Myth and Ritual:
Two Faces of Tradition

(including "Tests of Bride and Bridegroom")

D. E. Bynum

Humanism as an academic profession is intrinsically fundamentalist. As a class, its practitioners have little else entirely in common than their confidence in the supernal inspiration and the revelative inerrancy of their several scriptures. In varying degrees many of them share also a determination—as one says—to “get to the root of the matter”; the “matter” being always some tradition whose source or sense they should in duty to their calling understand better than they do, and expound to each other. This latter motivation has been especially strong in humanists who have found something attractive in anthropology. To make significant use of anthropological science for other than its own ends requires considerable inventiveness at the least, and also close attention to matters of religion and ritual which the fathers of humanism would surely have thought more appropriate to theology than to humanistic learning. The theological odour of much anthropological discourse has been reason enough for many to cry fie upon it; and to fundamentalists such as academic humanists mostly are, invention too is ever suspect, except when it can be shown to enhance or to introduce some new purity of doctrine. The earnest doctrinal disputations and the evident concern for doctrinal purity in anthropology have thus had some power of attraction for humanists, even when the aspects of culture that have occasioned them have been topically rebarbative to humanistic sensibilities.

Humanism and Anthropology

The anthropologist’s programmatic ideal of detachment or “social scientific objectivity” has also seemed a salubrious alternative to the long habit of Cartesian subjectivity in literary criticism. And of course the example of famous individual anthropologists, who may have done more—or who may at least seem to have done more—than professional humanists have done in the last century to illuminate “the non-genetically determined behaviour of man,” this too has given humanism a smart fillip toward imitation if not outright adoption of anthropological methods.

Forceful as these causes have been however, academic humanists could surely not have moved so far so quickly or in such numbers towards adoption of anthropological attitudes but for the effect of two additional determinants. One has been the relentless growth of awareness in their profession that among all the traditions they value—the very fundaments of the humanist’s fundamentalism— oral traditions generally are more ancient and hence more traditional, and often very much more traditional at that, than are any written traditions. Even though they are often more difficult or less accessible to conventional understanding than are written traditions, oral traditions have come to be more widely respected as the tried, proven, and densely economical conveyors of thought and ideology that they are. The trouble Western humanists have had understanding them is after all not chargeable (as was once widely thought) to the witlessness of unwashed, half-mad peasantries, or to the blithering of a barely awakened, still inchoate power of reason in simple savages, but rather to the narrowness, or perhaps even the unsuitability, of literary learning to the real challenge of such more ancient and more profoundly traditional traditions.

To the uneducated, the fact that oral traditions belong in the first instance not to the library but to the habits of living people has seemed reason enough to consign them wholly to anthropology, although neither the origination nor the continuing inspiration of literary traditions by oral tradition warrants it so. Thus the fathering of responsibility for the collecting and interpretation of oral traditions upon anthropology has arisen not from any real right or even any actual interest in most oral traditions on the part of most anthropologists (whose real metiers are in fact physical man and the organization of societies), but more often from the default of humanists throughout the past century, who if they had any inkling of it, have mostly dreaded and shunned what Edmund Leach has correctly described as the “extremely personal traumatic kind of experience and the personal involvement” of fieldwork.1 The uncomfortable awareness of this on the one hand, and on the other hand the eruption in the middle of the last century of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ reflections on native Amazonian and other New-World mythologies, have given subsequent humanism an irresistable impetus toward new and different, if not actually altogether anthropological, approaches to literature, both oral and written.

In this bit of intellectual history one assigns singular influence to Lévi-Strauss not because he was necessarily a good anthropologist or a good mythologist—one need not judge that—but only because he wrote egregiously and originally about myth, whereas mythology was of old the especial bailiwick of humanists. For that reason alone he rapt the attention of some academic humanists as other, perhaps more strictly competent professional anthropologists never did. Never before had myth seemed to be a main concern of anthropology, and perhaps it still really was not, but for a time Lévi-Strauss made it appear so, and no small number of younger, more orthodox anthropologists followed his example.

Not that anthropology was devoid of interest for humanists before Lévi-Strauss. Kinship, the basic technical discipline of anthropology, never had much appeal for the humanities in itself. But above all else, kinship has to do with marriage, and marriage is ritual behaviour, and ritual in that connection bears directly and profoundly on religion. More than kinship studies, the humanistic interest of religion and ritual made humanists aware of the gradual and fruitful commingling of French social philosophy and British anthropology in the long descent from Robertson-Smith through Frazer, Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Van Gennep, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, and even the American, Kroeber.

But if kinship studies meant hardly anything to humanists, religious and ritual studies too seemed often to tantalize without clearly fulfilling the needs of criticism in the humanities. So anthropology with its increasing predilection for the trauma of objective experience “in the field” became identified with ritual studies in the minds of many humanists, while humanism with its increasing predilection for the self-indulgence of critical subjectivity continued to dominate the study of myth. Put simply, a tacit understanding arose that to comprehend ritual, one turned to anthropology, but to humanistic learning for mythology. Lévi-Strauss changed all that, injecting a large dollop of subjective criticism into what purported to be anthropology, and in so doing evoking a great desire for more objectivity in humanists.

Ritual Studies

To see how that came about one needs to discriminate certain developments in the anthropology of ritual. The older and more ample stream of studies in rite was religious in nature, concerned like Robertson-Smith with ritual that connoted a large element of credence in preternatural or supernal beings by its celebrants. One of the most respected students of ritual in that sense was Victor W. Turner, whose studies in indigenous Central African religion were theoretical landmarks, as, for example, his work on the Chihamba cult of the Ndembu people of northern Zambia.2 But criticism of any scholarship so accomplished as Turner’s may be as stimulating as the achievement itself. Thus an admirer of Turner, Maurice Bloch, commented that Turner’s avowed dissatisfaction with the explanations of religion preceding his own work led him into a serious compromise, if not an actual renunciation, of scientific detachment. As Bloch remarked,

Professor Turner criticizes these approaches for “explaining away religion in naturalistic terms.”

By this he meant first of all that the studies inspired by these theories gave an insufficient account of religious belief, and consequently did not pay sufficient attention to its content. He himself, at first working within this tradition, later found it unable to account for the complexity of belief, for the emotional and intellectual richness and interconnectedness of symbols. By contrast, for him religion deals with truth not bounded by a particular social situation or a particular society, perhaps universal psychological truth of a Freudian or Jungian nature, although he finally settles for the frankly religious view that these are revealed truth, more or less perfectly expressed... .

The non-believers among us might well excuse this idiosyncrasy if, as Professor Turner suggests, the acceptance of religion is necessary for the best possible account of its nature. To a certain extent the excellence of detailed study we find in [Turner’s book] Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual is due to this commitment to religion as such, but there is also a major drawback which can be attributed to the same cause. The problem is one of scale and it comes from studying symbolism primarily from the inside—in other words as a believer. The refusal ultimately to account for religion means that we cannot understand what kind of phenomenon is being examined... . Without this perspective, without being given the scale that such a point of view would give, these wonderfully sensitive and accurate studies are a little reminiscent of the inside of the vacuum cleaner in Our Man in Havana. Every part meshes perfectly and mysteriously with every other, bringing to mind endless interlinked connotations; but without an external reference point, without an attempt to know what the whole thing is for, the mind of the anthropologist, like that of the believer, forever marvels but never gets anywhere.3

What Bloch described as Turner’s cast of mind was quite simply mysticism. And when, speaking as a scholar, Turner said “...if we would discover religious truths...we must be prepared to accept the fruits of simple wisdom with gratitude and not try to reduce them to their chemical constituents, thereby destroying their essential quality as fruits and their virtue as food” (Turner, p. 196), his attitude must at least be reckoned a material retreat from the traditional anthropological ideal of intellectual objectivity toward the more emotive, participatory kind of interpretation already so familiar in modern professional humanism generally, and so overworked in modern literary criticism particularly.

Nor could there be anything new for humanists in the realization that it would get them nowhere. On the contrary: if to culminate so vatic a social scientific study of complex religious ritual as Turner’s monograph on Ndembu Chihamba the best an ideal anthropologist could do was to allow himself a few pages of highly personal critical rambling on Melville’s Moby Dick like the obbligato in some moderately competent graduate paper in comparative literature, then contemporary anthropology at the top of its form in the field of ritual studies only just approached the elementary condition of literary criticism; and it was correspondingly that profession that needed better approaches to literature, rather than humanists’ needing anthropology to show them new and better solutions to humanists’ old problems.

Turner digressed to contemplate the whiteness of Melville’s Moby-Dick because it suggested something of more than merely African validity in particular manifestations of the native African religion which he had chosen to study. One might therefore agree with him to excuse his digression into 19th-century American literature on the grounds that the religion he was trying to analyze in Africa somehow required it. Yet a ritual life so imbued with belief in preternatural and supernal persons and powers, and hence so entangling to a sensitive anthropologist’s own commitments as the Ndembu was not everywhere typical of mankind. The steady expansion of ritual studies in modern anthropology has, indeed, disclosed certain major cleavages in kinds of ritual behavior in different ethnic milieux.

Much of it, as with Robertson-Smith’s or Victor Turner’s subjects, was in fact gravid with religious belief, but much also was not, or was only tangentially or associatively so. Such ritual often involved important references to belief, and although for that reason it was not always strictly secular, it was nevertheless dominated rather by motifs of contest or gaming. So, for example, the hoop-and-pole gambling of the Apaches as described by Morris Opler, the Palio at Siena, the ancient Olympics, or modern Balinese cock-fighting as studied by Clifford Geertz in his once widely acclaimed article on that custom.4 In such ritual activity the element of contest or gaming was not necessarily any more germane to the real referents of the symbols manipulated in the rites than was the element of belief in the more strictly religious kind of ritual. So in both kinds of rite the burden of the evident symbolism became the real object of scholarly inquiry, no matter how different the rites themselves might be. Geertz on the Balinese sport of cock-fights consequently ended his discussion in a posture indistinguishable from that of Turner treating a Ndembu rite for the revelation of deep religious mysteries:

Enacted and reenacted, so far without end, the cockfight enables the Balinese, as read and re-read, Macbeth enables us, to see a dimension of his own subjectivity. As he watches fight after fight, with the active watching of an owner and a bettor (for cockfighting has no more interest as a pure spectator sport than croquet or dog racing do), he grows familiar with it and what it has to say to him, much as the attentive listener to string quartets or the absorbed viewer of still life grows slowly more familiar with them in a way which opens his subjectivity to himself. (p. 28)

Thus Geertz and Turner alike hailed rituals as works of art, and finally achieved by their finest skills as anthropologists the attitude of novice literary and art critics. And for the would-be critic of ritual, it necessarily followed from their own conclusions that because such works of art as the rites and customs they studied were ultimately only about ego, there can be no other explanation or interpretation of them than whatever ego elects to think is right. All hail Descartes.

But as I have already intimated, the ritual studies of anthropologists have never had much direct mutative effect on the critical practice of modern academic humanists, though they have often enough attracted a certain rather diffuse attention when they have impinged somehow on humanists’ concerns with mythology. Perhaps that was because humanists suspected all along that, as we have just seen, anthropology had little to offer humanism except a doubtfully useful merger of its own highest theoretical functions into literary criticism. This was true at least of anthropological studies on rituals of belief and contests.

Myth as Ritual of Reasoning

But Claude Lévi-Strauss was exceptional because, in addition to the more obvious rituals of belief and gaming, he argued for a third major class of rites. This third class one could call rites of reasoning, which according to him included all of primal myth-making, and hence the larger and best part of the whole sprawling, traditionally humanistic field of mythology. Here was a claim humanism and anthropology both had carefully to consider, and which continued through the end of the twentieth century to intrigue and provoke them both. That the proof of Lévi-Strauss’s proposition was subjectivistic none could well deny; even Clifford Geertz called that kettle black. He wrote about his French colleague:

He does not seek to understand symbolic forms in terms of how they function in concrete situations to organize perceptions (meanings, motions, concepts, attitudes); he seeks to understand them entirely in terms of their internal structure, independent de tout sujet, de tout objet, et de toute contexte. (“Deep Play,” p. 36).

Geertz then used the confession of an indiscrete moment conclusively to defeat Lévi-Strauss’ implied pretension to social scientific objectivity:

Today I sometimes wonder if I was not attracted to anthropology, however unwittingly, by a structural affinity between the civilizations which are its subject matter and my own thought processes. My intelligence is neolithic.

- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques 5

If methodologically it could only return to a familiar humanistic reliance upon the omnipotent wisdom of ego, it might not matter much in theory whether Lévi-Strauss stole myth for anthropology or not. Yet he questioned more vividly than any other mind in his century what the systematic relationship between myth and ritual really is: whether at his extreme they are really the same thing in alternative forms, or whether it would still be useful to recognize some distinction between them—if indeed the diversity of ethnic practices in the world will permit such generalization at all.

Much of the uncertainty about this stemmed from anthropologists’ being mostly students of social organization and not artistic traditions, and because the cultural elaborations of myth and ritual everywhere occur together at the locus ethnographicus, the location “in the field” of the anthropologist’s programmatic personal trauma of concentrated exposure to alien ways. If myth and rites are not merely the same thing in different forms, it was at least very easy to confound them since both were obviously traditional in the consciousness of the anthropologist’s subjects, and since both required to be interpreted, not merely reported by a scientific observer.

The Two Faces of Tradition

It seems to me however that myth and ritual present to an observer in situ two different faces of tradition in every ethnic context I know of. Amongst any given people, for example, there is a right way—or a definable set of right ways—to be married, or christened, or initiated, or disposed of after death, or healed, or to be conducted through any other rite of passage. Differences in the ritual procedures for these purposes correspond predictably to other differences of a clearly utilitarian or functional sort, whether of the ritual participant’s social class, the rite’s perfection of performance, the degree of symbolic transition meant to be accomplished in the rite, and so forth. So too for games and contests; one plays “according to the rules”—or institutes some additional customary procedure for altering the rules, and then plays by them.

Contrastingly, narrative traditions in these same places will describe a diversity of hypothetical rites, customs, and, more significantly, an even more extensive repertory of wholly unreal or fabulous procedures and fictitious experiences, some of which might work in a real world other than the immediate one, but many also blatantly and instructively quite incapable of ever being realized in any imaginable real transformation of the ethnographic present. These narratives especially bewilder an obstinately literal, factually-minded observer, while subtly engaging the mind of anyone, be he native or alien, who has the “imagination” to meet them on their own speculative terms. Because they are traditional and therefore continually reformulated and reconstituted in the minds of those who know them, such narratives persist and represent in sum the mythic learning of those who are “in the tradition.”

For my present purpose it is necessary explicitly to recognize two senses of the polysemantic word “myth.”

In the whole sum of a narrative tradition, only certain tales are regarded by the influential or opinion-making members of a community as stories of which all mature and responsible people should be cognizant. So among us, for example, despite the frequency of its incidence, the story of Strong John is in no sense compulsory knowledge, whereas every properly educated man or woman should know the story of Oedipus. Similarly the Garden of Eden is mythic, but few remember the vineyard in the fifth chapter of the biblical Book of Isaiah; there is no compulsion to remember that vineyard, even though the account of it is constantly reprinted and is among the most accessible literature in our world. In this sense Odysseus and Hamlet are mythic, but whether one likes it or not, Tartuffe and Ulysses are not.

Typologically continuous with myths in that sense, but always more numerous and varietal, the rest of a narrative tradition in its totality may also be regarded as the sum of the variants and multiforms of a limited number of basic tale-types or narrative patterns which, though embodied in a theoretically infinite number of particular narrations, are themselves however relatively few in quantity. Thus one may never have heard the story of Mally Whuppie from Aberdeenshire, but if one knows the Cinderella tale, one still knows typologically all that he generally needs to know about Mally Whuppie. These underlying typological schemes or structures of narrative tradition are also its myths in one sense of the word, and arguably these too should be common knowledge among mature and responsible, or at least educated, people, even if they know or can recall only a tiny fraction of the individual narrations informed by such “myth.”

In this connection another irreducible and, I think, very general distinction between myth and ritual comes to the fore. The typology of rituals is locally and ethnically specific; rituals are idiosyncracies of the particular peoples to whom they distinctively belong.

The religious phenomena of shamanism, for instance, may at one time have been very widespread among the different peoples of central and north Asia, but no one would suggest that a Buryat shamanic seance could under any circumstances be substituted for its Chukchee counterpart in actual Chukchee practice. Contrastingly, the ability of oral narratives to cross language and ethnic frontiers, and to be pandemic, universal, and largely interchangeable, is well known.

A third, equally general difference between myth and ritual as they have been seen in actual field-experience concerns the nature of the links binding them to the people who are their hosts. The more deeply one penetrates into the ideas enmeshed in the web of signification surrounding ritual symbols, the more local indoctrination one needs to receive and the more local data one needs gather to understand what the ritual is about. Rituals are in this way typically esoteric in meaning, socially demanding of performers and onlookers alike, and expensive of economic resources and energy.

Myth on the other hand yields its deeper layers of ideas the more one can appreciate its independence of specific ethnic moments and the generality of its description of “how things are” in human experience anywhere. Professional anthropology’s preoccupation with society to the contrary notwithstanding, Lévi-Strauss was right about that, and scholarly method must somehow accord with that fact, regardless of whose method it is. In keeping with that aspect of its character, myth unlike ritual is typically undemanding of social support and inexpensive of wealth and physical energy.

Synchronously regarded, ritual thus presents an aspect of tradition that is ideally fixed and in principle invariable as to form, but also ethnically idiosyncratic, and measurable as to its importance by the physical prominence and expense accorded it by its host people. Myth is contrastingly varietal and multiform, independent of ethnic identity in its claim to truth, and measurable as to its importance by the easy ubiquity and inexpensiveness of its currency among its human hosts. Here, of course, I speak of myth in my second sense, meaning the common types, structures, or patterns of story, which, though they are themselves relatively few in number, nevertheless inform an endless succession of constantly self-renewing variants and multiforms in oral narrative tradition.

Viewed diachronously however, these same two faces of tradition take on aspects inversely different from those they present to an observer at a given ethnographic moment. With the passage of time, the fixed and theoretically unalterable face of ritual cracks, crumbles, undergoes metamorphosis or replacement, and in a few centuries or millennia changes beyond recognition. Because their loci ethnographici have so much been among peoples innocent of history, anthropologists have commonly failed to recognize this truth, though it is obvious enough wherever historiography has had any appreciable reach. Where are the rites of Mithras or Eleusis, or even the holy mass as it once was, not to speak of the northwest Amerindian potlatch or the rites of investiture for a Chinese emperor of the Han dynasty? Ethnic identities fade, change, vanish, and emerge anew, and their rites with them. But the face of myth, seemingly so protean in its ambitus of form and expression at any given time and place, presents despite its perpetual motility the same essential lineaments wherever and whenever in history we glimpse it. On that point Claude Lévi-Strauss was obscure, and on it must continue to stand or fall the inference that myth is only another form of ritual.

With its penchant for caudal—one hesitates to call them terminal—excursions into literary criticism (backing into the humanities as it were tail first), late twentieth-century anthropology suggested that besides anthropological approaches to literature, a sober literary approach to anthropology might have fully as much to offer as to receive from that discipline in some matters. Perhaps too ritual and religion were not the firmest of anthropological ground to support the combined weight of so much two-my traffic as it has been made to bear between humanism and social science. If anthropology and humanism truly have something worth their continued sharing, it is surely best sought nearer to the veritable core of anthropological discipline than the study of religion and ritual seem to be, nearer to the heart that sustains that apparently so set, but really so perishable, face of tradition that is ritual.

Kinship and Narrative Traditions

It were surely as well also to shun the leaping of such yawning chasms as that between the Balinese cock-fight and Macbeth, or Chihamba and Moby-Dick, or between the Bagre rites of the West African LoDagaa and T. S. Eliot, to cite Jack Goody, yet another twentieth-century anthropologist with the same susceptibility to belletristical inspirations as Turner’s and Geertz’s.6 To hazard such great flights of subjective fancy as they did over those chasms while ignoring the down-to-earth abundance of local oral traditional story-telling right at hand in their several loci ethnographici among the Ndembu, Balinese, and LoDagaa, where real parallels and mutually explanatory cross-references between myth and ritual were objectively to be found, seems to have been both reckless and wasteful.

I have turned less daringly therefore to the fields of kinship and oral tradition—the one anthropological and the other humanistic in my conception of hem—and to an elementary question which I think opens a better avenue of profitable commerce between the two fields. This avenue—or perhaps less pretentiously it should only be called a country lane—lies through the old and yet recurring problem in anthropology of generalizing a definition of human marriage.

Upon definition of that institution much depends, of course, for the whole understanding of kinship. Rethinking anthropology in 1961, Edmund Leach came to the conclusion, which has not been effectively challenged since then, that “all universal definitions of marriage are vain” (Leach, p. 105). Borrowing a phrase from Sir Henry Maine, the father of scholarship on oral traditions of law and jurisprudence in Great Britain, Leach argued that the institution of marriage in differently organized societies cannot be more universally defined than as a “bundle of rights” that comes into being between bride and bridegroom, and through kinship with them, also among others in the larger social fabric that contains them all.

Although Maine himself thought that the root of kinship was parental authority,7 Leach reversed the priority and saw instead the legal right of parenthood as springing from marriage, together with such other rights in the variable “bundle” of marital privilege as the right to monopolize or otherwise wholly or partially to “own” a spouse’s sexuality, labor, property, benefits of affinal kinship beyond the spouse, and so forth. But, Leach averred, “in no single society can marriage serve to establish all these types of right simultaneously; nor is there any of these rights which is invariably established by marriage in every known society” (Leach, p. 108). As an institution at the base of social order everywhere, marriage thus could not be said to be any one thing to all men.

No doubt all this was good social science. Yet from a humanistic point of view, it was also somehow obtusely literal. A more challenging and, I would think, more rewarding question than the obvious one about the capability of all human marriages to submit to a single institutional definition would be whether there is any society anywhere that is actually organized exclusively upon the principles empirically evident to an alien anthropological investigator of its working social institutions, or rather upon the hopes and intentions which its members repose in those institutions —or maybe better still, in shared conceptions of those institutions of a more abstract and more perfect kind—a more ideal kind—than the actualized institutions themselves can ever be. Is it not so in regard even to the variable bundle of rights which bride and bridegroom afford each other and each other’s kin in the institution of marriage?

And where might one look for empirical evidence of that more perfect ideal beyond the practice of actual marriages and the rituals of wedding that mark their institutional inception? What rights in each other do bride and bridegroom bring to their marriage ideally, and what generality or universality may attach to such ideals?

To begin with then, I put the question: what is the consensus of oral narrative tradition—if there is any consensus—as to what a bridegroom may ideally be expected to bring to marriage?

The Postulant Bridegroom

- A German Instance -

We have to begin somewhere—it hardly matters where. A well-known German tale, “Der Trommler,” number 193 in the fifth and final edition of the Grimm brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, 8 describes a series of accomplishments whereby a certain drummer-lad came to be happily married.

On an apparently untenanted lakeshore an idle drummer-lad one evening discovers three admirable pieces of white linen, takes one, and then goes home to bed. During the night, which is so dark that he can see nothing, the voice of an invisible, enchanted king’s daughter awakens him, speaking to him from the foot of his bed and begging him to surrender to her the purloined linen shift, without which she says she cannot return to her place of bewitchment on Glass Mountain.

He readily relinquishes the linen, but desires to help her further. She denies that he can, and can give him no specific directions to the Glass Mountain before she leaves him.

Nevertheless, at first light the next day the young fellow sets out and with much pluck, luck, and ingenuity finds his way onto the remote mountain, where there is nothing but an old stone house with a big fishpond and a dark forest lying beyond.

He seeks lodging in the house, and the old woman who lives in it sets him tasks as compensation to her for his room and board. Using only the old woman’s thimble, between breakfast and nightfall on the following day he is to empty the fishpond and lay out all its fish in good order by species and sizes. At noon he abandons the work as undoable, and a girl comes to him out of the house to feed and console him. He tells her of his desire to find and help the bewitched king’s daughter and laments his evident failure, not realizing at all that his beautiful collocutrix is that very person. She lulls him to sleep with his head in her lap, and while he slumbers she asserts for him his mastery over the pond water and the fish by making them do to themselves what he had erstwhile striven to do to them: As soon as his eyes were closed, she gave a wishing-ring a twist, saying “Water up, fish out.” Immediately the water rose up like a white mist and moved off with the other clouds, and the fish came up with a smacking noise, leapt ashore, and lay down beside one another, each according to its size and kind.

Next day the old woman imposes another task: before nightfall the young man is to fell the entire forest behind the house, split the logs, and cord the whole for firewood. His only tools for the job are an ax of lead and a maul and two wedges of tin. These tools fail of course, and by noon he is again despondent. But again the girl presents herself to feed, comfort and lull him to sleep whilst she induces the forest to arrange itself in compliance with the young man’s intention: She gave her wishing-ring a twist, and at that moment the whole forest collapsed with a crash, the wood split itself and piled itself in cords.

