MYTH MAKING: Working at the Interface of Literature and Anthropology
During the course of five years of near continuous work on The People of the Stone saga detailing the controversial and amazing issues surrounding the peopling of North America from the end of the Ice Age to the coming of the first Europeans, the problem of frequently dealing with an unknown mythological past has often arisen, at times even dominating the storytelling process. As this author contemplates the beginning of the sixth and final novel in this important book series, The Children of the Circle, the satisfaction of having so many times been forced by the needs of the characters or plot lines that have been created to generate a mythological connection or explanation for events being described has been one of the most challenging and fulfilling aspects of the writing process. As a novelist it is always tempting to invent that which is most expedient or outlandish in order to create a supernatural explanation for some imagined event in the distant past. However, as an anthropologist who is exploring a basically new genre of novel formatting, it is essential to create myths that are both satisfying to the reader as well as being "correct" in their time and place and based upon sound archeology or ethnological comparisons.
To reach back into our Ice Age past and then extrapolate myths from more modern and existing Native American stories, for example, can be both useful--even essential--but also risky; or so it would seem. Many of those existing stories, legends, etc. might fit well with later, better documented happenings (such as those detailed in the previous two books of the series), but might also have little resemblance to the supernatural world explanations created by Ice Age or later cultures that are as far removed from more modern native tribal peoples as those stories are from any one else's. Of course, one of the great advantages of choosing to explore nearly 13,000 years plus of prehistory in novel form is that it gives the writer the option of being very creative in such things. Other writers who have written on these and related time periods (Jane Auel, for example) have too often operated very loosely on this interface of time, space, and anthropology for the purposes of storytelling. This is not a criticism, but only an observation that anyone, such as myself, wanting to give co-eminence to authenticity and storytelling operates under a more limiting set of restraints when encountering the need to create an instant myth to fit a particular plot line or event. The lost world of our ancestors was a dramatically different one in terms of its actual as well as perceived environment. Extinct animals, such as mammoth, or massive natural disasters, must have dominated the supernatural view of their world in a way we cannot begin to comprehend. The real events that must have occurred--and thus required an explanation within their mental frameworks--must have been spectacular, frightening, and life altering, on a scale we cannot truly understand or even recreate with our own scientific view of the world around us. How they would have coped with such happenings and then built a mythological structure within which to explain them can only be guessed at through what we have learned of that complex process in our own more recent past.
Still, huge gaps must exist in that knowledge and we can only enter their supernatural world through the windows that archeologists, anthropologists, and others have revealed. The fantastic opportunity that native Americans have presented us writers by maintaining at least some connection with that open window into their past allows us to at least attempt to make some sense of the supernatural world of myth that might have existed in theirs and in our own deeper pasts. There are rules that anyone attempting to enter through that window must follow, however, and this has been the true challenge of writing the stories of this great saga I am hoping to conclude in the next year.
Let's take a brief look at just how the myth-building process has worked by focusing on just one small example of how this writer has attempted to use existing knowledge to create believable links at this interface of literature and anthropology. Ultimately his success or failure will be for the readers to decide. However, the personal satisfaction of feeling that a successful and correct myth has been created to advance a story is, perhaps, the most gratifying aspect of this six book, six year journey I have undertaken and am about to complete.
WALKING WITH BEARS: The Enduring Quality of a Myth
One of the best documented and widespread of all anthropomorphic or reality- based myths is the great collection of legend stories (folklore, we might say), interpretative tales, origin myths, etc. which focus around humans' ancient relationship to another species we have evolved beside--BEARS. Throughout the northern hemisphere, but particularly in North America, the mythological and iconographic importance of bears to ancient peoples is undeniable. Obviously, therefore, when choosing to set several stories among ice age peoples and later hunting and gathering groups, it would be logical to find a major place for this animal in the stories, legends, etc. being created and portrayed for those early periods. Have you ever stopped to think why bears are so central to so many different peoples' enduring legends? Here are a few known considerations that any mythmaker dealing with this important animal with these time periods and peoples must consider.
Bears are apex predators. That is, they are at the top of the food chain, which in earlier times would also have included Us! They would have been our main competition, and sometimes we would have lost. After the disappearance of the mammoth and other great 'beasts', bears would have remained as powerful connections with that distant past and our own origins even. Ice Age bears would have been more fierce, perhaps, but even throughout prehistoric times, grizzlies and other larger species would have dominated parts of the landscape. Bears, like humans, live relatively long lives; sometimes lead solitary and mysterious existences; move across vast areas of landscape; exhibit intelligence and foresight; live in sheltered caves etc. for part of the year; and on and on. All of these traits would have seemed more "human" to early people sharing the landscape. Bears are also the only animal to stand on two-feet (at times) and walk like humans. (This is a hugely important distinction in studying ancient bear mythology). As such, they can use their dangerous claws almost as hands, giving these visible body parts special power to those not possessing such a tool on their own hands. Obviously, to be feared is to be worshipped in the context of peoples needing a reality-based connective link to the supernatural world and one that is seen as more powerful than their own. In many tribal cultures, bears are ascribed great healing powers, etc. Often, bears are believed to be the last animals with whom humans shared a common voice and their own connective link to the greater realm of the Beasts. They are seen as the ultimate totemic or clan link in a system in which ancestry is traced back to a time when man and animals were equals in the same natural world. In short, bears are often the major, non-human, link with the real world and that of the lost spirit beings--between which ancient cultures sought to find their own interpretive place in the larger scheme of things--in which our evolving brains had begun to perceive us as existing co-equally in our rapidly developing view of the universe beyond our existence.
