The Shawnee Prophet Predicts a Solar Eclipse

by Stella (Blowsnake) Stacey, a.k.a. Mountain Wolf Woman
transcribed and translated by Sheila Shigley

Hocąk Interlinear Text

Tenskatawa, the Shawnee Prophet

(00:14) Thus [concerning] those human stories, those Žawanų stories, he said, “Whatever they ordered me to do, then, that's what I did. (00:26) The remainder didn't see fit [to do] like what I am telling you. (00:31) And the remainder, you didn't see fit [to do it], that I know. (00:36) So Our Father in Heaven, he himself compels us that way. If you can do it in that way, if you do it well, if you can do it like that, that he told me. (00:49) So, I'll tell the stories. (00:56) So, [do] some little thing like that, if you can do it."

(01:06) It dies. And so at noon you will know all [power] that he had. (01:18) Light and Life is going to do something. (01:19) It dies. And so in the morning, with everyone right there, they must have asked him to start scraping it out. (01:28) Very early, everyone, all things, were receiving help, it is said. (01:34) Just at that moment, they asked him to scrape it out. (01:38) Then when it was noon, 'The sun is dying,' they used to say it that way. (01:44) If, and when that happened, it was extremely dark. (01:49) And then it must be night, the light then had given way to extreme darkness, even for the earth. (01:56) When that's the way it was, everyone was frightened, it was said. (01:59) Then when the sun was wa-a-a-ay low, coming there, the sun appeared. (02:03) Again doing it they were standing in front, that way, and so (?) he told me that it was done quickly, he said. (???)1

Commentary. "Žawanų" — according to Helmbrecht-Lehmann, žawąnų means, "medicine person, healer, fortune-teller, prophet (whoever has to do with medicine)." Žawąnų, a variant of Šawáno[ra], "Shawnee, 'Glad Ones' [a pseudo-etymology]," (McKern). It is reasonable to conclude that the prophet of this story is the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, the brother of Tecumseh. Owing to this prophet's fame, "Shawnee" (Žawąnų) came to be a word for "prophet." This is a familiar process: the words kaiser and czar come from Cæsar, for instance.

"they" — referring to the Spirits.

"didn't see fit" — Hōcąk hirainąš’įnį, which may also be translated, "didn't think."

"that way" — the actions of the "remainder" and what Our Father compels, refers to the teachings of the Shawnee Prophet as handed down to him from the Great Spirit. It appears that Tenskatawa is trying to shift the blame, not on the Prophet himself, but on certain followers who did not do as the Prophet had commanded in his role as the voice of the Great Spirit.

"I'll tell the stories" — the Hōcąk is wōtagᵋnągre, which can also be translated as, "the stories I tell."

"like that" — the Hōcąk is gažegų, which can also be translated as, "that's what I mean."

"Light and Life" — the Hōcąk is Hąpjane, from hąp, "light" and -jane, a suffix indicating an upright position. Light (Hąp) in this context, as in the Medicine Rite, is like the Christian metaphor, and means "life." Radin, in his work on the Medicine Rite, was the first to translate it as "Light and Life."

"they must have asked him to start scraping it out" — on the assumption that the Hōcąk is wagigop higiwa wairešgųnįže. The word wagigop most typically means, "to pry out"; but as both White Eagle and Helmbrecht-Lehmann say, it also means, "to scrape out, clean out, hollow out, as in cleaning seeds from a squash." The Prophet is going to demonstrate his power by "scraping out" the light of the sun, which describes the process of the advancing darkness that carves away the solar light until it is all "scraped out." The result, as we would recognize with modern science, is a solar eclipse. As a matter of history, as we shall see below, William Harrison taunted the Prophet to perform a miracle that would prove his status as a spokesman for the Great Spirit. So here we have, "they must have asked him," which given the role of "they" in forming expressions of the passive voice, can be translated as, "he must have been asked."

"wa-a-a-ay low" — apparently, the sun, having started to undergo an eclipse at high noon, did not return to its full light until it nearly set. However, a solar eclipse has never lasted more than a few minutes, whereas this suggests that the Prophet's eclipse lasted for hours. This may reflect pure invenion, or may be a mere exaggeration.

"???" — this last sentence is very hard to make out, so the translation is questionable.

