Not a simple message

CIRCULO ZEN

January 16, 1969

It is a Zulu performance, and after the performance, I am expressing an opinion about the symbolism in one of the stories we heard. The Zulu performer stops me, and explains to me that the meaning of the story is the totality of performance, not a simple message. Performance is the thing. The Zulu performer explains to me, “If I am to tell you what this story means, I must tell it again”.

Harold Scheub, The poem in the Story: Music, Poetry and Narrative, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, p. 119
Illustration: Enso
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Quicker is a drink than a tale

FIGURA HN_SERPIENTE

 

And she looked at him; and when she saw how handsome he was, she said,

Will you be so kind as to come home with me to my father’s house and take something?’

So the lad went and sat down, and before she asked him anything she set down wine before him and said, ‘Quicker is a drink than a tale.’

When he had taken that, he began and he told her all that happened, and how he had seen her in his sleep, and when, and she was well pleased.

And I saw thee in my sleep on the same night,’ said she.

J. F. Francis Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, vol. I, Paisley & London: Alexander Gardner, 1890, p. 291
Illustration inspired by a decorative element from the Ancient Egypt

The truth of myths

 

FIGURA HN_RIO GRANDE

 

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