North American Indian Soulology

Of all our blog-segments for this series the present one is perhaps the most intriguing. For such a primitive culture the North American Indians notion of soul is far from simplicity—indeed, it is rooted in various soul-extensions or soul-pluralisms. Essentially, each tribe has its own soul-system. Different tribes have different notions of soul–hence, no uniformity amidst the tribes. Yet, one renowned scholar in the field, E.B. Tylor, developed and vividly pointed to the understanding of the general perception of this phenomenon by American Indians: “soul is a fine, immaterial human image, something like steam, air or shadow by its nature. It is the cause of life and thought in the creature it animates”. While multilayered, there are two dominant strains in this analysis: soul is formed from a root-verb, sken.

The body-sken stayed with the corpse, while the free-sken walked ahead. The latter lingered around the graveyard or wandered through the settlement scavenging edible left-overs. Under normal circumstances the free-sken did not leave the vicinity of the settlement until the Feast of the Dead, when, after collecting the souls of the goods given them on that occasion, they were properly placated and would depart for the land of the dead (‘village of souls’) located at the western edge of the world. On the way to this realm these travelling souls were detained at the abode of Oscotarach, or Tierce-head/ who removed their brains and stored them in pumpkins. (Amerindian Rebirth Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit, pg.43)

We shall break them all down momentarily, but first keep this in mind: The free-soul, “the separable soul”, “the disembodied soul”, the shadow soul, the image-soul, “the double” and the dream-soul are all well-known terms for the notion of psyche. (Ake Hultkrantz, Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians, 1953). Furthermore, all these soul-associations are stored in a collective-memory, or storehouse consciousness—similar in scope to our own Lankavatarian notions of the alaya-receptacle. In light of this there is a well-known popular belief that it is better not to wake up a sleeping person, for his soul which has set off on nightly wanderings may not have time to return into his body, which is very dangerous. Following Hultkrantz’s lead, we shall now present primarily verbatim the Phenomenology of the North American Indian soul-system.

The Life-Soul

The life-soul is the real organ or function-soul of the body, the “motor” responsible for the vital manifestations of the individual and evincing itself, accordingly, in the respiration, the activity of the heart, the beat of the pulse, the circulation of the blood and the muscle movements. Among many North American peoples the breath is, indubitably, an expression for the life-soul itself. Also, the life-soul need not be completely bound to the body. The reason for the detached character of the life-soul is doubtless that it is a potency in the individual which is not identical with particular organs but is a source of strength which imbues these organs—or the individual himself—with life and activity. The life-soul of the Bella Coola “is an ethereal substance, having the form of the body which it animates”. Also the Eskimo at Bering Strait conceive the life-soul as shaped in the image of man himself. Among the Fox tribe the life-soul appears already in the unborn child. If the life-soul is injured, this may affect the state of the body: if the life-soul of an Oglala falls into the power of the demon Crazy Buffalo, he becomes paralyzed. Among the Cowichan, the soul may literally fall apart into several pieces, which bodes the death of the individual. As a rule, the loss of the life-soul entails the rather sudden, often immediate, death of the individual.

The Breath Soul

In its more primitive sense, i. e. the notion of a life-soul identical with the breath, the breath-soul is difficult to define as a soul-entity inasmuch as it is conceived, according to the circumstances, as either a general expression for the life-soul or a specialized part of this life-soul. There can be no doubt but that the breath-soul, this fine materialization of the conception of the life-soul, is in itself a psychologically secondary soul-formation. It probably originated through the life-soul being bound to the breath, who’s at once ethereal and vitally essential character promoted the association. We have here to do with the fusion of two conceptions, life-soul and life-essence. The breath is primarily a concretization of the idea of the life-stuff, an almost visual, tangible image of the fluidally conceived life flowing through the body. Final identification between life-soul and breath—which has implied, inter alia, that the latter has come to be regarded as the substance of the life-soul—is everywhere so common, even where the original distinction is at times theoretically maintained, that we must in the sequel regard the breath as an undifferentiated entity with both life-stuff and life-soul aspects.

The mystically oriented speculation may be best characterized as a monistic doctrine of correspondence developed around the breath-soul and identifying this with the essence of the god head. An essential prerequisite for this speculation is probably that the breath should be regarded as in its essence akin to or even identical with the wind, the air or other atmospheric reality.

