Mythtelling

Monday, 19 February 2018

Because we mostly encounter myths as written texts, we are inclined to regard them as essentially narratives made out of words. But of course the printed text on the page radically misrepresents the essential nature of mythtelling. Even if a myth is delivered as an oral narrative, it is a spoken text, and dependent on all kinds of variables to do with audience, context, purpose, and the teller themselves. Myths can be sung, or danced, enacted as ritual, or encoded as visual art. And in myth-drenched societies, myth also acts as a constant cultural reference point.

A fascinating method of mythtelling was observed by Roy Franklin Barton among the Ifugao people of Luzon Island in the Philippines. Almost every adult male Ifugao became a priest and learned the myths. At an Ifugao myth recitation, it was mutually agreed which priest would tell which myth, and then:

"Each priest recites his myth simultaneously with the rest and when he has finished one myth, he begins another. The result is a babble in which the words are indistinguishable.

"If you should approach one of the little villages in which a myth recitation is going on, you would first hear a faint hum like that of swarming bees. As you came nearer, the hum would grow into a murmur and the murmur would grow into a roar like that of an approaching mob on the stage. Arriving in the village you would note that, despite the fact that the stories were all being lost in a general jumble, there would nevertheless be an audience of women and children sitting underneath neighbouring houses, gathered to listen.

"Aside from the fact that the monotony of daily life is broken by them, the Ifugao enjoys myth recitations because he appreciates the babble of them as a rising and falling sound. The voices, he says, 'rise and fall like the sound of the bamboo harp.'"

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