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The Dangers of Mystification, part 1

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I’ve been working up to writing this post for over a month, ever since Wendy responded to The Dangers of de-Mystification. I can’t address the whole thing in one post, so this will have to be a series. But by the end of this post, I hope to demonstrate a little better what the problems with appropriating myths might be.

Mnemosyne (Memory), by Ian MarkeWhat Wendy took issue with was not my dilemma, but the foundational concept underlying my dilemma: Are We Authentic? Her post is well written, and I suggest you read it, but there are two points that I want to respond to in particular: 1) that even if we’re not “authentic,” it’s okay to re-use other people’s stories

Are all of those mentioned above, and many more, examples of appropriation as the legends and myths travel with us to new places and times? Very possibly. But is it wrong, is it a sort of cheating? No. They all serve our very human need to explain ourselves, not just to ourselves, but to the universe, to our ancestors and descendants.1

and 2) we very well may be more authentic than the source material we have available to us

I can’t agree that your ‘appropriation of Greek Goddesses isn’t authentic’. Oh yes, the records we have today come down to us mostly in male voices, from men who lived in a society that feared and hated women, but are we much different than that today? … I don’t believe the myths and characters from ancient Greece were born in a vacuum, but that they were revised, re-written and co-opted from earlier times, changed to appeal to the audience of the day. … So… a reinterpretation for today’s women and purpose is as authentic as the Greek myths were in their time.2

She is right, of course, that stories are constantly being reframed, and, indeed, that is how they continue to live and remain meaningful. And she is right that, “in reality, we cannot know what they thought,” and that our reframing may give voice to people we cannot hear in the textual sources. The problem comes, however, when you erase someone else’s voice to do that. And it’s really a problem, when that erasure reproduces oppression. And that’s exactly what is meant by appropriation; that’s why it’s not a neutral word.

I will begin in easier territory (easier for me, anyway). I recently wrote a post about Mexican mythology that introduces the problem, but let me go a little deeper and use someone else’s example. Beverly Slapin of Oyate wrote about the book How the Moon Regained Her Shape by Janet Ruth. Ruth’s “retelling” appropriated not just one story, but many. It was not “authentic.” I am sure that Ruth, and many others, would argue that her reasons were good. Even if, as Slapin points out, traditional stories are more complicated than Ruth suggests, Ruth’s intention to teach about the phases of the moon and the value of overcoming adversity is surely beneficial. It seems like this would fit well into Wendy’s conclusion that “it is very right for us to continue to transport our myths, to alter them to suit our needs, as an easement to our lives and a way to purpose ourselves, to rejoice in and celebrate all the life around us, to accept its challenges with grace, hope and faith.”

But it is not so simple. Ruth’s alterations erase the differences between Native American groups, they do not only reframe a story, they reframe a people. Slapin says, “I sincerely doubt that there has ever been an oral story about the moon “overcoming adversity and building self-confidence.” Certain elements of creation, such as Moon, Sun, Wind, Water, Fire, Earth, are sacred. They don’t overcome adversity because there is no adversity for them to overcome. They don’t build self-confidence because the need for “self-confidence” is a European-American cultural marker.” In writing this book, publishing this book, Ruth contributes to the reframing of Native Americans as teaching tools for white people. In short, it contributes to a much wider systemic racism that situates Native Americans as primitives in order to define white people as modern. The place for such people is in history museums and “retellings,” but retellings by whites, not Native Americans. Why? Because we may know better than them what is real, what is authentic.

If a Native American were to retell this story, and, let’s imagine, let it live in new ways through their retelling, their story might not be considered “authentic” because “authentic” means that there is a stagnant truth. An unchanging one. But if a white person did research, and pieced together an older version, well then, that’s supposed to be closer to the truth. Of course, that’s ridiculous. And yet, that is exactly what Ruth’s retelling does. It points to an authentic Native American folklore, and in doing so erases the living Hopi, Abenaki, and Lakota stories. Therefore, this retelling actually destroys opportunities “for us to continue to transport our myths, to alter them to suit our needs.”

If I’ve done my job, you can see how retelling stories is powerful, and power is a dangerous thing to wield. Hopefully you’re with me thus far, because we’re about to take another step.


Comments

3 responses to “The Dangers of Mystification, part 1”

  1. Hey Ailia,

    I’m interested to read the remainder of your post. Personally, I’m torn at the moment. My natural inclination is to say that Wendy is right. Take the stories and make them your own. After all, I am an American white male, and annexing cultures and making them ours is what we do best. However, I hear you and the need for authenticity in your voice and I stopped to think that when it comes down to it, these are not just stories. We are talking about a religion, a belief system. If someone were to take the Bible and adjust it to fit their needs, I would have a problem with that. So I guess the main question is, is it O.K. to do that to a culture that can no longer voice its own feelings? Or does the fact that we cannot know their viewpoint make it O.K. to plunder?

    Rather troublesome in all aspects. I truly prefer just enjoying the stories and not thinking about too much else (another male trait, I guess). Let’s take that next step. I’m ready.

  2. A difficult response to enter here, I was careless: When I posted my blog, I didn’t consider the suppression/oppression of peoples and cultures and you are absolutely right — it is simply unacceptable. I was thinking of current efforts to reconstruct some of our oldest myths (pre-dating early civilizations such as the Greeks), a loss of incalculable value in understanding ourselves and our myriad beliefs, worldviews and cultures, which goes back to your first point re ‘appropriation of Greek Goddesses’. Your poignant example of Janet Ruth’s re-writing of sacred stories, Beverly Slapin’s comments, re-inforces your concerns.

    I still believe, however, that we remain authentic to ourselves and our cultures, (but with the caveat, as you are demonstrating and struggling with, that the originals remain intact, that we are vigilant in ensuring the purity and origin of sources with full accreditation) when we embrace or enfold ancient mythology and stories. Let us hope we can learn from a painful past, but I fear, from the example of “How the Moon Regained Her Shape”, that we continue to re-use material at the expense of others. On the otherhand, to prevent publication is to travel down that very murky road of censorship, but we must absolutely ensure that the original voice and stories receive equal time and respect, lest we become those ancient Greeks and their pseudo-democracy who re-wrote an earlier mythology to suit their needs, re-purposing more ancient goddesses and gods to serve a male-centric warrior society.

    Mark raises good questions as well, when we don’t know an ancient society’s worldview or thoughts, I think we should still be able to enjoy and re-use the mythology they have left us, but if we simply ‘plunder’ while ignoring the source or not making the attempt to understand and/or write of its original purpose, we refuse to learn from our past.

    Like Mark, I’m really looking forward to Part II. — best wishes, Wen Scott

  3. Hey guys,

    I’m still planning on writing part two, but am totally emotionally drained as of writing this comment and don’t expect that to change for another couple of weeks at least. Thanks for your interest, though … I’ll try to give you a head’s up when I do write.

    -Ailia

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