Chapter Two [Vol. III, pp 15-25]

Of the Temples--Description of the Temple of the Natchez--Of the Temples of other Nations--Of their Tombs.

All the Nations of Louisiana have more or fewer ceremonies, in proportion to their population, although they have generally the same customs, or close to the same. The first Frenchmen in the colony observed at the time they arrived that all had a sacred fire and several other religious ceremonies, which have been abolished since the Natives have been reduced to numbers much fewer than they were then. Of all the temples of these people, that of the Natchez, which it was easy for me to examine, is also that of which I am going to give the most exact description that I can. None of the people of the nation enter this temple except the Suns and those who are attached to the [16] temple service by their employments. Ordinarily, strangers never enter there, but being a particular friend of the sovereign, he has allowed me to see it.

This temple, the front of which looks toward the rising sun, is placed on a mound of earth brought thither, which rises about eight feet above the natural level of the ground on the bank of a little river. This mound descends at a very gradual slope on the side toward the square. On the other sides the slope is more marked and on the side toward the river it is very steep. This temple measures about thirty feet wide on each side. The four angle or corner posts are of the inner part of the cypress tree, which is incorruptible. These trees in their natual condition appear to have a diameter of a foot and a half. They rise ten feet out of the earth and extend to the beginning of the roof. The Natchez state that they extend as much into the earth as above it, a fact which must make it secure against the winds. The other posts are a foot in diameter and are of the same wood, having the same length in the earth as above it. The wall is a rough mud wall, entirely smooth outside and a little sunken between [17] every [two] posts inside, in such a way that it is not more than nine inches thick in the middle.

The interior of this temple is divided into two unequal parts by a little wall, that cuts it from the rising to the setting sun. The part into which one enters may be twenty feet wide and the other may be ten, but in this second part it is extremely gloomy, because there is only one opening, which is the door of the temple itself, which is to the north, and because the little communicating door is not capable of lighting the second part.

There is nothing remarkable in the inside of the temple except a table or altar about four feet high and six feet long by two broad. On this table is a coffer made of cane splints very well worked, in which are the bones of the first Great Sun. The eternal fire is in this first part of the temple. In the other and more secluded part nothing can be distinguished except two planks worked by hand on which are many minute carvings which one is unable to make out, owing to the insufficient light.

[18] The roof of this temple is a vault, with a ridge pole not more than six feet long, on which are placed representations of three great birds [carved] on flat pieces of wood. They are twice as large as a goose, but they have no feet; the neck is not as long as that of a goose, and the head does not resemble it. The wing feathers are large and very distinct. The ground color is white mingled with feathers of a beautiful red color. These birds look toward the east. The roof is very neat outside and in. In fact, the structure and roof appear to be of a perfect solidity.

Many persons of unquestioned intelligence have seen this temple outside and all have said that it was very neatly patterned and well constructed. Those to whom I have related the manner in which it was built have told me that it was very substantial. But no one has seemed to me concerned to understand how they had been able to bring from a league away, where the cypress swamp is, without any vehicle, trees of such a size, how they could have dug out the earth to such a depth without tools, [19] or how finally they had succeeded in planting and dressing these trees without any machine. The reader may perhaps do as I have done. I am forced to guess, not being able to do anything else.

It is in this temple that two men tend the perpetual fire during each quarter of the moon. There are eight guardians for the four quarters, and a superior who is called chief of the guardians of the fire to command them and to see that they do their duty, and to have the wood brought for this fire. This wood must be clear wood. They employ for it only clear white walnut (or hickory) without bark. The logs are seven to eight inches in diameter by eight feet long. They are placed near the temple around the trunk of a tree with a rather short trunk. This tree is covered with thorns from the earth to the top. I have given a description of it in the natural history under the name of passion thorn [honey locust?]. I have never been able to find out why they have respect for this tree wherever they find it, unless it be on account of the employment to which it is destined. These guardians are interested in preserving the fire, for it [20] costs their lives to let it go out. There is besides, for the service of the temple, a master of ceremonies, who is also the master of the mysteries, since, according to them, he speaks very familiarly to the spirit. In the great ceremonies he wears a crown which has feathers only in front and is thus a half crown. He also has in his hand a red baton ornamented with red or white feathers according to the requirements of the feast. Above all these persons is the Great Sun, who is at the same time high priest and sovereign of the nation.

