The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind
By Neil Philip
One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness
Monday, 15 April 2019
A Man of Two Mythologies
In the summers of 1890 and 1891, anthropologist Franz Boas was researching the Salishan peoples of Washington and Oregon. Among “the once powerful tribes of the Clatsop and Chinook”, he could find only three people who partially remembered the Clatsop language and none who remembered the myths, and only two people, Charles Cultee (Q¡Eltē’) and Catherine, who could still speak Chinook. Even they in their everyday lives spoke the Chehalis language.
While he could get nothing from Catherine, in Charles Cultee Boas had found the perfect informant, a man of “remarkable intelligence” who was able to grasp exactly what Boas wanted, and provide him not just with all the material in Chinook Texts (1894) but also all the material in Kathlamet Texts (1901). Boas was able to record two nearly-dead languages and two nearly-forgotten mythologies from a single man, “the only source for two dialects of the Chinookan stock.” Cultee was one of only three people who could still speak the Kathlamet dialect.
Charles Cultee is therefore a highly important man, and what interests me particularly about him is that he could hold in his head two separate but related mythologies, in two separate but related dialects, and transmit these to Boas in what Boas calls “a comparatively pure state”. The Chinook texts are fuller and more detailed, but both books are valuable and irreplaceable records.
Both sets of myths are set in the time of the animal-people who preceded human beings. A typical Chinook myth begins, “There were Blue-Jay and Iō’i. One night the ghosts went out to buy a wife. They bought Iō’i.” Blue-Jay goes in search of his sister in the town of the ghosts, where he causes trouble by swapping the bones during the day so that when nights fall and they manifest they find they have the wrong head or legs. So Blue-Jay is banished, but is burned to death on the way home and ends up back in the town of ghosts anyway.
There is a lot of sometimes macabre humour in these stories, and a fierce poetry. Trickster figures feature prominently—not just Blue-Jay, but also Coyote and Mink.
One key tale is the Chinook salmon myth. In Cultee’s telling and Boas’s translation, this starts like a fairytale: “Once upon a time there was a chief who had a daughter. Many people wanted to marry her, but he was unwilling to part with her.” Repeated actions and phrases reinforce the fairytale atmosphere, although the setting is completely in the myth world.
The chief sets the suitors an impossible task, to break a pair of elk antlers set up in the middle of the house. All the quadrupeds and all the birds try and fail, until last person, who is covered in sores and boils, is urged to try by Blue-Jay. The person covered in sores rises, shakes himself, and becomes clean and beautiful. He is the salmon, and he breaks the antlers with ease.
The couple make a run for it, but are pursued by the disappointed suitors, until Coyote and Badger kill the salmon with an enchanted arrow, and he is eaten by the pursuers. The Crow, the salmon’s aunt, saves a salmon egg, and nurtures this until it grows into a salmon-man, the son of the original salmon. He goes to Coyote’s house, reclaims his father’s bow, and kills Coyote and Badger. Then he goes to the house of the wolves, to rescue his mother and wreak an elaborate revenge on the five wolves who have kept her captive.
The salmon and his mother leave in a canoe, and he goes to sleep, warning her not to wake for five days, but, concerned, she wakes him after four, and he turns her into a pigeon, never again to be the wife of a chief. The salmon then marries five sisters, though he only loves the youngest one. His adventures continue when the eldest sister pushes him out to sea in his canoe while he is asleep, and he arrives in an island where he marries another two sisters, before returning home to the original wives and turning the eldest sister into a sea bird.
The whole story is very complex and crammed with culturally-significant detail, most noticeably the consistent patterning in fives which holds throughout the Columbia River region. “There were five brothers” is the most common opening in Charles Cultee’s Chinook stories.
The Kathlamet salmon myth recorded from Cultee in 1891 begins with bitter matter-of-factness: “The people of mythical times were dying of hunger.” Boas recorded a second version of this myth and one other in 1894, to check on variations of style and substance, and discovered Cultee’s mythtelling to be remarkably stable.
What Franz Boas does not explore is what these two bodies of myth and their potent stories of transformation meant to Charles Cultee. Writing generally of Northwest Coast cultures, Dell Hymes writes, “Myths were told on winter nights as a kind of world-renewal rite, yet they were present in the lives of people year-round.” This feeling of myth as a living unseen presence in everyday life comes across very clearly in the homely details of Cultee’s storytelling. To quote Hymes again, “In principle the world of myth is open, any ingredient of the world may enter it; if such a myth is not known to one person, it may be to another. Myth, and narrative generally, close the world, not through content but through form.”
There is some overlap between the two books, most notably in the myth in which Coyote discovers the taboos concerning fishing for and eating salmon by questioning his excrements, which appears in both Chinook and Kathlamet versions, with Coyote admitting in both, “Even I got tired.” But in general the two bodies of myth known to Charles Cultee are remarkably separate, especially considering the close cultural and linguistic connections and intermarriage between the Chinook and the Kathlamet.
There is a psychological complexity to some of the stories, notably the Kathlamet sun myth , in which a chief sets of in search of the Sun, and eventually finds the house in a girl lives with her grandmother. The old woman goes out every morning wearing a blanket that shines, and comes back every evening, and hangs the blanket up. The chief, after being offered everything in the house, refuses all gifts except the shining blanket. When he reaches his uncle’s town, the Sun urges him to strike the town, and:
Then he lost his senses and he broke his uncle’s town and killed all the people. Now he recovered. Had broken all the houses. His hands were full of blood. Then he thought: “Oh, what a fool I was! The thing I wanted is bad.” He tried to throw it away, but it stuck to his flesh.
Again and again he tries to get rid of the blanket, and again and again it overwhelms his mind and causes him to destroy the five towns of his relatives. His desperation is palpable. At the last, when all his relatives are dead, the old woman appears, and asks, “why do you cry? You wished for it.” She takes back the blanket and he is left alone.
I would love to know exactly what this desolate myth meant to Charles Cultee. And although Boas does not explore such questions, Melville Jacobs does in two later books, The Content and Style of an Oral Literature and The People Are Coming Soon. In both of these he analyses Clackamas Chinook myths, recorded in 1929-30 from another single informant, Mrs. Victoria Howard, again one of the last surviving speakers of a Chinook dialect.
Jacobs emphasises the extent to myths are co-created by the mythteller and the audience, “because literary creativity resided as much in the community as in the storyteller of the evening.” It was the audience who decoded the myth as it was told. He also talks about the complete “absence of verbalized emotions” in the Clackamas myths. But in Charles Cultee’s sun myth, we do find verbalized emotion, tersely told but no less effective for that.