Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Warao Myth 2: The Origin of Stars
This myth from the Warao people of the Orinoco Delta appears in a book by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "The Raw and The Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology", a sometimes head-scratchingly intense attempt to tease abstract meanings out of indigenous myths from across the Americas and show the psychological patterns underlying them.
Levi-Strauss, who died aged 100 in October 2009, was an inspired thinker who tried to deconstruct indigenous mythology to try and answer fundamental questions about human thought and motivation and the differences between the "raw" elements of nature and the "cooked" elements of human culture.
Although sometimes baffling in places, my dog-eared copy of "The Raw and the Cooked" has been a constant companion on my travels into the jungle regions of Venezuela ever since I bought it in the British Museum bookshop in 1989.
Frustratingly, most of the Venezuelan myths Levi-Strauss refers to in the book are only presented in summary form but this Warao myth is published in its entirety.
The Origin of the Stars
Once upon a time there were two brothers, the elder of whom was a celebrated hunter. Each day he went farther afield in search of game, with the result that finally he came to creek he had never seen before. He climbed into a tree standing at its edge so as to watch for the animals that came to drink. Suddenly he saw a woman wading through the water toward him and he thought her behaviour very curious. Each time she put her hand into the creek she brought out two fish, and each time she ate one of them and put the other into her basket.
She was a very big woman, a supernatural being. On her head she was wearing a calabash, which she occasionally took off and threw into the water in such a way as to make it spin like a top. When she did this, she would stop to watch it, and afterwards she would walk on again.
The hunter spent the night up the tree and returned to the village the next day. He told the story to his young brother, who begged to go with him in order to see "such a woman who can catch so many fish and can eat them as well."
"No", was the reply,, "because you are always laughing at everything and you might laugh at her."
But the young man promised to keep a straight face, and the elder brother allowed himself to be persuaded.
When they reached the stream, the elder brother climbed into his tree, which stood a little way back from the edge; the younger one insisted on taking up his position in a better-placed tree, so as to miss nothing, and he sat on a branch overhanging the water. The woman soon arrived and began behaving as before.
When she reached the spot directly beneath the young brother, she noticed the reflection of his shadow in the water. She tried to catch hold of it, and when she failed, kept on trying.
She put her hand in quickly, first to this side and then that, but of course she did not succeed, and what with all her queer gesticulations and funny capers she made so ridiculous an appearance that the brother up above could not resist laughing at her vain attempts to seize the substance of the shadow. He laughed and laughed and could not stop laughing.
Thereupon, the woman looked up and spied the two brothers. Furious at having been laughed at, she launched an attack with poisonous ants (Eciton species [New World army ants]); they bit and stung the boy so badly that to escape from them, he had to throw himself into the water, where the woman caught him and ate him.
Afterwards, she captured the other brother and put him in her well-secured basket. On returning to her hut, she put the basket down and forbade her two daughters to touch it.
But as soon as her back was turned, her daughters lost no time in opening it. They were delighted with the hero's physical appearance and his talents as a hunter. Both of them, indeed, feel in love with him, and the younger one hid him in her hammock.
When the time came for the ogress to kill and eat her prisoner, the daughters confessed to their misdeeds. The mother agreed to spare her unexpected son-in-law, on condition that he go fishing on her behalf. But however big the catch he brought back, the ogress would devour it all, apart from two fish. Eventually, the hero was so worn out that he fell ill.
The younger daughter, who was by now his wife, agreed to run away with him. One day he told his mother-in-law that he had left his catch in his canoe, and that she should go and fetch it (a fisherman was not supposed to carry the fish himself, since this would spoil his luck). However, he had arranged for a an alligator to be under the canoe, and the ogress was devoured.
The elder daughter, discovered the murder, sharpened her knife and pursued the culprit.
When she was about to catch up with him, he ordered his wife to climb a tree, and followed after her. But he was not quick enough to prevent his sister-in-law cutting off one of his legs.
The detached member sprang to life and became the mother of birds (Tinamus species).
You can still see, in the night sky, the hero's wife (the Pleiades); lower down, the hero himself (the Hyades) and lower still, his severed leg - Orion's belt.