Otter Comes to the Medicine Rite
by Jaspar Blowsnake
retold by Richard L. Dieterle
Hočąk-English Interlinear Text
(357) Earthmaker created an otter. In the direction of the east he placed a lodge of Light and Life in the middle of the Ocean Sea. Earthmaker concentrated his mind upon it. Otter's old woman came to know of it: (358) "Earthmaker has thought something, that Hare is going to look for Life on behalf of his uncles and aunts. He will go towards it there." The first thing that he did, once he was ready to go out, was to go around his fireplace four times. He made it shimmer with Light and Life. Once he had made the light beautiful, he started to go out.
He strode out onto the water, taking four steps across it. Then, after he dove into the water there, he came up and laid out the sand that he had brought back with him, and then an island appeared there. And then he strengthened himself with his power and dove back in. He brought something up and laid it out, and it was a fish-chief that he had retrieved and set down. And then he made his lair itself his plate. (359) Then the center of its body became imprinted with light, and on the fourth time he bit into it, the light increased. And that woman took hold of the very white bones and filled it. The plate became imprinted with Light and Life. That's how it was.
Then they went out walking on the water of the Ocean Sea, and as big as it was, it became like what could fit on a little plate. Then after he had been walking, he came ashore. He placed the stopping point there. Again he got ready, making himself frail from holiness. Then he did this: he dove into the water. When he and his woman got to come out, there could be seen four children between them. So he did this, and then the male turning back in the water, scooped something up. Once he had come out, he laid down a gray fish-chief that he had in his mouth. (360) And after they had made the lair the plates, the male started for it, and smeared the center of his body with Light and Life. And the fourth time that he seized it, he caused the day to be extended. Then he took hold of the woman together with these children. He made the plate very white by marking it distinctly with the light.
Then, as they started out walking, they took four steps as the went towards the Creation Lodge. There he tried his arrow. He shot a very large tree that was there. When he got there, he saw that it was there in the center of the core. He was pleased with it. Then again there he did it. Again he tried to send something forth. (361) There was a very large Female Spirit, and he sent a shot there. When he got there and saw it, there it had gone its center. He was pleased with it. He took it up, and there he tried once more. Then he sent a shot to the protruding corner of a white cloud. There he did it, and it worked in its core. He was pleased with it. Then he did this: he took it up and for the fourth try, he sent it. It was the Creation Lodge. He who Stands in the Center of the Lodge was unopposable. There he sent his shot. When it got there, it did its work upon the core of the fire. He was very pleased with it.1
Commentary. "an otter"— this story is told in connection with the otter skin pouch which is used to shoot shells into initiates in the Medicine Rite. When the initiate is hit with such a shell, he falls over as if killed, only to arise later reborn.
"uncles and aunts" — since Hare was born to a virgin, all of humanity is considered his uncles and aunts.
"an island appeared" — Radin notes, "This is another account of how the world was created and belongs to a myth common to the Ojibwa, Menominee, Fox and Algonkin Indians in general. The Winnebago have a version of it but this has probably been borrowed from one of these tribes."2
"fish-chief" — the Hočąk is ho-hųk, literally, "fish-chief," which Radin translates as "kingfish." The term "kingfish" in English denotes several varieties of salt water fishes, and is therefore not likely what ho-hųk means. Since it is unattested elsewhere, we do not know what kind of fish was meant, if any. It may be that it is the chief of fishes. The domain in which he is chief is that of water, which is ni in Hočąk. A homonym for this word means "breath," and by extension, "life." Water is also the domain of the Hero Twin known as "Ghost." And, as among the Christians (for many non-overlapping reasons), souls are often made homologous to fish. Therefore, a fish-chief is at least symbolically a ruler in the domain of souls. Eating such a fish is eating the spiritual power by which control over souls is obtained. When the otter bites into the fish-chief, the consumed fish is translated into Light and Life. This is a "translation," made by an animal that can transpose himself from the world of water to that of land. The Medicine Rite allows the master of its principles to gain control over his own soul, and to achieve the power to resurrect himself, rather than being an eternal captive in the realm of souls. He becomes, by consumption of its nature, a fish-chief himself.
