Thursday, January 23, 2020

Other Eyes

A Story:
The Sky Woman's Basket1

The Sky Woman's Basket gives us a useful image for discussing the problem (and opportunity) of engaging with stories from other cultures, other times, and other traditions than our own. At issue is the act of looking into the basket. Consider two options and outcomes available to the man in the story. In the first, he can look into the basket and, seeing nothing there, conclude that the basket is empty and not worth any more consideration. This is indeed what he does.  In the second option, he could look into the basket and, seeing nothing there, realize that he is missing something and that the basket is worth closer consideration. The first option is the end of his relationship with the basket and his wife. The second option might be the beginning of his relationship with both of them.

Option one exemplifies the modern narrative about indigenous, oral traditional myths. This is the story many of us were raised on. In my youth, the teacher (usually female) would turn on a slide projector and put a record on the record player with a narrator timed to the slides. (A loud beep would signal the teacher to change slides.) The narrator (usually male) would intone his wisdom thus:

"Long ago people invented fantastic stories to explain their world because they were afraid and did not understand the forces of nature." (beep)  "Thunder, lightning, and the changing of the seasons were a mystery to them." (beep) "Today, through Science, we understand these forces of nature..." and so on.

This narrative of the inferiority of early people and their traditions continues today. Consider these remarks from Kenneth C. Davis' introduction to Don't Know Much About Mythology:

“One of the chief reasons that myths came into being was because people couldn’t provide scientific explanations for the world around them. Natural events, as well as human behavior, all came to be understood through tales of gods, goddesses, and heroes. Thunder, earthquakes, eclipses, the seasons, rain, and the success of crops were all due to the intervention of powerful gods. Human behavior was also the work of the gods…”
––– Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much About Mythology 2

I imagine our early ancestors huddled in a cave during a wild thunder storm. The child asks his father, "What is that booming? What is that flash?" The father replies, "well, my child, because I cannot provide you with a scientific explanation let me invent a story about giants doing battle with dragons in the sky..."

Davis continues:
“… Obviously, we now have many more scientific answers for most of our questions about the world and universe. We know why the sun rises and sets. Why the rain falls in some seasons and not in others. What makes crops grow. We have a much better understanding of where we came from. We understand illness and death – to a certain degree. And although the source of evil in the world – and why bad things happen to good people – is still a mystery, we have even begun to unravel the beginnings of the universe.
            But in earlier times, people invented stories to explain these beginnings…” 3

Essentially, Davis, in his introduction to a compendium of world mythology, is telling the reader at the start that myths are devoid of truth or validity. He is telling us that the Sky Woman's Basket is empty.
 This idea about myths has long been part of the Western narrative that science, as the highest expression of Truth, is superior to myth. Has our science, in an effort to create a language of knowledge with clarity and consensus, so shaped our perception as to render it blind?

Sadly, this notion is perpetuated in the modern storytelling revival. Too often have I heard a school assembly, a classroom lesson, or a festival performance introduced with a parroting of Mr. Davis' view that myths are a product of pre-scientific ignorance and fearful imagining.

But look again at The Sky Woman's Basket. This African story tells of women stealing milk and taking it into the sky. That may seem absurdly juvenile. But we today still refer to the outer arm of our galaxy as "The Milky Way." We can see in the story many embedded ideas: domestication of animals for dairy, promise-keeping, marriage, and so on. Because we have never seen a "ladder from the sky" we consider the story fantasy. But we have seen lightning. We have seen tornadoes. We have seen many phenomena that could well be described as ladders from the sky.

Look Again

It is easy to look at an old story that tells of seemingly impossible characters and events and say 'that's entertaining but it is obviously not true.' Take, for example, the traditional Klamath story concerning a battle between the chiefs of the world above and the world below. The story was first written down in 1865 by a young soldier at Ft. Klamath. The story was dismissed as primitive fantasy until geologists discovered that it parallels the volcanic eruption that formed Crater Lake, OR. Native American author, theologian, historian, and activist, Vine Deloria Jr., points out in his book Red Earth, White Lies 4, that the story successfully carried the memory of the event in oral tradition for over 7,000 years.

Some western scientists are taking a second look at oral traditions. New hybrid disciplines, such as archeoastronomy and geomythology, are forcing a reconsideration of the established narrative of western superiority which has so long limited our appreciation of traditional stories.

"The fact that virtually all traditional knowledge keepers believe myths (and legends) to be historically true whereas nearly all scientists presume they do not represent factual historical events is a disquieting conundrum that tells us more about the biases of western science than the nature of myth." – WB Masse et al.5  

New insights from the fields of linguistics and anthropology are helping us take a second look. Dr. Lynne Kelly in her research of primary orality observes that "Traditional peoples would not have survived had they lived, as so often portrayed, in a fog of superstition and pre-logical, irrational thinking." Kelly argues that "oral cultures use complex and sophisticated artificial memory techniques that are no longer in broad use because the advent of writing takes away our need to commit to memory the knowledge on which our lives and culture depend." 6

So why do the stories from oral cultures so often appear in our juvenile reading lists as quaint, fanciful 'pourquoi' tales? Consider our modern educational process. The early childhood curriculum teaches the basic elements considered essential for higher learning: shapes, colors, ABCs, numbers, and nursery rhymes. Why would a rhyme like Itsy Bitsy Spider be important in early childhood? It establishes the narrative elements critical to understanding our greatest literature. Like a fractal element in a complicated system, the Itsy Bitsy Spider teaches a pattern of story that will be reiterated into such epics as The Odyssey. Additionally, it describes the narrative actions seen in nature. Yet, if a foreigner to western culture only encounters the Itsy Bitsy Spider, they are not likely to intuit the formation of The Odyssey. They are more likely to conclude that our culture is juvenile and ignorant. Now imagine that an non-literate, non-western adventurer arrives on a university campus and demands to know what the people of the university know. Where will they start? In the early childhood classroom. Our educational system is scaffolded for the vertical alignment of knowledge. You must complete course 101 before you can complete course 201, and so on.
So it may well be that western adventurers encountering oral cultures received the equivalent of the early childhood curriculum and concluded that the culture is ignorant.

This is not to suggest that we remove or rewrite the pourquoi stories, myths and legends, and the other material from oral cultures. We have an opportunity to look at these stories a second time and consider what role they may play in their cultural scaffold of knowledge. For example, the Cherokee story of The First Fire, is a popular and entertaining story of the animals acquiring fire for the world. At first glance it may appear fanciful and insubstantial. But at second glance, we see a cultural memory of the Pleistocene era, the end of the last Ice Age, and a catalogue of the fauna inhabiting their world. The story in literary form tells of a few select animals attempting to capture fire. Each animal is changed in  such a way that it can be clearly identified. The story in oral form can expand as a container of knowledge, introducing the hearer to a wide variety of animals and their attributes.

There is a story about Coyote's Eyes that is told by many First Nations people in North America.

The gist is that Coyote comes upon someone, usually Rabbit, singing his sacred song and performing an unusual feat: throwing his eyes out of his head and into the sky. As he sings, the eyes return to Rabbit and return to their proper places. Coyote barges in (typical, rude behavior for him) and demands to learn the secret of this skill. After much insisting, Coyote learns to throw his eyes. He goes straight away to show off his new trick in the village so the people will admire him. After over-doing his trick, his eyes fail to return. In many versions, they are caught in the high branches of a piñon pine. I think, perhaps, they simply continue into the sky and become enchanted by the stars. In any case, Coyote has thrown his eyes away. He can no longer see.

Coyote stumbles on blindly. He comes to mouse. Mouse offers to give one of his eyes to Coyote. Coyote takes Mouse's tiny eye, which rolls about in his empty eye socket. With Mouse's little eye, Coyote can only view things that are small and close up. He next comes to Buffalo. Buffalo gives an eye to Coyote. But Buffalo's eye is too big for Coyote's empty socket. Buffalo's eye sees far and wide. So Coyote wanders with one eye seeing up close and the other eye seeing far and wide. So Coyote goes, dizzy and disoriented because he has lost his own eyes. Perhaps he continues borrowing eyes not his own. In some versions of the story, the birds make new eyes for Coyote from the sap of the piñon pine. Alternatively, if you look out at Coyote in the night time, you will see him singing to his eyes, calling them back. If you look at his face, you will see starlight where his eyes once were.

However this story signifies for its culture of origin, I am inclined to see in it a parable for this discourse. Coyote strikes me as western, scientific, culture. With Mouse eyes and Buffalo eyes, we look up close and out far, but we do not clearly see where we are. We threw away our original eyes - those eyes that were pre-scientific, pre-Christian, pre-dogmatic; our earliest, native eyes. We try to see with other people's eyes by co-opting their cultures. [Perhaps that is what I am doing by using this First Nation's story!] But if we do not inhabit their world view, we walk away with a dizzying effect rather than an insight, misconstruing the validity of their stories and reinforcing our own narrative of superiority.

Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, writes about his experience viewing earth from space:

“I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion— was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.”
–– Dr. Edgar Mitchell, The Way of The Explorer 5

In an earlier post I wrote about the language of truth. [No Knowing What: Truth Post Truth] Scientific language is one language of truth. Myth is another. Their styles might be contrasted as:
Myth = subjective lyricism  /  Science = objective accounting

"The loss of the lore of a group is also the loss of the justification for their lifestyle."
––– V.F. Cordova, How It Is 6

Conversely, then, the maintenance of the lore of a group is the maintenance of the justification for their lifestyle. By holding onto the lore of western superiority do we promote the justification for an earth-exploiting, alienated lifestyle? Cultural Genocide removes a language and lore from a group of people in order to destroy their lifestyle and culture. Is it time to consider, if not the removal, the replacement, of our own destructive lore and language?

With what new eyes might we see the world?

1This is my adaptation of a story recounted in Laurens van der Post's "Heart of the Hunter." He attributes it to his Zulu nanny from his So. African childhood. I do not claim to represent or misrepresent any indigenous oral traditional cultures, though I tell stories that trace their origins back to such peoples. I do claim to gain insights from old stories which inform my choices in telling them anew.
I and my family line are not indigenous to Africa or North America. As far as I know, my ancestors were indigenous to the Rhine valley and the mountains of eastern Bohemia. In the Middle Ages they survived the bloody Northern Crusades by converting to Christianity. I do not know for certain, but it seems entirely likely that they played part in a violent, generations-long game of 'pass on, no pass back' by transferring that trauma to the indigenous peoples they displaced when, in the 19th century, they emigrated to the western United States.

2 Davis, Kenneth C. Don't Know Much about Mythology: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. Harper, 2006.

3 Ibid.

4 Deloria, Vine. Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Fulcrum Pub, 1997. 

5 Masse, W. & Barber, Elizabeth & Piccardi, Luigi & Barber, Paul. (2007). Exploring the nature of myth and its role in science. Geological Society, London, Special Publications. 273. 9-28. 10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.02.  

6 Kelly, Lynne. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015.

7 Mitchell, Edgar D., and Dwight Arnan. Williams. The Way of the Explorer: an Apollo Astronauts Journey through the Material and Mystical Worlds. New Page Books, 2008.

8 Cordova, V. F., et al. How It Is: the Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova. University of Arizona Press, 2007.

Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf put forward the notion of a linguistic area comprised of the Romance, Germanic, Balto-Slavic and Balkan languages which they termed "Standard Average European." Furthermore, they propose that the language we speak greatly influences our world view. more

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