Chapter 23 [Vol. II, pp 326-351]

Of the Religion of the Natchez

I wished first of all to know from the Temple what he and his fellow countrymen thought of God. In the common [i. e., Mobilian] language coustiné signifies 'spirit,' and tchito, 'great,' and as all the natives, whatever language they speak, employ the words Great Spirit to express the word God, I asked him in the Natchez language what he thought of the Great Spirit, Coyocop-cliguip, because in their language, which I knew passably, coyocop signifies 'spirit,' and cliguip signifies 'great.' I was mistaken, however, for just as in French the word 'grand' does not always signify the height or the length, but the qualities revealed, as when one says 'un grand roi,' 'un grand general,' in the same way the word cliguip has the two significations, and for lack of that I had not yet attained by this word to the idea they have of God. The Temple Guardian [327] then told me that they did not call him that, but Coyocop-chill. To give an accurate idea of what this word chill signifies I will make use of an example. The Natchez call common fire oüa ; they call the sun oüa-chill, the very great fire, the supreme fire. Thus in giving to God the name Coyocop-chill they mean the spirit infinitely great, the spirit par excellence, and the spirit, according to their way of thinking, as far above other spirits as the sun by means of his heat exceeds the fiery element. I think myself obliged to give this explanation and to adduce this example in order to develop the idea which they have of God through the name which they give him.

He then told me that God was so powerful that all things were nothing before him, that he had made all that we see, and that we are able to see; that he was so good that he was not able to do harm to anyone even if he wished it; that he thought that God had made all things by his will; that nevertheless the little spirits who were servants [328] of God might, indeed, at his order have made the beautiful works which we admire in the universe, but that God himself had formed man with his own hands.

He added that they called these little spirits Copocop-téchou, where téchou signifies free servant, but also one as submissive and respectful as a slave; that the spirits were always present before God, ready to execute his wishes with extreme diligence; that the air was filled with other spirits of which some were worse than others; that they had a chief yet worse than themselves, but that God had found him so bad that he had tied him up forever, so that these other spirits of the air no longer did as much harm, especially when one prayed to them to do nothing. For it is a religious custom among these people to fast and to invoke the spirits of the air in order to have rain or fair weather according to their needs. I have seen the great Sun fast for nine consecutive days, eating only grains of corn without meat or fish, drinking water only, and not approaching women all that [329] time. He did this then at the request of some Frenchmen who complained that it had not rained for a long time. These people, who had little wisdom, did not notice that in spite of the lack of rain the productions of the earth would not suffer because the dew is so abundant in summer that it conveniently supplies this lack.

The Temple Guardian having stated that God had formed man with his own hands, I asked him if he knew how that was done. He replied that according to their ancient word God had kneaded clay like that of which they made pottery; that he had made of it a little man, and that after having examined it and found it well formed he had breathed on his work; that as soon as this little man had received life he had thought, acted, walked, and found himself a grown man very well shaped. As he did not speak to me of the woman I asked him how he thought she had been made. He told me that apparently she had been made in the same manner as the man; that their ancient word did not say anything about it, and [330] taught them only that the man had been formed first--the stronger and the more courageous because he was going to be the chief and the support of the woman who was made to be his companion.

On this subject I did not fail, any more than on that of the aerial spirits and the prayers which they addressed to them, to rectify his ideas and to direct them to the truth which our religion teaches and that the sacred books have transmitted to us. He heard me with great attention and promised to teach all I had said to the old men of his nation, who would certainly not forget it, adding that we were fortunate to be able to retain such beautiful things by means of the " speaking stuff." It is thus they name books, and papers that have been written on.