On etymological grounds Brinton constated such a conceptual connection among some peoples and then extended its validity to “all nations” in America, which as far as we know is by no means susceptible of proof. “The breath is nothing but wind”, he writes. “How easy, therefore, to look upon the wind that moves up and down and to and fro upon the earth, that carries the clouds, itself unseen, that calls forth the terrible tempests and the various seasons, as the breath, the spirit of God, as God himself?” The same viewpoints are also expressed by Hagar, who thought it possible to constate that “in most American Indian languages the word for ‘soul* is allied to those for ‘air’, ‘wind’, ‘breath’, the breath being thought to represent the animating principle derived from the Cosmic Spirit, or Soul . . . The individual soul was regarded as part of this Cosmic Soul which formed the principle deity of the American Indians.

That the Pueblo peoples have seen in the breath an emanation of the cosmic wind should not surprise us, since we have already seen how as a conception of life etc. the breath has been organized in accordance with the well-developed ritual apparatus of these peoples. Among the Acoma, man’s breath is a part of the atmosphere. The Zuni identify the breath with the wind and with the light.44 The Hopi believe that the whole universe is filled with the same breath — thus a systematic “pan-psychism”. A Hopi Indian of high cultic rank pointed out: “The universe is endowed with the same breath — rocks, trees, grass, earth, all animals, and men”. Among the three last-mentioned peoples we find a feather-symbolism which is extremely interesting in this connect ion: the feather (on the prayer-stick) is a messenger between the divinity and man, and it is said to represent the breath of life.

The Free-Soul

This is perhaps the most fascinating since it’s all-encompassing. Phenomenologically, the free-soul constitutes an unitary conception: the soul active outside the body. We may thus distinguish between two free-soul concepts:

  1. The “specific” free-soul: a soul which never functions as a bodysoul, but which appears as an extra-physical soul. It is commonly identical with the soul of dreams (“the dream-soul”). When it does not function outside the body it is passive.
  2. The “psychological” free-soul: a soul that on a given occasion functions as an extra-physical soul. Ideologically is represents a soul which, when not appearing as an extra-physical soul, is either a passive entity (the free-soul in a restricted sense, the “specific” free-soul) or else an active body-soul (life-soul, ego-soul). Every body-soul which is temporarily converted into an extra-physical soul manifests, on its extra-physical appearance (but never otherwise), the properties that are combined with a specific free-soul.

In its most typical form the free-soul is man’s extra-physical form of existence. Direct psychic experiences and inherited conventional beliefs conspire to keep the conception alive. It is best understood as a psychological conception within a strictly dualistic soul-configuration. In the regular dualistic soul-system the free-soul is a shadowy representative of the individual himself, a commonly neutral mirrorimage of the living, psycho-physical individual, with whom it stands in a constant reciprocal relation. The free-soul appears when the physical man does not appear as an actively operating being, for it is a conception which is identical with other people’s memory-images and recollections of the individual, and with the latter’s own impressions of his activity while dreaming and in states equivalent to the dreaming state.

From the individual’s viewpoint the free-soul in its genuine form is his own ego when the life-soul and ego-soul are not in action; in dreams and states of trance he experiences the natural and supernatural worlds through the free-soul. But in a genuine dualistic relation the free-soul conception may also appear as a consciously conceived potency. This potency appears easily enough as a personality alien to the individual. The way is thus paved for the conversion of the free-soul to a supernatural power and protective divinity.

For ordinary people the free-soul is for the most part the soul which operates while the body is sleeping. The free-soul fulfils its actual function only when it appears outside the body.

It is, certainly, only natural that the free-soul should appear as an image of the individual himself. The free-soul of the Eskimo is conceived as having the same appearance as the person with whom it is associated. The Eyak Indian believes that the soul resembles the individual, since it appears in dreams in the shape of the individual.

The Kwakiutl Indian conceives the free-soul as “a double of the person”. The free-soul is rendered among the Kwakiutl by “human long body”, among the Koskimo and a third Wakash group by “something human” or “human mask”. According to Sproat the Nootka conceive the (free-)soul as “a being of human shape and human mode of act ing”. And the Huron provide the soul with “a head, arms, legs,—in short, a body”.

The colour of the free-soul sometimes coincides with that of the shadow, inasmuch as it is conceived to be a dark soul. Thus Le Jeune writes that the Algonquin “represent the soul of man as a dark and sombre image”. Among the Quileute “the outside shadow”, i.e. the free-soul, is somewhat darker than the inner soul. The Lemhi are of the opinion that “the spirits of Indians are darker than those of white men”.The free-soul of the Maidu is grey in colour. Among the Cora a recently deceased person appears in the shape of a black man. The colour black is in North America frequently the colour of death. It is therefore easy to understand that among the Hamilton Shoshoni and among the Paranigat Paiute in south-east Nevada “death caused the soul to turn black”.