Most people will be surprised to discover that this incident, exaggerated and mythologised as it may be, is based on an actual historical event:

During the spring of 1806 Harrison wrote to the Delawares denouncing the Prophet and asking, "If he is really a prophet, ask him to cause the sun to stand still-the moon to alter its course-the rivers to cease to flow-or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may believe that he has been sent from God." Ironically, Harrison's challenge played into Tenskwatawa's hands. In the spring of 1806 several astronomers had traveled through Indian and Illinois locating observation stations to study an eclipse of the sun scheduled to occur on June 16. Although Harrison either ignored or forgot about the event, the Prophet remembered. Among the Shawnee such an eclipse was known as a "Black Sun," an event surrounded with dread and portending future warfare. Accepting Harrison's challenge, in early June Tenskwatawa surprised even his closest followers by promising to darken the sun. On June 16, while his disciples and skeptic both assembled in his village, the Prophet remained secluded in his lodge throughout most of the morning, but as the noon sun faded into a eerie twilight he stepped forth exclaiming, "Did I not speak the truth? See the sun is dark!" He then assured his audience that he would restore the sun's former radiance, and as the eclipse ended even those tribesmen who still remembered him as Lalawethika, the drunken loudmouth, now were convinced of his medicine." Following the eclipse, the Prophet's influence spread rapidly.2

It appears that the Shawnee viewed a solar eclipse as the sun turning black, that is, changing color. The characterization that we see in our present story is of the sun's light being scraped out (wagigop), which in the Hōcąk perspective was a dying of the sun, since its luminance is "Light-and-Life." However, the return of its light is a kind of resurrection, as in the end, the sun does not lose its essential immortal nature.

The details of this eclipse are presented by NASA:3

Cat. # Cannon
TD of
DT Luna
Gamma Eclipse
Lattitude Longitude Sun
9056 453 1806 June 16 16:24:27 12 -2394 124 T 0.3204 1.0604 42.2N 64.6W 71 184 210 04m32s

Starry Nights Software
The Sky Over Prophetstown, 1143 hrs. 16 June 1806

The table and the map are set for the eclipse at Indianapolis; the depiction of the sky is set for the coördinates of Prophetstown, Indiana. As can be seen, the full eclipse occurred at the Prophet's location very close to noon, just as the story relates. However, as can be seen from the table, the full eclipse only lasted about four and a half minutes. The sun set at 2111 hrs. that day, which is about 7 hours after the full eclipse, so the sun was not "way low" on the horizon. This had been said to try to make the Prophet's feat seem even more fantastic.

Comparative Material. Herodotus recounts the story of an eclipse that had a striking impact upon the long drawn out war between the Medes and the Lydians:

Another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.4

The battle had taken place on May 28, 585 B.C. Thales is often cited as being the first philosopher, at least of the Western tradition.

Links: ...

Stories: about seers: The Seer, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, Witches, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, A Prophecy About the End Time, A Prophecy, Great Walker and the Ojibwe Witches, A Prophecy About the First School, The Claw Shooter, Waruką́ną, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Diving Contest; about the Shawnee Prophet: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, A Prophecy About the End Time.

Themes: a seer makes true predictions down to unusual details: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, Witches, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Fox-Hocąk War, How Little Priest went out as a Soldier, A Prophecy, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Claw Shooter, Waruką́ną, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store.


1 Reading by Sheila Shigley, from the audio tape in the American Philosophical Society: 10-04. Fraenkel, Gerd. Stacy, Stella. "The prophet speaks about the believers and disbelievers in his community" Mss.Rec.29, recorded 13 July 1959, 1 .mp3; 00:00:14 - 00:02:09. Copy made by Gerd Fraenkel of an original tape held at the Archives of Languages of the World, Indiana University. This program comes from original tape 528.8. APS accession number 7216; APSdigrec_2183; Recording Number: 02; Program Number: 35.
2 R. David Edmunds, "Tecumseh, The Shawnee Prophet, and American History: A Reassessment," Western Historical Quarterly, 14, #3 (1983): 261–276 [269].
3 Five Millennium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 > For the solar eclipse map, see: Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five Millennium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000BCE to 3000 CE), NASA/TP—2006—214141. NORTH AMERICA, CENTRAL AMERICA & CARIBBEAN > 1801 to 1900 (1801 CE to 1900 CE), #9056. For the solar eclipse map, see: Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five Millennium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000BCE to 3000 CE), NASA/TP—2006—214141.
4 Herodotus, The Histories, 1.73–74. "It is not only Herodotus who tells us about the prediction. Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of eminent philosophers (1.23) refers to Xenophanes (21 B 19 DK) in addition to Herodotus, as having been amazed by Thales's achievement; and Xenophanes lived in the same century as Thales. Diogenes Laertius also refers to testimonies by Heraclitus (22 B 38 DK) and Democritus (68 B 115 DK). All of Diogenes Laertius's information seems to come from a very good source, Eudemus of Rhodes, who is mentioned in the passage (fr. 144, Wehrli)." Dimitri Panchenko, "Thales's Prediction of a Solar Eclipse," Journal for the History of Astronomy (November 1994) 275-288 [275].