Saturday, December 03, 2005

Snake oil and pea bug misunderstandings

The other day, I was listening to talk radio, a commentator made a reference to "snake oil". Very few people know the origins of that phrase but I believe it has its origins in Cherokee legend.

(note:) a larger account of the snake legend(s) can be found here!

The ancient Cherokee believed that the snake was a supernatural being. Some snakes were once human and turned into snake form but all had an intimate connection with the rain and thunder gods and the plant and animal "tribes". The most feared and respected, of the snake "tribe", was the rattlesnake.

The rattlesnake was named (utsa'natii) which can be translated as, "he has a bell", referring to the rattles. Most Cherokee went out of their way to avoid killing a rattlesnake and if one had to be killed, even by accident, the action had to be atoned for by asking pardon of the snakes ghost, through the mediation of a priest, according to a set formula. Otherwise the dead snakes relatives would send one of their number to bite the offender or a member of his family so that they would die.

The rattles, teeth, flesh, and oil were prized for occult or medical uses. Certain priests, (shamans, medicine men) who knew the necessary rituals for pardon, killed the snakes for this purpose. This also provided a lucrative business for the less than ethical, (both Indian and white). The oil was prized for its healing properties and was said to relieve the pain of rheumatism and sore joints among the Whites as well as the Indians.

The shamans and priests lost favor among the Indians after a couple of smallpox outbreaks in the 1700s that almost killed off the tribe reducing it to one point to a number of less than 9000 from estimates of a population that I have seen as high as 50000. I have heard there were reprisals taken against surviving shamans. As far as I know, (and I freely admit that my knowledge is far less than complete), nothing substantive remains of the original religion(s) and rites although there is still a herbal tradition practiced in the eastern and western bands.

unscrupulous traveling salesmen would wonder from town to town selling their, "genuine Indian snake oil cure", and who had any idea what it really was or what was in it!

On a more humorous note:

Pea bug, what Warren "thought" his wife called a wood louse (e.g. pill bug, sow bug, rolly-polly bug), what she actually called it, was pee bug.

I realized my mistake when ol' Shortfuse .357, (i.e. my wife Jackie), said her grandmother made pee bug tea and made the kids drink it if they peed in the bed. Her grandmother, (half Apache), apparently learned the recipe from her Apache mother, (by accounts, a little, dark, scrawny woman with a hot temper and skin like tree bark, only refered to as "granny").

I asked my wife if it worked and she said, "Well... I didn't pee in the bed, but I didn't go to sleep either. I'd rather stay awake all night than drink pee bug tea!"

Interestingly enough, wood ice do not urinate; instead of excreting urine, woodlice excrete their nitrogenous waste in the form of ammonia gas. Sounds homeopathic to me but how would Indians know that "pee bugs", don't pee?


Update: I found this interesting letter from Richard L. Allen:

Psuedo Shamans Cherokee Statement

By Richard L. Allen, EdD Research &
Policy Analyst Cherokee Nation

Copyright © 2001 RLAllen
All Rights Reserved


The Cherokee Nation is overwhelmed with those charlatans who fraudulently claim to be shaman, spiritual leaders or descendents of a Cherokee princess. Such individuals make such claims without ever having lived within the Cherokee communities. They claim to be descended from some nebulous and mysterious ancestor who was from "a reservation in North Carolina" (there is only one) or "a reservation in Oklahoma" (there are none). The ancestor is never just a plain ordinary everyday Cherokee citizen but a "Cherokee Princess," a "Cherokee Shaman," or a "Cherokee Pipe carrier" none of which actually exist or ever have. Those who claim to be "shaman" do not reside within the known boundaries of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Cherokee medicine people and spiritual leaders are known to the Cherokee people and do not practice medicine for a fee nor sell "shamanic" lessons to anyone. They do not advertise their services through any form of media and certainly not over the internet. Traditional Cherokee healers and spiritual leaders provide their services to the Cherokee people. A Cherokee medicine person or spiritual leader is fluent in the Cherokee language and would conduct any medical or spiritual practices by using the Cherokee language. Therefore, our medicine people are those who were born of a Cherokee mother and a Cherokee father and would have been reared within a Cherokee community speaking the Cherokee language. Our traditional Cherokee healers and spiritual leaders are humble people and would not present themselves as such nor "hang out a shingle" so to speak. Cherokee medicine people are acknowledged and recognized by members of the Cherokee community as effective healers and leaders. It is the recognition of the Cherokee people that validates these persons as medicine people and healers not self-proclaimation. We may provide them small gifts, a token amount of money or foodstuffs in payment for their services. They do not charge for their services nor would they withhold their services when asked and they certainly would not prescibe payment by credit card. Cherokee medicine people may provide services to recognized members of other tribes or may provide services to non-Indians who would seek them out for treatment, but certainly would not mix their spirituality or medicine with that of other nations. Cherokee medicine and spiritual practices do not include tarot cards, palmistry, psychic readings or sweatlodge ceremonies.

One may assume that anyone claiming to be a Cherokee "shaman, spiritual healer, or pipe- carrier," is equivalent to a modern day medicine show and snake-oil vendor. You have my permission to print this response as is.

Richard L. Allen. EdD
Research & Policy Analyst
Cherokee Nation
P.O. Box 948
Tahlequah, Oklahoma 74465


Always On Watch said...

The ancient Cherokee believed that the snake was a supernatural being....Most Cherokee went out of their way to avoid killing a rattlesnake and if one had to be killed, even by accident, the action had to be atoned for by asking pardon of the snakes ghost, through the mediation of a priest, according to a set formula.

Interesting the Cherokees' positive take on the snake (Pardon the rhyme--not intentional).