We have so far seen that the form of the free-soul is determined by its relation to the human being—it appears as a pale image of the human being—, or by its relation to a supernatural sphere—it appears as a symbol of light. This does not, however, exhaust the forms that the free-soul may assume. It may sometimes retain the external feat ures due to its intimate connection with the individual, but at the same time manifest its supernatural provenance by changing size.

The Shoshoni also conceive of the soul as a miniature being. This applies to the Nevada Shoshoni, and to the Gosiute, who conceive the soul to be of the size of a pea. The transparent soul of the Lemhi Indians is 10 inches high. The free-soul among the Wind River Shoshoni is still smaller: “very thin and one inch high”. The free-soul of the KwakiutI Indian shrinks to the size of a thumb when the shaman demonstrates it in his hand; but if it is placed on its owner’s head it grows until it fills out the entire body. A KwakiutI woman declared: “In the day time it is small, but when we are asleep, it is big, when it travels about where it is going”.

The supernatural capacity of the free-soul refers not only to quantitative, but also to qualitative, changes of shape. Thus the free-soul may appear in a non-human shape; it then as a rule assumes the features of some animal. This conception of the soul-animal has presumably its origin in the experiences of dreams and visions, and it is therefore psychologically closely akin to the notion of the guardian spirit, which in one and the same visual hallucination looks now like a human being, now like an animal.

The most important of all free-souls is the soul of the dream-situation. The dream-soul undoubtedly constitutes the “purest” free-soul; it has nothing in common with the body-soul, since the body-soul never appears in dreams.

The mystical [soul] extensions

1 The Shadow

Both through its resemblance to the individual and through its intimate connection to him, the shadow is a part of the individual: it has his characteristic contours, and it is in constant, direct contact with him, when he is out in the sunshine. In consequence of these properties, the shadow has two evolutionary tendencies: firstly, towards an ordinary free-soul, and secondly towards a double-ganger.

The shadow is thus for the most part understood as a mystical entity. The Wind River Shoshoni boast of having been able to conjure up shadows of themselves, against which their enemies have shot without injuring them. But as a rule the shadow has a mystical quality, even if its appearance does not betray anything uncommon or unexpected. Its normal function is sufficiently mystical nevertheless. The shadow, which independently of the individual’s actions follows close upon his heels and imitates his actions, is a mystical extension to him.

Among the Bella Coola the shadow is considered to be an extension of the individual, as emerges clearly from their fear of the shadows belonging to mourners at a death. Boas remarks of these mourners that “their shadows are considered unlucky, and must not fall on any person”. The ghost, which after death works mischief in the immediate surroundings of the living, seems to be identical with the shadow. As we have pointed out earlier, the shadow resumably functioned as a mystical extension of the individual also among the Cowichan, though is was also given the character of a soul. The Ottawa believed that is was possible to kill a person by drawing annihilating pictures on his shadow; and according to Curtis the Atsina classified the shadow among the mystical potencies which had attained soul-dignity—whatever may be the value attachable to this statement.


Regarding the aforementioned there was an episode of the Night Gallery series during its first season entitled, “Certain shadows on the wall,” starring Agnes Moorhead and Grayson Hall (of Dark Shadows fame) A dying invalid listens to her brother (a doctor) read from Dickens as their shadows are projected on the wall behind them.

Tired of playing this role to the lingering dying woman, the brother decides to slowly poison her with arsenic. She eventually succumbs.

Upon dying, her “shadow” is embedded on the downstairs living room wall.

Her shadow is immoveable and cannot even be painted-over! (Interesting note, if you click on this image it will be enlarged. Notice the bottom picture behind the Shadow—it’s of an Indian brandishing a spear! Interesting synchronicity.)

Her poisoner (brother) is in turn poisoned by his other sister with the ensuing result that his shadow appears next to the other…reading passages from Dickens.

A Wintu Indian said: “When you walk in the sun sometimes you see two shadows—a dark one and a light one. The dark one is heavier and stays on earth when you die. The other one goes up above. The dark one is the bad one, the one which makes all the trouble. The light one stays with the body three days after a person dies. That is why you should wait three days before burying people. The dark one leaves the body a month before a person dies”. It is of course not out of the question that in the last analysis an optic phenomenon lies behind the belief in the two shadow-souls. However this may be, the physical shadow has as a dark soul been incorporated with the soul-ideology, and one has the impression that this was done so that it might be possible to duplicate one and the same soul-conception.

