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A person dies—and it is supposed that an enemy has secured the agency of an evil spirit to compass his death. Some sorcerer employed by the friends of the deceased for that purpose pretends by his incantations to discover the guilty individual or family or at any rate to indicate the quarter where they dwell. A near relative of the deceased is then charged with the work of vengeance. He becomes a kanaima or is supposed to be possessed by the destroying spirit so called and has to live apart according to strict rule and submit to many privations until the deed of blood be accomplished.

If the supposed offender cannot be slain some innocent member of his family—man woman or little child—must suffer instead. Thus while the demon is the direct cause of sickness and death the sorcerer who uses him as his tool is the indirect cause. The demon is thought to do his work by inserting some alien substance into the body of the sufferer and a medicine-man is employed to extract it by chanting an invocation to the maleficent spirit shaking his rattle and sucking the part of the patient's frame in which the cause of the malady is imagined to reside.

As soon as the patient fancies himself rid of this cause of his illness his recovery is generally rapid and the fame of the sorcerer greatly increased. Should death however ensue the blame is laid upon the evil spirit whose power and malignity have prevailed over the counteracting charms.

Some rival sorcerer will at times come in for a share of the blame whom the sufferer has unhappily made his enemy and who is supposed to have employed the yauhahu in destroying him. The sorcerers being supposed to have the power of causing as well as of curing diseases are much dreaded by the common people who never wilfully offend them. So deeply rooted in the Indian's bosom is this belief concerning the origin of diseases that they have little idea of sickness arising from other causes.

Some deaths attributed to sorcery and others to evil spirits; practical consequence of this distinction. In this account it is to be observed that while all natural deaths from sickness and disease are attributed to the direct action of evil spirits only some of them are attributed to the indirect action of sorcerers. The practical consequences of this theoretical distinction are very important. For whereas death by sorcery must in the opinion of savages be avenged by killing the supposed sorcerer death by the action of a demon cannot be so avenged; for how are you to get at the demon?

Hence while every death by sorcery involves theoretically at least another death by violence death by a demon involves no such practical consequence. So far therefore the faith in sorcery is far more murderous than the faith in demons. This practical distinction is clearly recognised by these Indians of Guiana; for another writer who laboured among them as a missionary tells us that when a person dies a natural death the medicine-man is called upon to decide whether he perished through the agency of a demon or the agency of a sorcerer. If he decides that the deceased died through the malice of an evil spirit the body is quietly buried and no more is thought of the matter.

Lecture 2 The Savage Conception of Death - The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead

But if the wizard declares that the cause of death was sorcery the corpse is closely inspected and if a blue mark is discovered it is pointed out as the spot where the invisible poisoned arrow discharged by the sorcerer entered the man. The next thing is to detect the culprit. For this purpose a pot containing a decoction of leaves is set to boil on a fire. When it begins to boil over the side on which the scum first falls is the quarter in which the supposed murderer is to be sought. A consultation is then held: the guilt is laid on some individual and one of the nearest relations of the deceased is charged with the duty of finding and killing him.

If the imaginary culprit cannot be found any other member of his family may be slain in his stead.

Savage Pellucidar

However it would seem that among the Indians of Guiana sickness and death are oftener ascribed to the agency of sorcerers than to the agency of demons acting alone. For another high authority on these Indians Sir Everard F. Strange ceremonies are sometimes observed in order to discover the secret kenaima. Richard Schomburgk describes a striking instance of this.

A Macusi boy had died a natural death and his relatives endeavoured to discover the quarter to which the kenaima who was supposed to have slain him belonged. Raising a terrible and monotonous dirge they carried the body to an open piece of ground and there formed a circle round it while the father cutting from the corpse both the thumbs and little fingers both the great and the little toes and a piece of each heel threw these pieces into a new pot which had been filled with water.

A fire was kindled and on this the pot was placed. When the water began to boil according to the side on which one of the pieces was first thrown out from the pot by the bubbling of the water in that direction would the kenaima be. In thus looking round to see who did the deed the Indian thinks it by no means necessary to fix on anyone who has been with or near the injured man. The kenaima is supposed to have done the deed not necessarily in person but probably in spirit. It is not always in an invisible form that these spirits of sorcerers are supposed to roam on their errands of mischief.