The drummer-lad’s mastery of the wood is however not yet complete. The old woman demands further on a third day that he cast the corded timber of the entire forest into a single enormous pile and make a bonfire of it. This he again cannot do by main force, but in her usual way the young woman while he sleeps makes the wood itself accomplish what the drummer-lad wants done with it. When he awakes, the young woman leaves him and the old woman approaches: “My! I’m freezing,” she said, “but there’s a fire! It’s burning, it warms my old bones, I’ll be comfortable here. But there’s a log over there that won’t burn; pull it out for me. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be free and can go where you please. Go right into the fire!” The drummer didn’t think long and jumped right into the middle of the flames. They didn’t harm him however; in fact, couldn’t even singe his hair. He brought out the log and put it down. Scarcely had the log touched the ground than it was transformed, and before him stood the beautiful girl who had helped him in his need, and from the silk garments, glittering like gold, that she had on, he saw plainly that she was the king’s daughter. 9

Thus revealed, the princess elects to be the drummer-lad’s wife, and they leave the mountain together to go and be married virilocally.

Several features of this little German tale flaunt themselves as essentials of it. 1) To achieve marriage, the postulant bridegroom must display a mastery of wood: in the drummer-lad’s case, wood in its living state as a standing forest; then wood in a cultured state as an orderly provision of fuel; and finally, burning wood in actual use as fuel. It does not matter how or by what help he becomes master of the wood, only that he should effectively control and deploy it to purpose. 2) Similarly, he must master water, by whatever means; and 3) he must master and manage abundant animal life to his advantage. Finally, 4) he must dispel the concealment of a hidden bride. Marriage follows only upon the postulant bridegroom’s success in all four matters, which are thus in effect tests of his fitness to marry.

- A Baganda Instance -

Oral traditional stories of this sort were common in the languages of Europe, but were by no means therefore peculiarly European. The Baganda story “How Kintu Was Tested10 discloses something quite similar in an East African tradition—something, indeed, even identical with regard to the four tests of a postulant bridegroom.

The man Kintu (the Adam, or original human, of Baganda myth) found Uganda devoid of any kind of food when he first entered the country bringing with him a single cow, from which he derived his entire sustenance. There his bride-to-be, whose very existence he previously had not known, discovers herself to him not once but twice over, and like the German drummer-lad Kintu must follow her onto a high place difficult of access: In the course of time a woman named Nambi came with her brother to the earth and saw Kintu. The woman fell in love with him and, wishing to be married to him, pointedly told him so. She had to return, however, with her brother to her people and her father, Gulu, who was king of the sky [gulu in the Baganda language means ‘sky’].

Nambi’s relations objected to the marriage because they said that the man did not know of any food except that which the cow yielded, and they despised him. Gulu, the father, however, said that they had better test Kintu before he consented to the marriage, and accordingly sent someone to rob Kintu of his cow. For a time Kintu was at a loss what to eat, but he managed to find different kinds of herbs and leaves which he cooked and ate. Nambi happened to see the cow grazing and recognized it, and complaining that her brothers wished to kill the man she loved, she went to the earth and told Kintu where his cow was, and invited him to return with her to take it away.

Kintu consented to go, and when he reached the sky...

Again like the German drummer-boy, Kintu when he enters the high homeland of his formerly hidden bride is first fed and then tested. He must hew the peculiar firewood of heaven and is given an egregiously inadequate tool for the work; then he must master heaven’s peculiar water:

A copper axe was sent to Kintu by Gulu, who said, “Go and cut me firewood from the rock, because I do not use ordinary firewood.”

When Kintu went with the axe, he said to himself, “What am I to do? If I strike the rock, the axe will only turn its edge or rebound.” However, after he had examined the rock, he found that there were cracks in it, so he broke off pieces of it, and returned with them to Gulu who was surprised to get them. Nevertheless, he said that Kintu must be further tried before they could give their consent to the marriage.

Kintu was next sent to fetch water and was told that he must bring only dew, because Gulu did not drink water from wells. Kintu took the waterpot and went off to a field, where he put the pot down and began to ponder what he must do to collect the dew. He was sorely puzzled, but upon returning to the pot, he found it full of water. So he carried it back to Gulu. Gulu was most surprised and said, “This man is a wonderful being; he shall have his cow back and marry my daughter.”

It remains only for the postulant bridegroom to demonstrate mastery of manifold animal life in both wild and domesticated forms:

Kintu was told to pick his cow from the herd and take it. This was a more difficult task than the others, because there were so many cows like his own that he feared he would mistake it and take the wrong one. While he was thus perplexed a large bee came and said, “Take the one upon whose horns I shall alight; it is yours.”

The next morning Kintu went to the appointed place and stood and watched the bee, which was resting on a tree near him. A large herd of cows was brought before him, and he pretended to look for his cow, but in reality he was watching the bee which did not move. After a time, Kintu said, “My cow is not there.” A second herd was brought, and, again, he said, “My cow is not there.” A third, much larger herd was brought, and the bee at once flew away and came to rest upon a cow which was a very large one, and Kintu said, “This is my cow.” The bee then flew to another cow, and Kintu said, “This is one of the calves from my cow,” and the bee went on to a second and a third cow which Kintu claimed as the calves which had been born during the cow’s stay with Gulu. The fourth and final requisite of male competence being thus achieved, Kintu and Nambi are released to go down and engender together in Uganda all that country’s subsequent native population.

In the tale of the German Trommler the four achievements of the postulant bridegroom are presented in a different order: first his mastery of water; then of manifold animal life (which though at first manifestly wild nonetheless in its compliance with his will behaves in conspicuouslyly tame fashion); then his mastery of wood; and finally comes his winning of the prospective bride’s willingness to emerge from her erstwhile concealment, identify herself to him, and accept him as spouse.

Typically of oral narrative traditions, Kintu’s accomplishments are sequentially different but substantively the same; the sequential order of episodes is meaningless in such traditions, where the fundamental agglutinative principle is not sequence but simply juxtaposition. First Kintu wins Nambi’s disclosure of herself and her desire to be his wife; then he masters wood; then water; and finally manifold animal life in both domestic (bovine) and wild forms (the bee). The sum of the events is thus the same in the end: the postulant bridegroom passes the same four tests in both instances:

- A Jicarilla Apache Instance -

Neither the wood nor the water are ordinary; for both Kintu and for the German drummer-lad they are dangerously potentiated forms of their respective substances. And for both of those would-be bridegrooms it is the properties or attributes of the the wood and the water themselves that ultimately control them for the man’s benefit, not any power inherent in the man. The same is conspicuously true also of the Jicarilla Apache “Man Who Floated Down the River in a Log,”11 a native North American instance of oral narrative tradition about the testing of a postulant bridegroom.

When the world was still young and agriculture had not yet been invented, the Jicarilla man who invented it according to Jicarilla Apache myth, an anonymous Apache of failed fortune, decided to emigrate by river, but before he could exploit the water’s transportative power, he had to secure a vessel for himself, which must of course be wooden. In order, however, to make the designated wood serve his purpose, he must first begin a lengthy process of exploiting many and various animal assets. So for the prospective bridegroom of this tale, the three tests of mastery over water, wood, and manifold animal life were perfectly interdependent: he could succeed in no one of them without a concurrent success also in both of the other two.


Turkey and Beaver are the man’s first animal allies:

He had a companion and pet, a turkey, and this turkey followed him around wherever he went...

He went to the river. He asked Beaver for an ax. “When I get through I’ll bring it back. I just want to use it for a few days.”

The beaver let him have it.

He went up the hill and he found a spruce tree close to the river. He tried to chop it down. He chopped and chopped. He had it almost cut down when the sun was about to set. He was very tired. He left it and went away. The next day he came back again. The ax was there. But the tree was just as it had been before he started chopping. He began to work at it again. He chopped all day. He nearly had it chopped down at sunset and he stopped, for he was very tired. When he came back the next day the tree was as before; there was not a trace of his chopping. It happened just the same the third day.

The man’s main force is however—predictably —not equal to the task; only a power inherent in the natural order can achieve the man’s purpose.

So he came back the fourth morning. He saw the tree was whole again. He started to chop once more. Then he heard a voice.

“What are you doing to my tree? Why do you try to chop it down?”

He was a little frightened. He looked around. Black Hactcin was there. [Black Hactcin is one of the most powerful praeternatural persons in Jicarilla Apache myth, and a principal in the creation of the world.]

“I want to use your tree to ride down the stream to the place where it runs into another river,” he said.

Black Hactcin said, “How large do you want it?”

“Just large enough to fit me, just as high as I stand.”

Hactcin said, “Let me have that ax.”

He hit the tree and it fell at one stroke. Then he measured off the proper length and hit it again, and with one stroke it was severed there. Then he took the top part of the tree that was not wanted and placed it back in the earth, and the trunk and the tree grew as before.


More recruitment of animal powers ensues:

Then this man turned around. He asked Black Hactcin for further help. “Do you know how to hollow this log out for me?”

“I can’t do that, but I can send someone who can help you with it.”

So he called the woodpeckers, all the different kinds, and told them to help this man... . In a few minutes they had hollowed out the whole log.

He rolled the log down to the river. The woodpeckers went away. Black Hactcin went back too. But the turkey was with him and the turkey had power and knew things too.

Then the turkey said, “You must ask spider to help you. You must call on Black Spider, Blue Spider, Yellow Spider, and Glittering Spider.” [The colours are directional, black belonging to the east, blue to the south, yellow to the west, and glittering to the north.]

So he called on those spiders.

The woodpeckers had bored in from one side, and so this side remained open. That is the place the man was to enter.

The spiders were standing there. Then the turkey told the man to call on Green-backed Swallow. The swallow came. Then the man went into the log. The spiders began to work. Each one made a web; the first was black, the second blue, the third yellow, and the fourth glittering. With these they covered the entrance. The swallow then brought mud and covered the hole so the water wouldn’t leak through.


Again the bridegroom-to-be accomplishes nothing by his own strength, but only by manipulation of natural powers outside himself:

Before he went in, though, the man returned the ax to Beaver. And he told Beaver, “When I get in, you must roll the log down to the water.”

So Beaver did and the log began to travel down the stream. It floated for a long way. The turkey followed it along the bank. The log travelled for four days...

When the log got to a certain place Turkey called, “Father, already we are here.”

So the man got out... They left that log there and started to walk along the bank. The river was too wide to cross. On the other side of the river they saw a big mountain.

Just as in the German and Baganda instances, the Jicarilla man’s bride-to-be is hidden in a high place, namely in the high mountain which he and his turkey see as they gaze eastward across the river. But to extract her from her sequestration inside the mountain he will have to master water yet again (cross the imposing river). In fact, to get access to her he must recurse once more, though in significantly different forms, through the whole suite of three tests which he has already just passed, demonstrating assertion yet further of his mastery over wood and manifold animal life.

In the first set of three tests, the water had to be traversed successfully along its whole length from a failed old to a promising new way of life; the animals that provided help along the way were feral and inedible; and the wood was returned to the wilderness whence it came by both Black Hactcin (in the replanting of his truncated spruce) and by the Jicarilla man (in the abandonment of the spent log as flotsam after it has transported him).

In the succeeding, second set of the same three tests, the traversal of the water is perpendicular rather than parallel to its stream—for the water is now a barrier rather than a route; mastery of the wood is expressed as musicianship in playing an artfully wrought flute, a skill belonging to domesticity rather than to coping with the elements of nature in the wild such as rivers and green trees; and the many animals to be controlled in the second instance are those destined to provide human nutrition from that time forth.

Turkey continues as the Jicarilla man’s animal helper while the man manipulates first a stick with a single point to sustain himself, then a forked stick to pair himself with a woman:

There was a fine level place there, a good place for planting. Turkey stood to the east of it. He shuffled along the east side of that field. On that side a great deal of black corn seeds were left. Then he went around to the south in the same way. Blue corn seeds lay there. They came from the body of the turkey. The Turkey went to the west in the same way and yellow corn seeds were there. He did it next to the north, and fruit and vegetable and tobacco seeds were there.

He told the man to get busy, and the man began planting the seeds with a sharp stick. After the work was over they made a camp by the garden...

They stayed there till the garden was all grown. In those days the gardens grew more rapidly. The plants matured in twelve days.

Extraction of the Bride

Every evening after that the man was facing east, sitting there with his companion. One evening he saw a light on the other side of the river. The next morning he thought, “Who can be making a camp on the other side of the river?” He went over there but could find nothing.

