Myths trace human migration

 

Ever since we came out of Africa, humans have carried myths to every corner of the globe. Cultural anthropologist Julien d’Huy traces their journey.

Cosmic Hunt as drawn 6,000 years ago in Spain

One myth, which d’Huy calls the Cosmic Hunt tells of a hunter who pursues an animal, which then turns into a constellation.

“As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major (Scientific American, December, 2016).”

Early humans from Asia carried the myth of the Cosmic Hunt across the Bering Strait to North America 28,000 and 13,000 years ago.

In turn, Asians got the myth from Europeans. In the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, a bison appears to be rising into the heavens. Black stains on the ground under the bison suggest the bloodstained autumn leaves of the hunted animal.

From Europe, the Cosmic Hunt traces back to Africa. While the story line is the same, the animal changes. In some parts of Africa it is a camel; in other parts a zebra, pig, or ungulate.

In another, the Polyphemus myth, a man gets trapped in a monster’s cave and escapes by hiding among the monster’s herd of animals.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the monster of the Polyphemus myth is one-eyed. Odysseus and his men are trapped in a cave by the monster and escape by clinging to the underbellies of the monster’s sheep which the monster has let out of the cave to graze.

The Polyphemus myth even traces the transition of humans to an agricultural way of life. Hunter-gatherers of Europe told the Polyphemus myth as a one-eyed dwarf monster, the master of beasts on a mountain.  After the ice age pushed humans into the Mediterranean 21,000 years ago, the one-eyed monster now lives in a shelter rather than in the wild.

In another French cave, the Polyphemus myth looks like humans are escaping the monster by hiding the anus of a bison rather than clinging to its underbelly. This is a similar version of the myth as told by some North American indigenous people.

I can’t help but wonder what myths survived from my indigenous European ancestors. Perhaps it’s this:

In the Greek telling of yet another cultural myth, Pygmalion makes an ivory statue of a woman and dresses her in fancy clothes and jewellery. After praying at the temple of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, he returns home to find that his ideal mate has been brought to life.

On CBC Radio’s Spark, Matt McMullen explained how his company is making hyper-realistic, anatomically-correct, poseable silicone sex dolls. Sexy robots have been turning up in our pop-culture, from Ex-Machina to Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, and the HBO series Westworld.

The myth of an ideal mate, crafted to specification by men and made possible by technology, persists.

 

 

 

Fiction is not cultural appropriation

The fires of cultural appropriation were fanned recently when the editor of a small magazine published by The Writers’ Union of Canada wrote “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” Then he poured gasoline on the fire by promoting a “Cultural Appropriation Contest” in which the winner would the writer who appropriates culture the most: “. . . the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” He was forced to resign.

Credit: Illustration by Jon Foster

Fiction is not cultural appropriation because storytelling is not the property of any one culture. Fictional characters are, by nature, inventions of the storyteller. Writers may invent talking animals (Animal Farm) or wizards and magic (Harry Potter). In all cases they are fabrications, not cultural appropriations.

Cultural appropriation is not fiction. It is real. Grey Owl (aka Archibald Belaney) didn’t just write stories about indigenous North Americans –he completely assumed their identity. The British-born Belaney fabricated his persona after arriving in Canada in 1906. In 1925, he married a Mohawk Iroquois woman, 19-year-old Gertrude Bernard (aka Anahareo), who later encouraged him to write about his experiences.

Some indigenous writers claim that only they can fictionalize indigenous characters. But to what extent should a writer be indigenous? Prize-winning Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden wrote extensively about the indigenous experience. Boyden is primarily of Irish and Scottish ancestry but also claims Nipmuc and Ojibway heritage. How pure should an indigenous writer’s linage be to qualify?

A writer for APTN National News called out Boyden for faking his indigenous roots. I can understand calling out an author for not portraying authentic fictional characters. However, Boyden’s characters are authentic. I his novel, Three Day Road, he tells the story of two Cree soldiers serving in World War I, inspired by an Ojibwa sniper. Would Boyden’s story be more authentic if his pedigree were more indigenous?

Cultural appropriation is layered. An art gallery in Toronto recently cancelled an exhibit by a non-indigenous artist Amanda PL because her paintings carried elements of the indigenous artist Norval Morriseau. PL made no pretence at being indigenous. However, Morriseau himself has been accused of appropriating Christian symbols in his work. Author André Alexis finds a certain irony in the layers of appropriation upon appropriation:

“There are levels of irony at play in all this. To begin with Norval Morriseau was criticized for using sacred symbols in his work. He was accused of debasing them. There is a consistency, here, but how strange that some of the condemnation of PL would be a condemnation of Morriseau, too (Globe and Mail, May 14, 2017).”

If anything is appropriated, it is the entire volume of human storytelling from when early humans looked up at the constellations of the night sky and told of Ursa Major, or “great bear”. These tales are so ingrained that they can be used to trace ancient migrations of humans across the globe. Julien d’Huy explains in Scientific American:

“This research provides compelling new evidence that myths and folktales follow the movement of people around the globe. It reveals that certain tales probably date back to the Paleolithic period, when humans developed primitive stone tools, and spread together with early waves of migration out of Africa (September, 2016).”