 'It was the wind that gave them life. It is the wind that comes out of our mouths now that gives us life.'. . .

if, however, a high divinity is conceived as the creator of the world, it is natural to expect that he will also be believed to have given man his soul(s) even if this is not directly stated. But we must remember the danger of reconstructing from logical premises a belief concerning whose existence nothing has been said. The origin of the soul is, it is true, often referred to the god who is also the creator of the earth. But even subordinate divinities may collaborate in the creative act to which the soul is due (the Navajo).

In a couple of cases, however, it seems justified-in certain circumstances-to deduce from the characteristics of the Supreme Being his significance for the origin of the soul. He is often referred to as the Breathmaker or Master of Life. The first of these terms, which has been used by some Muskhogean peoples (the Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole), of course speaks for itself. The second term, the Master of Life, which has for the most part been given to the Creator of the Algonquin Indians (and which in the literature is most frequently found as the designation for the supreme god of the Lenape Indians), presumably refers to the god's capacity as the giver and guardian of the soul. In some cases the supreme deity is called 'the Master of Life and Death.' This indicates, inter alia, that he is also the lord of the realm of the dead-a function which he fills even when he is only referred to as 'the Master of Life.' . . .

Thus, as a rule, the Indians of North America believe that man's spirit has its ultimate origin in the deity himself, either through creation or partial emanation. In a couple of cases, it is true, the father of the child has been stated to beget the soul as well as the physical embryo. But these exceptions are few, and are probably the products of a speculation that has tried to fill a gap in the existing knowledge of the soul or souls.

A soul that is commonly considered to derive from the gods is ipso facto not an ordinary profane creation. Whether it is conceived to be a gift of the deity or an emanation of his being, it belongs through its origin to the supernatural world. In its effect, on the other hand, it need not be supernatural in the same way as the mystical power.

The supernatural origin of the human soul finds particularly clear expression in the idea of pre-existence. Here we are not referring to the pre-existence that a reincarnated individual has had in a previous earthly life as man or animal: we are referring to the pre-incarnative existence, man's life before he is incarnated on earth. 'Man' stands here for the individual reality, which from the psychological viewpoint is the extra-physical soul, the free-soul, and which consequently represents man's ego in the pre-incarnative state. . . .

Where the belief in pre-existence in the form referred to here occurs (and it is reported from practically all parts of North America), the most widely varying places are conceived for the pre-incarnate existence. Among the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest the realm of the dead in the underworld is the place where the unborn dwell. One may naturally suspect that the new-born are consequently reincarnated deceased persons. But this is not always the case, for according to the agrarian Pueblo ideology the underworld is also the place for the renewal of life and is the original home of humanity. Also outside the Pueblo area we find the underworld regarded as man's constant place of generation. This is the case among, for instance, the Hidatsa, who possibly distinguished between this place and the realm of the dead. . . .

Where the prenatal original home does not coincide with the realm of the dead it is nevertheless localized to places that remind one of the abode of the dead. The Ingalik believe that 'there is a place filled with the spirits of little children, all impatient to be "called," i.e., born into this life.' In the depths of the forest there is according to Kwakiutl belief a mysterious house. 'Since one of the performances held in this house was that of giving birth, it was probably believed that from this house all generation of men, animals, and plants, took place.' The Indians in the north-westernmost U.S.A. have a 'babyland' where the unborn children live and play before they come to the earth. The Chinook children lived 'a quite definite existence' before birth, in the sun, the daylight. The Montagnais tradition to the effect that children come from the clouds, on the other hand, is evidently only a pedagogical fiction. According to the Eastern Shawnee, unborn children live on the little stars of the Milky Way. But we also find the belief that they live together with the creator, 'Our Grandmother.'. . .

Narratives of medicine-men who before their human incarnation had been spirit-beings are known from many parts of North America. Le Mercier tells of a Huron medicine-man who declared that he had lived as an oki (spirit) under the earth together with a female spirit. Both, possessed by the desire to become human beings, had finally concealed themselves near a path and taken up their abode in a passing woman. She gave birth to them too early; the medicine-man lived, but his female partner, with whom he had fought in the womb, came to the world still-born.

The Central Algonquin and the adjacent Sioux believe that their medicine-men were thunder-beings in a previous life. Thus the Menomini think that-'some babies are actually manitous in human shape, as in the case of thunder boys, who are nothing less than these powerful god beings come to earth for a while; or girls who personify one of the sacred sisters of the eastern sky.' In such circumstances also the name of the person in question is pre-existent, and no other name must be substituted for it during his earthly existence. The reserved character and meditative behaviour of a child is a decisive criterion of its supernatural birth. . . .