In the first two novels of this series, THE STONE BREAKERS and VOICES UPON THE WIND, events play out in an early, post-Ice Age environment. The characters are not only challenged, but in the case of the second novel, all but overwhelmed by their rapidly changing and completely incomprehensible natural surroundings. Not surprisingly, I chose to give bear imagery a central place in these stories. In the second novel, the bear is the progenitor of an origin dream, the healing power, and in general the dominant intercessor with the world of spirits the young hero must operate through to access the truth that world is trying to reveal to him. The bear necklace he creates becomes the visible link with the power of his vision--the thing his companions can identify with and recognize as that powerful link they do not possess themselves. In the earlier novel, THE STONE BREAKERS, the principal bear image is the great bear fur, which is used to show both the power and value of the bear as a spirit being above man even, but also as the most valued and high-status possession a hunter could achieve. Killing a bear is showing to your fellow hunters that you are equal to the task of leading your band, acquiring a wife, or whatever else might have been valued the most in a hunter's world. Stories of special bear hunts, naming rituals, etc. are already a featured source of even routine fireside lore by the band's storyteller.
By the time of the events of the third novel, RED EARTH SKY, however, people have reached the first pre-agricultural stages. They have a long tradition of building kin-based clan memberships around some totemic ancestor--different animals (later this would include plants and other objects) of the earth, water, and sky--and have at least partially abandoned total mobility for experimental forms of more sedentary living. Not surprisingly, in such a scenario the bear becomes the single most powerful of these kin group symbols, available for use only to that kin group which can claim direct descent from the original culture hero of a distant past and can thus be claimed by only the most respected, high status family--who also just happen to be the prinicpal decision makers and law givers. The bear is now too powerful a symbol to be shared, and that power is becoming so limited that by the end of the story, just as our own hunting past fades from memory, the great power of the bear fades as well, signaling the emergence of a new, non-hunting based society with different symbolic needs . Why? Perhaps this is because we now see ourselves as able to "control" the natural world that surrounds us without the need for any intercessor to the spirit beings from that misty world who is seen as greater than ourselves. We no longer need to ascribe a 'human' quality to even the greatest of the beasts we know in our world. Not surprisingly, bear imagery in early agricultural societies is much less-important, as water and sky icons become more necessary as the kin-based access points to the new heavenly spirit forces that now guide and regulate our lives. Connection with more visible earth-bound (and more powerful) ancestor symbols are not seen as essential as these more personal spiritual contexts were in the past. Therefore, in answer to one reader's recent observation and question, the reason why bears seem to mostly disappear from the fourth and fifth novels (the turtle is now the origin point and culture giver, it seems, for these early farmers and village builders--along rivers, of course) is that we did not "need" him any more and could look at him finally as but one more aspect of the earthly landscape we now dominated. WE were now the apex species, with no competitors we could not overcome--at least here on earth. What about the Sun and the Moon? Well now readers, those are other stories to be told, and books four and five look to the heavens, and to more visible archeological specifics, for their myths. The bear becomes a sky spirit in that regards (Ursus major being a prominent star grouping in many later mythologies) while his earthly symbolic status fades even farther into the realm of myth.
In writing about the supernatural world of our unseen past and creating myths to fill in the empty spaces found there the writer must be careful that the window through which he or she enters--or even just peers, as some writers choose to do--is one that is fully opened and that what he or she sees there and borrows for the new story being created is well-researched and thought out. For anyone attempting to write in this relatively untried genre that I call the Anthropological Novel, the information for doing so both effectively and correctly is certainly there. However, it is a world of so much depth that the inexperienced swimmer there can easily drown in a sea of information and seeming contradictions. The uninitiated might not perceive these dangers until he or she has built a myth that causes the ancient spirits to laugh out loud somewhere out there in their Ice Age cosmos. So dear reader, be careful that the "great bear" doesn't get you and eat your heart to add to his own strength while you are searching for him in your vast ancestral past--a past we think we have all put behind us now with our logical view of the natural world, as well as a past that we have too often come to ignore at our great peril.
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