Joyce wright

Ten Means Death

The article that follows was originally published in Canada's History Magazine (June/July 2000).

When the Huron and the French began to encounter one another in the first half of the seventeenth century, each noted many differences. Whereas Huron society was egalitarian, the French system of government was hierarchical, and life was often brutal for those restricted to the lower echelons; while the French dealt with criminal behaviour by imprisoning or executing the offending party, the Huron gave gifts to the victim's family to atone for the deed or went to war to avenge it; and, when the French added wild onions to their soup, the Huron professed as much disgust as the French did when the Huron ate green corn that had purposely been left to rot. Many French considered the Huron to be unsophisticated "savages" in desperate need of Christian tutoring and European mores. However, the Huron likewise considered the French to be grossly uncivilized. From their perspective, the French habits of gesticulating wilding during speech, interrupting each other, and haggling over prices while trading were simply uncouth. In addition, the difficulty many of the French experienced in learning the Huron language was viewed as evidence of their stupidity, an observation that was speculated to be connected in some way to their "abnormal" excess body hair.

When the early European explorers and missionaries travelled to the Huron homeland south of Georgian Bay, they found some thirty thousand individuals living in villages of often more than a thousand people each. Agriculturists, businessmen, and savvy politicians, the Huron maintained extensive trade networks, gambled, warred, created fine art, and believed in a pantheon of supernatural beings. One of the remarkable things that the Huron and their French visitors had in common was a belief in the active significance of number symbols. For the French, and indeed for all of those of European ancestry, number symbols were an accepted part of daily life. Today we retain such expressions as "good things come in threes" and "cats have nine lives," but most of us have essentially lost the faith that these and other numbers play an active role in our lives. This was not true of the seventeenth-century Europeans. Nor was the belief in number symbols limited to what we would today call pseudoscience, such as astrology and alchemy. Johannes Kepler, who is considered to be the father of physical astronomy, believed that there was an intrinsic association between numbers and the cosmos; the inventor of logarithms, John Napier, tried to use numbers to interpret the Bible; and Leibnitz, who with Sir Isaac Newton has been described as one of the two most important thinkers of the seventeenth century, suggested that the binary code of zeroes and ones was preferable to the decimal system because 1 represented God and 0 reflected the void from which all was created. Number symbols literally imbued all aspects of life, and it is probable that had the French Jesuit missionaries and other visitors to Huronia not themselves come from a culture in which numbers played such a prominent role, we would not today have recourse to such an extensive written record of early seventeenth-century Huron number symbolism.

But while it is true that the Europeans and the Huron shared a belief in the cosmological utility of number symbols, it cannot be said that they always shared precisely the same ideas concerning the meaning of individual numbers. For example, Euroeans considered the number 10 to be "perfect" because it was the sum of the first four numbers (1+2+3+4), and when the meanings of each of these numbers were considered, they represented the totality of human experience: 1 was symbolic of existence and, to Christians, God; 2 was symbolic of polarity, such as good and evil; 3 was symbolic of the spiritual such as the Holy Trinity; and 4 was symbolic of matter. It is not surprising then that Christians believed that ten commandments governed their lives. The importance of the number 10, however, preceded the arrival of Christianity in Europe. The ancient Greek Pythagoreans were so utterly convinced of the perfection inherent in the number 10 they claimed that there were ten heavenly bodies. And when observation failed to identify the tenth body, they resorted to the simple expedient of inventing it. They named it antichthon, the "counterearth".

To the Huron, in contrast, the number 10 represented death. When a person died, there was an official ten-day mourning period for that person's spouse, which coincided with the ten days that it was believed it took the deceased person's spirit to travel to the afterworld called the Village of Souls. Not everyone made the journey to the Village of Souls, but those who did, as in Greek mythology, were thought to be required to cross a river guarded by a dog. At the Feast of the Dead, where all of those who had died since the preceding feast were gathered up from the cemeteries and buried in a large communal pit, the bodies on at least one occasion were laid on a blanket of fur robes, each of which was constructed from ten beaver pelts. The celebration itself was an elaborate affair sometimes attended by thousands of guests from surrounding villages who engaged each other in competitions of skill for prizes, exchanged gifts, feasted, and prepared the bodies and the burial pit for the final interment of the dead at sunrise on the tenth and final day of the festival. Despite some discrepancies in the historical literature, it is also likely that the Feast of the Dead was celebrated every ten years.