It happened in the same way the next night. But again he could find nothing the next morning. Then the third night he saw it again. By this time he already had tobacco in his pocket from the tobacco plants he had raised. The next morning he failed to find anything though.

The hidden bride-to-be is undiscoverable to this postulant bridegroom until he has mastered crossing of the once impassable river for a fourth time, and has reached the fourth step in progression from spruce log to pointed planting stick to forked direction-finder to the most artfully refined of wooden instruments, a cicada’s particoloured flute:

The fourth night he saw the light again. This time he brought a forked stick and set it in the ground. He pointed the crotch straight to the fire. Now he was sure he could find it next day.

He went over in the direction to which his forked stick pointed. As he approached the place he saw a young woman washing buckskin clothes at a spring. The cicada was sitting there in the leaves.

As he came to the woman, a point on the inside of his ear spoke to him. It said, “You must ask cicada to let you have his flute.”

The collector of this narrative, Morris Opler, observed about these details: “Cicada and the flute are associated and both are connected with the practice of love charms.”

He spoke to the cicada and asked him for it. The cicada gave him the flute. It was divided along its length into the four colors.

He came to the girl with this flute in his hand and started to blow on it. He used it in the same way as the cicada does.

The girl looked around. She wondered what the peculiar sound could be. He had blown it the first time. Then he blew it again. She arose this time and searched about in the leaves and all over the place where she had sat.

“That is a sweet sound,” she said.

The third time she was very eager to learn the source of the noise. She was delighted with it, but she could find nothing.

He blew it the fourth time.

Four being the traditional number of completion in Jicarilla Apache fabulation, the bride-to-be now discloses herself fully, and in the process also discovers her bridegroom-to-be:

She pulled her dress up then, for the music made her very much excited. She looked and looked and looked, and finally she found him. There stood the man who had made the noise.

Permanent extraction of the hidden bride from her seclusion awaits however the postulant bridegroom’s complete mastery of manifold edible animal life, the sole remaining test which he must pass before union with the emergent bride:

When she saw him she picked up the clothes she had been washing and ran straight for a rock wall. She went right in as though a door was there. The point on the man’s ear told him, “You must follow closely.” He did so. He went in the mountain also. He followed her.

After a while he found a camp. There an old woman and an old man were sitting.

The woman, as soon as she saw him, said, “Oh, here is my son-in-law. I’d better hide,” and she ran away...

The old man who was sitting there was called Animal-Raiser. This old man, when he spoke to the boy, used the polite form...

The old man said, “Come in, make yourself at home.”

Winning this elder’s good will gains for the postulant bridegroom not only the desired bride, but also the prerequisite mastery of manifold edible animal life:

The young man sat down. He said to Animal-Raiser, “Give me a smoke of tobacco.”

Animal-Raiser prepared some tobacco and put it in a pipe. He drew on it and then handed it to the boy. The boy took a puff of it, but he didn’t like it. It was made of a big odorous plant called “big leaf,” that grows among the rocks.

“How is it that you do not like my tobacco?” He smoked it himself.

Then after a while the boy fixed his own tobacco.

The old man begged, “Won’t you give me some?” He spoke in the polite form.

The boy handed the pipe to him. He took one deep puff and fell down. It was so sweet and good that he was overcome. It was just as it is with a child who has eaten too much of something sweet...

The old man said, “This is the best tobacco I ever have known.”

The boy smoked it for a while and then passed it to the old man. They passed it back and forth like this till it was all used up.

The old man said, “Whenever you come here again you must bring tobacco like this for me to smoke.”

Then the boy went out and went back to his turkey.

The next time he came that way he brought with him some corn, some tobacco, some pumpkins, and some bread. He gave these as a present to the old man. The old man was very grateful.

This family had never used those things before. Before this they had had no fruit or vegetables. The young man gave them some of the products of his garden and they gave him some meat. They exchanged gifts and were friends. Soon after this he married Animal-Raiser’s daughter.

The turkey was very proud because his father was being married. He told all the people, “Now we’ll have plenty of meat, for my father is marrying Animal-Raiser’s daughter”...

Animal-Raiser had many animals of all kinds in that mountain. He let them graze, as they do sheep now, in a flock, and they were tame and gentle with him...

The young man who married Animal-Raiser’s daughter came to live with her people...

The deer and other animals there were very tame and gentle. They stayed around the camps of the people all the time and when the people wanted meat they had only to call the animals.


The foregoing German, Baganda, and Jicarilla Apache tales present obscure instances in oral narrative tradition of an evidently far-flung and quite durable bit of myth about preliminaries to marriage—preliminaries differently dressed but anatomically the same amongst various peoples who have had no historical contacts with one another that can explain the likeness of the ‘mythologem’ in their storytelling traditions about a prospective bridegroom’s four proofs of fitness to marry. But not all instances of such narrative are either so obscure or so tightly bound to a single closely defined locus ethnographicus as are the three foregoing stories. Nor need one venture upon such tenuously allusive excursions as that from Chihamba to Moby Dick, or from Balinese cock-fight to Macbeth, or from Bagre rites of the LoDagaa to T. S. Eliot, to find an appropriate monument in metropolitan or ‘world’ culture to help elucidate the ‘native’ data.

- An Ancient Greek Instance -

Only consider Homer’s Odysseus, who upon his return home from Troyland was no less a postulant bridegroom to his Penelope than were the foregoing three more obscure men to their intended brides. Nor were the capacities, however demonstrated, which the ancient Greek epic hero displayeded to achieve his (re)marriage different in other than the outward shapes appropriate to them wherever in the ancient Mediterranean world his story was originally told.

Four Iterations of Water

Expert seafaring in storms, surviving shipwrecks that destroy other men, and crossing such vast expanses of empty sea as no one else of his era has done express the singular mastery of water by Homer’s ancient Greek voyager. The first of four such episodes occurs shortly after his departure homeward-bound from Ilios:

Cloud-gathering Zeus drove the North Wind against our vessels
in a supernatural storm, and huddled under the cloud scuds
land alike and the great water. Night sprang from heaven.
The ships were swept along yawing down the current; the violence
of the wind ripped our sails into three and four pieces. These then,
in fear of destruction, we took down and stowed in the ships’ hulls,
and rowed them on ourselves until we had made the mainland.12

- Odyssey 9:69-73

Between Thrinakie and Ogygie the effects of tempest were more desperate, but Odysseus explains how again, with some skillful manipulation of wood (both living and hewn), he prevailed over the waters and survived the worst perils that lurk in them:

...My men were thrown in the water,
and bobbing like sea crows they were washed away on the running
waves all around the black ship, and the god took away their
But I went on my way through the vessel, to where the high seas
had worked the keel free out of the hull, and the bare keel floated
on the swell, which had broken the mast off at the keel; yet
still there was a backstay made out of oxhide fastened
to it. With this I lashed together both keel and mast, then
rode the two of them, while the deadly stormwinds carried me.
After this the West Wind ceased from its stormy blowing,
and the South Wind came swiftly on, bringing to my spirit
grief that I must measure the whole way back to Charybdis.
All that night I was carried along, and with the sun rising
I came to the sea rock of Skylla, and dreaded Charybdis.
At this time Charybdis sucked down the sea’s salt water,
but I reached high in the air above me, to where the tall fig tree
grew, and caught hold of it and clung like a bat; there was no
place where I could firmly brace my feet, or climb up it,
for the roots of it were far from me, and the branches hung out
far, big and long branches that overshadowed Charybdis.
Inexorably I hung on, waiting for her to vomit
the keel and mast back up again. I longed for them, and they came
late; at the time when a man leaves the law court, for dinner,
after judging the many disputes brought to him by litigious young men;
that was the time it took the timbers to appear from Charybdis.
Then I let go my hold with hands and feet, and dropped off,
and came crashing down between and missing the two long timbers,
but I mounted these, and with both hands I paddled my way out.

- Odyssey 12:417b-444

The last of Odysseus’ three trials in stormy seas is the fiercest, and this time the power inherent in the man—admirable though it is—is insufficient for his salvation; like the German drummer-boy, Kintu, and the man of Jicarilla legend who invented agriculture, the intending ancient Greek bridegroom too must be magically helped. Once more his domination of the waters is contingent in part on his artful management of wood, the wood which in this instance his skill as shipwright has enabled him singlehandedly to form into an ocean-going raft:

