With Superbowl weekend upon us, make sure you read the footnotes for a full appreciation of E.A. Blair’s wonderful piece on a part of America’s long forgotten past.
There is considerable evidence that in North America, earlier, monotheistic religions had been displaced by totemic systems of worship. This coincides with succeeding waves of migrations which overwhelmed, displaced and eventually absorbed previous indigenous populations, each of which was marked by accompanying waves of technological advancement and innovation.
There can be no doubt that the old faith had been almost entirely supplanted by the closing years of the first century. Surviving records of the time are overwhelmed with news related to the rituals of the tribal priest – warriors, with major sections of chronicles devoted to such accounts, while little is ever mentioned about forms of worship previously dominant. This also marks the rise of male-dominated households. Prior to this period, women managed home life and were responsible for the religious training and welfare of succeeding generations, while the men left the household to perform the tasks of labor and trade in support of the family economy. This female-dominated society was an idyllic time of peace and tranquility which in later years was viewed with a heavily romanticized nostalgia.
This was replaced by a culture in which women began leaving the home to assist in the family labor, while the main sources of religious education in the home fell almost exclusively under male domination. The totemic religions which arose were centered on a cycle of seasonal death and rebirth in which the totem creature was considered to have died in autumn or winter and miraculously reborn in spring. The manifestations of these totems showed considerable regional variations, with local cults dominant near their centers of worship but seldom exclusively so.
The liturgical calendar began in spring, with a period of preparation, followed by a long series of rituals representing the ordeal of maturing. This culminated in a frenzied celebration in mid-autumn; as this approached, the priest-warriors of the mature phase of the god began preparing for the post-autumn rites culminating in the death of the god. There is also evidence that a ritualized “Battle at the End of the World” took place, accompanied by great feasting with the food served in sacred vessels. These feasts were tumultuous social occasions, with an abundance of grain and dairy products, potent beverages and animals sacrificed over sacred fires. These meals were accompanied by animal sounds and gestures among the men in imitations of the animal represented by the local god.
Most of these gatherings were strictly segregated by gender, with women relegated to separate rooms or left to gather together to celebrate Female Mysteries. While the spring rites were more open to women as worshipers, the fall rituals were much more a male province. At that time, unlike earlier, all priests were men.
A typical example of primitive American totem worship is the Midwestern bear-cult centered on an ancient settlement in the southern Great Lakes region. Born in the spring as a cub, it matured to a bear in the fall, only to die and be reborn. Surviving contemporary records clearly show that the exact date of the bear-god’s death was not fixed, and could occur anywhere from shortly after the autumn equinox until the first new moon after the Winter Solstice. These chronicles definitely declare that in some years the bear died shortly after the Equinox. Such early deaths were considered an omen of a bad season to come. In particularly grim years, worship focused on sacred cattle until the bear’s rebirth in spring when the people reluctantly returned to the practices of the bear-cult. Lively religious debates took place among men both in private and public, punctuated by ritual gestures and greetings.
Many variations on this myth existed in other regions. Further east a tiger-god metamorphosed into a lion sacrificed in winter. A variant cult from the far west focused on spiritual guides or messengers which transformed into avenging warriors or domestic birds (providers of eggs, a fertility symbol) perhaps in response to conditions of war or peace with neighboring tribes.
The totem-gods were arranged in four major and several lesser families with each god locked in an eternal struggle for domination of his pantheon. The priest-warriors of the lesser pantheons were sometimes elevated to the service of the greater gods before they, in their turn, became sacrifices themselves. Few priests ever served in more than one pantheon in their lifetimes. In cases where a settlement lacked a local temple devoted to one or the other of the families of gods, religious allegiances formed along tribal boundaries. When two temples of the same pantheon existed in proximity,violent holy wars often broke out among the worshipers.
There are still many unanswered questions regarding this era of ancient history. For example, centers of worship appear to have disappeared entirely from a region at the end of a season, temple and all, only to reappear half a continent or more away, with no loss of fervor among the adherents. Some scholars have suggested that such miracles are evidence of divine disfavor, although the settlements so affected appear to have suffered no other harm. Others insist that the sort of engineering required was only possible with extraterrestrial aid. One fragmentary contemporary report claims that a powerful wizard once moved a temple over a great distance overnight, but this is a matter of skepticism and debate. Much more credible is a recently proposed theory that the inhabitants of some settlements built unused temples in hopes of attracting a god’s favor.
The actual facts remain the object of continued study and rediscovery. We can be thankful that we live in an enlightened, less violent age.
1 Thus, in discussing the period, we speak of the Bicycle People, the Automobile People, the Refrigerator People and the Washing Machine People, each of which themselves had many subcultures within them.
2 That is first century F.E. (Ford Era, named for the legendary king reputed to have been the founder of the First Industrial Age).
3 Surviving records indicate a gender-based struggle for something called a “Remote Control”. The etymology of this term is uncertain; Some think that it may refer to a magical talisman or image of a household god. The social backlash to this schism was the most significant step in the collapse of the First Industrial Age and the establishment of the Monogenderist Momarchies under which population levels declined to disastrous levels.
4 Parallel to the totem religions was a religious oddity: a male fertility cult obsessed with the worship of a “Triple Goddess” who passed through three life stages: Waif, Supermodel and Star. This represents an elevation to the status of sky goddess.
5 Some sources suggest that the foods were all mixed together in sacred pottery referred to as a “super bowl”.
6 The reconstructed local pronunciation, “Sh’cargo”, indicated evidence that the area’s first settlers were members of a Cargo Cult, worshiping the artifacts of advanced societies as sources of magical power.
7 E.g.: “How ’bout dem bears?”
8 Many totems were taken from animals presumed to have been part of the local wildlife (e.g., bears, rams) or as sacred temple mascots not usually native to the area (e.g., tigers, bengals). Others appear to have been deified tribal names (e.g., braves, redskins), but a whole host of names (e.g. packers, mets, supersonics) still defy translation or interpretation.