The Powhatan Indians likely worshipped many spirits, of which the Jamestown colonists recorded only a few: Okee, Ahone, the Great Hare, an unnamed female divinity, and the Sun. Among these, the localized Okee appears to have been the most important on a day-to-day basis. Although the word Okee appears to have been borrowed from the Iroquoian-speaking Huron, the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans apparently used it in almost the same way: to refer to spirits in general or, more probably, a category of spirits immediately involved in Powhatan activities. According to the colonists, the Powhatans sought Okee's approval for many of their activities and frequently offered him sacrifices of tobacco, blood, deer suet, and other items.
Some accounts report that Okee was supremely ugly, leading some early colonists to associate him with the Christian devil. Others, however, describe him as a handsome young warrior or hunter whose hair is about five feet long on the left side and cut short on the right. To secure favor with Okee, secular Powhatan men wore their hair in the same fashion. According to one account, the ugly Okee rules the afterworld, and he may have been associated with warfare; there is one mention of a war party carrying his effigy into battle. He was considered to be a punitive spirit who, if angered, brought famine, drought, illness, and infidelity. The handsome Okee, by contrast, was thought to be a master of the animals. A category of spirit common among American Indians, he protects certain species of animals and either offers them to or withholds them from hunters. Okee was also said to have introduced the Powhatans' ancestors to important cultural forms and to have created some or all of the world they knew.
Another account ascribes that creation to Ahone. The Powhatans described Ahone to the English as a benevolent, peaceable god living in the highest reaches of the heavens, who rules all other divinities as well as the Earth. He is the source of all good things, from the change of seasons to bountiful harvests to social harmony, and because it is his nature to provide these things, he requires no sacrifices; in fact, the Powhatans appear not to have paid him much attention at all.
The Great Hare appears in a Patawomeck creation myth. Living in the East, he is accompanied by the four winds or, sometimes, by the guardians of north, south, east, and west. According to the myth, the Hare creates men and women, confining them in a large bag. After repulsing giants interested in eating the people, he creates the waters, fish, and a single large deer. But then, against his wishes, the Hare's companions kill and eat the large deer. For each recovered strand of deer hair he creates a single, normal-sized deer, after which he releases the women and men, placing one of each in separate territories on the Earth.
The sole reference to a female divinity comes in connection with the Patawomecks' Great Hare. This anonymous goddess inhabits a halfway house on the road to the afterworld, near where the Great Hare lives in the East. Described as offering fine food and hospitality for travelers, she was thought to be a source of strength during the passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. While the Powhatans may have recognized other female spirits—for instance, they may have personified as female corn, beans, squash, and other staple foods—there is no evidence one way or the other.
Just as Okee may have overlapped with the Great Hare in some regards, so too may the Great Hare have been equivalent to the Sun, or at least have shared some of his attributes. Sun worship was common among Indians in southeastern North America; they associated the Sun with the creation of the world or of culture, claiming that it was a life force and sometimes even an ancestor. They often equated it with fire, especially the sacred temple fire or the household hearth. The Powhatans swore oaths by placing one hand on the heart and pointing with the other to the Sun; sometimes they swore by the mamanatowick, or paramount chief, possibly suggesting an equivalence between the two. Another account describes the Powhatans worshipping the Sun either at sunrise or sunset by making a circle of dried tobacco on the ground, sitting or kneeling within it, and praying to the Sun with outstretched arms, contorted faces, and even a "foaming at the mouth" that suggests a trance state.
Saponi Indians, like the Powhatans, recognized a supreme creator god and a number of helper-spirits. Unlike the Powhatans, however, they believed that this world was just the most recent of many created by the god, previous ones having either disappeared or been destroyed. The Saponis also credited their god with rewarding the virtuous among them with health and wealth while liars and cheats suffered from hunger and chronic illness.
Shamans also served as doctors, approaching patients in a trance, shaking a rattle over their bodies, and singing and chanting. They sucked the patient's diseased area in order to draw out the illness and then applied a poultice of herbs that included a powder made of the red puccoon root, which the Powhatans also used to make body paint as well as for sacrifices to Okee.
