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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Besides there is a generall Custome amongst them, at the apprehension of any Excellency in Men, Women, Beasts, Fish, etc., to cry out Manittoo, that is, it is a God, as if they see one man excell other in Wisdom, Valour, Strength, Activity etc., they cry out Manittoo, A God.

With these words, written from New England in 1643, Roger Williams introduced the Algonquian concept of Manitou to the world. It is one of those words that is very difficult to translate into English because our language doesn't contain proper categories to express American Indian thought. Manitou means "God," but that is not enough.

Perhaps the closest we can get to it is to trace the developing theology of Siberian shamanism, developed on the shores of Lake Bikal and transported thousands of miles across the wilderness where it was deposited in what would one day be called New England. There it awaited the coming confrontation with the Pilgrims' Christianity.

The people who would one day be called "Indians" believed in the Creator. They called him Kichtan or Kitchi-Manitou (the "Great Mystery"). Over a lot of time and across two continents they developed the belief that the Creator inhabited mountains and lakes, trees and animals, with a divine presence. Specific effigies or medicine bags were understood to be the home of spirits. The forest and sky, Turtle Island in North America—indeed, all of creation was the habitation of various Manitous, which were, in turn, an expression of the Great Mystery.

This three-fold realm of God—transcendent, immanent, and specific—is Manitou. People interact with Manitou because they are part of the creation. They are not separate from nature, as the Pilgrims believed. The Algonquians did not even believe humans were the crowning expression of the Creator's work. "Four-leggeds" and "two-leggeds" were equally a part of the whole. When a rock was removed from the seashore, something else was put in its place. When an animal was killed for food, an offering was returned. Balance and wholeness were the watchwords of Algonquian thought. When this wholeness was experienced or visualized, when an example of essential religion was seen in life, it was Manitou. With Manitou, the sacred fused with the secular.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the name given to a mysterious magical force and also to personal spirit-protectors.

According to the superstitions and customs of the North American Indians, each man—warrior and hunter—had to acquire a manitou by means of special ordeals and “visions.” Christian missionaries attempted to develop among the Indians faith in a heavenly god (“the great manitou”) on the basis of the manitou concepts; this was reflected in H. Longfellow’s narrative poem Song of Hiawatha.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


supreme deity of Algonquin and neighboring tribes. [Am. Indian Religion: Collier’s, X, 91]
See: God
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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