Medicine leagues of the Iroquois

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The Iroquois medicine associations are associations of members of an Iroquois tribe in the sense of religious cult communities , which, with the help of traditional public and secret ceremonies, should not only heal or avoid diseases , but also the health and well-being of society, nature, the cosmos, the Spiritual and ancestral worlds, even the deities preserved. The medicine associations were therefore an important part of traditional religion and thus took over many of the functions of medicine men . In connection with North American Indians, the word “ medicine ” also stands for the “mysterious, transcendent force behind all visible appearances”. The Iroquois call this power Orenda . In the cosmology of these people, it is the actual cause of everything that happens, connects every living being with all elements and ensures a "healthy balance".

The emergence of the medicine frets

There are no early reports that can provide concrete evidence of the existence of medicine societies. Statements by Jesuits who lived with the Iroquois, however, repeatedly point to events that suggest the existence of the medicine associations in the 17th century . However, it is uncertain whether these already fulfilled other functions than the healing of humans and nature. Only with the reform efforts through Handsome Lake will we be certain of the existence of such covenants.

Handsome Lake founded a religion that was a mixture of the traditional Iroquois religion and Christian doctrine. The medicine leagues were a thorn in the side of the prophet because they embodied the conservative Iroquois doctrine and did not fit into the new way of life . That's why Handsome Lake banned the medicine frets. The leaders of the leagues refused to dissolve the societies and carried them on in secret. The rites of the leagues were held in hidden places for a number of years. The members of the medicine societies surprisingly succeeded in keeping the existence of their societies a secret not only from the American public, but also from their tribesmen. Even well-known scientists such as Lewis Henry Morgan believed that the frets no longer existed. Although the followers of the New Religion were supported by the Christian missionaries , they did not succeed in eradicating the medicine societies.

After Handsome Lake's death, the medicine frets were allowed again. The covenants changed insofar as they no longer held certain esoteric rituals in public. Thus the medicine associations were slowly integrated into the New Religion. As a result, the frets even experienced a real renaissance.

After 1850, the influence of whites began to have an increasing effect. And with the whites, there was also an alternative for healing the sick. More and more Iroquois turned to the whites instead of the medicine associations when they fell ill.

The followers of Handsome Lake as well as the members of the leagues subsequently behaved rather conservatively and thus distanced themselves from the followers of the Christian religion, whose endeavors to assimilate in American society since the 20th century . The more conservative Iroquois, on the other hand, try to maintain their Indian traditions. Therefore one finds the medicine frets today mainly in the settlements of the Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga.

The statistics show the increasing importance of Christianity and thus also of Western medicine , which is purely human-oriented . According to the Superintendent of the Indian Superintendent's annual report of 1889 regarding the Grand River Iroquois : 64 percent Christian, 20 percent longhouse religion, 16 percent unknown affiliation. Eight years later the ratio was already like this: 78 percent Christian, 22 percent longhouse religion. This picture did not change significantly until 1959. 80 percent said they were Christians, 19 percent felt they belonged to the longhouse religion. It is noticeable that the younger people were more likely to be members of the Christian church and the older people more likely to follow the traditional religion.

The middle of the twentieth century marked the end of an era in which the healing of the sick and religion were a matter of medicine associations. Instead, the two areas were separated from one another: most Iroquois now went to church to practice their religion and, if they were ill, to the doctor or hospital.

The different medicine frets

Despite the massive acculturation in the world of the Europeans, the medicine associations still exist with some tribes today. Some ceremonies are carried out in public, others in secret, so that no reliable statements can be made about them (in this respect, the following text is in the past tense) .

If a mohawk was not feeling well, he went to an herbalist. If the patient was unable to help, the patient's relatives asked a seer for advice. He told them the names of the ceremonies that could help the sick person. Sometimes several ceremonies were necessary. As a final attempt, a medicine society was asked for help.

The healing of diseases, the maintenance of cosmic equilibrium and were the main purposes of the leagues, but not the only one. Prevention was very important . Each covenant knew ceremonies - consisting of songs and dances - in which the gods and spirits were to be appeased. Another function of the secret societies besides healing and protection was the preservation of spiritual traditions. This explains the rather conservative character of the members of medical associations (see also: Cold culture ) . The fourth aspect to be mentioned is integration: if the Iroquois defeated an enemy tribe, they were accepted into their own population. The federal system did a lot to integrate these people into the Iroquois culture.

In addition to the secret medicine leagues, there are also leagues that follow the same pattern but serve different purposes. As an example one can cite the public “agricultural medicine associations”, whose rites serve the growth of crops such as corn, beans and pumpkin. Such associations can also make healings. The rites of these leagues were important in both the sowing and harvesting of crops and vegetables.

The Iroquois know five annual festivals at which the ceremonies of the medicine leagues are carried out. There is no consensus in the literature about the various medicine associations. An exact number of frets cannot be given because old frets disappeared or continued to exist under a new name, and since other frets were newly created. This mainly applies to smaller, locally existing frets. Even so, most of the frets are consistently named by all authors.

Points of contact and differences between the frets


To become a member of a covenant, one either had to be healed by it or one must have dreamed of becoming a member of that covenant. There are two other ways to join a covenant, namely through heredity and through hysteria .

Hereditary initiation occurs when a corresponding dream vision experience is given through the parents' narratives. The fourth entry option occurs, for example, when a spectator of a public ritual falls into a state of obsession or hysteria. He can only be saved from this stage if this ritual is performed over him. Particularly in the False Face Association, the Bear Association and the Bison Association one speaks of this possibility of entry.

