Migis Shells In Shamanistic Ritual
by Chris Hibbard
Migis Shells In Shamanistic Ritual
Located primarily on the southeast coast of the United States, these white seashells were considered sacred items by the Ojibwa, Algonquin, and Ottawa peoples. They would travel great distances to obtain these shells, which were revered because of their porcelain-like quality, which reflected the rays of the sun, providing warmth and light. This reflection was considered to be a visual representation of the connection of energy that is taking place with either a Manitou (the Great or Guardian spirit) or the cosmos.
Traditionally, there are various forms of spiritual healers and practitioners among the Ojibwa. There is the “tcisaki” or male diviner, “meda” or family healer, and “nanandawi” or tribal doctor. There is also the “wabeno” or “men of the dawn sky” who manipulate fire in order to interpret dreams, guide novices, and heal the sick. And then there is the Midewiwin.
The Mide, or Mide’wiwin, are often referred to as the “Grand Medicine Society” of the Ojibwa. They are an ancient organization with great status; men and women who are bearers of political, religious, and philosophical tradition.
Inside the Mide lodge, candidates advance through degrees over a four year training, by giving gifts to older members and by undergoing an initiation involving moral instructions, learning the names and uses of medicinal plants, and learning the narratives of the origin and development of the Mide rites.
These acts of learning esoteric and inaccessible information were critical components of initiation into the Midewiwin religious system. Each degree of the society had a specific kind of medicine bag containing Migis shell. These were used in Mide ceremonies, most of which were very private. During this initiation, spirit power was “shot” at candidates with these white shells. But first, we look at the Society itself.
It is said that Mide students were taught to be moderate in speech, quiet in manner, courteous to elders, and not hasty in action. Each level or order of the society had corresponding distinctive designs, which were painted on faces and objects. Since the Midewiwin believed that they were most closely connected to Manidoog spirits in the form of a bear or Otter or other water animal, these were likely some of said designs. All members carried a bag made of the skin of a bird or animal that was likewise level specific. This bag or bundle would contain medicinal herbs, charms, and migis shells, and was a most valued possession; it was typically buried with the member upon their death.
There was a “cost” associated with each stage, and not all individual members continued beyond the first. In the ‘first’ order of the Mide society, successful initiates are allowed to “conduct funeral ceremonies and preside at Feasts of the Dead”. By the time a Mide initiates for the third time, his powers have increased accordingly. These can include powers of exorcism and incantation; prophecy and the usage of darkness. The highest order or degree (generally the fourth, or the eighth) is said to give Mide masters power over life and death.
Once a year, a formal convocation ceremony was performed, in which Mide elders, by using the migis-shell, conferred upon graduates, the new Mide, the right to practice. It was through the power of the migis “shot” into candidates that they became blessed by the Mide Manidoog (grand medicine spirits) and were revived and transformed, reborn into a new spiritual existence. The newly-convocated Mide would then receive migis-shells of his own.
When Jacques Cartier landed in Canada, he was “fortunate in finding a well-established profession and practice amongst the Indians.” He had found himself among the Midewiwin. In his observations, he wrote: “According to Ojibway stories, Mi’nabo’zho (the creator) once took Otter (a revered historical elder) into his graces and conferred upon him the secrets of the Mida’wiwin, and with his Mida bag shot the sacred mi’gis into his body that he might have immortality and be able to confer these secrets to his kinsmen, the Anishinanabe.”
Migis shells are known as such to the Ojibwa of the Canadian Eastern Woodlands, and as wackuke or wayan; “medicine arrows” to the Plains Indians of Iowa. Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba is named after them. Historians and archaeologists have debated about these Cypraea Moneta, or money cowrie shells, which have been found incredibly far inland, away from their natural sources. Some are said to date back 8000 years, indicative of an extensive trade network on this continent in the ancient past.
In all cases, the Migis shells contain spirit, or a charge of life, which is injected by “shooting” it from the medicine bags of the members. The smaller the shell, the more powerful it is considered to be.
The “shot” causes apparent unconsciousness, thought to be a trance-like state, when shot into Mide, or can benefit, cure, or harm others who are outside of the society.
One great story even relates one instance in which a drunken white man walked into a Mide ceremony and began mocking the participants. The chief Mide lifted his wayan, aimed it at the man, and shot him, causing the man to collapse with agonizing in his foot and leg. The chief then said “you are drunk, you come here to mock. We are talking sacredly, all the manitous are present, working for the sick ones life, yet you mock. You said you did not believe our power. Now you see: with this migis I stopped you!”
The surviving Mide ‘shamen’ of today admit that much of their information has been lost through the death of their predecessors, and some feel convinced that ultimately all of the sacred character of the work will be forgotten or lost through the adoption of new religions by the young people and the death of the Mide priests. Although the migis shells they still use today are generally of the same species, some of the older Mide priests claim that there were formerly specific shells, each with its own special characteristics and properties, and each pertaining to an individual Mide grade.
When asked, Midewiwin members today will say that the Midewiwin is “not so much to worship anything as much as it is to preserve the knowledge of herbs for use in prolonging life. The principal idea of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society, is that life is prolonged by correct living and by the use of herbs which were intended for this purpose. In the higher degrees, the instructions pertain to the mysteries of the Midewiwin, the properties of rare herbs, and the nature of vegetable poisons.
Each degree still has its special songs, and a certain sort of Mide bag.”