Archive for October 2012
We previously looked at the symbolic structures that organize every aspect of social life and identity of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
In these societies, social identity is articulated through a complex symbolic vocabulary of hereditary emblems or crests, perhaps best known through the extraordinary visual art of the region, including totem poles.
These crests exemplify legendary or mythological forms associated with families or peoples, and may be used to declare public identity, social status, or rights and privileges. As we considered in an analysis of the mythology of the region, these crests are not just visual, but encompass a rich oral tradition of stories and legends that record everything from the birth of the sun to historical movements of people. Some of these stories, such as the Tlingit story of their exodus out of Glacier Bay, contain a mix of mythological symbols and historical facts.
Another way in which the system of crests may be deployed is through ceremonials, such as the famous potlatch celebrations honored by all of the peoples thus far mentioned. These days-long ceremonies are used to commemorate events of great importance, such as rites of passage or changes in status.
The family throwing the potlatch offers a great feast and gives mighty gifts. Slaves may be freed or sacrificed.
This picture shows a beautiful train of enormous food vessels, carved to depict the Sisyutl, or double-headed serpent. It was used to wheel in vast quantities of food during such feasts.
In this post, I would like to give attention to a particularly fascinating expression of this symbolic social economy, the winter dance rites of the Kwakwaka’wakw, otherwise known as the Kwakiutl, a people indigenous to British Columbia.
During the spring and summer months, the Kwakiutl used a form of social organization that is substantially similar to other groups in the Northwest, including the use of clan crests and potlatches. However, during the long months of autumn and winter, the regular social order was suspended, and the entire village entered into a complementary period, structured by alternative ritual identities. This period served as the spiritual counterpart to their ordinary economic identities of the summer months.
While summer was a time of food gathering and production, during the winter months the men would gather in secret initiatory societies, where they spent long periods preparing for intricate ritual dances. The men of these secret societies used different names during this season; names that were previously bestowed by spirits during shamanic ceremonies.
As Franz Boas observed in his definitive ethnography of Kwakiutl ceremonials, “It is clear that with the change of name the whole social structure, which is based upon the names, must break down. Instead of being grouped in clans, the Indians are now grouped according to the spirits which have initiated them.” 
The summer period was called the ba’xus, which Boas translates as “profane,” while the winter ritual period was known as ts’e’ts’aeqa, meaning “the secrets.”
According to the religious historian Sam D. Gill, the winter period was regarded as existing outside of time itself. Ts’e’ts’aeqa constitutes a timeless period that recapitulates the original time outside of time, that zero hour from which all creation is projected, and which is the true domain of mythological forms.
Please take a moment to click on and enlarge the magnificent picture to the right, taken by the great ethnographic photographer Edward Curtis. It shows a group of Kwakiutl men in dance regalia in a winter clan house, and conveys a striking sense of the power of these ceremonies. Note the three men crouched in the center, wearing bird masks that extend some seven feet or more in length. Masks of this kind may be viewed today at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.
We have every indication that the ritual effort of the winter ceremonials induced long, sustained periods of trance, supporting an ongoing period of profound relationship with the deepest levels of human consciousness.
Masked ritual dances are associated with shamanic cultures in their entire domain, stretching from Tibet and Siberia across the Bering Strait, and reaching all the way down to Tierra del Fuego in South America. However, the Kwakiutl dances are striking in the degree to which they regularly reorganize their society in terms of a complementary set of social symbols which derive not from the ordinary daylight world of labor and production, but from the nighttime realm of the unconscious, inhabited by self-luminous dream images.
Like most ritual masked dances, the Kwakiutl dance celebrations reenacted mythological events, and the participants identified with the mythic forms they depicted. Just as the priest at mass is viewed by Catholic theology as literally recapitulating the mystery of incarnation through transubstantiation, and just as the Haitian Vodouist literally becomes a vehicle for the loa, so too in the Kwakiutl there is no separation between the dancer and the spiritual forms they embody.
