Wednesday, 20 April 2022
Friends and supporters – sorry to have left so long between updates. I haven’t been very well so far this year, which has meant the list of undone and half-done things has grown and grown! One of the things I have been amusing myself with while under par has been making some versions, for my own pleasure, of poems by Rilke. I’ve done half a dozen of these in the past, but never tackled the Duino Elegies or Sonnets to Orpheus, so have been tentatively circling them. After doing the first of the Sonnets (well, not actually the first, I started with II: 13, the one Rilke said “includes all the others”), I veered off-course to tackle the longer poem from Neue Gedichte, “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes”. Rilke asks a question in this poem that I can’t find in any of the classical references to the Orpheus myth or the Orphic mystery religion, which is whether Eurydice actually wants to be brought back from the dead. She has already forgotten Orpheus, and when Hermes tells her in anguish that “He has looked back”, she whispers, “Who?” Earlier, before we come to this realisation, it is prefigured in the marred world that Orpheus creates with the desolate music of his lyre:
And from that grief a world was remade—
everything was restored, woods, valleys, roads, villages,
beasts and fields and streams—
a world round which a sun and heavens turned,
but this was a grief-heaven with scarred stars.
Again, I think this is Rilke’s added touch to the familiar myth. Now, in recent years, philosophers and scientists have started to wonder whether the world we experience is objectively real or a simulation (for a hilarious 2021 April Fool’s Day take on this, google Fouad Khan’s “Confirmed: We Live in a Simulation” in Scientific American). The “simulated world” hypothesis is really a modern version of Plato’s myth of the cave The Republic, in which the world shackled mankind takes for reality is merely shadows cast on the wall of the cave by a flickering fire.
I was reminded, thinking about Orpheus’s world made from grief, and Plato’s world of shadowy simulacra, of the myths of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) of the American southwest. Excellent accounts of Akimel O’odham mythology can be found in Frank Russell’s The Pima Indians (originally published in the 26th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1904-1905, republished in 1975 by University of Arizona Press) and The Short Swift Time of Gods on Earth by Donald Bahr et. al. (University of California Press, 1994). Russell recorded his myths from Thin Leather, and Bahr makes use of these texts and two later versions from the same source, but his book relies mostly on a 1935 version, narrated in Pima by Juan Smith, translated into English by another Pima, William Allison, and recorded by the archaeologist Julian Hayden. Smith, Allison, and Hayden are credited as Bahr’s co-authors.
In this intriguing and complex mythology, the world is created by Jewed Ma:kai, Earth Doctor (the word ma:kai can be translated as doctor, medicine man, or shaman). In Juan Smith’s version, Earth Doctor is called to make the world by Jeoss (God), who was “nothing but pure spirit, like the wind”. The first being Earth Doctor creates is Siuuhu, Elder Brother, and together they make the first man and woman out of clay.
The songs that Earth Doctor and Elder Brother sing as they make the earth and the heavens are very beautiful. At first the land is completely flat, but Earth Doctor creates the Buzzard (Nui) to fly across the land and fashion it into mountains and valleys. “He was sitting with streams of light coming out of his eyes, with which he sees everything. He reached and got some of this light and made a buzzard with it.”
As in so many mythologies, the world goes through cycles of creation and destruction, in which the people who are created disappoint Earth Doctor and all has to be made anew. The ancestors of the Akimel O’odham escape into the earth from the great flood that destroys the second creation, and the people who are made in their place are the Hohokam, the Finished-ones.
By this time Siuuhu has emerged as the most powerful of the gods who survive the flood (Earth Doctor, Siuuhu, and Coyote, who is the child of the sun and moon; Jeoss remains a remote figure removed from the physical world). Siuuhu makes various Indian nations, ending with the Hohokam (who are, confusingly, called Pimas in the texts). He sings:
I just now made the world
And in that world I have gotten everybody to sleep
And the breath of man in that darkness
went out with more understanding.
Instructed by Siuuhu, the Hohokam establish a civilisation based on farming and irrigation, with set laws and customs, particularly to do with marriage and sexual relations. But once his work of creation, and ridding the world of monsters, is done, Siuuhu’s place in the world he has made becomes unstable. The Hohokam conspire to kill him, in various ingenious ways, either because, in the Christian-influenced version of Juan Smith, “the medicine men... thought they knew more than he did”, or in the earthier version of Thin Leather, because the unmarried Siuuhu was making a nuisance of himself with girls at the fiestas.
First they club Siuuhu to death, but the next day he reappears. Then they cut him into pieces and grind up his bones, but the next day he is back again. Then they kill him and burn the body, but still he comes back to life. So they go to Buzzard and ask for his help, as he survived the flood, and so must have magic power equivalent to that of the gods. To prove his powers, in the fullest Thin Leather version, “he made a little world in his house for them to look at, with sun, moon, and stars working just as our sun and stars work; and everything was exactly like our world.”
Buzzard then climbs the threads of the four winds up into the sky, and gets the sun to spit on Siuuhu and kill him (or alternatively shoots him with a magic lightning bow).
Siuuhu lies dead for four years, his skeleton exposed to the elements. But then he revives, reclaims all his former powers, and goes down into the underworld to fetch forth the Akimel O’odham to reclaim their land from the Hohokam.
This myth of creation, rebellion, and resurrection can be interpreted many ways, but the thing that interests me today is Buzzard’s way of demonstrating his power, by making a miniature, simulated world exactly like this one: the ultimate act of creation. And who knows, perhaps it is Buzzard’s world we are living in now...