The Religion of the Comanche

The Religion of the Comanche by oxsan - 2007-07-30 21:49:25
I have been reading a book called "Comanches" by T. R. Fehrenbach and like everything else I have ever read by this author I am utterly fascinated by it.

Fehrenbach paints a very detailed picture of the Comanche and points out that they were part of the Shoshone group of Amerindians but that they were very different indeed from other Indians in America and even very different from others in the Shoshone linguistic group. The Comanche referred to themselves as "the Nermenuh" which in their language means "The People".

We really shouldn't be too surprised that the Comanche are so different from the Apache, the Navajo, the Arapahoe or any of the other Amerindians. I think that Fehrenbach may well have coined the expression "Amerindian". I use it in lieu of "Native American" because the American Indians were very definitely not "native" to America. They came from Asia just as Ponce de Leon came from Europe. There are about 140 different linguistic stocks among the Amerindians that have no common root word for water, mother, father, sun or moon. Compare that to Europe where all of the European languages (with the possible exception of Finnish-Magyar) are derived from the basic Indo-European root stock and there are a flood of cognates from language to language. The European invaders had a hard time defining the "natural behavior" of the Amerindian and never fully realized that among the Indians what was "natural" was only within the confines of one tribe or possibly even one small group

I was very interested in what Fehrenbach had to say about the religion and the spiritual beliefs of the Nermenuh. The cosmic view of the Comanche did not seek to connect cause and effect in their lives but rather believed that their lives were controlled and manipulated by magic and by the powers of certain natural forces which were without form or substance and which were never personified as dieties. The Nermenuh were not given to empirical thinking. Some of the other tribes which had developed a primitive agriculture or a very restrictive gathering mode did indeed envision a set of deities in their religious thinking. Not so the Comanche. The typical Comanche was a great individualist and it is very likely that the religious views and dependencies of the Comanche varied greatly from group to group and even within the same family group.

The Nermenuh were also very secretive about their beliefs and believed that the efficacy of their "medicine" or powers derived from some natural force might well be eliminated or dimmed if discussed with or viewed by another. The Comanche did not have a coherent religion. They believed that many things in their surroundings had "powers" or "forces" that they might share in if they could just learn how to persuade the Sun, the Moon, the Buffalo or some other natural force to share a portion of their power. A totem or symbol of this power was then placed in their "Medicine pouch" around their neck and shared with nobody. But they did not believe that the sun was a god, nor the buffalo, nor the wolf. They were just creatures with power that they shared with certain human individuals when properly approached

With the Europeans that they began to meet in the 1500s they shared two and only two religous beliefs:
1. They believed in a life after death open to all ages and sexes. They referred to it as a Happy Hunting Ground. It was a place of abundant game and fruit and
was peopled only by the people they knew on earth and was never too hot or too cold and was eternal in nature. A Comanche did not have to be good or hold any beliefs to go there. The Nermenuh believed that death equalized all people. There were a few but very few exceptions. Persons scalped after death would not go there, persons dying of strangulation were forbidden entry and there were some Comanche who believed that persons who died after dark might not find their way to the Happy Hunting Ground.

2. The second belief that the Comanche shared with the invading Europeans was in the existence of a past flood that had covered the world. This belief is almost universal in some form among all of the Amerindians.

But the Comanche belief system conceived of no god or gods. To the Comanche the world was ful of forces and powers and even spirits but these forces, powers and spirits were not gods and they were not considered to be "beings". The buffalo was known to have great strength and endurance and if a Comanche warrior desired these attributes it was wise for him to study the ways of the buffalo and associate himself with them and see if he could derive some way to get one of them to share their power with him so that he would have "buffalo medicine" but he knew all along that the buffalo was just a buffalo---it was not a god. The sun was another source of power but never a diety. The owl was a malignant force and had a power to cause death or injury to humans but it was not a supernatural force it was just a natural force. The Nermenuh could pray to the Eagle pleading for a portion of its great strength or acute vision and on certain occasions the eagle might allow a feather to drop in the path of the warrior signifying a gift of "Eagle medicine" but there was nothing supernatural about it to the Comanche. Some of the other tribes did deify Father-Sun, Mother-Earth and Mother-Moon but not the Comanche.

The Comanche saw the world as random and without directed order and he believed it created purely by some magic which they did not understand or even care about very much. There was in the tribe no group dogma, no ritual. Each Comanche addressed himself to the taking of power from the "forces of nature" and learning how to address requests to these forces in his own way and for his own benefit. He considered his successes and failures to be his own secrets and no one elses' business. The first Europeans to reach the Comanche reported that they were Godless but failed to report that they were godless.

I have written the above from the masculine viewpoint. This is no accident. Women were not considered to be interested in religion by the Comanche nor were they allowed to seek their share of powers until after the menopause. After the menopause several women became famous Comanmche shamans but most did not live that long.

And that is more or less what I learned about Comanche religion today instead of washing clothes and mowing grass.