To make their voices sweet



[In the island of Bali] the normal way to bring out the dormant saktí [magic power] is to undergo mawintén – the initiation ceremony of priests, magicians, dancers, and actors, to give them luck, beauty, cleverness, and personal charm that enable them to be successful. Story-tellers and singers of epic poems (kekawin) have magic syllables inscribed in their tongues with honey to make their voices sweet. The ceremony is performed by a priest who, after cleansing and purifying the person through a maweda [recitation of mantras accompanied by ritual actions and significant gestures], writes invisible signs over his forehead, eyes, teeth, shoulders, arms, and so forth, with the stem of a flower dipped in holy water.

Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937, p. 340
llustration inspired by a mesopotamian drawing

Getting the story back



I have found the key to the system of marriage (in the old days) among distant relations, a matter which puzzled me last year. At marriage a certain portion of bride’s father’s ancestral story (smaiusta) is transmitted to the husband, e.g. the right to carve or paint a raven on a food box. Unless repurchased this remains in the husband’s family, but as the smaiusta is transmitted it is always remembered that a part of it is in another family and a son, grandson, or other descendant of the wife’s father will seek to regain it by marrying a woman of the other family. As the Bella Coolas express it a man always ‘hunts’ when marrying to get back pieces of his smaiustas.


From a letter of Canadian anthropologist T. F. McIlwraith, to Edward Sapir, 26 December 1923 in, At Home with the Bella Coola Indians: T. F. McIlwraith’s Field Letters, edited by John Barker and Douglas Cole, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003 pp. 113-114
Illustration inspired by a Bushman rock painting in the Cederberg, South Africa

All night epic-chanting in Malaita

cuerno abundancia_nautilus

[In Malaita,  in the Solomon Islands] all night epic chanting ae ni mae done at memorial feasts honoring ancestors, is only for special occasions. Weddings also provide occasions for all night singing and story telling. At these times two rows of men sit facing each other and each man keeps time by clicking together two small sticks. At the head of the two lines sits the storyteller who chants the epic tales that follow.

Kay Bauman, Solomon Island Folktales from Malaita, Danburty, CT: Routledge Books, 1998, p. XVI.
Illustration inspired by a representation of a nautilus eastern Mediterranean.

Tales for the longest nights


“Stranger,” replied Eumaeus, “as regards your question: sit still, make yourself comfortable, drink your wine, and listen to me. The nights are now at their longest; there is plenty of time both for sleeping and sitting up talking together; you ought not to go to bed till bed time, too much sleep is as bad as too little.

Translated by Samuel Butler, The Odyssey, London & New York: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1900.
Illustration inspired by a Native American design.

The tree that tells stories.


On the Lower Klamath is a very old, immense tree, which has given an account of the first world and people. This tree itself is one of the first people metamorphosed; no one knows what its age is. Sorcerers go to it yearly, hold converse, put questions, receive answers. Each year a small stone is added to a pile in which there are thousands of pebbles, apparently. This pile stands near the tree; no one is permitted to count the stones in it. The pile is sacred; once a stone is placed with the others, it must stay there forever.

This sacred tree has told tales of the first world, –the tales known to the Weitspekan [Yurok] Indians and revered by them.

Jeremiah Curtin, Creation Myths of Primitive America, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000 [1898], p. xxx.
Illustration inspired on a South African contemporary textile.