Monday, December 11, 2017


In the Ojibway language, Kitchi-Gami means Lake Superior.  Johann Georg Kohl (1808-1878) was a German travel writer, geographer, and ethnologist.  In 1855, he spent six months visiting trading posts and missions in Ojibway country near Kitchi-Gami, mostly at the Apostle Islands off the north coast of Wisconsin, and at the settlements at the base of Keweenaw Bay, in northern Michigan.

Kohl’s book, Kitchi-Gami, was published in 1860.  It presents a different perspective from John Tanner’s 1830 book, The Falcon.  Tanner was a white man, kidnapped as a boy, who spent 30 years among the Ojibway, had a hard life, and described his many struggles.  Kohl was a visitor from outer space who was fascinated by the Ojibway.  He interviewed many, learned a lot about their culture, and discussed numerous subjects not mentioned by Tanner.

Kohl was eager to record as much as possible about the Ojibway, because it looked like Native Americans were rapidly dying off, and would soon be gone.  At the same time, the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were working to preserve remnants of the traditional culture of Germany, because the rustic folks who still remembered bits of it were also dying off.

Both the Ojibway and wild Germans were cultures that inhabited vast ancient forests, sacred places of magic, mystery, hungry wolves, and mystical little people (fairies).  Kohl noted that the folktales of both had similar themes and lessons.  Ojibway birch bark wigwams were of comparable quality to the huts of poor peasants in Lithuania, Ireland, or Polish Jews.  Like Scandinavians, the Ojibway fished at night using torches.  Germany had witches or sorcerers who could cause others harm by curses, charms, or spells.  The Ojibway had Windigos, men or women possessed by evil spirits who were terribly common.

Kohl’s gift to us is a remembrance of the closing days of the wild frontier, when Ojibway country was relatively unmolested, except for its furbearing animals.  The St. Mary’s River was the eastern outlet for Kitchi-Gami.  Bears crossed it during seasonal migrations.  In 1811, the migration lasted all summer, and 6,000 bears were killed, as many as 100 per night.  Before Kohl arrived, the greedy fur mining industry in the region had peaked, sharply declined, and moved westward.

Near the St. Mary’s River was a settlement named Rivière au Désert, because it was a ghastly, hideous eyesore in the wilderness — scruffy patches of oats or barley planted amidst stumps.  “Nature is here, at the outset, a pleasing wild forest garden; but when civilized man breaks into it, his axe and his fire produce a desert of half-carbonized tree stumps and skeletons.”  French Canadians call these patches of cultivation “un désert.”

Kohl was fascinated by the spiritual life of the Ojibway.  In Germany, the black robes commonly taught that the world is a hellish nightmare of demons, wickedness, and abominations.  The Ojibway, on the other hand, loved their sacred land, and cared for it.  Their culture was not fixated on the soul’s path in the afterlife.  They had a vibrant spiritual connection to life in the here and now.

Unfortunately, the here and now was sharply different from the good old days.  Kohl chatted with an old woman whose name meant “dawn.”  He called her Aurora.  The blitzkrieg of civilization had pushed the Sioux out of their forest homeland, and westward onto the prairie.  Tribal warfare intensified.  People no longer felt safe.  Aurora had lost three brothers, and ten other close relatives.  She said that the Ojibway were far weaker since the Long-knives arrived.  They used to be healthier and stronger, able to go ten days without food and not complain.  Their traditional culture was withering.

He was amazed to learn about the Ojibway vision quests, which were part of their rites of passage into adulthood.  Nowhere in Europe did young boys or girls courageously “fast for days on behalf of a higher motive, retire to the most remote forests, defy all the claims of nature, and fix their minds so exclusively on celestial matters, that they fell into convulsions, and attained an increased power of perception, which they did not possess in ordinary life.”  Sometimes it took ten days of fasting to have important dreams.

In Germany, Christian preachers taught their flocks to give away their wealth, and live a life of unconditional love.  Native Americans were perplexed to observe that the teachings of the black robes often had no association with their behaviors.  The aliens seemed to be possessed with a frantic desire to seize and hoard as much wealth as possible.  They were arrogant, domineering, and impressively dishonest — the opposite of loving.

The Ojibway actually practiced what the Christians preached.  “As a universal rule, next to the liar, no one is so despised by the Indians as the narrow-hearted egotist and greedy miser.”  Voyageurs and traders regularly travelled through Indian country with valuable goods and full purses.  There were no police or soldiers in the wilderness, but it was very rare for a trader to be attacked for the sole purpose of robbery.  But the two big fur trading companies “often plundered each other’s posts, and employed the Indians for that purpose.”

Kohl was impressed by the charity of the Ojibway.  “There are no rich men among them.”  An Indian will not hesitate to share his last meal with a hungry stranger.  The principle is “that a man must first share with others and then think of himself.”  He was also impressed by their egalitarian society.  No man, not even a cripple, considered another Indian to be his superior.