Glorious Odysseus, happy with the wind, spread sails
and taking his seat artfully with the steering oar he held her 270
on her course, nor did sleep ever descend on his eyelids
as he kept his eye on the Pleiades and late-setting Boötes
and the Bear, to whom men give also the name of the Wagon,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion,
and she alone is never plunged into the wash of the Ocean. 275
For so Kalypso, bright among goddesses, had told him
to make his way over the sea, keeping the Bear on his left hand.
Seventeen days he sailed, making his way over the water,
and on the eighteenth day there showed the shadowy mountains
of the Phaiakians land where it stood nearest to him, 280
and it looked like a shield lying on the misty face of the water.
Coming back from the Aithiopians the strong Earthshaker
saw him far on the mountains of the Solymoi. He was visible
sailing over the sea. Poseidon was the more angered
with him, and shook his head, and spoke to his own spirit: 285
‘For shame, surely the gods have rashly changed their intentions
about Odysseus while I was away in the Aithiopians’
land, and he nears the Phaiakian country where it is appointed
that he shall escape this great trial of misery that is now his.
But I think I can still give him a good full portion of trouble.’ 290
He spoke, and pulled the clouds together, in both hands gripping
the trident, and staggered the sea, and let loose all the stormblasts
of all the winds together, and huddled under the cloud scuds
land alike and the great water. Night sprang from heaven.
East Wind and South Wind clashed together, and the bitter blown
West Wind 295
and the North Wind born in the bright air rolled up a heavy sea.
The knees of Odysseus gave way for fear, and the heart inside him,
and deeply troubled he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
‘Ah me unhappy, what in the long outcome will befall me?
I fear the goddess might have spoken the truth in all ways 300
when she said that on the sea and before I came to my own country
I would go through hardships; now all this s being accomplished,
such clouds are these, with which Zeus is cramming the wide sky
and has staggered the sea, and stormblasts of winds from every
direction are crowding in. My sheer destruction is certain. 305
Three times and four times happy those Danaans were who died then
in wide Troy land, bringing favour to the sons of Atreus,
as I wish I too had died at that time and met my destiny
on the day when the greatest number of Trojans threw
their bronze-headed
weapons upon me, over the body of perished Achilleus, 310
and I would have had my rites and the Achaians given me glory.
Now it is by a dismal death that I must be taken.’
As he spoke so, a great wave drove down from above him
with a horrible rush, and spun the raft in a circle,
and he was thrown clear far from the raft and let the steering oar 315
slip from his hands. A terrible gust of stormwinds whirling
together and blowing snapped the mast tree off in the middle,
and the sail and the upper deck were thrown far and fell in the water.
He himself was ducked for a long time, nor was he able
to come up quickly from under the great rush of the water, 320
for the clothing which divine Kalypso had given him weighted him
down. At last he got to the surface, and spat the bitter
salt sea water that drained from his head, which was filled with it.
But he did not forget about his raft, for all his trouble,
but turned and swam back through the waves, and laid hold of it, 325
and huddled down in the middle of it, avoiding death’s end.
Then the waves tossed her about the current now here, now there;
as the North Wind in autumn tumbles and tosses the thistledown
along the plain, and the bunches hold fast one on another,
so the winds tossed her on the great sea, now here, now there, 330
and now it would be the South Wind and North that pushed her
between them,
and then again East Wind and West would burst in and follow.
The daughter of Kadmos, sweet-stepping Ino called Leukothea,
saw him. She had once been one who spoke as a mortal,
but now in the gulfs of the sea she holds degree as a goddess. 335
She took pity on Odysseus as he drifted and suffered hardship,
and likening herself to a winged gannet she came up
out of the water and perched on the raft and spoke a word to him:
‘Poor man, why is Poseidon the shaker of the earth so bitterly
cankered against you, to give you such a harvest of evils? 340
And yet he will not do away with you, for all his anger.
But do as I say, since you seem to me not lacking in good sense.
Take off these clothes, and leave the raft to drift at the winds’ will,
and then strike out and swim with your hands and make a landfall
on the Phaiakian country, where your escape is destined. 345
And here, take this veil, it is immortal, and fasten it under
your chest; and there is no need for you to die, nor to suffer.
But when with both your hands you have taken hold of the mainland,
untie the veil and throw it out in the wine-blue water
far from the land; and turn your face away as you do so.’ 350
So spoke the goddess and handed him the veil, then herself
in the likeness of a gannet slipped back into the heaving
sea, and the dark and tossing water closed above her.
Now long-suffering great Odysseus pondered two courses,
and troubled he spoke then to his own great-hearted spirit: 355
‘Ah me, which of the immortals is weaving deception
against me, and tells me to puf off from the raft? But no,
I will not do it yet, since I have seen with my own eyes
that the shore, where she said I could escape, is still far from me.
But here is what I will do, and this seems to me the best way. 360
As long as the timbers hold together and the construction
remains, I will stay with it and endure though suffering hardships;
but once the heaving sea has taken my raft to pieces,
then I will swim. There is nothing better that I can think of.’
Now as he was pondering these ways in his heart and spirit, 365
Poseidon, shaker of the earth, drove on a great wave
that was terrible and rough, and it curled over and broke down
upon him, and as when the wind blows hard on a dry pile
of chaff, and scatters it abroad in every direction,
so the raft’s long timbers were scattered, but now Odysseus 370
sat astride one beam, like a man riding on horseback,
and stripped off the clothing which the divine Kalypso had given him,
and rapidly tied the veil of Ino around his chest, then
threw himself head first in the water, and with his arms spread
stroked as hard as he could. The strong Earthshaker saw him 375
swimming, and shook his head and spoke to his own spirit:
‘There, now, drift on the open sea, suffering much trouble,
until you come among certain people who are the gods’ fosterlings.
Even so, I hope you will not complain that I stinted your hardships.’
So he spoke, and laid the lash on his fair-maned horses, 380
and made his way to Aigai, where he has his fabulous palace.
But now Athene, daughter of Zeus, daughter of Zeus, planned
what was to follow.
She fastened down the courses of all the rest of the stormwinds,
and told them all to go to sleep now and give over,
but stirred a hastening North Wind, and broke down the seas
before him, 385
until Zeus-sprung Odysseus, escaping death and the spirits
of death, might join the company of the oar-loving Phaiakians.
Then he was driven two nights and two days on the heavy
seas, and many time his heart foresaw destruction,
but when Dawn with the lovely hair had brought
the third morning, 390
then at last the gale went down and windless weather
came on, and now he saw the land lying very close to him
as he took a sharp look, lifted high on the top of a great wave.
And as welcome as the show of life again in a father
is to his children, when he has lain sick, suffering strong pains, 395
and wasting long away, and the hateful death spirit has brushed him,
but then, and it is welcome, the gods set him free of his sickness,
so welcome appeared land and forest now to Odysseus,
and he swam, pressing on, so as to set foot on the mainland.
But when he was a far away as a voice can carry 400
he heard the thumping of the sea on the jagged rock-teeth,
for a big surf, terribly sucked up from the main, was crashing
on the dry land, all was mantled in salt spray, and there were
no harbors to hold ships, no roadsteads for them to ride in,
but promontories out-thrust and ragged rock-teeth and boulders. 405
The knees of Odysseus gave way for fear, and the heart inside him,
and deeply troubled he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
‘Ah me, now that Zeus has granted a sight of unhoped-for
land, and now I have made the crossing of this great distance,
I see no way for me to get out of the gray sea water, 410
for on the outer side are sharp rocks, and the surf about them
breaks and roars, and the sheer of the cliff runs up above them,
and the sea is deep close to shore so that there is no place
to stand bracing both my feet and so avoid trouble.
I fear that as I climb out a great wave will catch and throw me 415
against the stony cliff. That will be a pitiful landing.
Yet if I try to swim on along in the hope of finding
beaches that slant against the waves or harbors for shelter
from the sea, I fear that once again the whirlwind will snatch me
and carry me out on the sea where the fish swarm,
groaning heavily, 420
or else the divinity from the deep will let loose against me
a sea monster, of whom Amphitrite keeps so many;
for I know how bitterly the renowned Earthshaker hates me.’
Now as he was pondering this in his heart and spirit,
meanwhile a great wave carried him against the rough rock face, 425
and there his skin would have been taken off, his bones
crushed together,
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene sent him an inkling,
and he frantically caught hold with both hands on the rock face
and clung to it, groaning, until the great wave went over. This one
he so escaped, but the backwash of the same wave caught him 430
where he clung and flung him far out in the open water.
As when an octopus is dragged away from its shelter
and thickly-clustered pebbles stick in the cups of its tentacles,
so in contact with the rock the skin from his bold hands
was torn away. Now the great sea covered him over, 435
and Odysseus would have perished, wretched, beyond his destiny,
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene given him forethought.
He got clear of the surf, where it sucks against the land, and swam on
along, looking always toward the shore in the hope of finding
beaches that slanted against the waves or harbors for shelter 440
from the sea, but when he came, swimming along, to the mouth of
a sweet-running river, this at last seemed to him the best place,
being bare of rocks, and there was even shelter from the wind there.
He saw where the river came out and prayed to him in his spirit:
‘Hear me, my lord, whoever you are. I come in great need 445
to you, a fugitive from the sea and the curse of Poseidon;
even for immortal gods that man has a claim on their mercy
who comes to them as a wandering man, in the way that I now
come to your current and to your knees after much suffering.
Pity me them, my lord. I call myself your suppliant.’ 450
He spoke, and the river stayed his current, stopped the waves breaking,
and made all quite in front of him and let him get safely
into the outlet of the river. Now he flexed both knees
and his ponderous hands; his very heart was sick with salt water,
and all his flesh was swollen, and the sea water crusted stiffly 455
in his mouth and nostrils, and with a terrible weariness fallen
upon him he lay unable to breathe or speak in his weakness.
But when he got his breath back and the spirit regathered into
his heart, he at last unbound the veil of the goddess from him,
and let it go, to drift in the seaward course of the river, 460
and the great wave carried it out on the current, and presently Ino
took it back into her hands. Odysseus staggered from the river
and lay down again in the rushes and kissed the grain-giving soil.

- Odyssey 5:269-463

Making the waters serve for his transportation despite their unruliness, as Odysseus did in reaching Phaiakia by a relentless and exhausting struggle—with repeated præternatural help moreover against repeated præternatural opposition—is a justly famous feat. But it is not the greatest imaginable accomplishment of its kind. A greater and even more notable one would be to achieve passage over a comparable expanse of open sea by some possibly quite occult and yet ultimately altogether human facility without any expenditure of effort whatever on the part of the voyager. So in the Odyssey the prospective bridegroom’s final seafaring to the land of his marriage is utterly comfortable and easy, though as usual in such tales he again owes his conclusive success in dominating the water to others who have befriended him:

But when they had come down to the sea, and where the ship was,
the proud escorts promptly took over the gifts, and stowed them
away in the hollow hull, and all the food and the drink, then
spread out a coverlet for Odysseus, and linen, out on
the deck, at the stern of the ship’s hull, so that he could sleep there
undisturbed, and he himself went aboard and lay down
silently. They sat down each in his place at the oarlocks
in order, and slipped the cable free from its hole in the stone post.
They bent to their rowing, and with their oars tossed up the sea spray,
and upon the eyes of Odysseus there fell a sleep, gentle,
the sweetest kind of sleep with no awakening, most like
death; while the ship, as in a field four stallions drawing
a chariot all break together at the stroke of the whiplash,
and lifting high their feet lightly beat out their path, so
the stern of this ship would lift and the creaming wave behind her
boiled amain in the thunderous crash of the sea. She ran on
very steady and never wavering; even the falcon,
that hawk that flies lightest of winged creatures, could not
have paced her,
so lightly did she run on her way and cut through the sea’s waves.
She carried a man with a mind like the gods for counsel, one whose
spirit up to this time had endured much, suffering many
pains: the wars of men, hard crossing of the big waters;
but now he slept still, oblivious of all he had suffered.
At the time when shines that brightest star, which beyond others
comes with announcement of the light of the young Dawn goddess,
then was the time the sea-faring ship put in to the island.
There is a harbor of the Old Man of the Sea, Phorkys,
in the countryside of Ithake. There two precipitous
promontories opposed jut out, to close in the harbor
and shelter it from the big waves made by the winds blowing
so hard on the outside; inside, the well-benched vessels
can lie without being tied up, once they have found their anchorage.
At the head of the harbor, there is an olive tree with spreading
leaves, and nearby is a cave that is shaded, and pleasant,
and sacred to the nymphs who are called the Nymphs
of the Wellsprings,
Naiads. There are mixing bowls and handled jars inside it,
all of stone, and there the bees deposit their honey.
and therein also are looms that are made of stone, very long, where
the nymphs weave their sea-purple webs, a wonder to look on;
and there is water forever flowing. It has two entrances,
one of them facing the North Wind, where people can enter,
but the one toward the South Wind has more divinity. That is
the way of the immortals, and no men enter by that way.
It was into this bay they rowed their ship. They knew of it beforehand.
The ship, hard driven, ran up onto the beach for as much as
half her length, such was the force the hands of the oarsmen
gave her. They stepped from the strong-benched ship out
onto the dry land,
and first they lifted and carried Odysseus out of the hollow
hull, along with his bed linen and shining coverlet,
and set him down on the sand. He was still bound fast in sleep. Then
they lifted and carried out the possessions, whose which the haughty
Phaiakians, urged by great-hearted Athene, had given him, as he
set out for home, and laid them next to the trunk of the olive,
all in a pile and away from the road, lest some wayfarer
might come before Odysseus awoke, and spoil his possessions.
Then they themselves turned back toward home...

- Odyssey 13:70-125

So at the end of his voyaging Odysseus prevails definitively over the water without so much as glancing at it.

Five Iterations of Wood

Something of Odysseus’ skill in management of wood appears above in connection with his survival at sea in two storms: first between Thrinakie and Ogygie, and then between Ogygie and Scherie. But his expert use and manipulation of wood to save himself in desperate circumstances begins earlier, in the cave of the kyklops Polyphemos, where he first detected and then enhanced the potential of wood as weapon:

The Kyklops had lying there beside the pen a great bludgeon
of olive wood, still green. He had cut it so that when it dried out
he could carry it about, and we looking at it considered
it to be about the size for the mast of a cargo-carrying
broad black ship of twenty oars which crosses the open
sea; such was the length of it, such the thickness, to judge by
looking. I went up and chopped a length of about a fathom,
and handed it over to my companions and told them to shave it
down, and they made it smooth, while I standing by them sharpened
the point, then put it over the blaze of the fire to harden.
Then I put it well away and hid it under the ordure
which was all over the floor of the cave, much stuff lying
about. Next I told the rest of the men to cast lots, to find out
which of them must endure with me to take up the great beam
and spin it in Kyklops’ eye when sweet sleep had come over him.

- Odyssey 9:319-333

Two more of Odysseus’ companions die at the hands of Polyphemos before their leader is able to deploy the wooden weapon against the monster:

Then I shoved the beam underneath a deep bed of cinders,
waiting for it to heat, and I spoke to all my companions
in words of courage, so none should be in a panic, and back out;
but when the beam of olive, green as it was, was nearly
at the point of catching fire and glowed, terribly incandescent,
then I brought it close up from the fire and my friends about me
stood fast. Some great divinity breathed courage into us.
They seized the beam of olive, sharp at the end, and leaned on it
into the eye, while I from above leaning my weight on it
twirled it, like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into
a ship timber, and his men from underneath, grasping
the strap on either side whirl it, and it bites resolutely deeper.
So seizing the fire-point-hardened timber we twirled it
in his eye, and the blood boiled around the hot point, so that
the blast and scorch of the burning ball singed all our eyebrows
and eyelids, and the fire made the roots of his eye crackle.
As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges a screaming
great ax blade or plane into cold water, treating it
for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even
so Kyklops’ eye sizzled about the beam of olive.