These rituals sometimes articulated mythologies of great violence and power, such as the notorious Hamatsa cannibal dances. Martha Padfield has written an excellent brief analysis of the Hamatsa dances in her Cannibal Dances in the Kwakiutl World, and Franz Boas has treated the topic at some length in the book cited above.
The Hamatsa myth that forms the basis for the dances has been recorded in several versions, frequently involving an initiate who travels outside the village (i.e., outside of the normal social order) to the dwelling place of a malevolent being named BaxbakualanuXsi’wae. The hero may kill the spirit and steal its powers, or receive initiation, or some combination of the two.
The version of the story that ties directly to the ceremonial tells of a young man named Q’uo’mkilig’a who goes into the woods to find cedar bark, but when he is alone he is possessed by a fearsome being named ho’Xhok”. When he fails to return to his village, his friends and family search the woods and find him lying deep in trance.
His father takes him to a shaman’s home for treatment, and four days later, the boy wakes from his ordeal, having received the name QoaLqoa’oe. Immediately upon waking, QoaLqoa’oe leaps up in a savage state and tries to devour his father. There is a frightful commotion, and villagers rush in to surround him, trying unsuccessfully to subdue him. Their ropes cannot hold him, and the villagers flee the hut in terror, leaving him to sing strange new songs. For some time he runs amok, trying to attack and bite the villagers, until at last he recovers his senses. 
This myth reflects the tension between the shamanic initiatory crisis, which also takes the form of a spontaneous and prolonged mental breakdown, and ordinary forms of social interaction. Shamanic forms of spirituality are idiosyncratic and highly personal, and often express themselves in opposition to the social order. The Tlingit shaman, for example, was buried outside of the village, and was the only person who could be directly paid for work .
In many traditional societies, we find a tension between the personal visionary experience exemplified by the shaman and the organized ritual world of the priest. In contrast to the shaman, the priest’s primary function is not to bring about a psychological breakthrough, but on the contrary: they serve to integrate individuals into the proper social order. The priest’s job is to make sure individuals stay in their role, so they can perform their necessary function for the good of the society.
Shamans have always been viewed with profound ambivalence, and regarded as marginal figures in the societies in which they operate. In many cultures, their career could be reliably expected to end with their violent death, as they were routinely killed by angry relatives of those who died by illnesses that the shaman was believed to have caused.
In the Hamatsa dance, the wildman figure enacts the return to the village by dancing wildly in the center of a circle of men who try to restrain him. The wildman acts out with varying degrees of literal-mindedness, biting and attacking members of the audience, drawing blood and sometimes biting off chunks of flesh. In some cases, audience members who lost a bit of flesh were confederates who had been compensated in advance, in other cases they were just unlucky.
An element of real risk intensifies rituals of this kind, and there is some debate regarding whether or not people were actually killed and eaten during the Hamatsa dances. However, Franz Boas, whom I regard as an extremely reliable authority, was confident that this did in fact occur. In one chilling account, he records:
I received another report of the killing of a slave. A female slave was asked to dance for the ha’mats’a. Before she began dancing she said: ‘Do not get hungry, do not eat me.’ She had hardly said so when her master, who was standing behind her, split her skull with an ax. She was eaten by the ha’mats’a. 
It does not seem at all implausible that this should have occurred. We know for certain that slaves were sometimes killed for ceremonial purposes in the region, to gratuitously demonstrate wealth in a potlatch or so they could be interred beneath the foundation of a new lodge. In many aboriginal societies, mythological forms are played out with a deadly degree of seriousness.
Photography: Many of the wonderful photos Edward S. Curtis took of Native Americans were published in a twenty-volume collection entitled The North American Indian, which is now in the public domain. Northwestern University hosts an online collection of the photos.
1) Boas F. and Hunt G. The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kawkiutl Indians. from The Report of the U. S. National Museum. Government Printing Office. 1897. p. 418.
2) Boas and Hunt, pp. 407 ff.
3) Oberg K. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press. 1973.