All the peoples of the universe have always had a great respect for the dead, and history teaches us some facts which prove that certain nations have even carried their superstitions to the point of extravagance. Those among my readers who regard the Naturals of Louisiana as "Savages" will perhaps not be able to imagine that they are capable of interring their dead in any other tombs than the stomachs of their closest relatives.

Nonetheless, among all the peoples of whom I have spoken thus far, there are none that [21] do not have a close religious attention for the dead. All have in truth their particular custom on these occasions, but all either bury them, or put them in tombs, and carefully bring them food for some time, something that they have doubtless carried over from their original lands, I would like to say in the Orient. One should not be surprised that they have such care for the dead, since they have the temples which are a sign that they have some species of religion, and all peoples who have any religion never fail to render the last respects to the dead. Everywhere one is seen as a poor kinsman who does not do this, and those who are not given a sepulchre are cursed with misfortune, and in effect punished with dishonor.

All the peoples of Louisiana have temples, which are more or less well cared for according to the ability of the nation, and all, as I have said, put their dead in the earth, or in tombs within the temples or very near them, or in the neighborhood. Many of these nations have only [22] very simple temples, which one would often take for private cabins. However, when one comes to know he distinguishes them by means of two wooden posts at the door made like boundary posts with a human head, which hold the swinging door with a fragment of wood planted in the earth at each end, so that the children may not be able to open the door and go into the temple to play. In this way the door can be raised only above these posts, which are at least three feet high, and it requires a strong man to lift it. These are the little nations which have temples that one would confound with cabins. The cabins in fact have posts and a similar door, but the posts are smooth, and the doors open sideways, because there is no fragment of wood at the end. A woman or a child is able to open these doors from the outside or inside, and at night one closes them and fastens them inside to keep the dogs from coming into the cabins. The cabins of the Natchez Suns have posts like those of the temples, but their temple was very easy to recognize in accordance with the description I have given. [23] Besides, near these little temples some distinctive marks are always to be seen; either small elevations of earth or some little dishes which announce that in this place there are bodies interred. Or one sees some raised tombs, if the nation has that custom.

These tombs are raised about three feet above the earth. They rest on four feet, which are forked sticks planted deep enough in the earth and well secured to support the tomb, which, supported and thus borne on these forks, is eight feet long by a foot and a half wide. They place the body with the head at one end in order that a space remain at the end where the feet are. Above the body they make an arbor of branches curved into a vault. They place straight pieces of wood at the head and at the feet, then then plaster these pieces of wood in order to inclose the body during a space of time sufficient to consume the flesh and dry up the bones. After this time they withdraw them to put them in a basket or coffer of cane covered with the same material and carry them into the temple with the others.

[24] As the body is not as long as the tomb, there remains a space of about a foot which is covered by the end of the vault but is not closed. It is there that they put the provisions that they bring to the dead for some tirne after death. In spite of their zeal to render the last duties to the dead, they are unable to satisfy themselves regarding those who are killed in war. They supply the deficiency after their manner, with sighs, tears, and cries, as soon as they learn the news, and often for longer than if they had died in the nation, where the custom is to weep for three days.

There is no nation of Louisiana which knows the custom of burning bodies, used among the Greeks and Romans, nor the custom of the Egyptians, who preserved them perpetually. But they solemnize them, as I have just said, sometimes with pomp, sometimes with smaller ceremonies, which they take great care to conceal from strangers. One only sees them if he is a friend of the sovereign and can be alerted to be present, or when it is necessary that they do it with so much flair that it [25] is difficult for them to conceal it, and for this they must be in the mood. I am going to describe these ceremonies to satisfy the curiosity of the reader, because of the part which I had in them, and because of the loss that the entire French post near by has since suffered, a loss in fact so considerable that I doubt whether the post has yet risen again. This was at the death of the Tattooed Serpent, my particular friend and the friend of all the French. He was great war chief of the Natchez Nation and brother of the Great Sun, who allowed him an absolute authority over the entire nation.