Ge Mythology

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GE MYTHOLOGY . Before Brazilian expansion diminished their territories, the widely scattered, generally independent and isolated groups that speak languages of the Ge family occupied a large expanse of the Brazilian interior, from approximately 2° to 28° south latitude, and from 42° to 58° west longitude. They are usually grouped into three branches on the basis of linguistic similarities: the northern Ge (the Kayapó, Suyá, Apinagé, and the various Timbirá groups in the Brazilian states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Goiás, and Maranhão), the central Ge (the Xavante and Xerente, in the states of Mato Grosso and Goiás), and the southern Ge (the Kaingán and Xokleng, in the states of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul).

In addition to their language affiliation, the Ge-speaking groups share a tendency to occupy savanna or upland regions away from rivers, to live in relatively large semipermanent villages, and to subsist on extensive hunting and collecting and some degree of horticulture. Compared with other lowland groups in South America, the Ge have a fairly simple material culture and very complex forms of social organization involving moieties, clans, and name-based groups. Their rites of passage are long and elaborate. Several non-Ge-speaking groups on the Brazilian central plateau also have some of these traits. Among the most important of these are the Boróro and Karajá.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has convincingly demonstrated that similarities among the myths of the Americas do exist. Ge mythology is, however, significantly different in content and emphasis from that of other large language families in lowland South America (the Tupi, Arawak, Carib, and Tucanoan). The complexity of Ge and Boróro social organization, the elaborateness of their rites of passage, and the apparently secular nature of many of their narratives have challenged scholars to explain the importance of their myths. Lévi-Strauss uses Ge and Boróro myths as a point of departure in his four-volume Mythologiques (19641971; translated as Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 19691981), and some of his most careful critics have used those myths to discuss his work or to investigate the sociological context of myths in general. Ge mythology thus occupies an important place in the study of South American mythology both because of the challenges the narratives themselves present and because of the ways a number of distinguished scholars have confronted them.

Narrative Styles

Most anthropologists who write about lowland South American mythology use the word myth to refer to any narrative, be it cosmogonic, historical, or apparently anecdotal, because genre distinctions are difficult to establish for cosmologies that have no deities. The Ge have many different styles of oratory, formal speech, and song; the narration of myths constitutes only a small part of this repertoire. The word myth covers a number of distinct narrative styles, which vary from the relatively fixed chanted texts of some Xokleng myths to fairly flexible narrative forms that closely resemble the European folktale in style and content. The definitions of genre differ from group to group. Among the Xavante, story, history, and dreams are apparently equated; other groups separate events of the distant past from those of the more recent past and again from the experience of dreams.

With the exception of some ritualized performances among the southern Ge, myths are neither secret nor restricted as to the time or place they may be told. They are often recounted at night, by men or women, to children or adults, and mix adventure, humor, ethics, and cosmogony in a way that delights the audience regardless of its age. The narrator imitates sounds and the voices of the characters with considerable musicality, and his or her gestures often add dramatic impact. Many myths have parts that are sung. Questions are often interjected by the audience, and in response the narrator may expand upon some point or another.

Ge myths published in collections are almost exclusively in the third person, but in performance they are not restricted to that format. Performance style varies greatly, which reflects the difference between an oral narrative and a written text. Many performances are almost entirely in dialogue form with a minimum of narrative explanation; the context is largely implicit, and the narrator presumes the audience has previous knowledge of the story. Members of the society have heard the stories from birth, and any given performance is an ephemeral event and so not preserved.

Content and Setting

Compared with the mythology of the other major language groups in Brazil, Ge mythology exhibits in its subject matter little elaboration of the spirit world, an absence of genealogical myths about ancestors, and little cosmological complexity. Here Ge cosmology must be distinguished from Ge mythology. Ethnographies of the Ge societies report beliefs in several types of spirits, in an afterlife in a village of the dead, and in shamans who travel to the sky. Ge mythology, however, rarely describes either these beliefs or their origins.

One of the difficulties scholars have had in interpreting Ge myths is their apparent unrelatedness to other aspects of society, including the elaborate Ge ceremonial life. Some South American societies explain the present by referring to the way the ancestors behaved; but among Ge speakers myths rarely make direct reference to the present in their description of events that involve ethical dilemmas and social processes central to the society. No detailed native exegesis of the stories has been reported; the Ge rarely use a myth to interpret anything other than the narrative itself.