In Europe, as in Huronia, the number 2 was associated with genesis. Where the number 1 represented existence and, ultimately, God, 2 came to reflect the splitting apart of the "wholeness" that Europeans assumed was an inherent quality of divinity. This was believed to be a necessary step in the act of creation because earthly existence was perceived to be a function of such opposities as day and night, birth and death, and man and woman. It was, nevertheless, lamented because it meant that the purity and the goodness of the number 1 was now tainted by evil. It also suggested the presence of a seemingly insurmountable division between heaven and earth and God and mankind. As a result, European and, specifically, Christian symbolism surrounding the number 2 was generally negative.

The Huron meaning of the number 2 did not have such negative connotations. In fact, a belief in such antithetical concepts as "good" and "evil" was generally atypical of Huron cosmology. Instead, they tended to sense a continuum in all things: death was not so much a cessation of life as a tranformation to a new state of existence and, as the supernatural and the natural interacted on a daily basis in a myriad of ways, there cannot be said to have been much of a division between the two. The ironic exception to this occurred with the Huron cosmogony, where twin brothers with opposing personalities were considered to be responsible for creating all that exists on the earth. Iouskeha, the good brother, created humanity and most of the plants and animals, while his evil twin, Tawiscaron, created everything that is harmful to humans and constantly interfered in his brother's endeavours. A nineteenth-century version of the twins' story suggests that their respective roles were presaged by the manner of their birth: Iouskeha was born in the normal manner, but his brother Tawiscaron chose to be born from his mother's armpit, thus killing her. The twins' grandmother, Aataentic, placed her daughter's body in the doorway of the house and announced that she would live again after the passage of ten days. Tawiscaron, however, prevented this from occurring by killing his mother for a second time by putting an arrow through her and cutting off her head. Some of the stories say that she was later reincarnated by Iouskeha - in her third life - as the moon.

At a somewhat less exalted level, the Huron also used the number 2 in ceremonial siuations. Most often this meant that there were two masters of ceremonies at feasts and other public events. However, in one ceremony, it was two young girls of about five or six years of age who were the most significant part of the festivities. Each year around mid-March they were symbolically "married" to their village's fishing nets. To the Huron everything - humans, animals, and even inanimate objects - was believed to be sentient and, therefore, susceptible to both flattery and insult. As a consequence, ritualistic diplomacy was considered to be an essential element of human survival. In the case of fish, this meant that the nets were politely asked for their assistance; they were never left near the dead as it was known that fish do not like the dead; and the bones of the fish themselves were never thrown into the fire because the souls of the dead fish might inform the living fish of the insult, and the living fish, in turn, would refuse to be caught.

Sometimes, the meaning a culture attributes to a number is a direct reflection of the nature of that number. The number 2, as described by the sixteenth-century poem La Semain by Du Bartas, is a good example:

The eldest of odd, God's number properly... / Heaven's dearest number, whose inclosed center / Doth equally from both extremes extend, / The first that hath a beginning, a midst, and an end

Both the Huron and the Europeans believed that the number 3 connoted balance. However, whereas the Europeans generally incorporated this number into spiritual contexts such as the Holy Trinity, the Huron applied it to all aspects of human life where balance needed to be restored or maintained. For example, in Huron society, dreams were believed to be mere precursors to reality, so when a Huron man dreamt that he was captured and tortured by the traditional enemies of the Huron, the League of the Irouqois, his community emulated the essence of the dream in a controlled setting so the predicted reality would be averted. This meant that he ran through a number of fires and around a longhouse three times while his friends ritually burned him with firebrands to mimic the torture that he had endured in his dream. Eventually, he was allowed an opening by which to "escape", and a dog was offered as a sacrifice in place of his own life.

A few scholars have suggested that the Huron adopted the use of the number 3 after meeting Europeans and being introduced to the Holy Trinity. However, archaeological evidence predating the arrival of Europeans indicates that the Huron and their ancestors, at least as far back as the fourteenth century and probably earlier, favoured the number for their own reasons. It is important to recognize that when the Huron encountered Europeans, they reacted much as any other society would. They believed that their own way of life was superior and, as a result, accepted only what suited them and ignored the rest. The French did the same thing when they accepted the superior utility of canoes and snowshoes but stopped short of adopting other Huron practices. It is no surprise then that the Jesuit missionaries' efforts to convert the Huron to Christianity were not very successful. It's unlikely that more than 3 percent of the population accepted Christianity prior to 1649 when, already devastated by European-introduced diseases, the Huron were all but destroyed by the League of the Iroquois. Of those who did, many did so for access to guns and other privileges associated with a close relationship with the Jesuits.