After this preliminary [talk] I went straight at my object. I wished to know from him who had taught them to build a temple, whence had come the eternal fire which they preserved with so much care, and the institution of their feasts. No one among us, said I, knows this, and I beg you to inform me. [331] He replied in these terms:

" Ought you to be astonished that the French warriors are ignorant of these things? They are young; they see only young women with whom they amuse themselves; what could they learn from them except what they themselves have learned from their mothers? And what do their mothers know? Nothing at all. The old men who keep the ancient word (it must be remembered that this is their tradition) never speak before the women. Even among the men they choose to teach it to those whom they recognize as having the most intelligence." The temple guardian by this word intelligence [esprit] meant memory. In their simplicity these people cannot distinguish, as we do, the one from the other, and never suspect that one can have intelligence even though he lacks memory. I knew their way of thinking, so I did not interrupt, and he continued in this manner:

" The duty which I have obliges me to know all that you ask of me. I am going then to relate it to you. Listen to me. A great number of years ago there appeared among us a [332] man and his wife, who had descended from the Sun. It is not that we thought that he was the son of the Sun or that the Sun had a wife by whom he begot children, but when both of them were seen they were still so brilliant that it was not difficult to believe that they had come from the Sun. This man told us that having seen from above that we did not govern ourselves well, that we did not have a master, that each one of us believed that he had sufficient intelligence to govern others while he was not able to guide himself, he had taken the determination to descend in order to teach us how to live better.

" He then told us that in order to be in a condition to govern others it was necessary to know how to guide one's self, and that in order to live in peace among ourselves and please the Supreme Spirit it was necessary to observe these points: To kill no one except in defense of one's own life, never to know another woman than one's own, to take nothing that belongs to another, never to lie or become drunk, and not to be avaricious, [333] but to give freely and with joy that which one has, and to share food generously with those who lack it.

" This man impressed us by these words because he said them with authority, and he obtained the respect of the old men themselves, although he did not spare them more than the others. The old men assembled then and resolved among themselves that since this man had so much intelligence to teach them what it was good to do he must be recognized as sovereign, so much the more as in governing them himself he could make them remember better than any other what he had taught them. So they went in the early morning to the cabin where they had sent him sleep with his wife and proposed to him to be our sovereign. He refused at first, saying that he would not be obeyed and the disobedient would not fail to die. But finally he accepted the offer that was made him on the following conditions:

" That we would go to inhabit another country better than that where we [334] were, and which he would show us; that we would live in future as he had taught us the evening before; that we would promise to recognize no other sovereign besides himself and those who should descend from him and his wife; that nobility should be perpetuated through the women, which he explained to us in this way: If I have, said he to us, male and female children, they will not be able to marry each other, being brothers and sisters, to which he added that the boy should take from among the people a girl that pleased him; that this man should be sovereign; that his sons should not be even princes, but only Nobles; that the children of the daughter, on the other hand, should be princes and princesses; that the eldest of the males should be sovereign and the eldest girl the princess who should give birth to the sovereign; that the descendants of the sovereign and the princes should descend in caste and not those of the girl, although this princess daughter or another princess had married a man of the people; that thus the princes and princesses should not ally themselves together, nor yet cousins [cousins germains]and the issues of cousins; and that finally, in the absence of a sister of the sovereign, his nearest female relative should be the mother of his successor. Pursuing his speech, he then said to us that in order not to forget the good words which he had brought to us, a temple should be built into which only princes and princesses (male and female Suns) should have a right to enter to speak to the Spirit; that in this temple should be preserved eternally a fire which he would make descend from the Sun, whence he had come; that the wood with which it was fed should be a pure wood without bark; that eight wise men should be chosen in the nation to guard it and tend it day and night; that they should have a chief who should watch over the manner in which they performed their duty; and that the one who failed in it should be put to death. He then wished that at the other extremity of the country which we should inhabit (and our nation was then much more extensive than it is now) a second temple should be built, where in like manner fire would be kept which had been taken from the first, so that if it came to be extinguished in the one [336] they could seek the other, in order to relight it, and he informed us that if this misfortune ever happened death would spread through our nation until the fire was relighted.

" They promised him to observe and perform all these things, and then he consented to be our sovereign, but he did not wish to be called by any other name than Thé, which signifies 'thee.' However, after his death his descendants were called Suns, because they came out originally from the Sun and because Thé was so brilliant that one could scarcely look at him. Then he had the temples built, established the temple guardians, eight for each, and for each a chief guardians. In the presence of the entire nation he made descend the fire of the Sun on the walnut wood which he had prepared, and when it was lighted some of it was carried with much attention and respect into the other temple, which was at the farther extremity of our country. He lived a very long time, and saw the children of his children. Finally he instituted the feasts which you see."

