Eating Bodies & Drinking Spirits

For historians and theorists of religion, one of the more useful exercises is to compare and contrast the religions of indigenous peoples whose economies or “bases” were different. We are fortunate to have fairly comprehensive records of two such peoples in America: the Iroquois tribes and the Plains Indians. The Iroquois were sedentary horticulturalists whereas the Plains Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

If we didn’t know anything about Iroquois and Plains supernatural beliefs-practices, but had read Ake Hultkrantz’s classic Religions of the American Indians, we could make several basic predictions which would in turn prove to be correct. There are fundamental shifts in religious practices based on mode of production. Wherever foraging people settle down and produce food, the fluidity of nomadic shamanism becomes more elaborate and systematic.

Iroquois religion is the subject of the much dispute owing primarily to the fact that European traders, missionaries, and colonists were in close contact with them for hundreds of years beginning in the 1600s. The Iroquois were not a homogenous group but a federation of five and later six tribes. Aside from basic internal differences, it would have been exceedingly strange if Iroquois religion had remained static over hundreds of years, especially when lifeways were being dramatically changed by trade and war.

There is in other words no essential or reified thing called “Iroquois religion.” We have only snapshots of Iroquois religion at particular times and places, with overarching themes continuously being renegotiated and reconstituted by individual Iroquois as active change agents. Like all religions, the Iroquois was socially constructed.

When analyzing these constructions, ethnohistorians have argued about two aspects of Iroquois religion: cannibalism and alcohol. The Iroquois apparently liked to eat war captives (and an occasional Jesuit). They also liked drinking to wild and sometimes deadly excess. For understandable reasons, later Iroquois have disputed these claims and a few historians have agreed with them.

In his well-intentioned but factually challenged book The Man-Eating Myth, William Arens asserted that claims of Iroquois cannibalism were simply made up by Europeans intent on othering the natives. Using the very sources that Arens cites, Thomas Abler found numerous contrary accounts and noted that “the practice of cannibalism among the Iroquois was not the gleeful activity of a nation of sadists, but rather a religious observance meant to ensure success in war.” Christians who consume the wafers of a symbolic body may at least have some conceptual sympathy.

Another conceptual point of contact, admittedly minimal, comes from the spiritual use of alcohol. Something close to an ethnohistoric consensus had arisen over Iroquois drinking, which by all accounts was always to excess but which supposedly differed from pedestrian binging because it was used to induce supernatural visions. If the Iroquois in fact used alcohol this way, it would have been unique. This anomaly piqued the interest of Maia Conrad, who traced the history of this idea and found it wanting. She traced the claim to a single source which does not show that alcohol was used for visions.

But as often happens in scholarship, the idea was adopted and repeated so often that it became accepted fact. Having uncovered the mistake, Conrad offers a different explanation for Iroquois imbibing and intoxication:

[T]he Iroquois were suffering from a loss of authority both internally and externally. Their social and cultural structure was under severe attack. Their ability to supply beaver skins to the Europeans and, therefore, to obtain the guns and ammunition they needed was threatened. Population losses weakened their ability to defend themselves in war and crippled their internal political leadership. Traditional religious ceremonies would have proven frustratingly incapable of addressing these problems.

The old boundaries of Iroquois social conformity had been severely undermined, allowing their expansion. Their traditional boundaries were under attack and they needed to create a new set of community-sanctioned limits that would allow their society to adjust to changing circumstances. The violence associated with the abusive consumption of alcohol was one such expansion of boundaries. Previously intolerable behavior became acceptable under the cover of drunkenness.

Although the Jesuits who witnessed Iroquois intoxication may have identified it with their own ritual drinking of wine-blood, in this case they seem to have been mistaken. The Iroquois weren’t drinking supernatural blood or seeking visions along the way. They were escaping and coping.


Abler, Thomas (1980). Iroquois Cannibalism: Fact Not Fiction Ethnohistory, 27 (4), 309-316

Conrad, Maia (1999). Disorderly Drinking: Reconsidering Seventeenth-Century Iroquois Alcohol Use American Indian Quarterly, 23 (3/4), 1-11

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