The Witch Men's Desert

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

(190v) There sat a village and in the village were four men. These men were mighty and practiced witchcraft (wakąwąx). Indeed they were so powerful that they completely controlled the village. Everyone there feared them. It was through fear that they were able to prosper. They would sit by the hunting trail and whenever a hunter passed by on his way back to the village, he would give them part of his kill. Thus they did and were always well supplied with meat. One man in the village particularly disliked them, and when he returned from hunting he would always bypass the witch men. He soon became very sick and in time he died. His son came to the conclusion that his father had not died a natural death. (189v) He thought that he had been killed by magical means.

The son visited his father's grave to pray there. At the beginning of the fourth night, the son hid himself inside the grave house. During the night he heard many different kinds of calls. Finally, he heard the noise of a bird overhead. It was a turkey gobbler who had called, and when it landed, it assumed the form of a human being. The witch now standing before him said, "Young man, I suppose you're still feasting on deer!" Immediately, the son grabbed his wrist. The witch tried to escape, but could not break his grip. In the struggle he changed form many times, and even turned into a ghost. Now when a witch is caught, he always tells of his powers. (188v) So he spoke and said, "Young man, I am not the one who murdered your father. I am just working for the four witch men who actually did the killing. I am only their apprentice," he said. After the son learned from this witch all the secrets of his masters — for the messenger had all their powers in his breast — the son killed him. After taking his wowaką, he cut off his head and chopped up his body. The rest he burned in a bonfire near the grave, then returned home with some of the body parts. The next day he cooked the body parts with corn and made them into four servings. He then had an attendant (warucą́) invite the four witch men to a feast. The cannibal portions and the man's head he placed behind his bed. He let the fire die down and went through the feast ceremonies. He told the four witches that his father had died suddenly that morning, and that he had killed the animal which they were now eating. His guests ate and when they were almost done, (187v) he addressed them again, saying, "I doubt you know what kind of animal that I have fed you." He then threw the head on the coals of the fire, which immediately blazed up. "And here is the head of the animal. Maybe you will recognize it!" he said. The four witch men became violently ill and stumbled out of the lodge. But they could do nothing, as the young man had acquired all their powers.1

Commentary. "the grave house" — a small wooden structure resembling a house was built over the grave site.

"the witch now standing before him" — in a note (p. 189v.), Radin supplies the reason for a witch seeking out a grave: "After burial was over, wizard goes to grave before 4th day to take part of victim's body." It would obviously serve as an object of power, but what function it could perform and why it had power is not discussed.

"feasting on deer" — as part of the four nights' wake (the Four Slumbers), a ritual feast was prepared which was believed also to feed the recently departed.

"his wowaką" — described parenthetically as, "beads, robes, etc." However, the word means "the choices parts of the sacrifice," which is to say, the breast and surrounding area.

"a bonfire near the grave" — to thoroughly destroy an evil spirit in the flesh so that he cannot come back in that form again, it is necessary to burn his body up completely.

"I have fed you" — the kinds of food traditionally served at the Four Slumbers are the dead man's favorite dishes. The cannibalism practiced by the tribes of the upper midwest was designed as an insult, implying that the victims (usually enemy warriors) had the status of game animals rather than human beings. The cannibalism of the witch men is particularly intimate and symbolizes not only the idea that they themselves are the deceased man's favorite food, but that they had made themselves into nothing more than animals.

Comparative Material: The strange power to change form when seized in ambush is displayed in the famous episode of Greek mythology in which Pelius captures his bride Thetis. Thetis was a sea nymph and therefore had the aqueous nature, like those possessed of Waterspirit magic, which allowed her to transpose somatic forms with fluid facility. Her suitor Peleus ambushed her in a cave on a Thessalian isle which she frequented. When he seized her, she changed successively into fire, water, a lion, a serpent, and finally a cuttlefish. Yet Peleus held on firmly and in the end she had to yield, just as the witchman did in our own story.2

In a Norse myth, Guðrun slays her children by Atle, and serves them up to her unwitting husband as a cannibalistic feast. "A little later Guðrun slew her two sons and made from their skulls goblets trimmed with gold, and thereupon the funeral ceremonies took place. At the feast, Guðrun poured for King Atle in these goblets mead that was mixed with the blood of the youths. Their hearts she roasted and gave to the king to eat. When this was done she told him all about it, with many unkind words."3

Links: Witches.

Stories: mentioning witches or warlocks: The Thunder Charm, The Wild Rose, The Seer, Turtle and the Witches, Great Walker and the Ojibwe Witches, The Claw Shooter, Mijistéga’s Powwow Magic and How He Won the Trader's Store, Migistéga’s Magic, Mijistéga and the Sauks, Migistéga's Death, The Mesquaki Magician, The Tap the Head Medicine, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, Battle of the Night Blessed Men and the Medicine Rite Men, The Magical Powers of Lincoln's Grandfather, The Hills of La Crosse, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara (v. 2), Įcorúšika and His Brothers, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, The Woman's Scalp Medicine Bundle, Potato Magic, Young Rogue's Magic.

Themes: anthropophagy and cannibalism: A Giant Visits His Daughter, Turtle and the Giant, The Were-Grizzly, Grandfather's Two Families, The Roaster, Redhorn's Father, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Lost Blanket, Young Man Gambles Often, White Wolf, The Shaggy Man, The Twins Get into Hot Water, Partridge's Older Brother, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Fox-Hocąk War, The Hocągara Contest the Giants, Morning Star and His Friend, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Seven Maidens, Šųgepaga, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Shakes the Earth, The Stone Heart, Thunder Cloud is Blessed.


1 Untitled, in Paul Radin, Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n. d.) Winnebago III, #1. This story was placed interstitially between pages 187-190, but in reverse order (p. 1 = 190v, p. 2 = 189v, p. 3 = 188v, p. 4 = 187v).

2 Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.221ff.; Pindar, Nemean Odes, 4.62; scholiast on Pindar, Nemean Odes, 3.35; Apollodorus, 3.13.5; Pausanias, 4.18.1; Tzetzes, On Lycophron, 175, 178; scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes, 1.582; Herodotus, 7.191; Philostratus, Heroica, 19.1.

3 Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal.