The truth of myths




The myths are pre-eminently ‘fictional truths,’ conveying truths important to life, yet fictional to us and sometimes to the Indians. The Santa Clara Tewas of New Mexico introduce some stories with words such as these: ‘In a place that never was, in a time that never was, this did not happen.’

The Nootka Indians of Vancouver Island insist upon the literal truth of stories of how the founder of a kinship group obtained its prerogatives. Those stories are true because the initial adventure did happen and the story has been transmitted ever since in a known chain of succession. But myths can be referred to in English as ‘fairy stories.’ Inheritance, in short, is a historical fact; the truths of myths may be of other kinds.

North America; Dell Hymes, “Notes toward (an understanding of) supreme fictions”, in I know only so far: Essays in Ethnopoetics, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003, p. 382
Illustration inspired by an indigenous motif from the Rio Grande area

No marked departures from the traditional plot are countenanced

FIGURA hohokam

It can be safely asserted that there exists no aboriginal tribe in the world where the narrating of myths is not confined to a small number of specifically gifted individuals. These individuals are always highly respected by the community, and they are permitted to take liberties with a given text denied to people at large. In fact they are sometimes admired for so doing. While unquestionably the accepted theory everywhere is that a myth must always be told in the same way, all that is really meant by theory here is what I have stated before, namely, that the fundamental plot, themes and dramatis personae are retained. In short, no marked departure from a traditional plot or from the specific literary tradition is countenanced. The liberties that a gifted raconteur is permitted to take with his text vary from myth to myth and from tribe to tribe and, within the tribe itself, from period to period.

Among the Winnebago, the right to narrate a given myth, that is, a waikan, belongs, as I have already indicated, either to a particular family or to a particular individual. In a certain sense it is his ‘property’, and as such often possesses a high pecuniary value. Where the myth was very sacred or very long, it had to be purchased in installments. The number of individuals, however, to whom it would be sold was strictly limited, because no one would care to acquire the right to tell a myth out of idle curiosity nor would it be told by its owner to such a one. What actually occurred was that a waikan passed, through purchase, from one gifted raconteur to another.

This meant that its content and style, while they may have been fixed basically and primarily by tradition, were fixed secondarily by individuals of specific literary ability who gave such a waikan the impress of their particular temperaments and genius. That they would attempt to narrate it as excellently and authentically as their most gifted predecessors had done stands to reason. The strict conformists and ‘classicists’ among the raconteurs would manifestly try to preserve the exact language of a predecessor. However, fidelity was not demanded of him. In fact, an audience generally preferred and valued a raconteur in terms of his own style and phrasing, that is, in terms of his own personality. We must never forget that we are not dealing here with narratives that were written down. Every narrative was, strictly speaking, a drama where as much depended upon the acting of the raconteur as upon his actual narration. This may seem an unnecessarily elementary point for me to stress, but it is frequently forgotten.

On the narrative tradition of the Winnebago , a Native American of the Great Lakes region; Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, New York: Philosophical Library, p. 122-123
Illustration inspired by a drawing from The Hohokam 

To tell only part of the story


Quite often, [in Aboriginal Australia,] fragments [of stories] would be told, referring to places or to characters without expanding on the actions or following through the story-line. A child travelling through the country of some close relative (mother, father, grandparent, for instance) might be told the name of special site and of its spirit-presence, or a wife might be given such information on her first visit to her husband’s country. These items could probably be expanded later into more complete accounts. They were a vital part of the overall process of teaching and learning and knowing about myth-stories and their context in any given region.


Roland M. Berndt and Catherine Berndt, The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1989 p. 9
Illustration inspired by a design of the Haida people



The easiest part is to write down the story.

Caballo carro

The intellectual nature of a story is exhausted with its text, but the functional, cultural, and pragmatic aspect of any native tale is manifested as much in its enactment, embodiment, and contextual relations as in the text. It is easier to write down the story than to observe the diffuse, complex ways in which it enters into life, or to study its function by the observation of the bast social and cultural realities into which it enters. And this is the reason why we have so many text and why we known so little about the very nature of myth.

B. Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology”, in Bronislaw Malinowski, Malinowski and the Work of Myth, edited by Ivan Strenski, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 89.
Illustration inspired on engravings from a cave in the island of Götland.

A good story protects your home

El cuervo

Knowing a good story will protect your home and children and property. A myth is just like a big stone foundation – it lasts a long time.

Navaho; C. Kluckhohn, “Myths and Rituals: A General Theory”, en Harvard Theological Review, vol. 35, 1942, p. 74.
Illustration inspired on the art of the Indians of the northwest coast of America.