2 The External Soul

On the boundary between soul and mystical extension is also the so-called external soul. By external soul we mean an essence bound up with the individual’s life which participates not only in his life, but has the complete and exclusive function of sustaining this (without, however, being identical with the individual as such). Legends of the Algonquin tell of the external soul in an obscure part of the body, commonly in the heel or in the toe. Thus we find the heel of Achilles in a Penobscot tradition: when the heel is shot, the heart preserved there is also shot. The Wawenock, an Indian tribe of the Abnaki group, believe in a supernatural being who carries a piece of gold in his mouth. He once put it down to be able to drink, it is said, and a hunter took advantage of the opportunity of stealing it. The spirit then cried: “My friend, please do give me back that, my gold . . . That is my life”. The Central and Plains Algonquin have two types of narratives with the motif of the external soul: in the one we are told of an evil magician whose heart is on a remote island (the Algonquin, Ojibway); in the other, which is identical with the widespread tradition of the Bear Woman, the episode of her “life” is adduced, here as the heart placed in the little toe (the Cree, Ojib way, Arapaho, Atsina, Blackfoot).The Ojibway, for example, relate that one could only kill her by wounding her in the toe with a needle. Through the motif “life in toe” the narrative of the Bear Woman appears in an Algonquin oicotype form.

3 The double-ganger (Doppelganger)

With “double-ganger” or “double” we refer of course generally to the conception of a replica of the individual resembling him in all essentials, yet being not himself, but his wraith. a double-ganger is a spiritual being coordinated with the individual and connected with his existence, and for different reasons—sometimes on account of its resemblance to him—identified with him and appearing simultaneously with its human partner, but in another place.

A secondary distinguishing feature of the double-ganger is that it is not, like the shadow, merely an attendant being following in its owner’s wake, but is generally freer in its movements, unbound by both time and space. Among the Naskapi, where the soul is called “companion-being” or “corresponding-being”, and among the Polar Eskimo and the Mohave, who conceive of the shadow-soul as a shadow altogether outside the body, the double-ganger is incompletely developed.

The double-ganger most often makes its appearance at or before a death. “The special meaning of the term ‘double’, as the so-called ‘spiritual double’, is”, writes Crawley, “the ‘wraith’ or visible counterpart of the person, seen just before or just after or at the moment of, his death.”

One night a Sinkaietk Indian “heard an adult weeping in the next room which was supposedly empty. On the following morning it became known that the owner of the house had died”. Dr. Hooper communicates the following experience of a couple of Cahuilla Indians. “August Lomas and his wife, of Martinez, a young couple of excellent education, told me of an experience they had about a year ago. They were in bed one night and knew that they had locked their doors, but they heard someone come in, walk all around the room, and then walk out again. That same night, Mrs. Lomas’s sister had the same thing happen in her home. A few months later their uncle died, so they knew then that it was his telewel (soul) that had been wandering around”.

The owl is both the free-soul—double-ganger and the dead person. Not every one can appear after death in, as it is termed, an “owl’s mask”; but the majority may wear it. The owl with which the ego is united after death exists already in this life as a closely related being, whose life must be respected; if the owl is killed, the person is killed. This is explained by the fact that “one side of us is an owl”. It is stressed that the owl is not an ordinary soul (free-soul). But the connection

with the free-soul is nevertheless obvious. The owl is apostrophized as “you who are the owner of my soul”; “you are not seen when you are inside of me”. The owl is evidently the soul as double-ganger. But it is also a guardian spirit, as appears from the Indian’s greeting to the owl when the latter has come flying and alighted on his head: “Welcome, Supernatural One, thank you for coming, trying to come to me that I may see you, Long-Life-Maker. Please, do not leave me and pray, take good care of me that nothing evil may befall me, you, Long-Life-Maker”.

4 The guardian soul

In its special function the guardian soul is helper and protector. When the soul and the supernatural power meet in one and the same conception, we may speak of “the guardian soul” or “the power-soul” —the terms should be used as interchangeable synonyms. The guardian soul is a spiritual entity whose whole essence is leavened with supernatural power. It is associated with the individual as a personal guardian spirit to which he is subordinate, and it is often as independent in relation to its owner as is an ordinary guardian spirit acquired from without. It helps and supports, watches over and punishes its protege; and it sometimes receives sacrifices from him. But at the same time it has functions which show its close connection with the free-soul of dreams and visions.