4) Boas and Hut, p. 420
Today I’d like to share a lovely poem by Ezra Pound drawn from Canzoni & Ripostes by Pound and T. E. Hulme.
The poem was conceived as a response to Frederic Manning’s charming but inferior “Korè“. The subject of both poems is the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and queen of the Underworld, sometimes called Kore, or maiden.
The locus classicus of Persephone’s well-known story is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter“, written in honor of her mother, goddess of corn, known as Ceres to the Romans. One day, while gathering flowers, Persephone was seized by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who dragged her below the earth to make her his queen. Demeter was heartbroken by the loss of her daughter and abandoned her office, and the land became barren and the fields infertile.
This time of infertility is widely interpreted in European literature as autumn and winter. However, in Greece, the time of infertility is not winter, but summer, when the fields lie untilled as the hard earth bakes beneath the harsh Mediterranean sun. The great Greek fertility festival honoring Demeter’s return to activity, the Thesmophoria, was held in autumn, at the beginning of the planting season.
Pound and Manning associate Persephone’s absence with winter, and beautifully employ melancholy autumnal images to signify her departure. Using the more generic term for the goddess, Kore, or maiden, they transpose the story onto a higher plane of generality. The loss of the maiden is also the loss of the beloved, and the sorrow of solitude is externalized by the falling away of the summer leaves.
As you read the poem, note the intricate and demanding rhyme scheme. Each stanza is ABCDEFG, repeating precisely throughout the entire poem (i.e., the first lines of every stanza rhyme, and so forth). This rhyme scheme is developed and perfected by the great Provençal Troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Pound regarded as perhaps the greatest of all poets. If the poem is slowly read aloud, the rhyme scheme produces a powerful musical effect that binds the whole together.
Canzon: The Yearly Slain
(Written in reply to Manning’s “Korè.”)
“Et huiusmodi stantiae usus est fere in omnibus
cantionibus suis Arnaldus Danielis et nos eum secuti
Dante, De Vulgari Eloquio, II. 10.
Ah! red-leafed time hath driven out the rose
And crimson dew is fallen on the leaf
Ere ever yet the cold white wheat be sown
That hideth all earth’s green and sere and red;
The Moon-flower’s fallen and the branch is bare,
Holding no honey for the starry bees;
The Maiden turns to her dark lord’s demesne.
Fairer than Enna’s field when Ceres sows
The stars of hyacinth and puts off grief,
Fairer than petals on May morning blown
Through apple-orchards where the sun hath shed
His brighter petals down to make them fair;
Fairer than these the Poppy-crowned One flees,
And Joy goes weeping in her scarlet train.
The faint damp wind that, ere the even, blows
Piling the west with many a tawny sheaf,
Then when the last glad wavering hours are mown
Sigheth and dies because the day is sped;
This wind is like her and the listless air
Wherewith she goeth by beneath the trees,
The trees that mock her with their scarlet stain.
Love that is born of Time and comes and goes!
Love that doth hold all noble hearts in fief!
As red leaves follow where the wind hath flown,
So all men follow Love when Love is dead.
O Fate of Wind! O Wind that cannot spare,
But drivest out the Maid, and pourest lees
Of all thy crimson on the wold again,
Kore my heart is, let it stand sans gloze!
Love’s pain is long, and lo, love’s joy is brief!
My heart erst alway sweet is bitter grown;
As crimson ruleth in the good green’s stead,
So grief hath taken all mine old joy’s share
And driven forth my solace and all ease
Where pleasure bows to all-usurping pain.
Crimson the hearth where one last ember glows!
My heart’s new winter hath no such relief,
Nor thought of Spring whose blossom he hath known
Hath turned him back where Spring is banishèd.
Barren the heart and dead the fires there,
Blow! O ye ashes, where the winds shall please,
But cry, “Love also is the Yearly Slain.”
Be sped, my Canzon, through the bitter air!
To him who speaketh words as fair as these,
Say that I also know the “Yearly Slain.”