The Origins of the Nightspirit Starting Songs

by Jasper Blowsnake

Jasper Blowsnake

Hocąk Syllabic Text with an English Interlinear Translation

The following brief story is an excerpt from the Sore Eyes Dance ceremony devoted to the Nightspirits in which the impersonator of the South rises to tell the origin story of the Starting Songs that he is about to sing.

(151) I do not know what my forefathers had said when they came. That's the way it used to be. I will do the very words of one of them. If you are ever pitied, don't talk about it foolishly, my father told me not to do it. (152) If you are bad, you will behave foolishly with it, he said. He said that my grandfather was blessed by those who are called the 'Night Soldiers', and he was blessed with chants, it is said. (153) All the birds who are black on each side around their breasts, as that many the Nights appeared. We will sing the songs that he designated.1

Commentary. "Starting Songs" — the Hiraísųjᵋra. Oddly enough, hiráisųc means, "the matter is close to settled," and with respect to songs, "slow" (Susman). In the Medicine Rite, Hiraísųc is translated as "Completion Song," a song used to complete a unit of ceremony in a rite. The Hiraísųjᵋra are used later on in this rite exactly like this, to conclude a unit of the ceremony. This kind of song originated in the Medicine Rite in any case, according to legend, in the breath (ho-nihá) of a white Wak'aį́cuna or Wood Spirit. The Nightspirit Rite makes it clear that a Hiraísųc can be used not only to complete a section of a ceremony, but also to initiate one. Such a song elsewhere in this rite seems therefore to be the same as an Entrance Song (Ciókewe Nąwą́na). Here is a Nightspirit song that seems likely to have been one of the Starting Songs:

Nightspirit Song

Walking on, the Nights are coming.
I am not able to bless, How could I bless?
Then they came walking, The Nights are coming.

—Charles Bonaparte

For other Nightspirit Songs, see "Nightspirits."

"pitied"nąjoją, which literally means, "to be pitied," has the secondary meaning, "to be blessed." This is because in order to be blessed by the Spirits the beneficiary must become a supplicant. He or she does this by going out a ways from their village where they make supplication to the Spirits to bless them. As a necessary inducement, they must "make themselves pitiable." This is done by painting their face black with charcoal, a symbol of motality, to remind the Spirits that unlike them, the humans are not endowed with endless life. In addition, they must also "cry to the Spirits," which is to say, they must weep and cry out audibly that their suffering, which may be very real on account of fasting and thirsting, may move the Spirits to take pity on them and give them a blessing. Rarely does this self-abnegation and explicit expression of suffering fail.

"Night Soldiers" — the Hąhé Mą́ną́pe. The word mą́ną́pe means in conventional translation, "soldier," but with respect to function, the mą́ną́pera are in fact the police. The police function belongs exclusively to the Bear Clan, so the Night Soldiers are bound to have a special relationship to that clan, perhaps especially in light of the black coat of the black bear and its notorious nocturnal habits. Fourth Universe, the founder of the Black Bear Subclan, was said to have been an incarnated Nightspirit.

"the birds who are black on each side around their breasts" — birds are an appropriate embodiment for Nightspirits, since those who spread darkness do so by traversing the sky, thereby evoking the image of birds. This description does not seem to be intended to identify birds of a particular kind, but all those of any sort that exemplify blackness round about their lungs. Birds, besides being noted for flight, are almost equally noted for their songs. The songs that they are singing here belong to the pitch colored night, whose tincture is imparted symbolically by the darkness that envelopes the lungs whence the songs ultimately arise. Thus the songs of darkness are imparted by precisely the right creature.

Links: Nightspirits.

Stories: mentioning Nightspirits: The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, The Nightspirits Bless Ciwoit’éhiga, The Origins of the Sore Eye Dance, The Rounded Wood Origin Myth, The Big Stone, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Fourth Universe, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Ocean Duck, Black Otter's Warpath, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Sun and the Big Eater.

Themes:a spirit blesses a man with knowledge of sacred songs: Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), Holy Song, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Island Weight Songs, A Snake Song Origin Myth, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Song to Earthmaker, The Completion Song Origin, The Sweetened Drink Song, The Origins of the Sore Eye Dance, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth;.


1 Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 23, 1-195 [151-153] (Syllabary with an interlinear translation). Jasper Blowsnake, "The Sore-Eye Dance (Hišjaxiri Waši)," in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Notebook 69, 1-37 [26-27] (phonetic text only). Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, The Thirty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1923]) 329-343 [340].