The following initiation options are mentioned in the literature:

  • Through a corresponding dream
  • Because of an illness
  • By inheritance
  • Through hysteria

But also with memberships through heredity, illness or hysteria, the dream plays an essential role, so that an initiation is usually justified by a dream.

Dreams and visions play a central role in the life of the Iroquois. They also take shape in cult objects, for example in masks. The dream is the prerequisite for obtaining a personal protective spirit. This should be helpful to the owner with illnesses, with the admission into a secret society and in general with the mastery of life. So the dream of a certain animal made it possible to join a secret society.

Anthony FC Wallace distinguishes two types of dreams among the Iroquois: the symptomatic dreams and the visitation dreams.

With symptomatic dreams the wishes of the dreaming come to expression. Such a wish is interpreted by the dreaming or by a clairvoyant - in a few cases by a male clairvoyant. If a physically or mentally ill person had a symptomatic dream, this entailed a ritual act - usually through a medicine association. This act had to be repeated periodically in the rites of renewal. The midwinter festival plays an important role in this. But there were also other festivals, dances and rites. For example, the Ohgiwe ceremony of the ghost association freed us from constantly tormenting dreams of deceased relatives or friends. If someone dreamed of false faces, rites of this covenant were necessary. If one dreamed of dwarfs, one went to the dwarf union. One went to the Eagle League when one dreamed of bloody birds. The small water covenant appeared when one dreamed of illness or physical violence and injury.

During the visitation dreams, no banal earthly things appear, but rather powerful supernatural beings who speak personally to the dreamer and give him important messages about his life or about society. In such dreams it is important to make the message of the dream public, since in the dreams it is not the wishes of the dreamer but of the supernatural being that are anchored. If these wishes were not fulfilled, the being could bring bad luck to the dreamer and even to the whole of society.

These dreams were like divine commands. All powerful clairvoyants and the chiefs were called together and discussed together on how to fulfill the wish or how the announced catastrophe could be prevented. The dreamer himself often took on a new role, such as that of the messiah or the public counselor.

Handsome Lake was such a dreamer. In the literature mainly three categories of dreamers are described: Young men in the puberty period, who have to renounce their childhood wishes and favors; Warriors who fear captivity and torture; and the sick who fear death.

A second possibility to join a covenant opened up to an Iroquois when he was freed from a serious illness by a medicine man. There was even an obligation to join the relevant covenant because one had inevitably got to know the secret healing rites. This was done gladly, as the admission meant protection by the federal doctors. The only condition was secrecy and regular participation in the federal renewal rites, which are held at least once a year. If one did not participate, the energy could turn negative and cause harm to the person concerned.

In principle, one can state that one automatically became a member of a covenant if one was an eyewitness to a ritual. It made no difference whether one witnessed this ritual voluntarily or involuntarily. From then on one had to attend the renewal rites at least once a year. Otherwise one would get sick or bring on other misfortunes.

Just as you can become a member of a covenant by dreaming of it, so you could quit if you had a dream.

Organization of the frets

The societies mentioned above are actually much more of an organization because they have permanent officers for the various components of their rites, because they have executive officers, and because they have certain objects that serve very specific purposes. In addition, those who have not performed some kind of initiation rite are not allowed to attend their ceremonies. The origins of the rites are explained in legends. Members are not allowed to bring the elements of the rites outside. They may only be used in the corresponding ceremony.

The Iroquois believe in the existence of good and bad spirits. They want to please the good and not anger the bad. The good not only help people, but are constantly at war with the bad. According to the Iroquois imagination, everything lives around them: animals, trees, even stones. They are very careful to give the animals an explanation first before killing them.

The leagues met regularly for ceremonies. These were held either in a private house or in a long house. Women also have access to most of the leagues. For some, such as the Dwarf League or the Ghost Association, only women have access.

Rites and legends

Most of the frets are very old and have been passed down with almost no change for centuries. Most of the rites were sung by all members together. Even the smallest change in a word would have been noticed immediately. Some of the rites contained archaic words or even entire sentences that the singers could no longer understand.

Each covenant has a legend explaining the rites. Most of these legends portray the founder of the covenant as a lost hunter, a cast out orphan or something similar. The founders got into great trouble, saw strange or familiar animals performing rites, they were discovered, they were forgiven, they were adopted and in the end, after much observation and learning and many warnings, they were sent back to their people, to teach the secrets of the rites there.


  • William N. Fenton: Masked Medicine Societies of the Iroquois. In: Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1940. United States Government Printing Office , Washington 1941.
  • Wolfgang Lindig: Secret societies and men's societies of the prairie and woodland Indians of North America. In: E. Haberland (ed.): Studies on cultural promotion. Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1970.
  • Arthur C. Parker: Secret Medicine Societies of the Seneca. In: American Anthropologist. Col. 11, 1909, pp. 161-185. (Reprint: Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York 1962)
  • Sally M. Weaver: Medicine and Politics among the Grand River Iroquois - A study of the Non-Conservatives. In: National Museum of Man Publications in Ethnology. No. 4, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa 1972.

Individual evidence

  1. a b Heide Göttner-Abendroth : Society in Balance. Gender, equality, consensus, culture in matrilineal, matrifocal, matriarchal societies . Documentation of the 1st World Congress for Matriarchy Research 2003 in Luxembourg. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-17-018603-5 , p. 273.
  2. ^ Norbert Kohnen: Medicine Man. In: Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haarge, Gundolf Keil, Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 956.
  3. Marcel Mauss : Sociology and Anthropology. Volume 1: Theory of Magic / Social Morphology. (= Classic of the social sciences). 1st edition. VS-Verlag, Wiesbaden 2010, ISBN 978-3-531-17002-2 , pp. 145-146.