"his lair," "the lair" — the Hočąk here is woxjį́-na, which means "the lair (of a bear)" (Marino). Radin placed a parenthetical question mark over it in the original text. However, there is a way in which "lair," would fit the context. Elsewhere in the rite, the seats are said to be bears, which implies that setting the plates on the seats is tantamount to setting them in the lairs of the bears. In Bear Clan mythology, the four primordial bears hold down the four quarters of the world, so the placing of the plates in the bears' lairs is to distribute the (spiritual) food to all four quarters. (After writing this, I discovered a note by Radin on the verso side of p. 166: "woxdjį́ = cradle, nest (bears), otter used nest as plate." This is in keeping with what was just said.)
"plate" — the plate is the vehicle by which food is presented for consumption. Here the "food" is spiritual sustenance. This is the Light and Life (Hą́bera) imparted by the Medicine Rite. Here the vehicles by which this more literal enlightenment is disseminated, the "plates," are the spirits presiding over the four quarters, the same who are impersonated in order to present the rite itself. The knowledge that they impart is the "food" which is consumed by the beneficiaries of the rite. The homology of food to spiritual substance is also seen in the Fast Eating Contest in which the eating of the food in the ceremonial context of the preparations for the warpath is tantamount to consuming the souls of the enemy soon to be encountered in battle.
"the center of its body" — we may understand that the otter is biting into the center of the fish. In the Hawk Clan, the ritual consumption of a fish leaving both ends on the plate, symbolizes conquest (vide 1, 2). Thus Otter establishes control over the soul by this act of conquest, an occupancy of the Center, leaving the fish, the controller of souls, at the periphery, itself completely lacking a center. They have consumed, that is, internalized, the Center in themselves, thereby gaining command over the power to control the soul.
"very white bones" — white is the color of holiness and supernatural power. The bones are generally believed to contain the stuff of life (called by the Greeks muelos | μυελός) constituted by the marrow (waruǧop). Therefore, the soul inheres within the marrow of the bones, especially the brain, which is thought of as the marrow of the head. That is why the fish-chief's bones express a special power of Light and Life. It is the stuff of the soul over which the beneficiary of the rite is to gain control so that he might live again. This is why it is set upon his plate so that he might "eat" it (internalize it).
"frail from holiness (xóxe)" — those who become holy usually do so from fasting, which makes them frail. However, the ultimate effect is to strengthen their supernatural powers.
"gray" — since many fish are silver, this may seem unremarkable; but in this context, the gray is probably meant to indicate age and therefore rank.
"arrow" — the shell that is shot out of the otter skin pouch is ritually referred to as an "arrow."
"Female Spirit" — when the world was being created, Earthmaker fashioned the Female Spirit (Sacred Woman) as a giant rock. When he cast her to earth, she fragmented into the many stones that we see today (q.v.). The Female Spirit is a stone in this context. The importance of the stone in the Medicine Rite is that it is used to boil the water for the steam bath.
"He who Stands in the Center of the Lodge" — a reference to the fire which stands in the center of the lodge. Radin notes that the objects shot are in order of increasing mysteriousness.3 We should also note that each of these items is connected in some way to lightning. Trees are most often struck by it, and in theory the lightning is in essence a thunderstone (q.v.). It emanates from a cloud, and is a form of, or at least produces, fire. We should also note that it shoots through the air like the stone-tipped arrow.