Illness also required the restoration of balance and justified the frequent use of the number 3. In fact, the Huron believed that there were three general types of diseases: those which resulted from natural causes, those which reflected an unconscious desire on the part of the sick person, and those which were the result of witchcraft. Treatment of the first type of illness or injury included the use of local plants. All medical treatments, moreover, entailed a significant spiritual aspect. Among other things, the medicine man had to ensure that three criteria were met before he attempted a cure: the sky was clear, the dogs would not howl, and he could treat the person in some place apart from the general populace. The historical records also indicate that efforts to heal an ill person could variously include a three-day feast, a dance lasting three hours, or a gift of three fish. In one particular instance described by the Recollet Gabriel Sagard, an ill woman was brought to the third and final day of a dance and led through three stages: in the first stage, she was carried; in the second, with help, she was able to walk and even dance a little; and, in the third, she danced alone. In this manner, the dance itself functioned as a metaphor for her cure. As the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf observed several years later, "Metaphor is largely in use among these Peoples; unless you accustom yourself to it, you will understand nothing."

The Huron ascribed almost identical meanings to the numbers 6 and 9 as they did for 3, but at correspondingly higher levels. Nine, in particular, as the sum of 3+3+3, was often applied to siuations in which restoring balance to the lives of a large number of people was necessary. As Brebuef observed, it was not possible to offend any one particular Huron without also offending everyone from his village. As a result, the crime of murder always held the potential to lead to war - not between families, but between whole communities. To forestall this required the reestablishment of balance through the presentation of gifts to the victim's community and family. Specifically, two categories of gifts were given. The only information available about the second category is that the gifts were hung from a pole and suspended above the head of the murderer; however, the first category consisted of nine gifts, although the word gift is a misnomer. In fact, it was common for between thirty and sixty objects to exchange hands (or even as many as one hundred as in the case of the murder of the Jesuits' twenty-two-year-old servant Jacques Douart). Instead, gift referred to the underlying metaphor associated with the presentation of discrete groups of objects. In the case of murder, these were as follows: the first gift represented the removal of the murder weapon from the wound and prevented those who sought revenge from picking it up; the second wiped away the blood of the crime; the third restored peace to the land; the fourth placed a figurative stone upon the rift in the earth caused by the murder, thus sealing it; the fifth ensured peace between the villages and security for those moving between them; the sixth was an offering of tobacco to the relatives of the victim (aside from its spiritual qualities, tobacco was believed to have a calming effect); the seventh soothed their minds; the eighth was drink offered to the victim's mother as a means of healing her "illness" of grief; and the ninth provided for her a mat upon which to rest while she mourned her loss.

As with the number 3, European notions regarding the number 5 arose from observations concerning the nature of the number itself. In the portion of the sixteenth-century poem Hero and Leander written by George Chapman, the properties of the number 5 are described as follows:

Since an even number you may disunite / In two parts equal, nought in middle left / To reunite each part from other reft; / And five they hold in most especial prize, / Since 'tis the first odd number that doth rise / From the two foremost numbers' unity, / That odd and even are: which are two and three, / For one no number is, but thence doth flow / The powerful race of number

Since the Pythagoreans had already decided that odd and even numbers respectively represented men and women, it followed that the number 5, the sum of the first odd and the first even number (ignoring 1, since it was not perceived to be a real number), represented the union of men and women, and therefore, love. The poem continues:

The odd disparent number they did choose, / To show the union married loves should use, / Since in two equal parts it will not sever, / But the midst holds one to rejoin it ever

The Huron likewise were aware of the existence of odd and even numbers and, like the Pythagoreans and those who followed them, they found odd numbers to be preferable to even numbers. (The Greeaks associated odd numbers with the limited, men, and all things light and good, and even numbers with the unlimited, female, and all things crooked and dark.) Many of the European visitors to Huronia witnessed, and attempted to describe, a game that they saw the Huron play called the Game of Straws. Although none of these observers were ever able to understand the rules or the goal of the game entirely, they did discern that odd numbers scored higher than even numbers. But, whereas the Europeans felt that the union of the first odd and the first even number reflected human love, the Huron saw it as an appropriate intermediary between the natural and the supernatural worlds.

Most spirits in the Huron pantheon were considered to be open to entreaties from humans and such communication was facilitated through the use of tobacco, sweat baths, dog feasts - and the number 5. All of these, with the possible exception of tobacco, were used when a Huron woman baptized Marie became ill. In an attempt to restore her to health, her parents first implored the Jesiots to give her a red cap since, they said, the loss of the hat had made her ill. When the Jesuits refused to conform to what they considered a superstition, a dog feast was held. The woman seemed to recover some of her strength as the dog's life ebbed, but when she succumbed again, a medicine man was called in. In trying to determine the nature of the woman's illness, he spent some time in the sweat lodge. When he emerged he stated that witchcraft caused the woman's illness and that there were five charms in her body, each of which corresponded to five spirits. The woman died a few days later.

