Hot and grimy from hard work in the manioc orchard the two sisters trot down the path between fruit trees, across the broad cleared plain, and along another path through the forest that lines the river. They go quite a way before they stop. The women would like to bathe and collect water in private, away from the hungry eyes of the men and the abrasive gossip of the women of their village. Every moment of every day they are with others, except these short times, relieving themselves, or at the river.
Here it is, their favourite spot. The trees clear a little in this place before a mud bank that slopes gently down to the river’s edge. The smell of the water and earth is fresh and sweet in the warm morning air. Behind them a Shatoba tree rises up, spreading its huge arms over the glen. They put down their clay vessels and wade into the water.
They are almost finished bathing when both sisters glimpse a shining hump break the surface of the water. Something about the sight raises the hair on their skin. They stand gazing at the glimmering wake on the other side of the river. Through the moving light, now they make out a form – a huge black caiman. As they watch intently, with some fear, the skin of the animal parts and a man steps out. He is the most beautiful person they have ever seen. It at first appears that his body is decorated with the same urucum paste and genipapo sap used by the men of their village. Then they see the designs, in caiman shapes, are part of his skin. There is also something of that animal in his powerful lines. They desire him. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’, ‘Great Caiman! Come and “eat” us!’ He doesn’t seem to hear, then he turns to look at them with eyes that shine like stars. Quicker and easier than they have ever seen a man swim, he crosses the river. He makes love to both. Afterwards, when they part, he returns to the caiman skin which still lies on the other side of the river, puts it on like clothing and swims away.
Back at the village it is all they can think about, and they whisper about their secret and decide to return the next day and call Yakashukuma to them again. That afternoon they paint themselves with genipapo drawings, and when it is time the next day they each put on their newest uluri belts and best yanakwimpi beads around their necks and paint a bright orange epitsiri band across their plucked brows. When they feel as lovely as they can be they make their way back to the same spot at the river. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ they call. The huge caiman appears and again the man steps out of its skin and makes love to them.
This goes on for many days, and people start to notice how the sisters dress up every day and how happy they are. Their husband can see this too and one day he decides to follow them. When the two of them make out for the river he follows without their knowledge. Hiding in the bushes at the edge of the glen he watches his wives call their lover, the man step out of the caiman skin, and the man-animal make love to each of them. He returns to the village and calls the men together. They decide to all go, with arrows and batons, and kill the caiman. The next day they secretly follow the sisters down to the river and crouch in the bushes waiting. They watch the call and the arrival of the lover and are silent until after the he is exhausted from making love to both women. Then they burst from their hiding places to attack the man-animal. They kill him and leave the women wailing over his remains.
When the men are gone, the sisters collect up the body of their lover and bury it in the earth. Every day they return to the burial place and weep. One day, as they crouch there they see that from the place where they buried their lover a plant is sprouting. In time the plant grows into a gorgeous tree that bears fruit.
The fruit is bright orange, delicious and rich, with a wonderfully fragrant oil to anoint the body. It is the first akãi tree; it will become the sacred tree of their people. To this day the Mehinaku and their neighbours wait with great anticipation for the ripening of this fruit and celebrate its harvest in a joyous festival.
I took my time writing out this myth. Old myths like these, of giant caimans, grass-blade maidens and trickster-armadillos, can seem utterly bizarre and unapproachable when told briefly. It was always told to me in detail, with relish even: ‘Yakashukumaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ People love to call out this refrain and I have heard this tale many times during my fieldwork.
In writing it here the question is: what can you, the reader, do with this perhaps strange story from what is probably another land? It is nested within a bigger question: what is the meaning of any of these strange tales we call myths in this age we find ourselves living in?
I will start with the bigger question. There is of course a long western history, in myriad disciplines, of grappling with the subject of myth and its significance. The word itself comes from the ancient Greeks whose tales were of the gods. And this is the way the word has been traditionally used: to denote ‘the stories of the gods’, whatever gods, from whichever cultures happen to be in question. Historically this term has been blended with the meaning of the Latin word for story, fabula, with its connotations of untruthfulness (Kane 1998:32-34). In common sense usage too, the word ‘myth’ is given to say something is unreal. This ‘agnostic reflex’, as Corbin (1972) puts it, means that myth has been treated as outside of the actual world, and or difficult to understand: ‘the strange identifications that are those of mythic thought’ (Lévi-Strauss in Overing 1985:153).But what of a definition that cleaves closer to what traditional myths mean to the people who actually tell them, and who believe them? The Mehinaku word for myth is ownaki, a word used for creation myths as well as tales of more recent events, and also everyday occurrences. Mehinaku people tend to pattern their experience in a kind of story-logic. For them the things that occur in life never ‘just happen’, they are understood to have to do with entities and forces often beyond human perception, giving a kind of meaningfulness to events, a sense of the mythic. In other words, far from the notion of myths being untrue stories, for the Mehinaku myths describe forces that are real and tangible to them and that give life inherent meaning.The entities or powers described in Mehinaku myths are different aspects of the natural world with which they have lived for generations. The myths then are an expression, a recording, often extremely detailed, of knowledge about the place they live. As western and other cultures have in various ways grown increasingly separated from the natural world, their myths either speak of this divorce, or do not speak of the natural world at all. So instead of communicating human wisdom about nature, myth often becomes a reflexive, neurotic human story about humans themselves, unanchored and megalomaniacal. As Ben Okri put so elegantly in his novel The Famished Road, ‘A people are as healthy as the stories they tell themselves’ (1991).