I know you're an expert on Cherokee lore. Are you also aware of the feathered serpent, Quetzacoatl? I believe that Q was sacred to the Aztecs, but for different reasons.

If you're interested, information on Quetzacoatl can be found here.

Warren said...

Always, although I appreciate the sentiment, I wouldn't consider myself to be an expert. :^)

Thank you for linking to that article. I'm aware of Quetzacoatl, but I've always found it hard to get a grasp of the legend(s). The article you linked to cleared that up.

From the disjointed tales I had read, it was hard to tell if Quetzacoatl was an actual human who had achieved "godhood" or something else entirely. Now it appears intertwined with the equivalent of a messiah legend with a human(s?) assuming the role of earthly incarnation.

Always On Watch said...

I am a Spanish major, so I have some understanding of Q. Not an in-depth understanding, though, because almost all my literature reading in college was that of Spain's.

As you already know, I love studying legends, particularly those of the Cherokee because the tribe has some presence in east Tennessee, from which my mother's family originated. Do I have any Cherokee blood? Not that I know of, but my great-grandmother had a Cherokee look in the one photo I have of her.

Esther said...

OK, this was a really cool post! Didn't know that about snake oil. Thanks for sharing it.

Warren said...

Always, do you know the rattlesnake legend (the story)? There are two different ones that I know of, one of them is a story of "balance" or Cherokee justice, the other is similar to the tale of the scorpion and the turtle.

The legends/stories, may be divided into, (some say two types, I say three). The first type are tales that teach a lesson or convey a "truth". The second type are similar to the "just so" stories, similar to "Why the Bear has No Tail". The type I would consider as a third, are the stories of creation and supernatural beings. I would place "Boiling Pot Creek" as a lesser example of that third type.

BTW, the first European contact of the Cherokee, was with Spaniards. Of course, they were looking for gold.

Esther, you are most welcome.

beakerkin said...

Sow bugs are related to horshoe crabs. They have a giant oceanic relative that is on display in the Coney Island Aquarium.

Always On Watch said...

No, I don't know those legends, as far as I know, though I am familiar with "How the Bear Got His Tail." Where can I find the stories?

Beak is right about the sow bug. We used to call a sow bug a roly-poly or a pill-bug, but never a "pea" [sic] bug.

Warren said...

Always, their are many good places on the web where traditional Cherokee legends and stories are recounted. I will link a few but a google search for (Cherokee stories legends) will return many more.

As with all, "oral tradition", these stories trend to be repeated in slightly different form reflecting the difference of memory and drift between generations, families and clans. A few raise my doubts about their originally, being to similar to Celtic legends, (no doubt that there was much assimilation of Celtic tales from the many Scot Irish that became part of the Cherokee Nation).

Here are two that will get you going and I will link more later, if you wish.



I must leave for work now, I will post more later. :^)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, snake oil and all that other voodoo, black magic you people engage in...{i jest of course]
Actually your pride in your heritage is refreshing considering the state of the Indian here in canada. To say i was stunned to see their lifestyle here during a trip into the praries is an understatement.
Racism when in comes to the blacks or any other race is a joke compared to what the Indian goes through.

Always On Watch said...

I'll check those links. Off to work right now.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about that last post about black magic/voodoo..
but clearly i have offended Indians everywhere considering the dream/vision? I experienced two days after.
"Have you had enough" I was asked, by an Indian.
Eventually I had and threw my arms in the air and said "I've had enough!"
The dream/vision dissolved and I plummeted back,[in a circular fashion] awakening only to check myself for the scars that i was sure would still be there.
Have i said I'm sorry?...LOL

Warren said...

Clearly the response of a guilty conscience!

I didn't take offense, you're among family here. As far as I'm concerned, you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard. The cat may reply in kind! ;^)

I meant to reply but my post ended up being so convoluted that when I read it, I thought someone hacked my computer.

I'm going to speak of extremes and generalities, so don't think this applies to "all" of any group.

Basically, there are rich tribes and poor tribes. It seems to me that the poorer tribes are the plains raiders that never adjusted to the cultural shock.

They had two choices they could leave the reservation and embrace the change or stay and rely on the "good will" of the governments that had conquered them.

The first choice leaves you disconnected from your people and gains you their animosity and ridicule. The second leaves you a beggar.

For good or evil, my ancestors took the first path, (they weren't plains raiders), as did my wife's, (some of hers were). To the reservation Indians, we are "White Indians". one of the kinder things they say. To some whites, even to this day, we are "Breeds" and "mud people". I think its funny, (although my mother didn't). I think its funny that some inbreed peckerwood is proud of his lack of melanin, like he had something to do with it.

Some reservation Indians are proud that their ancestors turned their backs on the white world, like they had something to do with it. Figuratively, they dance "The Ghost Dance" and dream of the day when God will destroy all the whites.

Elijah, I will tell you this, there is no room in this world for plains raiders. There are no more herds of buffalo to follow, that life is gone and romanticized. Life was nasty, short and brutal.

We must all adapt to change, its the only thing that remains constant in this world.

They complain of a lack of spirituality in the white world, but true spirituality comes from the inside and is not a reflection of the world around us. The reflection of our spirituality is seen in the effect we have on those around us. In the end, we will not be judged on the cross we bear but upon how we bear it.

In the mean time, it is good to have friends we can joke with and share our thoughts, people we can call friend. :^)

Warren said...

Always, links to the Rattle Snake stories.

These two fit into the first ("truth") group.


In the second link you will also find the creation myth and two, "just so", stories that might have been in the first two links.


Anonymous said...

So unusual and "real" was the experience, and I can say this having had "out of body experience" [oh no I will now be considered a "wacko"]
that I actually woke up and went to longrange.blogspot half expecting a reply to my post something to the effect of "how was it"...