Cor Hendriks – The Macaws: Myth and Folktale (1): Introduction

A few years ago I made a study of myth in combination with folktales using the series of books by Lévi-Strauss described below. Lévi-Strauss was familiar to me from the time I studied cultural anthropology in the 70’s, but I was never much taken in by his approach. While reading part 1 of the 4 volumes I was struck by some possible parallels with modern fairytales and I decided to make a study of these parallels. The study is not done systematically and I have added remarks between straight hooks to illuminate certain points. The title, ‘The Macaws’, which are birds (parrots) famous for their feathers, I have taken from Lévi-Strauss. I will explain more of this in a later episode. The full title of Chapter 1 is “The macaws and their nest (o xibae e iari); Lévi-Strauss’s ‘key myth’ reinvestigated”.

In his quadripartite study ‘The Raw and the Cooked’, ‘From Honey to Ashes’, ‘The Origin of Table Manners’ and ‘The Naked Man’, called together ‘Introduction to a Science of Mythology’, the well known anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss makes use of a myth of the Bororo Indians from central Brazil, that he has taken as his key myth to hang his investigation into mythology on.

The method of Lévi-Strauss is exhaustedly treated by Dubuisson in part two of his study ‘Twentieth Century Mythologies’, devoted to the works of Lévi-Strauss. His criticism of the methods of folktale study had to do in the words of Dubuisson with the awkwardness felt at trying to define ‘theme’ and ‘motif’. Thompson defines the motif as ‘the smallest element of the folktale which can be recognized as such in the popular tradition’, so it does not offer neat, clear limits.

Under these circumstances, the separation of a tale into motifs is linked to an arbitrary operation that isolates symbolic objects, personages, or narrative sequences. Very often, the division of stories (tales or myths) into motifs leads to the atomization of these same stories into permutable units. This is why Dumézil (object of part I of Dubuisson’s study) had been against the abusive use of this by folklorists. In his view, the specific comparison of isolated motifs leads to the loss or omission of what is the most essential in any tale: its unity, which depends on all of its elements. To prove that motifs x, y, and z from myth A are identical or comparable to motifs x’, y’, and z’ in myths B, C, and D will never allow one to understand the ensemble to which x, y, and z belong organically. To dissolve a tale into fragments will never lead to the understanding of it, since in fact it is the original links between these fragments that matters. These links are found in the tale; they are the tale. [Dubuisson 2006, 136; Stith Thompson, cited by A.J. Greimas and J. Courtés, in: ‘Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary’, trans. Larry Christ et al., Bloomington 1982, 199.]

Ginzurg in his study for the folkloric roots of the witches’ Sabbath states: The resemblances of fables the world over remains to this day a decisive – and unresolved – question. [Ginzburg 1992, 243, 281 n. 121, referring to Propp (‘Morfologia’, 31ff).] (And then he repeats the mistakes that have haunted folkloristic studies, connecting everything with everything on small resemblances, also because he is a dilettante in fairytale-land.)

The Key Myth: The Boy who Raped his Mother

The ‘key myth’ as summarized by Lévi-Strauss:

In olden times the women used to go into the forest to gather the palms used in the making of ‘ba’. These were penis sheaths which were presented to adolescents at their initiation ceremony. One youth secretly followed his mother, caught her unawares, and raped her. When the woman returned from the forest, her husband noticed feathers caught in her bark-cloth belt, which were similar to those worn by youths as an adornment. Suspecting that something untoward had occurred, he decreed that a dance should take place in order to find out which youth was wearing a similar adornment. But to his amazement he discovered that his son was the only one. The man ordered another dance, with the same result. Convinced now of his misfortune and anxious to avenge himself, he sent his son to the ‘nest’ of souls, with instructions to bring back the great dance rattle (‘bapo’) which he coveted. The young man consulted his grandmother who revealed to him the mortal danger that such an undertaking involved; she advised him to obtain the help of the hummingbird.

When the hero, accompanied by the hummingbird, reached the aquatic region of souls, he waited on the shore, while the hummingbird deftly stole the rattle by cutting the short cord from which it was hanging. The instrument fell into the water, making a loud noise – ‘jo’. Alerted by this noise, the souls fired arrows from their bows. But the hummingbird flew so fast that he reached the shore safe and sound with the stolen rattle.

