Friday, September 30, 2011

"The Way" of the Origin

Moving along in our class discussion we touched on the topic of epic poetry and drama in our journey through oral knowledge. While we discussed many great topics, what caught my attention was the importance that drama held to civilizations without print.
Navajo Creation Myth from Darkroselia
Although in class we focused on Anglo-Saxon dramas and that area of the world I'd like to draw your attention to the "drama" of the Navajo, in the Southwest corner of the North American continent, a world then unknown.

Not a drama with capes and costumes, but a form of storytelling that brought families and  entire communities together to hear a narrator, tell a story familiar to them all, but that could still inspire the listener.

The other day I picked up a book (I know, I know, a written book about oral knowledge?), titled The Navaho, by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton (later revised by Lucy Wales and Richard Kluckhohn). An online version of the book can be found here, although if you are in the BYU community there is another copy probably still on the shelf!

Under the section titled "Myths and Tales in Daily Life" I learned this tidbit of information,
"Both the origin myth and folk tales are commonly told around family firesides in winter. Some individuals gain great reputations as narrators, so that they attract audiances beyond the circle of their immediate families"
So it turns out that the need for drama is multicultural, and indeed most likely universal. Furthermore when your story of creation is as epic-ly long as the Navajo creation story, sometimes you would much rather see it as a drama rather than hear it in the monotone of a math professor. I noted several examples of this myth in my previous post, but here is the best of those again.

The next big question is, "How do you memorize such an epic-ly long story?" Well as it turns out you don't have too. According to the book, which has all authority because it is written down,
"there are special variants which are handed down in family, or clan lines. Indeed, each clan has its own story which is attached to the end of the tribal origin myth" 
So sometimes you just sort of wing-it. As with most oral knowledge, the Navajo origin myth also has a couple of tricks. Reoccurring ideas, themes and symbols help a narrator keep track of his story. The number four, and multiples thereof, comes up frequently, as just one example. There are four directions, four prominent colors: white, blue, yellow, and black, four worlds the Holy People travel through, and four main characters: Changing Woman, the Hero twins, and the Sun. Also, as Emily , Kim, and Maddie noted in their takes on myths, the theme of water comes up frequently. In the Navajo tale, the first and third worlds are generally flooded, and in the second world a river is used to separate the sexes, who do not fully appreciate each other.

Completion of the Hogan by Amy.
But WHY? Why is it this way? Well all I know for sure is that this "is the way". I had a unique experience with "the way" last semester.
I had the opportunity to visit the people of the Navajo Nation last semester, with a club known as GEO. To learn more about the trip and the club read here. If you take a bunch of enterprising and service minded engineers to a place where they are needed and give them a project, the chances are they will find the simplest way to do it. But sometimes that simply isn't "the Hogan way" and you end up taking mountains of dirt, wood chips, and logs off to change out the bottom few. Because that is "the Hogan way", as related in the origin myth.

The lesson here? No matter your origin myth, or how you come to learn about it, orally or written, if you buy into it, you stick with it. It is the way, because it provides the foundation to your whole understanding of life.

... No matter what the crazy engineers tell you...


  1. How do you think we share our myths today? Our society is HUGE so we can't exactly all get together and swap stories. We have theaters, but do they really share today's stories? I think we learn most of them at school or in the home.

  2. Even though we don't necessarily come together and share myths, they are still universal. They are shared from parent to child or older sibling to younger or from classmate to classmate on the playground. Everyone has heard the story of Sasquatch; somehow the myths are swapped despite the lack of a communal storytelling.
    It's interesting that these stories "provide the foundation to your understanding of life". Do you mean that the myths alter our perception of reality?

  3. I really do think myths alter the perception of reality because to others it may not be a "myth" it's their religion. We see this especially in our culture (in the LDS Church), many who many not understand disregard our beliefs so quickly.

  4. I agree with Kim, enough parents have told their kids from when the earth's population was smaller that similar perpetuate through much of society today. Kim, I don't mean that they alter our perception of reality, but rather that they ARE our perception of reality. Part of them makes us who we are.