The Man who Defied Disease Giver

by James Smith

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

Once there was a man who belittled the cult of Disease Giver. He would always say, "Why do you give offerings and feasts to Disease Giver? What good is he? All he ever gives you is disease; but I will tell you this: he will never strike me down, and if I ever see him, I will kick him off the face of the earth!"

In the fall when they go hunting, the man became separated from the rest of the people and had to camp alone in the wilderness. He built a fire and sat facing it. Then, unexpectedly, a man suddenly appeared and walked right up and sat on the opposite side of the fire. "I am the one," said the stranger, "that you said you would kick off the face of the earth. I am he whom you claim cannot kill you." Then the stranger slowly raised his arm and pointed his finger at the man's heart, but the man remained motionless beside the fire just as if no one was there. So the stranger lifted his hand again and pointed it at the man's heart. Still the man did not react. Now Disease Giver was becoming frustrated, so again he pointed his finger and said, "James Smith, right in the center of the heart." Nevertheless, Smith remained motionless as he sat before the fire. Disease Giver snapped, "Who are you that you do not fall before my power?" Then he pointed for a fourth time, but this had no more effect than his other efforts.

Disease Giver became quite concerned and earnestly spoke to the man: "Grandson, the Creator created me for a purpose: he charged me to bring disease to men, for if humans had no disease, they would become so numerous that they could not feed themselves. Humanity would live in misery far greater than what I visit upon them. Grandson, if you do not consent to die, then I will have failed in the mission that Earthmaker assigned me, for Earthmaker has ordained that no one that I have pointed out should escape. You should therefore consent to die, and if you do, then I will grant that you shall come back to life in four days." When the man considered that he could return to life, he consented to die. "It is good," said Disease Giver, "but I must add one proviso: no one must see your body during the four days during which your soul has departed. If they do, all that you have done will go for nought, and your soul will not return to your body ever again."

Having agreed to do as Earthmaker ordained, the man returned to his people and informed his relatives of all that he had experienced, and charged them that they should not seek out his body during the four days of his temporary death. Having said all this, he departed for a secluded spot in the wilderness. He sat against a tree and closed his eyes, waiting for death. As he sat there Disease Giver came upon him and when he pointed his finger at Smith, his soul left his body. For two days his body lay against the tree undisturbed, but on the third day his wife was overcome with curiosity about his condition. She sought out the place where he had chosen to die and could not resist taking just a peek at his body, but when she did this he died forever and his soul traveled west never to return again to its body. When his relatives came to claim the body, they found that a red spot had formed on his forehead.1

Commentary. In this retelling of the worak, I have supplied the words of Disease Giver on the model of what is said on similar topics in other stories (1, 2).

Comparative Material. This Osage myth has only a slight resemblance to our story, as the bad spirit merely chooses not to harm the man. "The Indians once went out scalp hunting. They got about five miles away. One man got tired and his foot was sore. He concluded that he would turn back. He started back, and went over a hill. When night came he stayed by a creek. He had killed a fat deer. He jerked the best part of the deer and was roasting it. About midnight he heard something coming from the same direction he had come from. He listened a few minutes. Whatever it was (this is what we call a bad Spirit), it came up and said, "Hello," and the man was sleeping right by the fire. He got ready to stab the being, but the being just ate the meat he was roasting for himself. The being said: 'Do not be afraid of me. You have walked over my house. Do not try to run from me, for I am not going to hurt you. You are trying to stab me. Do not do that. I will not hurt you'."2

Links: Earthmaker, Disease Giver.

Stories: featuring Disease Giver as a character: Disease Giver Blesses Jobenągiwįxka, Bow Meets Disease Giver.

This worak has many points of convergence with the waiką Ghost Dance Origin Myth II.