Such was the statement of the temple [337] guardian, by which one might learn of the docility with which the Natchez nation submitted to the wise laws of this extraordinary man who appeared suddenly in their midst of them, and which bears witness to their good depth of character. In fact, they are gentle, humane, truthful, and very charitable. More than one Frenchman has experienced among them this last quality.

He did not speak to me of any sacrifices, libations, or offerings, because they make none. Their entire cult consists in maintaining the eternal fire, and it is that for which the Great Sun watches with particular attention over the chief temple guardian. The one who ruled in my time, and whom I knew particularly, went every day into his temple to see whether the fire continued. His vigilance had been excited by the fear which had been impressed upon him by a terrible hurricane which passed over this district and had lasted for two days. Since this country, as I have already said, is very beautiful and the air there is generally pure and serene, this extraordinary event had appeared to him to announce something sinister. And the firm persuasion which the people have [338] that the extinction of the sacred fire infallibly involves the death of a great number of men had made him worry lest this second accident, uniting itself to the first, should end with the death of the entire nation. The history of the Natchez confirmed him in this fear through the example of a misfortune from which they had not yet been able to recover. It was this that the great Sun related to me one day when he had come to see me, in the following terms:

" Our nation," said he to me, " was formerly very numerous and very powerful. It extended for more than twelve days’ journey from east to west and more than fifteen from south to north. It then counted 500 Suns, and you can judge by that what was the number of the Nobles, the Honored men, and the common people. You know that there are always two guardians in the temple to care for the sacred fire. But once in the past it happened that one of these two men went out for some purpose, and while he was away his companion fell asleep and let the fire go out. When he awoke, seeing the fire was extinguished, fright seized him. But as his companion had not [339] yet come back he determined to conceal his fault, since he was easily able to do so, in order to escape the death which he deserved. He called then to the first passerby and begged him to bring him fire with which to light his calumet (his pipe), a thing which this person did willingly, well knowing that it is not permitted to touch the eternal fire except to tend it, and that no other use could be made of it.

"Thus the fire was relighted with profane fire. Immediately sickness took hold of the Suns. In a few days they were seen to die in rapid succession, and it was necessary to send after them into the world of spirits many people to serve them. This mortality lasted four years, without anyone being able to guess what had occasioned it. Nine great Suns who succeeded each other died in this interval, and a multitude of people with them. Finally, at the end of this time the guardian himself fell ill. This bad man, feeling that he could not live for long, had word sent to the great Sun at once that he had something to communicate to him of such great importance that if he died [340] without revealing it all the Natchez would die. The great Sun went to see him as quickly as possible. As soon as the sick man perceived him his whole body trembled and he appeared unable to speak. However, he spoke these words, although with difficulty:

"'I am going to die, so it makes no difference to me whether the sickness or a man kills me. I know that I am a bad man for having for such a long a time concealed, in order to preserve my life, what I am going to tell you. I am the cause of the death of my nation, therefore I merit death, but let me not be eaten by the dogs.'

" The great Sun understood by these words that this man was guilty of some great crime, and that it was necessary to reassure him in order to draw from him his secret, which appeared to be of the last importance. He therefore told him that whatever he had done he might be assured that he would not be put to death and that he would be buried, that what he had promised him was as true as it was true that the Sun, their father, lighted them every day, and that he should hasten to speak before death prevented [341] him. On this promise the bad guardian confessed all that he had done, which I have related to you.

" Immediately the great Sun assembled the old men and by their advice it was resolved to go that very day to wrest fire from the other temple. That was done, and the Suns ceased dying." This expression, " to wrest fire," appearing extraordinary to me, I asked the great Sun what it signified. He replied that it was necessary that the fire be carried away by violence and that blood be shed over it, unless on the way lightning was seen to fall on a tree and set fire to it, that then they might spare themselves the trouble of going farther and take this fire, but that that of the Sun was always preferable.

I won’t repeat what I told him on this subject, because as much as the instruction I tried to give him was appropriate for him, it would just as likely lead the reader astray. Having said that, I cannot remain silent about his astonishment when I told him that it was a trifling matter to bring down fire from the sun [342] and that I had it in my power to do it whenever I pleased. His surprise was most extreme. "That is beyond my understanding", he said; "Is it possible that a mortal could bring fire from the sun? I know that the French are greatly intelligent, and that that they can make things that we simply don’t understand, but this particular work does not depend upon skillful hands: At the same time, I know that you do not like to tell lies. Therefore, settle my spirit by opening my eyes."