Links: Otters, Earthmaker, Hare,
Stories: featuring Otter as a character: Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Turtle's Warparty, The Origins of the Milky Way, Redhorn's Sons, Redhorn Contests the Giants, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), Kunu's Warpath, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Morning Star and His Friend; mentioning otters: The Fleetfooted Man, The Dipper, The Two Children, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Turtle's Warparty, The Origins of the Milky Way, Redhorn's Sons, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Kunu's Warpath, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Woman who Loved Her Half Brother, The Chief of the Heroka, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), Wojijé, Holy Song II, Morning Star and His Friend, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga; pertaining to the Medicine Rite: The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, Holy Song, Holy Song II, Maize Origin Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hog's Adventures, Great Walker's Warpath, see also Other Stories from Jasper Blowsnake's account of the Medicine Rite; mentioning Creation Lodges (Wogųzočíra): The Creation Council, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge of the Medicine Rite, The Descent of the Drum, The Four Steps of the Cougar, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, East Shakes the Messenger, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 1), Peace of Mind Regained, South Enters the Medicine Lodge; featuring (spirit) fish as characters: The Man who went to the Upper and Lower Worlds, The Were-Fish, The Greedy Woman, Wolves and Humans, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, The Great Fish, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The King Bird, Fish Clan Origins, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads; mentioning shells: The Gift of Shooting, The Markings on the Moon, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Wild Rose, Young Man Gambles Often (wampum), Morning Star and His Friend (v. 2) (wampum), Wolves and Humans (oyster), Bird Clan Origin Myth, The Lost Child, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 2), Turtle's Warparty, The Lost Blanket (mussel), The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads (crab); mentioning the Ocean Sea (Te Ją): Trickster's Adventures in the Ocean, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 1), The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Trickster and the Children, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Wears White Feather on His Head, White Wolf, How the Thunders Met the Nights (Mąznį’ąbᵋra), Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 2a, 3), Wolf Clan Origin Myth (v. 2), Redhorn's Sons, Grandfather's Two Families, Sun and the Big Eater, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father (sea), The Dipper (sea), The Thunderbird (a very wide river), Wojijé, The Twins Get into Hot Water (v. 1), Redhorn's Father, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Berdache Origin Myth, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Morning Star and His Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed.
Stories from Jasper Blowsnake's account of the Medicine Rite (The Road of Life and Death) in notebook order: The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (v. 1), Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Historical Origins of the Medicine Rite, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge of the Medicine Rite, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, East Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 1), The Creation of the World (v. 12), The Creation of Man (v. 8), The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), East Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 2), Testing the Slave, South Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 2), The Descent of the Drum (v. 1), The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men (v. 2), East Shakes the Messenger, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (v. 4), The Messengers of Hare (v. 2), North Shakes His Gourd, Grandmother's Gifts, South Seizes the Messenger, Four Steps of the Cougar, The Messengers of Hare (v. 1), The Island Weight Songs, The Petition to Earthmaker, A Snake Song Origin Myth, The Completion Song Origin, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Great Walker and the Anishinaabe Witches, The Diving Contest, The Sweetened Drink Song, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 3), The Tap the Head Medicine, The Claw Shooter, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 4), Peace of Mind Regained, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 5), A Wife for Knowledge, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (v. 2), The Descent of the Drum (v. 2), South Enters the Medicine Lodge (v. 1), Death Enters the World.
Themes: someone is able to exert supernatural power upon an object by concentrating his mind upon it: Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Messengers of Hare, South Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka; walking on water: Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 3), Bird Clan Origin Myth, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Chief of the Heroka, Redhorn's Sons; something is of a (symbolic) pure white color: White Bear, Deer Spirits, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4), White Flower, Big Eagle Cave Mystery, The Fleetfooted Man, Thunderbird and White Horse, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, Worúxega, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket (white spirits), Skunk Origin Myth, He Who Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, White Wolf, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Messengers of Hare, The Brown Squirrel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bladder and His Brothers, White Thunder's Warpath, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Dipper, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Creation of the World (v. 12), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, The Descent of the Drum, Tobacco Origin Myth (v. 5), The Diving Contest, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, Grandmother's Gifts, Four Steps of the Cougar, The Completion Song Origin, North Shakes His Gourd, Lifting Up the Bear Heads, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, Peace of Mind Regained; shooting shells in connection with the Medicine Rite: The Gift of Shooting, The Arrows of the Medicine Rite Men.
1 Jasper Blowsnake's Account of the Medicine Rite, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Freeman #3876, Winnebago II, #6: 166-169 (the original handwritten interlinear text); Freeman #3886, Winnebago III, #6: 357.65-361.86. For a loose English translation, see Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 ) 255-257.
2 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 342, nt. 13.
3 Radin, The Road of Life and Death, 342, nt. 21.