Although not all anthropologists agree, there may have been two degrees of kwiocosuk, based on age. The junior members were more active and communicated with laypeople, while the elders were more socially isolated and enjoyed considerably more authority. All shamans were distinguished from ordinary Powhatan men in both their appearance and habits. Instead of the asymmetric hairstyle of a secular man, the kwiocos shaved his head, leaving a short fringe of hair at the front and a Mohawk-style crest, stiffened with bear grease, running from front to back. While other Powhatans painted their faces and upper bodies red, shamans wore black paint. Unlike laypeople, they wore their deerskin cloaks with the hair outside. Again, although not all anthropologists agree, they may have been celibate, living in the quiocosin either alone or with other shamans, and they may not have engaged in the ordinary activities of men—gardening, hunting, fishing, house-building, canoe-making, making war. In exchange for their council, the weroance provided for their needs.
Among the Powhatans, the quiocosin served as both a temple and a house for the kwiocosuk. The quiocosin was at least as large as a chief's house (20 feet wide and up to 100 feet long, according to the colonist William Strachey) and usually situated in remote forest areas; entrance was forbidden to all but shamans and chiefs. Oriented east to west, with a door on the eastern end, the quiocosin was partitioned off into two areas. The east end, being a gathering place for priests, was empty save for a central fire that was never allowed to go out. The more restricted western end housed wooden carvings, including one of Okee. Other carvings took the form of posts or pillars set upright in the ground, the upper ends of which featured likenesses of human heads (perhaps suggesting ancestors or spirits). The western room of the quiocosin also housed a platform on which the Powhatans placed the bone bundles and valuables of their dead weroances, or chiefs. It was the shamans' responsibility to look after these bones prior to burial.
Powhatans, who were almost constantly at war, also sacrificed their prisoners. While all enemies were eligible for capture, only the lives of women, children, and weroances were spared; the male prisoners were killed. The ceremony involved lighting a large fire in a wide, shallow pit and letting it burn down to hot coals. In the meantime, the Powhatans tied their captive to a nearby tree and over a period of hours broke his bones, cut off parts of his body, including pieces of skin, and threw them into the fire. Then they ripped open his abdomen and tossed his innards into the fire. Finally, they cut loose from the tree whatever remained and gave that, too, to the coals.
While not described in historical accounts, the Monacan Indians, who lived in the Piedmont east of the falls of the James River, may have built large burial mounds there that could be twenty feet high or more. Excavations suggest that the mounds' builders practiced secondary burial, in which the dead are placed in temporary graves, usually until only the bones remain, after which they are deposited in permanent graves. This probably happened every five years or so, when an extended social group, such as a clan or a village, gathered to honor and bury together everyone who had died in the interim.
Conjuration and Dance
John Smith describes in detail two other Powhatan religious rituals. The first occurred in December 1607, after a hunting party led by the Pamunkey weroance Opechancanough captured Smith. In an effort to "conjure" whether Smith's intentions were friendly, Opechancanough gathered his seven highest-ranking kwiocosuk, near or at Uttamussak. The ceremony lasted three twelve-hour days, with a feast punctuating the end of each day. While his subordinates wore red and black, the leading shaman was painted all in black. He wore a headdress of stuffed snake skins, weasels, and other animals all tied together at the tails and placed so that their skins fell down all around his head and face; their tails, meanwhile, formed a tassel at the top of his head. To create a model of their world, the shamans drew three or four concentric rings around a central fire: the first, made using corn meal, represented their own country, Tsenacomoco; outer rings of corn kernels represented the seacoast; and rings of short, smooth sticks denoted the English. After each part of the ceremony was accomplished, the shamans sang and shook rattles. The Powhatans determined that Smith's intentions were indeed friendly, but the ceremony's purpose likely also was to call upon one or more gods to accept the Englishman into their world.
Although Virginia Indians did not seek converts to their religion, and though they were willing to incorporate the Christian God into their pantheon, the English insisted on attempting to convert the Indians wholly to their own way of thinking. In Virginia the method was not missions; until the advent of the Brafferton Fund early in the eighteenth century (which paid for the Indian school at the College of William and Mary), all the missionizing was done by individual planters who hired young Indians as employees. Many Indian people resisted the conquerors' religion, which seems to have created a period of religious limbo in the eighteenth century, when the old practices were no longer meaningful but the English ones were distasteful. When the changeover came, it was not at the hands of the Church of England (now the Episcopal Church) but at those of itinerant Baptist missionaries, who preached a less formal and more egalitarian version of Christianity. Thus it came about that most of the surviving Indian tribes in Virginia have tribal churches that are Southern Baptist today.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Huber, M. W. Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2013, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Religion_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret Williamson. "Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 16, 2011 | Last modified: January 29, 2013
Contributed by Margaret Williamson Huber, professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, and author of Powhatan Lords of Life and Death (2003).