Ge mythology generally focuses on the relationships between the social world of human beings and the natural domain of the animal and the monstrous. The main actors are humans, animals, and beings that are both human and animal. The setting is usually the village and surrounding jungle, although some myths relate a visit to the sky or to a level below the surface of the earth. Because the subject of the myths is the tension between correct social behavior and incorrect or animal-like behavior, rather than the establishment of a given character as a deity or ancestor, the actors of one myth very rarely appear in another. Recurrent features are not individuals but rather relationships (brothers-in-law, siblings, parents and children, formal friends), settings (the villages or the forest), and animals (deer, jaguars, tapirs, wild pigs). All these appear regularly in the myths. An exception to this singularity of character is a series of stories about Sun and Moon found among the northern and central Ge.

Transformation Myths

The central event in a Ge myth is usually a transformation, involving, for example, the change of a continuity into discontinuity, as in the origin of night and death; or the acquisition of an object that transforms society, such as fire, garden crops, and ceremonies that humans are said to have obtained from animals.

The origin of fire

A good example of a transformation myth is that of the origin of fire, versions of which have been collected from most Ge communities. Lévi-Strauss (1969) and Turner (1980) have analyzed it extensively. The following version was recorded among the Suyá; for the complete version, see Wilbert (1984).

A long time ago the Suyá ate meat warmed in the sun because they had no fire. One day a man takes his young brother-in-law into the forest to look for fledgling macaws to take back to the village, where they will be raised for their feathers. The two walk a long way. The man sets a pole against a rock ledge, and the boy climbs up to look at a nest. When the man asks the boy what the young birds in the nest look like (i.e., whether they have enough feathers to survive in the village), the boy shouts down, "They look like your wife's pubic hair." (This insulting response is a very funny moment for Suyá audiences, who always laugh heartily and repeat the question and response several times for effect. The exact incident that results in the boy's being left in the nest varies among the different Ge groups.) Angered, the man throws aside the pole and leaves the boy up in the nest, where he grows very thin and is gradually covered with bird excrement. After some time a jaguar comes walking by. Seeing the boy's shadow, the animal pounces on it several times, then looks up and sees the boy. The boy tells the jaguar of his difficulty, and the jaguar asks him to throw down the fledglings. The boy does so, and the jaguar gobbles them up. Then it puts the pole against the cliff and tells the boy to descend. Although terrified, the boy finally climbs down and goes with the jaguar to its house. When they arrive, the boy sees a fire for the first time. It is burning on a single huge log. The jaguar gives the boy roasted meat to eat. A threatening female jaguar arrives. (The degree of threat varies among the different Ge groups.) The jaguar gives the boy more meat and shows him the way home. When he arrives at the village, he tells the men that the jaguar has fire. They decide to take it from the jaguar. Taking the form of different animal species, the men go to the jaguars' camp where they find the jaguars asleep. They place hot beeswax on the eyes and paws of the jaguars, which then run screaming into the jungle. The men-animals pick up the fire log and run with it back to the village, in the style of a burity-palm log relay race. First a rhea carries the fire log, then a deer, then a wild pig, then a tapir. The frog wants to carry the log and in spite of objections is allowed to do so. The log is so hot the frog runs with it to the water and drops it in. The fire goes out. "The fire is dead!" everyone shouts in consternation. Then the toucan, the curassow, and other birds run up, their head and neck feathers bright red because they have been swallowing the live coals that have fallen from the log. They vomit the coals onto the ashes, and the fire starts up again. The tapir picks up the log again and runs with it all the way to the village. When they arrive, the men return to human form and divide the fire among all the houses. Ever since then the Suyá have eaten roasted meat.

The origin of the Savanna Deer ceremony

The myth of the man who is turned into a savanna deer by a jealous rival, representative of another type of transformation story, is cited as the origin myth of a ceremony still performed today by the Suyá; for the complete version, see Wilbert (1984).

Once, before the Suyá had learned the Savanna Deer ceremony, they were painting and preparing for a Mouse ceremony. In this ceremony the adult men take a few young women for collective sexual relations. While some of the men leap, dance, and sing, others choose the women who will take part in this activity, and take them to the men's ceremonial camp. One man is very possessive about his young wife. To prevent her from being taken as a sex partner for the ceremony, he sings standing next to her in the house. He does not leave her to sing in the men's house. Another man wants to have sexual relations with the woman and is angered by the husband's attentiveness. The angry man is a witch who can transform people or kill them. He decides to transform the woman's husband. The husband begins to sweat as he dances. His dance cape sticks to his head and will not come off. He tries to pull it off, but it has grown on and has begun to stick to his neck and back as well. "Hey!" he shouts, "I am being transformed into something bad!" He leaves his wife and goes to the men's house, where he sings all night along with the other caped singers. The next morning the singers' sisters strip them of their capes, and so the men stop dancing and singing, but the husband keeps on (he cannot stop, for his cape will not come off). The men shout at him to stop singing. He keeps dancing and singing. Suddenly he rushes off into the forest, still singing. Later his relatives go off to find him, and after several days they find him near a lake, his body bent over. The rattles tied to his legs have begun to turn into hooves. Antlers fan out above his head. He is singing. (Here the narrator usually sings the song the man-deer is supposed to have been singing.) The men who find him listen to his song. One man tells the others, "Listen and learn our companion's song," and they sit and listen. (Here the narrator usually sings the rest of the man-deer's song.) Then the husband becomes a forest deer. He still lives there at the lake. People have seen him there recently. Today the Suyá sing his songs in the Savanna Deer ceremony.