- Odyssey 9:375-394

Each of Odysseus’ assertions of himself as master of wood puts the wood to a different use. The violent and hateful kyklops kept Odysseus captive in a cave, from which the captive escaped by exploiting wood as weapon. But later an all too kind and loving Kalypso also kept Odysseus captive in a cave, and the remedy he found against her different kind of captivation was other species of wood used as material for a vehicle to convey him away from her:

She gave him a great ax that was fitted to his palms and headed
with bronze, with a double edge each way, and fitted inside it
a very beautiful handle of olive wood, well hafted;
then she gave him a well-finished adze, and led the way onward
to the far end of the island where there were trees, tall grown,
alder and black poplar and fir that towered to the heaven,
but all gone dry long ago and dead, so they would float lightly.
But when she had shown him where the tall trees grew, Kalypso,
shining among divinities, went back to her own dwelling
while he turned to cutting his timbers and quickly had
his work finished.
He threw down twenty in all, and trimmed them well with
his bronze ax,
and planed them expertly, and trued them straight to a chalkline.
Kalypso, the shining goddess, at that time came back, bringing him
an auger, and he bored through them all and pinned them together
with dowels, and then with cords he lashed his raft together.
And as great as is the bottom of a broad cargo-carrying
ship, when a man well skilled in carpentry fashions it, such was
the size of the broad raft made for himself by Odysseus.
Next, setting up the deck boards and fitting them to close uprights
he worked them on, and closed in the ends with sweeping gunwales.
Then he fashioned the mast, with an upper deck fitted to it,
and made in addition a steering oar by which to direct her,
and fenced her in down the whole length with wattles of osier
to keep the water out, and expended much timber upon this.

- Odyssey 5:234-257

Besides weapons and transportation, wood served also as fuel in Odysseus’ world, and so he asserts himself as stoker in his own house:

But now the suitors, turning to the dance and delightful
song, took their pleasure and awaited the coming of evening,
and the black night came on as they were taking their pleasure.
Accordingly, they set up three cressets about the palace,
to give them light, and about them they laid piles of firewood
pieces, long dried and seasoned, but lately split with the brazen
ax; and put kindling in with it, and the maids of enduring
Odysseus were ready to take turns keeping them burning,
when illustrious resourceful Odysseus himself spoke to them:
‘You maids of Odysseus, whose master has long been absent,
go back into the house where the respected queen is,
and in her presence turn your distaffs, and sit beside her
in the halls, and comfort her, or comb your wool in your hands there.
But I myself will provide the light for all these people.
And even if they wish to keep at it until the high-throned dawn, they will not wear me out. I am very enduring.’

- Odyssey 18:304-319

More enduring than wood expended as fuel is the wood of which the house itself and the furniture in it are constructed. Of these too Odysseus is rightful lord and maker. His account of himself as such to Penelope—as architect and carpenter—is the final act of a process whereby he induces her to acknowledge herself to him as wife. In the formulary language of the Homeric narrative constructing a marriage bed as the epicenter of his own wedded life at home is an obvious analogue of his earlier constructing a vehicle to transport him away from the untenable alien bed of Kalypso:

There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing
strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column.
I laid down my chamber around this, and built it, until I
finished it, with close-set stones, and roofed it well over,
and added the compacted doors, fitting closely together.
Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive,
and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planing it with a brazen
adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline,
making a bed post of it, and bored all holes with an auger.
I began with this and built my bed, until it was finished,
and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory.
Then I lashed it with thongs of oxhide, dyed bright with purple.

- Odyssey 23:190-201

Hewn wood and the hewing of it are essential requisites of a postulant bridegroom, yet wood may be of great value also in its virid state, and correspondingly, control of standing green wood is also to be expected of the compleat bridegroom. As Odysseus speaks to his father Laertes of the latter, it emerges as meaningful to his agnatic relationships in the same way that his earlier mastery of hewn wood was to his affinal relationships:

‘Or come then, let me tell you of the trees in the well-worked
orchard, which you gave me once. I asked you of each one,
when I was a child, following you through the garden. We went
among the trees, and you named them all and told me what each one
was, and you gave me thirteen pear trees, and ten apple trees,
and forty fig trees; and so also you named the fifty
vines you would give. Each of the bore regularly, for there were
grapes at every stage upon them, whenever the seasons
of Zeus came down from the sky upon them, to make them heavy.’

- Odyssey 24:336-344

An Abundance of Animals

The swineherd Eumaios, supposing his lord dead, succinctly enumerates to disguised Odysseus all the rich resources of animal life belonging to the latter’s dominion:

He had an endlessly abundant livelihood. Not one
of the heroes over on the black mainland had so much, no one
here on Ithake, no twenty men together had such
quantity of substance as he. I will count it for you.
Twelve herds of cattle on the mainland. As many sheepflocks.
As many troops of pigs and again as many wide goatflocks.
And here again, at the end of the island, eleven wide flocks
of goats in all are pastured, good men have these in their keeping.

- Odyssey 14:96-104

Only moments earlier Odysseus had witnessed for himself Eumaios’ careful tending of yet more of his animal property, an acervation of swine still numbering nine hundred and sixty head despite the daily depredation of the hundred and eight men who every day dine unbidden in Odysseus’ palace:

Inside the enclosure he had made twelve pig pens
next to each other, for his sows to sleep in, and in each of them
fifty pigs who sleep on the ground were confined. These were
the breeding females, but the males lay outside, and these were
fewer by far, for the godlike suitors kept diminishing
their numbers by eating them, since the swineherd kept having
to send them in the best of all the well-fattened porkers
at any time. Now, they numbered three hundred and sixty.

- Odyssey 14:13-20

Extraction of the Bride

Like all of his maritally expectant kind, Odysseus must overcome a height in order to extract the prospective bride from her sequestration. In his case, it is Mount Neritos, the principal distinguishing landmark of his native island:

But Odysseus himself left the harbor and ascended a rugged
path, through wooded country along the heights, where Athene
had indicated the noble swineherd, who beyond others
cared for the house properties acquired by noble Odysseus.

- Odyssey 14:1-4

First the bride-to-be is divinely prepared for emergence into the view of her suitors, among whom is her veritable husband-to-be, and then the disclosure itself takes place, limited only by the thin remaining reservation of a veil:

Then the goddess gray-eyed Athene thought what to do next.
She drifted a sweet sleep over Ikarios’ daughter,
and all her joints were relaxed so that she slumbered, reclining
there on the couch. Meanwhile she, shining among goddesses, 190
endowed here with gifts immortal, to make the Achaians admire her.
First, for her beauty’s sake, she freshened all her fine features
with ambrosia, such as fair-garlanded Kythereia uses
for salve, whenever she joins the lovely dance of the Graces.
She made her taller for the eye to behold, and thicker, 195
and she made her whiter than sawn ivory. After so doing,
she, Athene, shining among goddesses, departed,
and the white-armed handmaidens came running in from the great hall,
with clamor, about Penelope, and the sweet sleep released her.
She rubbed her cheeks with both her hands and spoke aloud,
saying: 200
‘That was a strange thing, that soft sleep that shrouded me.
How I wish chaste Artemis would give me a death so
soft, and now, so I would not go on in my heart grieving
all my life, and longing for love of a husband excellent
in every virtue, since he stood out among the Achaians.’ 205
So she spoke, and made her descent from her shining chamber,
not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her.
When she, shining among women, came near the suitors,
she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery,
holding her shining veil in frongt of her face, to shield it, 210
and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.
Their knees gave way, and the hearts in them were bemused
with passion,
and each one prayed for the privilege of lying beside her.

- Odyssey 18:187-213

Later the prospective bride goes amongst her suitors again, this time to moot the complete extraction of herself from the place where she presently resides, though there is still about her the residual demur of her veil. The thematic identity of the scene with her earlier feint at desequestration of herself is asserted by the recurrence of long formula:

...she went on her way to the hall to be with the lordly suitors,
bearing in her hand the backstrung bow, and the quiver
to hold the arrows, with many sorrowful shafts inside it.
Her serving women carried the box for her, and there lay
much iron and bronze, prizes that had been won by the master.
When she, shining among women, came near the suitors,
she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery,
holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it,
and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.
Now at once she spoke and addressed a word to the suitors:
‘Hear me now, you haughty suitors, who have been using
this house for your incessant eating and drinking, thought it
belongs to a man who has been gone for a long time; never
have you been able to bring any other saying before me,
but only your desire to make me your wife and marry me.
But come, you suitors, since here is a prize set out before you;
for I shall bring you the great bow of godlike Odysseus.
And the one who takes the bow in his hands, strings it with the greatest
ease, and sends an arrow clean through all the twelve axes,
shall be the one I go away with, forsaking this house
where I was a bride, a lovely place and full of good living.
I think that even in my dreams I shall never forget it.’

- Odyssey 21:58-78

But when at last the bride is able to show herself to her prospective husband alone, there is no longer any question of veils or other impediment; her entire and unqualified disclosure of herself to him marks the consummation of their union. The postulant bridegroom must nevertheless accomplish the extraction of her from her erstwhile sequestration as an achievement distinct from his prior successes in respect of wood, water, or animal assets, and in this fourth labor too the assistance of others is essential to him:

The old woman, laughing loudly, went to the upper chamber
to tell her mistress that her beloved husband was inside
the house. Her knees moved swiftly, but her feet were tottering.
She stood above Penelope’s head and spoke a word to her:
‘Wake, Penelope, dear child, so that, with your own eyes, 5
you can see what all your days you have been longing for.
Odysseus is here, he is in the house, though late in his coming;
and he has killed the haughty suitors, who were afflicting
his house, and using force on his son, and eating his property.’
Circumspect Penelope said to her in answer: 10
‘Dear nurse, the gods have driven you crazy. They are able both
to change a very sensible person into a senseless
one, and to set the light-wit on the way to discretion.
They have set you awry; before now your thoughts were orderly.
Why do you insult me when my heart is heavy with sorrows, 15
by talking in this wild way, and waking me from a happy
sleep, which had come and covered my eyes, and held them fastened?
For I have not had such a sleep as this one since the time
when Odysseus went to that evil, never-to-be-mentioned Ilion.
But go down, and take yourself back into the palace. 20
If any of those other women, who are here with me,
had come with a message like yours, and wakened me
from my slumber,
I would have sent her back on her way to the hall in a hateful
fashion for doing it. It shall be your age that saves you.’
Then the beloved nurse Eurykleia said to her in answer: 25
‘Odysseus is here, he is in the house, just as I tell you.
He is that stranger-guest, whom all in the house were abusing.
Telemachos has known that he was here for a long time,
but he was discreet and did not betray the plans of his father, 30
so he might punish these overbearing men for their violence.’
So she spoke, and Penelope in her joy sprang up
from the bed, and embraced the old woman, her eyes streaming
tears, and she spoke to her and addressed her in winged words:
‘If it could only be true, dear nurse, all that you told me, 35
if truly he could have come back to the house, as you tell me,
to lay his hands on the shameless suitors, though he was only
one, and they were always lying in wait, in a body!’
Then the beloved nurse Eurykleia said to her in answer:
‘I did not see, I was not told, but I heard the outcry 40
of them being killed; we, hidden away in the strong-built storerooms,
sat there terrified, and the closed doors held us prisoner,
until from inside the great hall your son Telemachos
summoned me, because his father told him to do it.
There I found Odysseus standing among the dead men 45
he had killed, and they covered the hardened earth, lying
piled on each other around him. You would have been cheered
to see him,
spattered over with gore and battle filth like a lion.
Now they lie all together, by the doors of the courtyard,
while he is burning a great fire and cleaning the beautiful 50
house with brimstone. He has sent me on to summon you.
Come with me then, so that both of you can turn your hearts
the way of happiness, since you have had so much to suffer,
but now at last what long you prayed for has been accomplished.
He has come back and is here at his hearth, alive, and has found you 55
and his son in the palace, and has taken revenge on the suitors
here in his house, for all the evils that they have done him.’
Circumspect Penelope said to her in answer:
‘Dear nurse, do not laugh aloud in triumph. You know
how welcome he would be if he appeared in the palace: 60
to all, but above all to me and the son we gave birth to.
No, but this story is not true as you tell it; rather,
some one of the immortals has killed the haughty suitors
in anger over their wicked deeds and heart-hurting violence;
for these men paid no attention at all to any man on earth 65
who came their way, no matter if he were base or noble.
So they suffered for their own recklessness. But Odysseus
has lost his homecoming and lost his life, far from Achaia.’
Then the beloved nurse Eurykleia said to her in answer:
‘My child, what sort of word escaped your teeth’s barrier? 70
Though your husband is here beside the hearth, you would never
say he would come home. Your heart was always mistrustful.
But here is another proof that is very clear. I will tell you.
That scar, which once the boar with his white teeth inflicted.
I recognized it while I was washing his feet, and I wanted 75
to tell you about it, but he stopped my mouth with is hands, would not
let me speak, for his mind sought every advantage. Come then,
follow me, and I will hazard my life upon it.
Kill me by the most pitiful death if I am deceiving you.’
Circumspect Penelope said to her in answer: 80
‘Dear nurse, it would be hard for you to baffle the purposes
of the everlasting gods, although you are very clever.
Still, I will go to see my son, so that I can look on
these men who courted me lying dead, and the man who killed them.’
She spoke, and came down from the chamber, her heart pondering 85
much, whether to keep away and question her dear husband,
or to go up to him and kiss his head, taking his hands.
But then, when she came in and stepped over the stone threshold,
she sat across from him in the firelight, facing Odysseus,
by the opposite wall, while he was seated by the tall pillar, 90
looking downward, and waiting to find out if his majestic
wife would have anything to say to him, now that she saw him.
She sat for a long time in silence, and her heart was wondering.
Sometimes she would look at him, with her eyes full upon him,
and again would fail to know him in the foul clothing he wore. 95
Telemachos spoke to her and called her by name and scolded her:
‘My mother, my harsh mother with the hard heart inside you,
why do you withdraw so from my father, and do not
sit beside him and ask him questions and find out about him?
No other woman, with spirit as stubborn as yours, would
keep back 100
as you are doing from her husband who, after much suffering,
came at last in the twentieth year back to his own country.
But always you have a heart that is harder than stone within you.’
Circumspect Penelope said to him in answer:
‘My child, the spirit that is in me is full of wonderment, 105
and I cannot find anything to say to him, nor question him,
nor look him straight in the face. But if he is truly Odysseus,
and he has come home, then we shall find other ways, and better,
to recognize each other, for we have signs that we know of
between the two of us only, but they are secret from others.’ 110
So she spoke, and much-enduring noble Odysseus
smiled, and presently spoke in winged words to Telemachos:
‘Telemachos, leave your mother to examine me in the palace
as she will, and presently she will understand better;
but now that I am dirty and wear foul clothing upon me, 115
she dislikes me for that, and says I am not her husband.
But let us make our plans how all will come out best for us.
For when one has killed only one man in a community,
and then there are not many avengers to follow, even
so, he flees into exile, leaving kinsmen and country. 120
But we have killed what held the city together, the finest
young men in Ithake. It is what I would have you consider.’
Then the thoughtful Telemachos said to him in answer:
‘You must look to this yourself, dear father; for they say
you have the best mind among men for craft, and there is 125
no other man among mortal men who can contend with you.
We shall follow you eagerly; I think that we shall not
come short in warcraft, in so far as the strength stays with us.’
Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered him:
‘So I will tell you the way of it, how it seems best to me. 130
First, all go and wash, and put your tunics upon you,
and tell the women in the palace to choose out their clothing.
Then let the inspired singer take his clear-sounding lyre,
and give us the lead for festive dance, so that anyone
who is outside, some one of the neighbors, or a person going 135
along the street, who hears us, will think we are having a wedding.
Let no rumor go abroad in the town that the suitors
have been murdered, until such time as we can make our way
out to our estate with its many trees, and once there
see what profitable plan the Olympian shows us.’ 140
So he spoke, and they listened well to him and obeyed him.
First they went and washed, and put their tunics upon them,
and the women arrayed themselves in their finery, while the inspired
singer took up his hollowed lyre and stirred up within them
the impulse for the sweetness of song and the stately dancing. 145
Now the great house resounded aloud to the thud of their footsteps,
as the men celebrated there, and the fair-girdled women;
and thus would a person speak outside the house who heard them:
‘Surely now someone has married our much-sought-after
queen; hard-hearted, she had no patience to keep the great house 150
for her own wedded lord to the end, till he came back to her.’
So would a person speak, but they did not know what had happened.
Now the housekeeper Eurynome bathed great-hearted
Odysseus in his own house, and anointed him with olive oil,
and threw a beautiful mantle and a tunic about him; 155
and over his head Athene suffused great beauty, to make him
taller to behold and thicker, and on his head she arranged
the curling locks that hung down like hyacinthine petals.
And as when a master craftsman overlays gold on silver,
and he is one who was taught by Hephaistos and Pallas Athene 160
in art complete, and grace is on every work he finishes;
so Athene gilded with grace his head and his shoulders.
Then, looking like an immortal, he strode forth from the bath,
and came back then and sat on the chair from which he had risen,
opposite his wife, and now he spoke to her, saying: 165
‘You are so strange. The gods, who have their homes on Olympos,
have made your heart more stubborn than for the rest of womankind.
No other woman, with spirit as stubborn as yours, would keep back
as you are doing from her husband who, after much suffering,
came at last in the twentieth year back to his own country. 170
Come then, nurse, make me up a bed, so that I can use it
here; for this woman has a heart of iron within her.’
Circumspect Penelope said to him in answer:
‘You are so strange. I am not being proud, nor indifferent,
nor puzzled beyond need, but I know very well what you
looked like 175
when you went in the ship with the sweeping oars, from Ithake.
Come then, Eurykleia, and make up a firm bed for him
outside the well-fashioned chamber: that very bed that he himself
built. Put the firm bed here outside for him, and cover it
over with fleeces and blankets, and with shining coverlets.’ 180
So she spoke to her husband, trying him out, but Odysseus
spoke in anger to his virtuous-minded lady:
‘What you have said, dear lady, has hurt my heart deeply. What man
has put my bed in another place? But it would be difficult
for even a very expert one, unless a god, coming 185
to help in person, were easily to change its position.
But there is no mortal man alive, no strong man, who lightly
could move the weight elsewhere. There is one particular feature
in the bed’s construction. I myself, no other man, made it.
There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing 190
strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column.
I laid down my chamber around this, and built it, until I
finished it, with close-set stones, and roofed it well over,
and added the compacted doors, fitting closely together.
Then I cut away the foliage of the long-leaved olive, 195
and trimmed the trunk from the roots up, planing it with a brazen
adze, well and expertly, and trued it straight to a chalkline,
making a bed post of it, and bored all holes with an auger.
I began with this and built my bed, until it was finished,
and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory. 200
Then I lashed it with thongs of oxhide, dyed bright with purple.
There is its character, as I tell you; but I do not know now,
dear lady, whether my bed is still in place, or if some man
has cut underneath the stump of the olive, and moved it elsewhere.’
So he spoke, and her knees and the heart within her went slack 205
as she recognized the clear proofs that Odysseus had given;
but then she burst into tears and ran straight to him, throwing
her arms around the neck of Odysseus, and kissed his head, saying:
‘Do not be angry with me, Odysseus, since, beyond other men,
you have the most understanding. The gods granted us misery, 210
in jealousy over the thought that we two, always together,
should enjoy our youth, and then come to the threshold of old age.
Then do not now be angry with me nor blame me, because
I did not greet you, as I do now, at first when I saw you.
For always the spirit deep in my very heart was fearful 215
that some one of mortal men would come my way and deceive me
with words. For there are many who scheme for wicked advantage.
For neither would the daughter born to Zeus, Helen of Argos,
have lain in love with an outlander from another country,
if she had known that the warlike sons of the Achaians
would bring her 220
home again to the beloved land of her fathers.
It was a god who stirred her to do the shameful thing she
did, and never before had she had in her heart this terrible
wildness, out of which came suffering to us also.
But now, since you have given me accurate proof describing 225
our bed, which no other mortal man beside has ever seen,
but only you and I, and there is one serving woman,
Aktor’s daughter, whom my father gave me when I came here
who used to guard the doors for us in our well-built chamber;
so you persuade my heart, though it has been very stubborn.’ 230
She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping.
He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous.
And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming,
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open
water, pounding it with the weight of wind and the heavy 235
seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them,
and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms. 240
Now Dawn of the rosy fingers would have dawned on their weeping,
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene planned it otherwise.
She held the long night back at the outward edge, she detained
Dawn of the golden throne by the Ocean, and would not let her
harness her fast-footed horses who bring the daylight to people: 245
Lampos and Phaethon, the Dawn’s horses, who carry her.
Then resourceful Odysseus spoke to his wife, saying:
‘Dear wife, we have not yet come to the limit of all our
trials. There is unmeasured labor left for the future,
both difficult and great, and all of it I must accomplish. 250
So the soul of Teiresias prophesied to me, on that day
when I went down inside the house of Hades, seeking
to learn about homecoming, for myself and for my companions.
But come, my wife, let us go to bed, so that at long last
we can enjoy the sweetness of slumber, sleeping together.’ 255
Circumspect Penelope said to him in answer:
‘You shall have your going to bed whenever the spirit
desires it, now that the gods have brought about your homecoming
to your own strong-founded house and to the land of your fathers.
But since the gods put this into your mind, and you understand it, 260
tell me what this trial is, since I think I shall hear of it
later; so it will be none the worse if I now hear of it.’
Then in turn resourceful Odysseus said to her in answer:
‘You are so strange. Why do you urge me on and tell me
to speak of it? Yet I will tell you, concealing nothing. 265
Your heart will have no joy in this; and I myself am not
happy, since he told me to go among many cities
of men, taking my well-shaped oar in my hands and bearing it,
until I come where there are men living who know nothing
of the sea, and who eat food that is not mixed with salt, who never 270
have known ships whose cheeks are painted purple, who never
have known well-shaped oars, which act for ships as wings do.
And then he told me a very clear proof. I will not conceal it.
When, as I walk, some other wayfarer happens to meet me,
and says I carry a winnow fan on my bright shoulder, 275
then I must plant my well-shaped oar in the ground, and render
ceremonious sacrifice to the lord Poseidon,
one ram and one bull, and a mounter of sows, a boar pig,
and make my way home again, and render holy hecatombs
to the immortal gods who hold the wide heaven, all 280
of them in order. Death will come to me from the sea, in
some altogether unwarlike way, and it will end me
in the ebbing time of a sleek old age. My people
about me will prosper. All this he told me would be accomplished.’
Circumspect Penelope said to him in answer: 285
‘If the gods are accomplishing a more prosperous old age,
then there is hope that you shall have an escape from your troubles.’
Now as these two were conversing thus with each other,
meanwhile the nurse and Eurynome were making the bed up
with soft coverings, under the light of their flaring torches. 290
Then when they had worked and presently had a firm bed made,
the old woman went away back to bed in her own place,
while Eurynome, as mistress of the chamber, guided them
on their way to the bed, and her hands held the torch for them.
When she had brought them to the chamber she went back.
They then 295
gladly went together to bed, and their old ritual.

- Odyssey 23:1-296

For a modern Balkan example of postulant bridegroom as master of wood, water, myriad animals, and extractor of his bride-to-be, see this.

The Bride-To-Be

- Two British Instances -

In the space remaining we consider the corresponding four facets of bridehood.

For a beginning, here is a piece of oral narrative tradition selected at random from a superabundance of pertinent material in European oral traditions. It is the story of Mossycoat, a folk-tale from Lancashire collected in January, 1955.13 It represents a common international tale type:

A mother spins a magic or “wishing” coat of green moss and gold thread for her younger daughter, and names the girl herself after it, “Mossycoat.” The coat bestows the power of translocation and bestioform shape-shifting on its wearer, who has only to assert her will to be anywhere or to become any animal she wishes. While the mother spins, an itinerant hawker courts the girl, giving her presents of a white satin dress with decorations of gold, a silk dress of every color found in the plumage of birds, and silver slippers. With this trousseau, the girl wishes herself a hundred miles way, leaving mother and the unsuccessful suitor behind forever.

She presents herself to the mistress of a fine manor-house, saying she is a qualified cook. The mistress explains that she already has a good cook in her employ, but will hire the girl as a cook’s assistant. Inferring that she is to be “under-cook,” the girl agrees. But when she appears in the kitchen to begin work, the other women already in service there put her solely to the meanest scullion-drudgery: ...soon she was up to de ears in grease, and her face as black as soot. This state of affairs persists for some time.

With the approach of a three-day festival and ball in the shire, the mistress of the manor, who has noticed how handsome a girl Mossycoat is, invites her to the dance, but the girl refuses resolutely on the ground that she has not the quality to be included in such grand society as will attend the ball. She returns to the kitchen, but boasts there of the splendid invitation she has rejected, and her jealous workmates abuse her on account of it. Tat night, Mossycoat decided as she’d go to de dance in right proper style, all on her own, and wi’ out nobody knowing. She does, she dances with the only son and heir of the master and mistress of the very house where she is in service, and she captivates the youth. He pines into sickness until her identity is discovered, then they marry. As for Mossycoat’s erstwhile fellows in the kitchen, whole’n de kitchen sarvants was telt to go, and de dogs sent after ’em, to drive de varmints right away from de place. The marriage is a success: Tey lived happy ever after, and had a basketful o’ children.

