In the beginning was the word
“Who is the storyteller? Of whom is the story told? What is there in the darkness to imagine into being? What is there to dream and to relate? What happens when I or anyone exerts the force of language upon the unknown? … If there is any absolute assumption in back of my thoughts…it is this: that we are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine at last, completely, who, and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”
– N. Scott Momaday,
The Way to Rainy Mountain
You could say that storytelling is the descendant of an innate and ageless spirituality, or the genetic sibling to Necessity, the mother of invention. We, as human beings, frame ourselves, our inner lives, our history and traditions, our sorrows and follies, in the context of language. In the Navajo culture, a child does not acquire human status until he or she masters the art of speaking a language.
New Mexico, a veritable Wonderland gumbo of legends, tales, and parables, seasons its canon with accents and spices rooted in the Native and Hispanic cultures. The region itself seems a gateway to “otherness,” a breeding ground for metaphor and myth, or sacred placeholder for fugitive voices. Apache, Navajo and Pueblo mythology chronicle an emergence from underworlds into this world: a “middle place” or “middle world.” The Acoma creation myth tells of two female humans, born underground in Shipapu, and their ascent from the darkness below to the lighted world above. This, perhaps, is what storytelling is at its core: a bridge between worlds, or an illuminating torch being passed from one generation to the next. Through words communion is achieved, and a sense of discovery renewed.
By the light of the fire
“Our ancestors have been telling stories to their children since 1598, when the first Spanish families settled along the Chama River in Northern New Mexico. A 400-year-old tradition began during that first harsh winter, when the warmth of rustic hearths beckoned and warmed the settlers throughout their first winters. It was many years ago while growing up in Penasco, NM… that a seed for storytelling was planted in me. The fondest memories I have from my childhood are when my mother would relate cuentos, or stories, to us.”
– Paulette Atencio,
Cuentos from Long Ago
A cold winter’s night and crackling fireplace have set the domestic stage for many a storyteller. Through voice and gesture alone, family elders would guide children into worlds of enchantment, intrigue, and terror. Juan B. Rael, a native of Arroyo Hondo, and the author of Cuentes Epsañoles de Colorado y Nuevo México, recalled: “An old neighbor of ours, the aunt of one of my playmates, was a gifted storyteller, and my friend and I would often listen to her fascinating stories about giants, witches, thieves, rogues, and clever animals. It was a special treat to listen to her during the long winter nights as she sat by the fireplace, which dimly illuminated her large but scantily furnished living room. The leaping shadows on the whitewashed walls, produced by the flickering flames in the hearth, added a mysterious background to the stories we heard…” Riddles were another part of the Hispanic storytelling tradition, with children being challenged to find the answer. One example: I went into the country and found someone who crossed himself. He is a saint, yet he is not a Christian. Who might it be? (Answer: The Holy Thistle.)
In Zuni culture, tales, or telapnaawe, were told in winter, to avoid attracting snakes and snake-bite, and generally told at night, lest the days be shortened. “The ability to create the appearance of reality is clearly the most important measure of the individual Zuni narrator’s skill and success, ranking above such considerations as accuracy or memory or size of repertoire. Ashuwa (a Zuni male) said: ‘Some are good storytellers not just because they may know the story, but because of their voices and gestures, and they make it exciting. Some tell it like they were actually part of it, had witnessed it.’”
— Dennis Tedlock,
“The Ethnography of Tale-Telling at Zuni”
Her Majesty, the Moon
The moon, as the cosmic pope of lovers, lunatics and werewolves, has been a popular lead in many stories and legends throughout history. In 1894, trailblazing writer, photographer, adventurer, and anthropologist, Charles Lummis, who claimed to have invented the term “Southwest,” collected stories from the Isleta Pueblo people and published them in a book titled The Man Who Married the Moon. The story of the same name, which appears in the collection, tells of the powerful and beloved Nah-chu-r´u-chu (“The Bluish Light of Dawn”) and his marriage to the Moon, a beautiful maiden, blind in one eye, who at that time dwelled among the people and not in the sky. After the Moon is drowned and buried by the jealous Yellow-Corn-Maiden sisters, a heartbroken Nah-chu-r´u-chu dispatches different animals to find his missing wife. It is Turkey-buzzard who spies a mound, covered with all the different flowers in the world, in the middle of a cottonwood forest, and through a single tiny white flower Nah-chu-r´u-chu resurrects the Moon, who punishes the Yellow-Corn-Maidens by turning them into snakes.