Kohl was not a hunter-gatherer in Germany, and he was not raised in an egalitarian society.  He did not understand that hunting abilities varied greatly.  In The Art of Tracking, Louis Liebenberg noted that among the San hunters aged 15 to 38, “70 percent of all the kudu kills were made by only 17 percent of the hunters, while almost half the hunters made no kudu kills at all.”

The “communist” Ojibway annoyed him with their absolute commitment to generosity.  The poor hunter “is forced to give all his spoil away, industry is never rewarded, and the hard-working man toils for the lazy.  A man often has to support others, without complaining.  So, all are fed, and none ever get prosperous.”  The heathens were more Christian than the Christians.

Liebenberg wrote a lot about persistence hunting — running after game until they collapsed from exhaustion (a practice that led to our ancestors becoming bipedal).  Kohl noted that the Ojibway also did this.  Horses were not ideal for hunting in a forest.  Running down elk was easiest in the deep snows of winter, when the hunter travelled on snowshoes.  Sometimes bears were chased down.

One day, when Kohl was in the Apostle Islands, “A warlike maiden suddenly appeared, who boasted of having taken a Sioux scalp, and she was led in triumph from lodge to lodge.  I was told that a supernatural female had appeared to this girl, who was now nineteen, during the period of her great fasts and dreams of life, who prophesied to her that she would become the greatest runner of her tribe, and thus gain the mightiest warrior for husband.”

Women were healers, prophets, and enchanters.  “It may be easily supposed that these squaws, owing to their performing all the work of joiners, carpenters, and masons, have corned and blistered hands. In fact, their hands are much harder to the touch than those of the men; and, indeed, their entire muscular system is far more developed, and they are proportionately stronger in the arm, for the men do not do much to bring out the muscle.”

Raised in rigidly strict Germany, Kohl was amazed by how loving Ojibway parents were.  “Indians have an ape-like affection for their children.  Even fathers are very kind to their sons, and never treat them with severity.”  Europeans often exposed (abandoned) unwanted children, but the Ojibway never did.  But when the elderly could no longer keep up with the band, they were left behind.

In Kitchi-Gami country, there were numerous locations named Lac du Flambeau (Torch Lake).  In summer, when vast clouds of mosquitoes made life miserable, the deer waded into lakes and ponds, just keeping their heads above water.  Hunters in canoes quietly moved toward them from downwind, with birch bark torches burning.  The deer calmly stared at the light, and were easily killed.

So, dearest reader, there’s a sampler.  Kohl also described their wigwams, canoes, diet, food preservation, sugar making, fishing, clothing, revenge killing, warfare, spells and magic, medicine, vision quests, dreams, ceremonies, stories, reverence for copper, symbolic drawings on birch bark paper, and on and on.

Kohl, Johann Georg, Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, 1860, Reprint, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, 1985.

NOTE: Early editions of this book refer to the Ojibway as Ojibbeway.  These people are also known as the Chippewa and Anishinabe, in a variety of spellings.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Northern Antiquities

Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) was a Swiss historian who had a fondness for the Teutonic (Germanic and Scandinavian) tribes of northern Europe.  Their strength, ferocity, and devotion to total liberty eventually enabled them to reduce the Roman Empire into a bloody blotch of road kill.  Mallet had no fondness whatsoever for the corpulent, decadent, oppressive Romans <spit!> and their legions of slaves.  The Teutonic tribes enjoyed a life of magnificent freedom.  Listen:

“They were free because they inhabited an uncultivated country, rude forests and mountains; and liberty is the sole treasure of an indigent people; …and he who possesses little defends it easily.  They were free because they were ignorant of those pleasures, often so dearly bought, which render the protection of a powerful master necessary.  They were free because hunters and shepherds, who wander about in woods through inclination or necessity, are not so easily oppressed as the timorous inhabitants of enclosed towns… and because a wandering people, if deprived of their liberty in one place, easily find it in another, as well as their sustenance.  Lastly, they were free because, knowing not the use of money, there could not be employed against them that instrument of slavery and corruption, which enables the ambitious to collect and distribute at will the signs of riches.”

The second great achievement of the Teutonic tribes, according to Mallet, was eventually abandoning their demonic indigenous spirituality and converting to the one, and only, non-demonic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of a volatile Middle Eastern sky deity.  In Northern Antiquities, Mallet tried to sum up what was known about these tribes prior to conversion.  It provided a window between the early Roman observers, Julius Caesar (51 B.C.) and Caius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 98), and the later Christian historians, like Adam of Bremen (1076), Saxo Grammaticus (born about 1150), and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He also cited a number of less famous sources, now obscure, which help make his book unique, but not flawless.

Twenty centuries ago, Tacitus described the wholesome, old fashioned animism of the German tribes.  “They conceive it unworthy of the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.”  In the pagan era, northern Europe was still largely covered with a vast primordial forest.  If you wanted to travel, you used a boat.

Unlike modern multinational religions, in Teutonic spirituality, female deities played prominent roles, and the living natural world was sacred.  Odin’s companions were ravens and wolves.  Mallet wrote, “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, the sun, moon, and stars had each their respective divinity.  The trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, winds, thunder and tempests had the same; and merited on that score a religious worship, which, at first, could not be directed to the visible object, but to the intelligence with which it was animated.”