Themes: a person who fasts receives blessings from the spirits: The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, The Nightspirits Bless Jobenągiwįxka, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, Redhorn's Sons, The Boy Who Became a Robin, The Woman Who Fought the Bear, The Seer, Maize Comes to the Hočągara, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Boy who would be Immortal, The Thunderbird, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, Great Walker's Medicine, Šųgepaga, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, Heną́ga and Star Girl, A Man's Revenge, Aračgéga's Blessings, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, White Thunder's Warpath, A Man and His Three Dogs, The Oak Tree and the Man Who was Blessed by the Heroka, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Diving Contest, The Plant Blessing of Earth, Holy Song, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Completion Song Origin, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Nightspirits Bless Čiwoit’éhiga, Sunset Point, Song to Earthmaker, First Contact (v. 1), The Horse Spirit of Eagle Heights; a man succeeds in overcoming the power of spirits by remaining motionless and not reacting to their actions against him: Ghost Dance Origin Myth II; a mortal thwarts Disease Giver's purpose: Bow Meets Disease Giver; because the spirits make clear that it is a necessity, a man volunteers to die: Redhorn's Sons, The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman; a woman is forbidden to join her husband when he goes off to a place kept secret from her: The Markings on the Moon, The Chief of the Heroka, Old Man and Wears White Feather, cf. The Sky Man; looking upon one's dead spouse will spoil their return to life and cause their permanent death: Ghost Dance Origin Myth II; a person is told by a spirit that he should not look upon someone during a particular period of time, but curiosity gets the better of the person and he looks anyway, causing the object of his gaze to be injured: Snowshoe Strings, The Dog that became a Panther, Sunset Point; a man forbids his female relative from looking at him when he is engaged in a secret activity, but she cannot resist the temptation and does it anyway to his detriment: The Markings on the Moon, Redhorn's Father, Sunset Point; someone's death would be caused by looking at someone whom spirits have forbidden to be seen: Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, The Creation of Man (v. 4); red as a symbolic color: The Journey to Spiritland (hill, willows, reeds, smoke, stones, haze), The Gottschall Head (mouth), The Chief of the Heroka (clouds, side of Forked Man), The Red Man (face, sky, body, hill), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse (neck, nose, painted stone), Redhorn's Father (leggings, stone sphere, hair), The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father (hair, body paint, arrows), Wears White Feather on His Head (man), The Birth of the Twins (turkey bladder headdresses), The Two Boys (elk bladder headdresses), Trickster and the Mothers (sky), Rich Man, Boy, and Horse (sky), The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits (Buffalo Spirit), Bluehorn Rescues His Sister (buffalo head), Wazųka (buffalo head headdress), The Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth (horn), The Brown Squirrel (protruding horn), Bear Clan Origin Myth (funerary paint), Hawk Clan Origin Myth (funerary paint), Deer Clan Origin Myth (funerary paint), Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (stick at grave), Pigeon Clan Origins (Thunderbird lightning), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks (eyes), Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (scalp, woman's hair), The Race for the Chief's Daughter (hair), The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy (hair), Redhorn Contests the Giants (hair), Redhorn's Sons (hair), The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle (hair), A Wife for Knowledge (hair), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (hair), The Hočągara Contest the Giants (hair of Giantess), A Man and His Three Dogs (wolf hair), The Red Feather (plumage), The Man who was Blessed by the Sun (body of Sun), The Man Whose Wife was Captured (v. 2) (body of the Warrior Clan Chief), Red Bear, Eagle Clan Origin Myth (eagle), The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (Waterspirit armpits), The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty (Waterspirits), The Roaster (body paint), The Wild Rose (rose), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (warclub), Įčorúšika and His Brothers (ax & packing strap), Hare Kills Flint (flint), The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head (edges of flint knives), The Nannyberry Picker (leggings), The Seduction of Redhorn's Son (cloth), Yųgiwi (blanket).


1 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 261-262. The original text (it was told in English) is in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3862 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago I, #3: 3-6.

2 "35. The Boy and the Bad Spirit," in George A. Dorsey, "Traditions of the Osage," Field Columbian Musem, Anthropological Series, 7, #1 (Feb., 1904): 42-43.