. Nowhere is the speculation concerning human pre-existence so subtle and sublime as in the notions of the pre-existence of medicine-men entertained by the Dakota tribes. Pond's splendid account of their ideas on this subject deserves to be quoted. He writes: 'The original essence of these men and women, for they appear under both sexes, first wakes into existence floating in ether. As the winged seed of the thistle or of the cottonwood floats on the air, so they are gently wafted by the 'four-winds'-'Taku-skan-skan'-through the regions of space, until, in due time, they find themselves in the abode of some one of the families of the superior gods by whom they are received into intimate fellow-ship. There the embryonic medicine-man remains till he becomes familiar with the characters, abilities, desires, caprices, and employment of the gods. He becomes essentially assimilated to then', imbibing their spirit and becoming acquainted with all the chants, feasts, fasts, dances and sacrificial rites which it is deemed necessary to impose on men.'. . . . . .

We find an echo of similar trains of thought in the belief of the Mohave shamans that 'they were present in spirit form at the beginning of the world, at the time when all power, shamanistic and other, was established and allotted.,. . .

The future human being is often given the opportunity in his pre-existent life to choose the people he wishes to live among on earth and the woman of whom he wants to be born. An Iowa shaman 'inspected many tribes before he decided to be born an Iowa. He declined the Winnebago because they smelled fishy, and so he circled around until he discovered the Iowa. They suited him because they were clean, kept their camps swept up, and sent their women a long way off to menstruate. He came down and entered a dark lodge with a bearskin door, and after quite a stay he came out' (i.e. was born). The ethnocentric viewpoint also decides the future Dakota shaman's choice of parents: he does not want to be born of a white mother, partly because he wishes to have 'Dakota customs and dress,' and partly because his kinsmen the thunderers would kill him if he became white and thereby ignored their instructions. . . .

Concerning the soul's entry into the embryo and its role during the development of the embryo opinion is divided among North American Indians. . . .

The following collection of data shows how various are the conceptions of the soul's (or souls') incarnation.

Some Eskimo imagine that children, like eggs, live in the snow and creep into the womb. The Mackenzie Eskimo have many mutually incompatible notions concerning incarnation. One believes that the soul (nappan) comes with the water when the mother drinks, or from the ground when she urinates. Another believes that the child gets a soul at the same time as it is born. And a third believes that the soul comes at some time during the pregnancy, 'how or when she does not know.' The breath of a child to be enters a Tanaina woman like a cold puff of wind. The (free-) soul of a Tlingit Indian is not reincarnated until the body with which it is to be united has been born. The soul of the Hisla Indian is often the spirit of an uncle, which takes possession of his body even before the birth of the individual. The unitary soul among the Sanpoil appears already in the embryo. Among the Plains Cree the free-soul takes up its abode in the body at birth. The Naskapi Indian receives his 'Great Man' during the embryonic stage. According to the Shawnee, 'a soul goes to earth and jumps through the mother's vagina and into the body of the child through the fontanelle just before birth.' Jones writes that according to the belief of the Ojibway 'the manitou on the other side of the world' delivers their souls to people before their birth. The Fox imagine that the life-soul is with the human embryo during the embryonic development, while the free-soul remains outside the mother during this period, and does not enter the child's body until its birth. . . .

Evidence that the child is believed to have soul-activity during the embryonic stage is afforded in the Indian notion of the foetal consciousness: the child feels and thinks during the time it spends in the mother's body. Sometimes this consciousness is intensified to the point of precognition, prophetic clairvoyance.

A Bella Coola child that cries in the womb is believed to have an excellent intellect. A shaman from the Great Bear Lake district declared that before his birth he had seen a star, which revealed to him all the medicines that have power over man. The Chipewyan embryo warns its mother if she is approached by an evil spirit. The unborn Lummi Indian hears what his future relatives are saying and knows what they are thinking; if they have evil thought in their mind he leaves them before his birth. A sagacious Lenape declared that he had acquired supernatural knowledge even before his birth. . . . The Saulteaux relate that in former times the Indians had consciousness during the ,embryonic stage, and in this connection also certainty concerning the content of earthly life, a prophetic capacity that was one of the signs of magic power. Such things are now rare. A Saulteaux did, however, tell Hallowell the following: 'Four nights before I was born I knew that I would be born. My mind was as dear when I was born as it is now. I saw my father and my mother, and I knew who they were. I knew the things an Indian uses, their names and what they were good for. . . .' Such certainty is said to be, founded on the fact that the person in question had earlier lived a life among human beings. The unborn Fox child understands what its mother is saying, and abandons her if she proves to be quarrelsome. The Winnebago medicine-man, who is sent down to a woman's womb from his pre-existence, retains his consciousness both at the conception and during the entire embryonic period. The Wahpeton shamans know everything about their future existence before their birth. . . .

The events after the incarnation, and especially at the actual moment of birth, have been dramatically described by a reincarnated Winnebago shaman: 'Then I was brought down to earth. I did not enter a woman's womb, but I was taken into a room. There I remained conscious at all times. One day I heard the noise of little children outside and some other sounds, so I thought I would go outside. Then it seemed to me that I went through a door, but I was really being born again from a woman's womb. As I walked out I was struck with the sudden rush of cold air and I began to cry.'


Ake Hultkrantz, Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians (Stockbolm, 1954), PP. 412-26

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