A thousand years later, near the end of the pagan era, their deities had become humanized — wise, crazy, loving, gullible, brutal, lusty, fickle, and so on.  The pantheon of deities was patriarchal, headed by Odin, the All Father.  By now, the Indo-European influences were unmistakable.  Indo-Europeans were a culture from eastern lands that spread across the west, leaving a pattern of closely related patriarchal pantheons.  They spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).  Half of humankind today speaks Indo-European languages, including almost all modern European languages.

Tuesday is Tyr’s day, honoring the war god.  Wednesday is Odin’s day (Wotan’s day), dedicated to the shaman, poet, magician, singer, and chief war god.  His wife Frigga was Mother Earth; the Saxons called her Ostara (Easter).  Thursday is Thor’s day, for the red haired, skull crushing thunder god.  Friday is the day of Freyja, the goddess of love.  The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year, Mother Night.  This was the time of the Jul feast (Yule), a celebration of Frey, the sun, with hope that the coming year would be bountiful.  Today Yule time has become a surreal marketing holiday.

In Denmark, every nine years, a ceremony was held in January.  “The Danes flock together in crowds, and offer to their gods ninety-nine men, as many horses, dogs, and cocks, with the certain hope of appeasing the gods by these victims.”  A similar ceremony was held in Uppsala, Sweden.  After the sacrificial humans and animals were killed, and their blood drained, their bodies were hung from trees in a nearby sacred grove dedicated to Odin.

From the perspective of ecological sustainability, the humanization of deities activates flashing red warning lights – it is not a characteristic of sustainable cultures.  Human supremacy is a standard symptom of self-destructive societies (see Jensen and Livingston).  Notions of superiority were also inspired by the domestication of plants and animals, which radically reconfigured ecosystems solely for the benefit of humans (see Scott and Diamond).  Finally, the northern tribes waged war with iron weapons and, as every school child knows, metal-making consumes nonrenewable resources, a habit that often leads to addiction and overdose.

In what is now France, the Gauls were farmers living in permanent villages and towns.  They were heavily dependent on domesticated plants.  To the east, across the Rhine, were the Germanic tribes, who were primarily hunters and nomadic herders, raising domesticated cattle and sheep in a wilderness of forests and wetlands.  When threats approached, they packed up and moved.  Their livestock was self-propelled, and capable of feeding themselves.  The Gauls were helpless sitting ducks who could not move their stuff away from danger.  Their granaries were not mobile, and their towns were quite flammable.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  The Berber proverb is: “Raiding is our agriculture.”  Tacitus said this about the Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Mallet added the master key to understanding all human history — “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”  Today, liberals piss and moan about the horrors of capitalism, but capitalists are merely recycling the ancient tactics of nomadic herders, like the Mongols and Huns.  Consumers are their weak and vulnerable prey.

Thus, the Teutonic tribes were warriors, and war was their source of honor, riches, and safety.  It was essential that warriors die a violent death, with their arms in their hands, ideally laughing with their final breath.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  Courageous fighters were sent to the premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking.  Yippee!

Dying in bed was totally shameful.  Iceland and Sweden had ancestral cliffs (ättestup), where the sick and aged plunged to a violent death, to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

In the Teutonic tribes, women were considered to be equals and companions.  Society could not survive without their hard work.  Germans admitted them to their councils, and consulted with them on the business of the state.  In the north, it was common to meet women who delivered oracular information, cured the worst maladies, assumed whatever shape they wished, raised storms, chained the winds, travelled through the air, and performed every function of the fairy art.  There were ten prophetesses for each prophet.

The book concludes with a happy ending.  Once the freedom loving Teutonic people had finished rubbishing Rome, liberty was restored to Europe, and the victors leaped on the escalator to modernity.  As Mallet was writing in 1750, life was grand.  People and their belongings were now safe and secure.  Fields were filled with laborers.  Numerous cities flourished in peace and prosperity.  Paganism went extinct, and everyone flocked to the new religion, in which believers were promised an eternity in paradise as long as they did not kill, or lie, or steal, or fornicate, or judge others, or hate their enemies, or think blasphemous thoughts, or accumulate wealth.

Mallet, Paul Henri, Northern Antiquities, 1770, Reprint, AMS Press, New York, 1968.

Other sources:

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1076, Reprint, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.

Anderson, Rasmus Björn, Norse Mythology: Or the Religion of Our Forefathers..., 1875, Reprint, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1884.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  DOWNLOAD

Grammaticus, Saxo, The First Nine Books of Danish History, 1514, Reprint, David Nutt, London, 1894.  DOWNLOAD

Grimm, Jakob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.  This book provides the most information on Teutonic myth and folklore, but it is difficult to read.  All four volumes can be read at Google Books.

Metzner, Ralph, The Well of Remembrance, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994. 

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  This volume includes Germania.  DOWNLOAD