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"So Wise Were Our Elders"

"So Wise Were Our Elders": Mythic Narratives from the Kamsá

JOHN HOLMES McDOWELL
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j8dn
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  • Book Info
    "So Wise Were Our Elders"
    Book Description:

    "So wise were our elders!" Thus exclaims Mariano Chicunque, himself an elder, expressing in a single phrase the thrust of the mythic narrative tradition he simultaneously presents and represents in his storytelling.

    A remarkable body of mythology is documented for the first time in this volume. John Homes McDowell's study revolves around thirty-two mythic narratives of the Kamsá Indians who live in the Sibundoy Valley of the Colombian Andes, collected by the author from several renowned Kamsá storytellers. Each myth is given in the native language with parallel English translations that seek to capture the flavor of the original performances. Textual annotation and commentary assess the grounding of the myths in the language and culture of the Kamsá indigenous community.

    Introductory chapters describe the process of transcription and translation and highlight important characteristics of the collection. McDowell stresses the collaborative nature of the enterprise, which benefits from the shared vision of the ethnographer and of indigenous consultants who were involved in every step of the process. The narratives are portrayed as a residual mythology in transit toward folktale but still evocative of a traditional cosmos. The myths are much more than inert "literary" objects, and under McDowell's scrupulous analysis they emerge as a storehouse of narrative potential whose performances still have meaning in Kamsá society and culture today.

    "So Wise Were Our Elders"is a companion volume to McDowell'sSayings of the Ancestors: The Spiritual Life of the Subundoy Indians(1989).

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5566-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 The Making of a Mythology
    (pp. 1-14)

    Thus exclaims taita (father) Mariano Chicunque, himself an elder, in the course of narrating “About the Red Dwarfs” (m4). His exclamation assesses the role played by the elders of the ancestral period in vanquishing a residual cosmic menace but could just as well serve as a capsule summary of the broad thematics of Kamsá mythic narrative. Taita Mariano is making a very explicit point: in spite of the fact that the ancestors were not baptized in the Catholic faith, they commanded extraordinary spiritual knowledge and power:

    What emerges as a digression from the narrative action, in which the ancestors have...

  5. 2 Kamsá Mythic Narrative
    (pp. 15-35)

    A myth is a sacred story; it encodes religious beliefs and practices into narrative discourse. Beyond this pragmatic assignment, myths are utilized as instruments for thinking through the fundamental mysteries, ambiguities, and contradictions posed by human strivings in the web of social convention. Imaginative works of art, myths capture our fancy and delight our sensibilities even as they help us envision the cosmos. The myths of the Kamsá people retain a religious function, particularly as embodiments of ancestral wisdom, but they are evolving toward a folktale corpus as entertainment and moral instruction take precedence over the manifestation of religious truth....

  6. 3 Prelude
    (pp. 36-41)

    It was a late afternoon in November in San Felix and several Kamsá companions had gathered in the thatch-roofed cottage of Bautista and Concha Juajibioy, as doña Concha readied the fire to prepare soup for that evening’s supper. I joined the group inside the kitchen area and listened as taita Bautista explained to the younger men (most of them in their fifties) how things used to be in the old days. My presence was partially a catalyst for this talk, yet it unfolded with such passion and direction as to signal a natural causeway for discourse about former times and...

  7. 4 The Wangetsmuna Cycle
    (pp. 42-84)

    Wangetsmuna is at once a deity and the principal culture hero of the Kamsá Indians, in many respects cognate to figures like Viracocha of the central and southern Andes (Demarest 1981) and Juan Tama, Bochica, and Guequiau of the Chibchan nations to the north (Castillo y Orozco 1877; Triana 1951; Simon 1953; Rappaport 1980–1981). The mythology indicates that once he was held in awe by his people, but his very name is falling into oblivion as the modern age washes over the Sibundoy Valley, breaking the ancient hold of tradition. There is no evidence of Wangetsmuna outside of the...

  8. 5 Tales of the Ancestors
    (pp. 85-155)

    The ancestors in Kamsá thinking are an ill-defined collectivity including demigods, assorted personages, and animal-people, whose common destiny is the founding of Sibundoy civilization. At the dawn of the ancestral period the very first ancestors appear on the cosmic stage, the primordial miner, his younger brother Wangetsmuna, their sister who spins thread. These people interact directly with celestial deities: the moon, who marries the miner; her father, the sun, who almost catches themin flagrante; the thunder god, who rallies to save his grandchild from the wrath of the heathen men. As the ancestral period continues and the world evolves...

  9. 6 Tricksters and Suitors
    (pp. 156-228)

    This part of the collection features a crew of imposters and their deceptions. At one extreme, their antics are a source of amusement; at another, they border on the grotesque. These dissemblers move within the late ancestral period, before the moment of demarcation between animal and human personae but after the essential contours of social life have been established. There is still a hint of the exemplary in these mythical events, but the mood has shifted toward the picaresque, and these tales exude the flavor of fable in many cases.

    The first four mythic narratives in this section depict humorous...

  10. 7 Tales of the Spirit Realm
    (pp. 229-268)

    The Kamsá account of the evolution of civilization is founded upon a gradual taming of a protean spirituality unleashed at the dawning of time. The brute spiritual potency of the ancestral period is too volatile to nurture the steady cadence of social life in human societies. The potency that brought forth the precedents would instantly overwhelm them should it be left unchecked. But the pulsating spiritual power of the ancestral period cannot be entirely disarmed. Instead, it is pushed to the margins of human experience where it continues to exercise influence over the course of events. A realm of spiritual...

  11. 8 Aftermyth
    (pp. 269-272)

    We have now completed our survey of mythic narratives gathered through access to a social network that radiates outward from the Juajibioy family and their base in the vereda of San Felix, activated for my benefit by my Kamsá partner, Justo Jacanamijoy. I returned to San Felix in June 1991 to find that don Justo had passed away some months previously. My hostess during that earlier period, doña María, was much smitten with this loss, and she had also lost one of her sons, Lucho, shortly after Justo’s death. But she was in the company of her daughters, Carmen and...

  12. References
    (pp. 273-277)
  13. Index
    (pp. 278-285)