Bronze edition: 15 | Height: 22″ | Length: 38″
“But such is the decent of the Devil as this day upon ourselves that I may truely tell you, the walls of the whole world are broked down! … The very devils are broke in upon us, to seduce the souls, torment the bodies … and consume the estates of our neighbors, with Impressions both as real and as furious as if the Invisible World were becoming incarnate … that the Devil is come down unto us with great wrath we find, we feel, we now deplore … I will therefore give proof in this discourse that there are such horrid Creatures as Witches in the World; and that they are to be extirpated and cut off from among the people of God … and I am absolutely satisfied that there have been, and are still, most cursed Witches in the Land.”
Cotton Mather, “Wonders Of The Invisible World” (1692)
Not unlike their 17th century counterparts among “The Saints” in Puritan New England, the Iroquois likewise believed in and feared witchcraft. In combating the malevolent forces of the Invisible World, which caused mental and physical suffering among the people, members of Iroquois Medicine Societies such as the False Face Society relied on powerful supernatural forces.
Of all traditions preserved by the Iroquois, none is more sacred than the healing rituals involving the false faces, or medicine masks. According to legend, the fabled Giant or Great False Face once challenged the Creator to a test of strength: the two sat with their backs to a distant mountain and tried to draw it close by means of spirit power alone. The Giant succeeded only slightly, but the Creator summoned it with ease. Turning around to see, the Giant smashed his nose against the looming peak, and chastened by defeat, “Old Broken Nose” agreed to protect the Creator’s favorite children, the Iroquois, from misery and disease if they in turn would honor him in their rituals. Thus the False Face Society was born. By wearing wooden masks representing the Giant, as well as other healing spirits inhabiting the forest, members of this society are endowed with their “Orenda” (a potentiality to do or effect results mystically). Accoutrements include a type of rattle worn as a leg garter made from deer-dew claws and large mud turtle rattles used to banish witches and other evil spirits.
Sacred tobacco was burned as an offering to a living basswood tree before the carving was begun. Only sincere men could “ask the life” and carve masks that would contain the life spirit of the tree. Once the carving was nearly complete, the trunk was notched above and below so that it would be split away. The mask was completed with care, its back hollowed out to receive the wearer’s face at the Council-house meeting. Here the Great False Face was supplicated with sacred tobacco thrown into the burning embers. Once thus “baptized”, a mask was “alive” and charged with a power that could do almost limitless good or ill.