The father then ordered his son to fetch the small rattle belonging to the souls; and the same episode was repeated, with the same details, only this time the helpful animal was the quick flying juriti (Leptoptila species, a kind of dove). During a third expedition, the young man stole some buttore; these are jingling bells made from the hooves of the caititu (Dycotiles torquatus, a type of wild pig), which are strung on a piece of rope and worn as anklets. He was helped by the large grasshopper (Acridium cristatum), which flew more slowly than the birds so that the arrows pierced it several times but did not kill it.

Furious at the foiling of his plans, the father invited his son to come with him to capture the macaws, which where nesting in the face of a cliff. The grandmother did not know how to ward off this fresh danger, but gave her grandson a magic wand to which he could cling if he happened to fall. The two men arrived at the foot of the rock; the father erected a long pole and ordered his son to climb it. The latter had hardly reached the nests when the father knocked the pole down; the boy only just had time to thrust the wand into a crevice. He remained suspended in the void, crying for help, while the father went off.

Our hero noticed a creeper within reach of his hand; he grasped hold of it and with difficulty dragged himself to the top of the rock. After a rest he set out to look for food, made a bow and arrows out of branches, and hunted the lizards which abounded on the plateau. He killed a lot of them and hooked the surplus ones on his belt and to the strips of cotton wound round his legs and ankles. But the dead lizards went bad and gave off such a vile smell that the hero fainted. The vultures (Cathartes urubu, Coragyps atratus foetens) fell upon him, devoured first of all the lizards, and then attacked the body of the unfortunate youth, beginning with his buttocks. Pain restored him to consciousness, and the hero drove off his attackers which, however, had completely gnawed away his hindquarters. Having eaten their fill, the birds were prepared to save his life; taking hold of his belt and the strips of cotton round his arms and legs with their beaks, they lifted him into the air and deposited him gently at the foot of the mountain. The hero regained consciousness ‘as if he were awakening from a dream’. He was hungry and ate wild fruits but noticed that since he had no rectum, he was unable to retain the food, which passed through his body without even being digested. The youth was at first nonplussed and then remembered a tale told him by his grandmother, in which the hero solved the same problem by molding for himself an artificial behind out of dough made from pounded tubers. After making his body whole again by this means and eating his fill, he returned to his village, only to find that it had been abandoned. He wandered around a long time looking for his family. One day he spotted foot and stick marks, which he recognized as being those of his grandmother. He followed the tracks but, anxious not to reveal his presence, he took on the appearance of a lizard, whose antics fascinated the old woman and her other grandson, the hero’s younger brother. Finally, after a long interval, he decided to reveal himself to them. (In order to re-establish contact with his grandmother, the hero went through a series of transformations, turning himself into four birds and a butterfly, all unidentified.)

On that particular night there was a violent wind accompanied by a thunder storm which put out all the fires in the village except the grandmother’s. Next morning everybody came and asked her for hot embers, in particular the second wife of the father who had tried to kill his son. She recognized her stepson, who was supposed to be dead, and ran to warn her husband. As if there were nothing wrong , the latter picked up his ceremonial rattle and welcomed his son with the songs of greeting for returned travelers. However, the hero was full of thoughts of revenge. One day while he was walking in the forest with his little brother, he broke off a branch of the api tree, which was shaped like a deer’s antler. The child, acting on his elder brother’s instructions, then managed to make the father promise to order a collective hunt; in the guise of a mea, a small rodent, he secretly kept watch to discover where their father was lying in wait for the game. The hero then donned the false antlers, changed into a deer, and rushed at his father with such ferocity that he impaled him on the horns. Without stopping, he galloped toward a lake, into which he dropped his victim, who was immediately devoured by the Buiogoe spirits who are carnivorous fish. All that remained after the gruesome feast were the bare bones which lay at the bottom of the lake, and the lungs which floated on the surface in the form of aquatic plants, whose leaves, it is said, resemble lungs. When he returned to the village, the hero took his revenge on his father’s wives (one of whom was his own mother). [Lévi-Strauss I, 35-37]

[There are a lot of problems with this so-called ‘key myth’ from a folklorist viewpoint. This is a summary, but the original texts are not published in an appendix. We are ill informed about them. This summary is in fact a new version of the story not reported by informants but created by Lévi-Strauss.]

The story can be divided in the following episodes:

A. The man discovers that his son has raped his own mother, one of the father’s [many] wives.
B. To eliminate this threat to his authority, the father gives the boy ‘dangerous’ assignments.
C. The boy succeeds in fulfilling the assignments, so the father takes him to the macaws to have him drop dead, but the boy is saved by the magic stick of his grandmother, though cut off from the world.
D. Grateful vultures bring him back to the world.
E. Return in animal disguise; recognition and revenge.