While everyone was thought to hold a certain amount of personal power or orenda suitable for making offerings and entreaties to spirits for luck in battle, for protection of one's home and family, or to encourage the season's crops to grow well, certain individuals were acknowledged as being particularly adept in communicating with the spirit world. Such men and women were sometimes given the respectful title of Oki. It was a Huron Oki named Pigarouich, for instance, who told the Jesuit missionary Le Jeune that, in order to become a medicine man, he had fasted for five days and nights alone in the woods.

For the Europeans, the number 4 reflected matter and physical order and, as such, it was often used to classify the mundane aspects of the world. For instance, during the seventeenth century, the earth was believed to be comprised of four elements (fire, air, earth and water), existence consisted of four planes (physical, mental, astral, and buddhic), and health was a function of a balance of four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood). One suggested reason for this use of the number 4 is derived from its 3+1 aspect, where 3 represents the spiritual and 1 symbolizes God, with the result that the 3 and the 1 added together equal God's created works.

For the Huron, however, the number 4 was an entirely social number. Four types of feasts were commonly celebrated: the Feast of Farewells, the Feast of Thanksgiving, the Feast for Singing and Eating, and the Feast for Deliverance from Illness. Embassies, whether intended to find out what was required to heal one of their own people or to offer aid to a neighbouring nation, generally consisted of four individuals. Samuel de Champlain was once presented with four wampum belts as tokens of friendship and hospitality while, on another occasion, he was escorted by four Huron guides. Once, when meeting to trade with the French, the Huron offered four gifts representing words. For the Huron, a word had a metaphorical meaning, and the man who presented a word without a gift was considered to have "no voice." Jean de Brebuef eloquently described these "words" in a report that he sent to his superiors:

The first...was but a salute and an honor that they paid to Monsieur the Governor, and to all our French. The second, a request that the warehouses be opened for trade. The third, a prayer that the price of the goods be reduced. The fourth and the fifth were in thanksgiving for the trouble taken in going to teach them in their country amid so many dangers, and through so many enemies who threaten but fire and flames. They gave two presents for that purpose, because, they said, that was of much greater importance than anything else on earth.

Even on fishing trips away from the village, it was customary for the four chief men to sleep in the four corners of the lodge. The Recollet Gabriel Sagard participated in one of these excursions and was offered such a corner in which to sleep. Although obviously intended as an honour, as only the most respected of men were granted such pride of place, sleeping furthest from the fire in chilly weather was the least comfortable. Sagard politely declined the invitation, no doubt to the puzzlement of his hosts.

When Europeans and the Huron met, so too did their number symbols. With the origins of their order and their constitution based in number symbolism, the Jesuits were no strangers to the significance of numbers. But, while some of the Jesuits did attempt to impose their notions of number meaning on the Huron, other Europeans recognized their need, as visitors in Huronia, to conform to at least some small degree to the dominant culture. Charles Montmagny, Samuel de Champlain's successor as governor of New France, learned this lesson well. On September 20, 1644, there was a final meeting of the Huron, Algonquin, League of the Iroquois, and the French at Trois Rivieres to attempt to arrange a peace. As usual, the presentation of gifts formed the core of the proceedings. When all the gifts of the League of the Iroquois had been presented with due ceremony, Monsieur the Chevalier de Montmagny divided them into three portions "in accordance with the usages of these peoples".

Unfortunately, the peace did not last, and by 1649 the League of the Iroquois had managed to all but destroy the Huron as a distinct society. The survivors were forced to find shelter among the villages of their allies, some of whom also eventually fell to the League. War and the massive epidemics of European-introduced diseases led to the abondonment of at least fifteen villages and the destruction of the Jesuit mission, Saint Marie. Among those to die in the war with the Huron was the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf. The surviving Huron, who fondly referred to Brebeuf as Echon or Echom, presented the remaining Jesuits with precisely ten necklaces of porcelain beads, such items being considered the ultimate in wealth in their society. Despite the attempts of the Europeans to impose their religion on the Huron, the epidemics that had annihilated two-thirds of their population, and the destruction of their homes and way of life by the League of the Iroquois - all of which were succeeded by a terrible famine - the number symbolism of the Huron, as evidenced by their gift of respect for the dead missionary, remained intact.

© Joyce M. Wright