A poetic take on why the Moon has one eye is covered in a parable known throughout various Pueblo cultures. The Trues, the unseen spirits behind creation, made the Sun, the father, and the Moon, the mother, who were to keep watch over the world, The problem was both the Sun and the Moon, with four luminous eyes between them, kept the world aglow in light, and without dark the people did not know when to rest, the birds flew non-stop, the flowers stayed open day and night. The Trues decided to put out one of the Sun’s eyes, but the Moon offered her eye in place of her husband’s, and with partial blindness came the respite of night. And, as the tale concludes, “But she who first had the love of children, and paid for them with pain as mother’s pay, she did not grow ugly by her sacrifice. Nay, she is lovelier than ever… For the Trues are good to her, and gave her in the place of the bloom of girlhood the beauty that is only in the faces of mothers.”
Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered
When it comes to supernatural terror, the reigning queen in Hispanic folklore is La Llorona. Her ambiguous origins might go back to 16th century Mexico City, or could be the offshoot of Die Weisse Frau, or “the White Lady,” an old German legend about a peasant girl who falls in love with and is abandoned by a young aristocrat, murders her bastard children, goes insane and dies a violent death, only to return as a malignant specter. Traditionally, there are three incarnations of La Llorona that appear in Hispanic tales—the siren, the grieving woman, and the woman who poses a threat to children—with her signature weeping or wailing providing the eerie soundtrack to this “living” horror movie. Back in the day, parents in Hispanic families employed the “phantom threat” of La Llorona to keep their children from playing in the arroyos and acequias, two of her favorite haunts.
El Santuario de Chimayo (the Sanctuary of Chimayo), renowned for its healing “holy dirt,” is also the home to a miraculously light traveler: El Santo Niño de Atocha (The Holy Child of Atocha). He is also called Santo Niño Perdido (The Lost Holy Child) because, as the story goes, he departs the church at night and travels the countryside to perform miracles. In aiding and abetting the intrepid miracle-worker, villagers and visitors leave baby shoes at the feet of El Niño, to replace his “worn-out” shoes.
The Best Medicine
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during a prolific period of space exploration by the Russians and the Americans, the Newekwe clowns of the Zuni pueblo incorporated “space burlesque” into their performance. Barbara Tedlock states in her essay, “Boundaries of Belief” that the clowns’ goal was “to startle and even shock the audience in order to get a response, perhaps a sudden laugh, or at least a gasp of disapproval. In doing so they ‘get to the people,’ they ‘open them,’ and release them from internal idle thoughts or worries… The space program was a source of general (and one might say visceral) worry at Zuni, and so… for more than ten years the clowns trivialized, folklorized, and negated both its religious threat and its scientific seriousness.” Clowns function as powerful medicine men and shamans in many Native American cultures, as ritual healing takes place beneath the mirth and inspired madness. If Voltaire was right when he said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh,” then clowns might be regarded as masked angels dispensing the best, and most necessary medicine.
A four-legged Harlequin that figures prominently in Native American legends and lore is Coyote, whose exploits were once explained by a Navajo storyteller, Yellowman, to author, Barre Toelken: “Why does Coyote do all those things, foolish on one occasion, good on another, terrible on another? ‘If he did not do all those things, then those things would not be possible in the world.’ Yellowman thus sees Coyote less as a Trickster per se and more as an enabler whose actions, good or bad, bring certain actions and ideas into the field of possibility, a model who symbolizes abstractions in terms of real entities.”
Then there are tales stretched to cartoonish heights, yarns spun with freewheeling flair. The tall tale, or “windy,” provided the hot air that gave rise to many Wild West folk icons, such as Pecos Bill, Little Joe the Wrangler, and Billy the Kid. Gathering round the campfire to swap stories was an integral part of life on the range. In Jack Thorp’s 1926 collection, Tales of the Chuck Wagon, he wrote: “It had been an old established custom…that the men working on the round-up should meet on the first night at the chuck-wagon – i.e., the grub-wagon. Every man there was obliged either to tell a story, sing a song, or do a dance. Anyone refusing was sure to get a dose of the leggings, a punishment administered by the other punchers, several of whom would grab the offender and stretch him, toes and face down, across the wagon-tongue, while another puncher applied the leather leggings or chaps. Such treatment, you can be sure, usually elicited a response in the form of song, story, or dance.”
To be continued
There are no real endings to stories, so long as new generations of storytellers, from all walks of life, lend their voices to what is a mythically rich and historically broad love letter. We, as humans, are engaged in a never-ending courtship with the Great Mystery, a dance that time and again sparks the invitation: Let me tell you a story….
John Biscello is the author of the award-winning novel Broken Land, A Brooklyn Tale, and a collection of stories, Freeze Tag. His new novel Raking the Dust (Zharmae Press) is primarily set in Taos, where he has lived for the past 13 years.