Part 1: Nûñ’yunu’wï
Mankind seems to have an inherent fascination with witchcraft. From Merlin in King Arthur’s court to Voo Doo in the Carribean it is celebrated in some cultures and, as with the Salem Witches, denounced by others. The Cherokee had their share of witches. Sometimes the difference between a witch and a medicine man was a very fine line. But the distinction was important because the medicine man was revered, but the witch was reviled.
Although James Adair made mention of Cherokee witchcraft in 1775, it wasn’t until 1891 that any serious research was published. James Mooney’s monumental works, “Myths of the Cherokee”, “Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees” were the culmination of 36 years of research living among the Cherokee while working for the Bureau of American Ethnology. These works are still the most comprehensive and authoritative publications on the subject. His notes were later the subject of the book “The Swimmer Manuscript”.
In the 1960’s, the subject was comprehensively studied by two distinguished scholars, Dr. Jack Frederick Kilpatrick and his wife, Mrs. Anna Gritts Kilpatrick, both Cherokee. They interviewed hundreds of Cherokee and collected texts and notes written in native script (Sequoyah syllabary). They translated these texts and published numerous books and monographs. Later, their son, Alan Kilpatrick, studied their work and collection and wrote a very enlightening book, “The Night Has a Naked Soul”, that looks at traditional Cherokee religious practices from a Cherokee anthropologist’s point of view.
In this Native American Antiquity series, I want to pull from these sources and take a look at what the characteristics of a Cherokee witch were. Let’s start with Nûñ’yunu’wï, which translates as “Stone Clad”. Quoting from Mooney, “This is what the old men told me when I was boy.
“The hunter was frightened, and felt sure that it meant mischief, so he hurried on down the mountain and took the shortest trail back to the camp to get there before the old man. When he got there and told his story the medicine-man said the old man was a wicked cannibal monster called Nûñ’yunu’wï, “Dressed in Stone,” who lived in that part of the country, and was always going about the mountains looking for some hunter to kill and eat. It was very hard to escape from him, because his stick guided him like a dog, and it was nearly as hard to kill him, because his whole body was covered with a skin of solid rock. If he came he would kill and eat them all, and there was only one way to save themselves …”
I love this story because I think it is an excellent example of the creative story-telling of the Cherokee. Next week, we will find out what one thing could stop Nûñ’yunu’wï and then discuss the characteristics this amazing witch may share with other witches and what the implications may be.