When the soul has become an independent being outside or by the side of the individual, it frequently appears as a forewarner, gives premonitory signs concerning coming events and warns the person if danger is threatening. The guardian soul of the Bella Coola causes its owner to recollect in time important things that he has happened to forget; “his spirit is always striving to pierce the future and obtain information for him, however indefinite”. The soul’s activity frequently, of course, becomes that of the warner, especially retrospectively. “Looking back after the event, a man easily persuades himself that he ‘felt’ a warning, and is more than ever convinced that his spirit, the cause of his thoughts, has supernatural ability”. Sudden pains and physical changes give symbolic hints of misfortunes that will occur.

But the guardian soul also punishes the one it is protecting, viz. when its wishes have not been fulfilled or its bidding has not been done. If among the Wind River Shoshoni a medicine-man does not follow his guardian soul’s instigation to steal the souls of other people, he will be overtaken with misfortune.

Of course, in our own accustomed cultures, this soul is regarded as one’s Guardian Angel.

The Shamans (or Medicine Men)

No study would be complete without reference to the form of Shamanic Culture indigenous among the tribes. The Shaman, enters supernatural realms particularly when the tribe is facing adversity or need to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness.

Still, “the shaman was not a healer in any physical sense. He gave neither medicine nor bodily treatment, but through the power of the spirits he controlled, he exorcised and contended with those who caused sickness” (Emmons 370). It was considered that diseases (except, probably, different types of external damage such as fractures, wounds, etc.) were caused by evil spirits. Thus, “the Dakota think that spirits punish people for bad behavior, especially for failing to observe the rites for the deceased. These spirits have the ability to send into the person’s body the spirit of any creature or object, for example, the spirit of a bear, deer, turtle, fish, tree, stone, dead person; these spirits cause illness when entering the person” (Тэйлор 161-162). Healing usually goes one of the two ways: either the medicine man “extracts” or conjures away the foreign spirit or (in extreme cases) he has to set off for the soul of the sick person which has already almost left the body and to return it back. Breath is often used in treatment: the disease can be “blown away” or “sucked out.” We have mentioned above that one of the essences of soul is breath; hence, we may conclude that it is not even the medicine man himself, but his soul that interacts with the soul of the patient and the spirits residing in his body. The Tlingit, as well as many other tribes, believe that if the medicine man has to start on a journey in search of the soul of a seriously ill person, it can be caught and returned back to the body, resulting in the person’s recovery or, at least, avoiding the threat of death. The Ojibwe even believe that “a good medicine man can return the soul from the land of the dead right after the moment of death.” When the sick person himself resorts to the medicine man wanting to be healed, the latter can bring him into a trance during which the patient’s soul unconsciously travels, while medicine men can fall into this state intentionally. This helps him to “liberate” his own soul and direct it to where he deems it necessary. (Concept of Soul among North American Indians, Oksana Y. Danchevskaya Moscow State Pedagogical University)

It’s interesting to note that all these beliefs reflected in the mythology, rituals, superstitions, and traditions of American Indians are still passed from generation to generation thus remaining an integral part of their culture. My own home is located in the Mohawk Valley of upstate NY. Just four miles west is the majestic Auriesville Martyrs Shrine.

This is the location where the Mohawk Indians were faced contending with the arrival of the Jesuit Missionaries. Several of the Jesuits were beheaded with their bodies left to rot and be consumed by ravenous dogs. Thus, this area is considered to be sacred ground by the blood of the Martyrs. The entire area of this valley is steeped in Indian Lore. I’ve made an ambient video (Dark Ambient From the Mohawk Valley) of this connection on my Bodhichild YouTube Channel. My Original Sound-Source of this video was produced using my own DAT Recorder back in the pre-dawn hours of a spring morning in 2003. The sound was later mastered ten years back. Starting at twilight and extending through the early pre-dawn hours, the heart of the Mohawk Valley (in upstate NY) produces an enveloping sound that brings comfort, like a dark womb, whilst simultaneously evoking images of some dark presence afoot:  Strange Night Birds. The Ancient Spirits of the Mohawk/Iroquois gliding through the somber night air; all bracketed by the recurring ghostly-wails of the night trains winding their way throughout the sleeping valley. The effect is most captivatingly atmospheric and arouses both solace and haunting mindscapes.

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