I resolved myself to satisfy him. I had with me two loupes [small magnifying glasses] and I was certainly the first Frenchman to have brought them to Louisiana. I took the smallest of two, and placing some dry punk (or agaric), as the Naturals prepare it, upon a chip of wood, I drew the focus of the glass upon it, and with a firm tone pronounced the word Caheuch, which means "come," as though I had been commanding the fire to come down. The punk immediately started smoking. I blew on it a little and made a flame to the utter astonishment of the Great Sun and his whole retinue, some of who stood trembling. Their Prince no longer looked too self-assured either. The agaric was in cinders on the chip where I had lighted it.

He asked me for the loupe; I gave it to him with the chip. He had [343] brought leaves of a walnut tree with which he enveloped the loupe and gave it all to one of his warriors. The Great Sun, having seen the fire overcome the agaric, could not hide his astonishment, nor could he help exclaiming, "Ah, what an extraordinary thing this is!" I confirmed his idea by telling him, that I greatly loved and esteemed that useful instrument, as it was most valuable, and was given to my by my great-grandfather, who was a very wise man.

Finally, he asked me if man other than myself could do what he had seen me do with the instrument. I replied to him that every man might do it and that if he wanted to, I would show him how to perform the experiment for himself. He told me that he very much wanted to, but that he was afraid of ruining the instrument. "Of what?" I replied, "does a man like you have to be afraid of about a thing that is neither spirit nor living animal?" I reassured him in such a way that he was determined to perform the task himself. By way of this, I succeeded in selling him my loupe for a price as dear as the rarity he assigned to it, and as great as the need he had for it as a consequence of their superstitions about the Eternal Fire. [344] However, in the meantime, I put myself in position to hold his hands, for fear that he might err in the performance.

Therefore, I put down another piece of agaric on a chip of walnut wood so they could try it themselves. It was easy for me to procure this wood because I have a hundred and fifty arpens [an old french measure of land equivalent to about an acre] on my living grounds and I burn nothing else. I was confident that on this occasion they would let me use it for this purpose, thought I knew that they held this wood to have some special power in their mysteries. In his left hand, I put this prepared wood chip and in his right, the loupe, and I held his hands in mine. Everything accordingly arranged, I told him to speak as I did to make the fire descend from the sun, which he did, pronouncing the word Caheuch, but he had so little confidence that stuttered more than he spoke. Shortly after, the fire announced its presence by way of smoke. The loupe and the chip fell from his hands. I knew from the start that the thing would not fail to work, but I held this back. I admit that I struggled mightily to stop myself from laughing—but, my interests demanded that I have a mysterious air about me.

[345] As soon as the fire appeared, visible by the smoke it made escaping his hands, he cried out even more forcefully than the first time, "Ah, this thing is astounding! How marvelous!" I don’t think one should find it strange that this man had been in such an extreme state of surprise. These Naturals are full of good sense, but we must put ourselves in their place for a moment. If we had had so little education as these people, and if we had never seen anything extraordinary of any kind, or at least that approached that which we are talking about, we would certainly be as surprised as they are the first time they see something truly surprising, and that the human spirit itself has simply never imagined, and often could not even conceive of, or even recognize the existence of.

Several warriors who had accompanied the Great Sun on that day were as surprised as he was, and there were even some that were even more surprised than he, since I saw them tremble. However, this fire was sacred to them and they were more worried about this than about any thing else. Anything that touched this fire was [346] treated with great respect and carried religiously to the temple by the orders of the Great Sun, after having been covered all over in walnut leaves and wrapped up in the bark of the same tree, so that nothing would be lost.

My loupe, by consequence of its great qualities, was a big advantage. It was a fail-safe way to create fire from the sun itself, to relight the eternal fire if by misfortune it was extinguished, to thereby spare the Nation from great mortality, and to alleviate the fear of such a morbid event. It also spared them the need to go and seize this fire from another village’s temple, at the price of the blood of someone of the Nation. All of these reasons led the Sun to recognize, upon careful reflection, just how important was my possession of the loupe. I took advantage of these moments to go into my field, as though I had business to do, but actually to laugh heartily at the scene I had the occasion to witness.