Mossycoat attains and brings to her marriage four general qualifications or equipments for bridehood. Firstly, she is mistress of fabrics, the possessor and sole female user of cloth and clothing which are in color like the three seasons of winter, spring, and summer; she both acquires and wears these things in the same sequence as the seasons: first white satin laced with gold, then silk of rainbow hues, i.e., “having the colour of all birds,” and finally the coat of “green moss and gold thread.” Secondly, Mossycoat is skilled in preparation of food-substances, and qualified to be head-cook in a grand manor even if that office is in fact already filled by some other person who is perhaps equally as qualified as she in cooking, although not perhaps so qualified in all the other matters essential to a girl’s achievement of a perfect marriage. Thirdly (and in the most intimate possible connection with her nutritive potential), Mossycoat learns to lustrate: to cleanse the filthiest of kitchen contaminations, to bathe herself, and to purge away her rivals. These are all things of a kind which she and she alone does in this rather plentifully populated tale. Fourthly, she asserts and learns to assert her own will, both in the use of her mossy coat which grants her the power to be anywhere and do whatever she chooses if only she will choose and will it so, and also in actively resolving to do for her own reasons what her social superiors offer her the opportunity to do for reasons separate from her own. Her example in this regard teaches another useful lesson: that the will to act in concert with the policy of one’s betters need not arise so much from any great understanding or admiration of that policy, nor from any specific ambition of one’s own, but rather from the general necessity in order to make the best of one’s own skills to escape the narrowing coercion of other less able but nevertheless formidably organized people.

Although the details of her story are not so commonplace internationally as Mossycoat’s, Mucketty Meg, the girl of another Lancastrian traditional tale (ibid., 481-3), is also taught that a good marriage wants the exercise of her strong mind within a policy that serves larger and longer established interests than just her personal ones.

There was a pretty lass they called Jane, but she was proud and greedy and very poor. She thought her looks made a lady of her, and she wouldn’t lift a finger to sweep or dust or clean herself or help on the farm, or mind the sheep.

She said they were dirty, and when they answered her ‘Dirty beast,’ she didn’t like it.

She has similarly uncomplimentary exchanges with cows and pigs. Then she steals fine silk from the fairies and makes herself an elegant gown which she simply puts on over her dirty rags without any ablution. The fairies protest her larceny and her shabby pomp, and send her to be hanged. She buys a stay of execution by lustrating herself in a river. Immediately pig, sheep, and cow speak respectfully to her. She milks the cow, then decides suddenly to run away home to avoid any further to-do with the fairy folk. On the way she meets a young farmer who is instantly smitten with her and asks on the spot to marry her.

From the first, Mucketty Meg resolutely goes where and does, or does not do, what she will. Like Mossycat, she also asserts rights of property and use in fancy and magically potent fabric or cloth which she has not herself made. Thirdly, she lustrates, and fourthly (in direct consequence of her lustration), she prepares nourishment (milking the cow), which is however destined to feed someone other than herself.

- Two Instances from New Guinea -

There is not space enough on this occasion to explore the whole generality of this oral traditional narrative pattern in all the many regions and localities or among all the peoples where it obtains. Only because the types of their traditional tales are so very unlike the tale-types of the Indo-European sphere of cultural contact and influence, I turn now for a moment to a pair of stories collected by a well-known anthropologist, Kenelm Burridge, from the Tangu, an indigenous people of North-eastern New Guinea.14 Both tales reflect on the nature of the institution of marriage.

The Tangu took delight in the chewing of areca-palm nuts, a physically and socially stimulating activity not unlike the social drinking, smoking, or chewing of other vegetal substances more familiar in the West. Sharing rights to and use of areca-nuts was patently analogous to sharing the larger assets of marriage in the Tangu view:

Once upon a time long ago, the women of the village went down to the stream to fish. The men stayed at home, chewing areca-nuts with ash. Yet the mixture of areca-nut and ash was not very appetizing. And when the women returned to the village and started to chew areca-nut with ash from their cooking fires, their faces wrinkled in disgust.

On the morrow the men hunt and the women chew. But the women mix their nuts with lime rather than ashes (the customary Tangu procedure), and thoroughly enjoy themselves. They conceal their gourd full of lime from the men, however, and next day when again they go hunting the men leave a boy behind hidden in the village to spy out the women’s secret of satisfactory nut-chewing. That evening the boy reports to them how he saw the women take the lime-gourd from its place of concealment down to the stream to make the lime, and how they then used it with enjoyment in their chewing.

On the following day the women fish and the men remain in the village, where they take and use up the women’s câche of lime. When the women return and learn this, they are infuriated, but uncertain what to do about it. While they debate, the eldest of them spins a long string of palm-fibre, and then throws one end of it high in the air, where it remains suspended. All but two of the women then climb the string and disappear. This is why Tangu today never have women enough in their villages for all the men, because in that village long ago only the old crone who made the string and a single little girl who was much too young to marry remained behind after the general exodus of the women.15

The concoction of an appetizing sauce for the areca-nuts is a feminine achievement in this narrative; like the Lancastrian English Mossycoat who is such a good cook, or Mucketty Meg who milks for the consumption of others, the Tangu women also excel in producing something tasty, but it inures finally to others than themselves. In this Tangu tale the preparation of the savory dish and the act of washing are not just intimately proximate as in the English tales, they are in fact the same act—that of washing the lime at the stream (as compared with Mossycoat’s washing in the kitchen where she had expected to cook, and the otherwise curious nonsequitur of Mucketty Meg’s milking the cow on the bank of the river where she has just washed). Next comes the old woman’s manufacture of the palm-fibre string, a fabric which the other, more nubile women however appropriate exclusively for their own use, even though they had no more part in making it than did Mossycoat in weaving her namesake or Mucketty Meg in producing the elven silk she stole for her tawdry gown. But once they have it, the women display the resolute will to use it to translate themselves physically, and by so doing, also to metamorphose their social and kinship status. In this narrative the very perfection simultaneously of all the women’s qualifications for marriage through these four accomplishments is made to account for the short supply of marriageable women in Tangu society.

Lest anyone suppose the correspondence in ideals of married feminine competence as between this Tangu tale and the two English examples (or the international tale-types to which they belong) is merely coincidental, here is another of Burridge’s Tangu stories. It tells how...

...once upon a time there were two villages. In the first of these all the women had perished, leaving men and boys only, and in the second there were no men or boys, only women and girls.

The village of women holds a communal dance, a kind of native ball. A youth in the men’s village hears the beating of their drums, and decides to go to their dance. He labors for a day making himself a new breechclout, then donning it and taking other ornaments with him in a basket, he sets out toward the sound of the women’s village.

It is so far away, however, that he must travel all night, and does not arrive until dawn. By then the dance is over, and all the women have climbed the surrounding trees, where they will sleep through the day in the form of unpicked, ripe areca-nuts. All the women, that is, except one grandmotherly old woman, who remains awake on the ground, being too old to dance or climb.

Tired, hungry, and disappointed, the youth turns to the old woman to learn where the other, invisible women are; but she puts a pot on the fire and invites him to rest and share a meal with her instead. Afterwards the crone suggests that the young man climb one of the areca-nut trees nearby, and pick two small nuts. Don’t pick the large ones—only two small ones. And be careful how you pick them. Take them eyes and all! He does this, obeying her instructions carefully about the first nut, but the second he plucks incautiously and separates it from its ‘eye.’

Carrying these two nuts in his basket, the youth returns homeward through the woods. He comes to a stream of clear, cool water, where he removes his breechclout, folds it neatly, and places it atop his basket of nuts. He then goes nude into the water where he wades slowly upstream, washing away the soil and heat of his journey. [The collector remarked that movement upstream is a common Tangu metaphor for maturation and creativity.] But this lustration occasions a remarkable change in his two nuts. Gay laughter rings out in the woods behind him, and when he returns toward his basket and breechclout on the bank, he finds two girls have taken possession of his breechclout and are using it as a sitting-mat. Crouching modestly behind a bush, he calls to them to get off his cloth and go away so that he may dress. They laughingly reply that if he wants it, he will have to come and get it as is. He does, and they do, and all is well with them except that one of the girls has only one eye due to the youth’s careless picking of her from her native tree.

Thus happily married, the young man returns with his new wives to his own village. There he instructs another youth, a friend of his, in this procedure for marrying. The second youth exactly repeats the adventures of the first, except that he is more careful in plucking his nuts and so brings both his wives home unblemished. The sons and daughters of the two resultant lineages subsequently intermarry, and thus the institution of marriage arises anew where formerly it had died out.16

The fabric in this tale, the two young men’s new ceremonial breechclouts, is their own manufacture, but marriage comes only when the young women lay claim to it and use it for their own ends. As in the Lancastrian English myth, the purloined fabric is the instrument of the girls’ translocation and social transformation from maids to wives. Secondly, their elder protectress, the old woman who remained on the ground in human form in the all-female village, prepares nourishment, but primarily for the benefit of another than herself and her female charges. But among the things she offers as nourishment are the areca-nuts, the brides-to-be, who, carried away in the young man’s basket as provision for his future, are the very epitome of nutriment ready for the mouths of others than themselves.

None of the brides’ four requisite qualifications or competences for marriage is sufficient in itself; the entire cluster of four elements is essential to the efficacy of each element severally. So in the present Tangu narrative, the emergence of a usable bride requires lustration. Only in conjunction with the act of cleansing can the girls assert themselves and by their willful determination catalyze their curiously lambent relationship with men and a larger society into the organized and durable institution of marriage.

If one now incorporates together with these four feminine preparations or competences for marriage the reciprocal four male virtues described previously—the demonstration of ability to provide and manage hewn wood and water, the control of animals, and skill in evoking a bride—one confronts I think an ideal institution of marriage of extremely wide currency among the peoples of the world, an institution to which bride and bridegroom contribute certain clearly delimited generic provisions for themselves, each other, and their respective kith and kin both present and future. The complementary character of the provisions is self-evident, although there is no particular sequential order implied among the various elements. In the ideal sense, marriage is accordingly defined as the institution of spouses’ reciprocal rights to the benefit of each other’s qualifications in these specific matters:

           FEMALE                              MALE

  1. Preparation of nutriments.      1. Control of hewn wood.
  2. Lustration.                     2. Control of water.
  3. Appropriation of alien fabric.  3. Control of animals.
  4. Assertion of purpose.           4. Extraction of a bride.

Like the divergence in detail and form manifest in the myth of marriage in the English and Tangu traditions of oral narrative, other ethnic and regional traditions also present in sum an endless diversity of expression for a basically constant scheme. In dealing with the myth, one gazes upon an aspect or face of tradition that is constantly in motion and that constantly reaffirms by the very amplitude of its nominal divergences and local adaptations (as in Lancashire and New Guinea) the fixity and unchanging character of its central ideals. Thus the mythic face of tradition on the one hand; but on the other hand the local institutions of actual marriage and the rituals of wedding whereby real people enter into it. One may well concede to Edmund Leach that these myriad local, ethnically distinctive institutions of real flesh and blood are in any generally valid definition only a variable bundle of differently construed rights, by nature incapable of an uncompromised perfection in any actual social system. And whereas narrative tradition plays upon multiformity of expression to assert a central, unvarying ideal, the ritual of wedding tends rather to keep its singularity of form locally, and therefore like the institution of marriage to display no great community of symbolism from people to people except that which it gets by the loan of imagery from narrative tradition.

By their nature, marriage and its liminal rites of wedding can only approach the realization of ideals as nearly as an individual’s or a people’s long- and short-term circumstances—their local formulas for compromise with life—will permit. Thus, in contemplating the social reality of wedding and marriage in any milieu, one looks upon a locally fixed and formally repetitive face of tradition —fixed because it represents a locally tried and proven adjustment between the ideal and the possible, fixed because it must be so as an established, workable model in imitation of which to shape the restive plastic of real experience as best one can.

Such an understanding of the relationship of myth to social institutions and their cognate rituals suggests a methodological conclusion too. The old allure of ritual studies to humanistic perusal of myth—the fundamental enticement to the humanist to try anthropological approaches to traditional literature—should perhaps be more resolutely acknowledged and our professional presence extended in that direction to include not only awareness of the conspicuous successes of anthropology in research on religion and ritual, but also basic competence in the stricter discipline of kinship studies that has been at the very kernel of anthropological science since its beginnings. For if a pair of minor oral fables from Lancashire or New Guinea can disclose something basic about the most basic of kinship institutions, there is good reason for more and stricter attention to kith and kin in the study of oral traditions of narrative.

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Version History

v. 1 “Myth and Ritual: Two Faces of Tradition,” in: Oral Traditional Literature; a Festschrift for Albert B. Lord, edited by John Miles Foley, Columbus OH, 1981, pp. 142-163.

v. 2 Revision, extension, and hypertext markup, September, 2001.

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