The wizard can put his spirit into the shape of an animal such as a jaguar a serpent a sting-ray a bird an insect or anything else he pleases. Hence when an Indian is attacked by a wild beast he thinks that his real foe is not the animal but the sorcerer who has transformed himself into it. Curiously enough they look upon some small harmless birds in the same light. One little bird in particular which flits across the savannahs with a peculiar shrill whistle at morning and evening is regarded by the Indians with especial fear as a transformed sorcerer. They think that for every one of these birds that they shoot they have an enemy the less and they burn its little body taking great care that not even a single feather escapes to be blown about by the wind.

On a windy day a dozen men and women have been seen chasing the floating feathers of these birds about the savannah in order utterly to extinguish the imaginary wizard. When any beloved or influential person died nobody we are told would think the each of attributing the death to natural causes; it was assumed that the demise was an effect of sorcery and the only difficulty was to ascertain the culprit. For that purpose the services of a shaman were employed. Rigged out in all his finery he would dance and sing then suddenly fall down and feign death or sleep.

On awaking from the apparent trance he would denounce the sorcerer who had killed the deceased by his magic art and the denunciation generally proved the death-warrant of the accused. Again similar beliefs and customs in regard to what we should call natural death appear to have prevailed universally amongst the aborigines of Australia and to have contributed very materially to thin the population.

On this subject I will quote the words of an observer.

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His remarks apply to the Australian aborigines in general but to the tribes of Victoria in particular. The first is that infanticide is universally practised; the second that a belief exists that no one can die a natural death. Thus if an individual of a certain tribe dies his relatives consider that his death has been caused by sorcery on the part of another tribe.

The deceased's sons or nearest relatives therefore start off on a bucceening or murdering expedition. If the deceased is buried a fly or a beetle is put into the grave and the direction in which the insect wings its way when released is the one the avengers take. If the body is burnt the whereabouts of the offending parties is indicated by the direction of the smoke.

The first unfortunates fallen in with are generally watched until they encamp for the night; when they are buried in sleep the murderers steal quietly up until they are within a yard or two of their victims rush suddenly upon and butcher them. On these occasions they always abstract the kidney-fat and also take off a piece of the skin of the thigh.

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Lecture 2 The Savage Conception of Death

These are carried home as trophies as the American Indians take the scalp. The murderers anoint their bodies with the fat of their victims thinking that by that process the strength of the deceased enters into them. Sometimes it happens that the bucceening party come suddenly upon a man of a strange tribe in a tree hunting opossums; he is immediately speared and left weltering in his blood at the foot of the tree. The relatives of the murdered man at once proceed to retaliate; and thus a constant and never-ending series of murders is always going on. At other times a bucceening party will return without having met with any one; then again they are sometimes repelled by those they attack.

Belief of the tribes of Victoria and South Australia. Consequently on the first approach of sickness their first endeavour is to ascertain whether the boollia [magic] of their own tribe is not sufficiently potent to counteract that of their foes. Should the patient recover they are of course proud of the superiority of their enchantment over that of their enemies: but should the boollia [magical influence] within the sick man prove stronger than their own as there is no help for it he must die the utmost they can do in this case is to revenge his death.

It is chiefly in cases of sudden death or when the body of the deceased is fat and in good condition that this belief prevails and it is only in such contingencies that it becomes an imperative duty to have revenge. Upon this statement which was in their opinion corroborated by the circumstance that the snake had drawn no blood from the deceased her husband and other friends had a fight with the accused party and his friends; a reconciliation however took place afterwards and it was admitted on the part of the aggressors that they had been in error with regard to the guilty individual; but nowise more satisfied as to the bite of the snake being the true cause of the woman's death another party was now suddenly discovered to be the real offender and accordingly war was made upon him and his partisans till at last the matter was dropped and forgotten.

From this case as well as from frequent occurrences of a similar nature it appears evident that thirst for revenge has quite as great a share in these foul accusations as superstition. However other experienced observers of the Australian aborigines admit no such limitations and exceptions to the native theory that death is an effect of sorcery.

Thus in regard to the Narrinyeri tribe of South Australia the Rev.


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Daniel Bunce an intelligent observer and a gentleman well acquainted with the habits of the blacks says that no tribe that he has ever met with believes in the possibility of a man dying a natural death.