I come back shortly after, since they had a great desire to acquire my [347] loupe. I took care not to miss out on this chance to unload it to my advantage. Upon my return, the Great Sun entered my apartment with me, and told me to come with him to my bedroom. I entered and he followed me. Once we had smoked enough to relax ourselves, he took my hand and made me take his in saying, "Are you not my true friend?" I told him in a serious tone, "Yes, I am." "I am more a friend of yours", he continued, "than of any of the other Frenchmen, though I like them all. Here’s why: It’s that many French carry their spirit in their tongue, instead of you, who carries yours in all of your head and body. Open your ears then to hear the words of your friend; open also your heart to receive mine. I speak—listen. I am an honest man; I know men by their spirit and by their hearts. Most common men want all that shines before their eyes, without seeing if the thing they desire actually holds real value. For myself, I think completely otherwise; when I see something dazzling, I leave it to the curious. However, [348] when I see useful things, I want them; if these things are necessities to those who have them, I find out if they are expensive. If they are expensive, I leave the things to them. If, on the contrary, they say it is not, I buy them, in the belief that they know where to find others. What you have shown me appears to be an extraordinary thing; and though I have been to see the chief of the Frenchmen who have come here, I have not seen such a beautiful thing as this. I know that you don’t make anything too expensive for me or for my brother. However, if I want what I have seen, it’s not for you to give it to me freely, without designs. Ask for as much as you want, if you don’t need the loupe too much, because I will arrange for all of the families of the Nation to pay. I will speak to them in such a way that they will have an obligation to you for giving away a thing that saves them from mortality.

I replied that I would make nothing too expensive for him and for his brother, and that even though I carried the Natchez in my heart, nothing made me part with my loupe but my wish to [349] pleased him and because it was necessary for all. However, I asked for nothing more in return but was necessary to my subsistence, like corn, fowl, game and fish, when they brought any of these to him.

He offered me twenty barrels of corn [footnote: the barrel of corn weighs 150 pounds], twenty fowls, twenty turkeys, and told me he would send game and fish every time that the warriors brought it. His promise was punctually executed. He promised me also to say nothing to the French for fear that they would be angry at me for having ridded myself of something so precious. I gave him a piece of wood to measure the correct distance between his hands whilst using the loupe. I also gave him all the necessary instructions, and then he went back to his place.

From that very same day, he ordered all of the Sun men and women, the nobles, and the most distinguished amongst the men of rank, and all whose employment was connected with temple service, in case the sun was clear, to assemble [350] at the temple. All who were ordered to do so gathered at a quarter of the day, which is to say at nine in the morning. Shortly after their arrival, he demonstrated the renowned capacities of the loupe. It took a little more time than it would ordinarily take, due to lack of experience, but the loupe succeeded in provoking the great astonishment of the entire assembly. The common people, always interested in penetrating the secrets of the court, like all peoples amongst these nations of the ancient world, had learned that the Suns, the nobles, and ranked men had been ordered to assemble. Thus, the common people had assembled not far from the temple and this respectable assembly. They were as surprised as their superiors when the fire appeared. Their curiosity became even greater but was not further satisfied. The fire was re-lighted several times, then the Great Sun spoke to the assembly and told them that he had acquired this rare loupe from me and that I had given it to him, guided more by my friendship with him than by my own interests. Then he said that the loupe was sovereign protection against the greatest misfortunes that could happen to the nation, because through its means, one could take fire [351] from the sun. He added that he had promised me twenty barrels of corn and twenty fowls and that they had only to talk to the villages that they had conquered to make them bring my recompense to me. As for the game and fish, he would give orders to his warriors the following day in order to see that I lacked nothing. That same hour, he gave his brother the War Chief, Tattooed Serpent, the order to spread his word amongst his warriors as soon as the sun had risen. He descended to speak to the common people, but told them only that the Natchez had a great obligation to me. All of this discussion and the narrative that took place were put into action the following morning by way of my friend, who as Chief Temple Guardian had been present; he brought me game from the Great Sun who had begun to fulfill his promise.