I have digressed far from the bend of the river of our myth and our first question of what such a story might mean to us. If we now understand that Mehinaku myth expresses understanding of their natural world, what wisdom is being articulated by this story of the sisters and their animal lover, his brutal murder and the sacred fruit tree, and how do we relate to it?I loved this myth the first time I heard it. My first impression was that it was a gorgeous tale, and with the elegance of a truth. That was my sense of it without trying to work out why. I remember feeling the love story to be mysterious and lovely, and then of course, tragic, but with profound redemption. This experience of myth as, ‘”something mysterious”, invisible, intelligent and whole’ (Kane 1998:45), is not in addition to the knowledge of the natural world that myths contain, it is part of that knowledge. The forces that myths describe are often beyond human ability to comprehend, and so when that mystery is successfully evoked by a myth it means that the listener or reader has experienced something of the nature of those forces.The most mysterious moment for me, the place I find myself in the story (as Martin Shaw would say), is in that first hair-raising glimpse of something glimmering on the water. The nameless longing to see more, know more, and of who knows what. It’s that feeling perhaps we’ve all had of glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something that fills us with yearning or maybe just wistfulness. The crucial thing to me is that the sisters do not dismiss what they have sighted. They keep looking, intently. The reason they do that is because they know about the land around them, because of what we might call their ‘cosmology’. They know that the strange shimmer on the water is shining from another world (the word ‘glimpse’ actually comes from the word ‘glimmer’: ‘to shine faintly with a wavering light’). There are a number of worlds, each with a different luminosity. The human world is only the way humans perceive it; other beings perceive utterly differently, their perception forming alternate ‘consensus realities’. When Yakashukuma steps out of his caiman skin and looks at them with his star-eyes, there is no doubt they are in the presence of a denizen of the world of the apapanye. He is a ‘man-animal’, ‘gente-bicho’, as they say in Portuguese; one of those beings, usually invisible, that make the animals and plants and other things we live amongst. The Mehinaku speak of how to literally glimpse something from another reality can move one into that reality, so that a ‘change of eyes’ occurs. Therefore, when the women meet the eyes of Yakashukuma they are drawn into a realm that is usually invisible to their own, and after them they draw the rest of the village in what becomes a mixing of worlds.To put it simply, the sisters hold their gaze on something at the border of their senses because they have knowledge that other worlds are there, imminent to their own. These are people who have long lived in close, daily and intricate relationship to the animals and plants and rivers that surround them, and have developed profound knowledge about how to do so. Do you follow your glimpse out of the corner of your eye, or do you keep walking or talking? Have we been taught to dismiss these experiences? Growing up, except in the fiction I read, I had virtually no cultural knowledge that other perspectival realities might be coexisting with my own. Only in my own reflections and from oblique ideas I came across did I ever have rudimentary thoughts about such things. Some readers of this might do this already but for those who don’t, as well as for myself, I ask: what would it be to trust our glimpse, even in a very literal way to believe in our senses, to develop our peripheral vision as we go about our day. To be as awake as a longbow hunter in a forest when we take the dog for a walk. What might we find out about the place we live?And what happens when we do stay with that glance? In the case of the sisters and listeners of this myth, we witness a human world permeable to other worlds, the passion and love that can exist between humans and the non-human world and how such feeling and tenderness can create the most beautiful transformations, and literally be fruitful to one’s people, though not without sacrifice. At a moment in history when disaster looms, I wonder about what we might find out, what strength and true knowledge we could discover by following the clues that glimmer at the edge of our vision.
Corbin, Henry. 1964. ‘The Imaginary and the Imaginal’. Spring.
Kane, Sean. 1998. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Broadview Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude in Overing, Joanna. 1985. Reason and Morality. Tavistock Press.
Okri, Ben. 1993. The Famished Road. Anchor Books
This is the final post in our series The Mythos We Live By (edited by Charlotte Du Cann). Many thanks to all our contributors.