A. The discovery of the hero

The rape of the mother is an act of aggression towards the father as in the case of Absalom, who received the advice from the perfidious Ahithophel: ‘Go in to your father’s concubines … and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.’ So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. (2 Sam. 16: 21-22) Added is the remark, that in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle (Heb: word) of God; so all the counsel of Ahithophel was esteemed both by David and by Absalom. Things ended bad for Absalom, though not by his father but by the jealous general Joab, who ran him through with his spear when Absalom was caught with his hair in the branches of a tree.

While the act of Absalom was an open act of usurpation the Bororo-hero is sneaky; while the woman is bent over to pick up the leaves he takes her from behind, so the revealing feathers in her bark-cloth belt were on her back and only visible to the father, who immediately realizes what must have happened: some youth had had the audacity to avail himself of one of his wives. The father is like a king. He is the possessor of many women and commands the dances to be performed in order to find the perpetrator. When he finds out that it is his son, he undertakes no direct punitive action, so he is clearly afraid of the son, who seems to have mysterious powers and is protected by his grandmother, probably the mother of the father, who chooses her grandson over her son.

The hero recognized by a small token (the feathers in the belt of his mother) is a feature in the myth of Jason. Pelias, the son of Tyro and Poseidon, had succeeded Kretheus as king in Iolkos. He was warned to beware of a man with a single sandal. When he organized a sacrifice for Poseidon, Jason, the son of Aison, the son of Tyro and Kretheus, attended. On his way Jason lost his sandal in the river Anauros. According to some versions of the myth he carried the goddess Hera, whose cult was neglected by Pelias, across the river. When Pelias saw him, he remembered the prophecy. He asked Jason what he would do if he learnt from an oracle that one of his subjects would murder him. Jason answered that he would send that man to Kolchis to fetch the golden fleece, that was guarded by a sleepless dragon. Pelias then ordered him to capture it. [Oosten 1985, 111 (after Apollodorus’ ‘Library’); cf. Graves §148.c-e.] So Pelias, the half-brother of Aison, was the uncle of Jason and the missing sandal was the token of recognition of the threat posed by his nephew. It is said, that the words Jason spoke to Pelias were not his own but given in by Hera. So she might have told him to say these words as good advice after he had carried her in the shape of an old crone (grandmother) over the river.

The story of the Bororo-hero may be compared with that of the hero in the epic ‘Sunu Mettyr’, collected by Radloff from Tartars in South Siberia. The full name of the hero is the seven-years-old Sunu Mettyr. One day a tiger attacks the village of his father Kan Kongdaidzy, and all the people gather to hunt it down. Sunu also wants to join in, but his father forbids it, for he is too small. So the child goes shooting birds, takes an arrow, goes to an island, sees there something lying before him, thinks it may be the tiger, gets afraid, doesn’t want to turn back for then it will attack him, so he shoots and hits the tiger right in the forehead, splitting it in two. ‘The Kirghiz will be angry with me,’ he thinks, and binds the head of the tiger with bark and returns home. When the Kirghiz find the tiger, they see that it is killed and return to Kongdaidzy, who wants to know who shot the tiger [like the Bororo-father wants to know who raped his wife]. Nobody knows. Finally a young girl says [to the people]: ‘Sunu Mettyr has killed the tiger; I have seen it.’ Now the people are afraid of Sunu Mettyr and think: ‘When he stays alive, it will be bad for us; we have to slander him.’ They come up with a plan: One will say: ‘He has slept with my daughter,’ another one: ‘He has slept with my wife.’ Then they go to his father Kongdaidzy and slander his son, speaking those deceitful words. Kongdaidzy summons his son, asks him if he has slept with those women. He denies, but the girls and women are brought. They say that he did and show him their pants: ‘In the night Sunu Mettyr has ripped our pants and forcefully slept with us.’ Sunu says not to believe them, but the father doesn’t believe the words of his son, but those of his people, and he orders them to grab his son, bind his hands and throw him in a seven-fathom deep pit. [Radloff 1868, 2, 380-385: ‘Sunu Mättyr’ (from Sagai, NW of Askys, family Kyrgys).]

Read also the next part: The Macaws (2): B. The dangerous assignments

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