Nobody could doze

Amuleto sumerio


Papago songs are handed down from singer to singer more carefully than were the epics of Homer. A man dreams his own songs, and he gives them to his son; but before he was born, there was already a body of magic by which the ancestors ruled their world. This collected mass of song and story I have sometimes called the ‘Papago bible.’ Like much of the unwritten literature of our Southwest [of the United States], it is half prose and half lyric […].

In every Papago village there is and old man whose hereditary function is to recite this ‘bible.’ The accepted time for the recitation is those four nights in winter ‘when the sun stands still’ before turning back from that southern journey in which, it seemed, might take its light away forever.

On those nights –four nights, for everything holy goes by fours– the Papago men gathered in the ceremonial house. […]

The men sat cross-legged, their arms folded, their heads bowed. This was the position required by propriety, as sitting upright in a church pew was required by our Victorian ancestors. No one must interrupt the speaker by a question or even by a movement. No one must doze. If he did, some neighbor would poke the burning cigarette between his sandaled toes. If the speaker saw it, he stopped suddenly and there was no more storytelling that night.

The storyteller had, perhaps, worked years to memorize the whole complicated mass of prose and verse. The prose he sometimes elaborated with illustrations and explanations of his own, but the verse was fixed. The words and tune of every song were ‘given’ by Elder Brother; also the exact point were it entered the story. An old man has refused to tell me a story because he had forgotten the tune of one song and so was unable to tell the story complete. Nevertheless, variations have crept in and the ‘bible’ according to one village is not quite that according to another.

The ‘Papago bible’ would require a volume in itself […]”

Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press 1968 [1938], pp. 11-13

Illustration inspired by a Sumerian amulet of a frog 3500 BC

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