The Analysis of Ge Mythology

Early collections of Ge myths were usually appended to ethnographic accounts of the societies, with little commentary. With the appearance of Lévi-Strauss's Mythologiques, however, scholarly interest in Ge mythology increased dramatically. These four volumes have engendered tremendous controversy, but they nonetheless provide an entirely new perspective on the mythology and cosmology of the Americas.

Lévi-Strauss argues that certain empirical categories, such as raw and cooked, fresh and decayed, and noisy and silent, are conceptual tools that the native populations of the Americas use to elaborate abstract ideas and to combine these ideas in the form of propositions. Amerindian mythology is thus a kind of philosophical speculation about the universe and its processes, but one that uses principles quite foreign to Western philosophy. These propositions are best discovered through an analysis that treats myths as elements of a nearly infinite body of partial statements, rather than through an analysis that isolates individual narratives. According to Lévi-Strauss, myths should be interpreted only through other myths, to establish similarities or differences. He further argues that the myths of one society can be interpreted through the myths of surrounding societies, or even through those of distant societies on the same or another continent.

Lévi-Strauss's work must be evaluated in two distinct ways. First, one must consider his comparative method. While the debate on structural analysis in anthropology and literature is extensive, much of the criticism of Mythologiques has centered on Lévi-Strauss's removal of myths from the contexts of the societies in which they are told, and on his preferring instead to compare them with the myths of very different societies. Lévi-Strauss (1981), writing in defense of his method of analyzing the native cosmologies of the Americas as a whole (rather than what he claims are individual manifestations, i.e., the myths of a particular society), defines his objective as being that of attempting to understand the workings of the human mind in general.

Second, one must consider whether those categories that Lévi-Strauss highlights as central to cosmologies across the Americas actually are important to specific societies. There is general agreement that they are, and some of the categories delineated by Lévi-Strauss have even proved to be keys to the analyses of the cosmologies of groups about which Lévi-Strauss had no information whatsoever. There is no doubt that the study of South American societies has been revolutionized by Lévi-Strauss's analyses of myth.

Although Lévi-Strauss's work is highly suggestive, his analyses do not answer the questions social anthropologists usually pose about myths: Why is it that a given people tells a given story and how does the mythology relate to other aspects of the society? Few anthropologists are satisfied with analyses that treat myth, religion, and cosmology as isolated phenomena. An alternative tradition of interpreting Ge myths derives from the founders of sociological and anthropological theory: Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and their followers. A number of important works have examined the relationship between Ge myths and other features of Ge-speaking societies. These authors often use some version of a structural method derived from Lévi-Strauss, but they employ it to quite different ends. They either analyze a myth of a single Ge society or compare a myth found in different groups to show how variations in the myth are paralleled by variations in specific features of the social organization. In this way they support the argument that myths and social processes are related in particular ways.

The most systematic and challenging of these alternative analyses is the work of the American anthropologist Terence Turner (1977, 1980), who combines his reanalysis of a Kayapó myth of the origin of fire with an extensive critique of Lévi-Straussian structuralism. Turner shows that every event, object, and relationship in the fire myth has particular relevance to specific features of Kayapó social organization, social processes, and cosmology. He argues that, for the Kayapó, the telling of myths plays an important part in their understanding of their lives.

Other analysts have related myth to general ethical propositions (Lukesch, 1976), to issues of domestic authority (DaMatta, 1973), to messianic movements, and to the ways in which the Ge societies have confronted conflict and contact with Brazilian society. All these analyses take into account the social, political, and ethical contexts of which Ge myths are always a part, and they have considerably advanced the understanding of the role of myths in tribal societies.

The two very different traditions of scholarship this article has describedthe study of myths as logical propositions using categories found throughout the Americas and the study of myths within their specific social contexthave stimulated the study of Ge narrative itself and have also resulted in the increasingly careful collection and greater availability of adequate texts. With improved recording technology, greater interest in the performative aspects of verbal art, and the contributions of missionaries who are themselves specialists in textual exegesis, there has been a vast improvement in the accuracy of published narratives. While early collections of myths were usually narrative summaries derived from dictation in Portuguese, more recent works have included exact transcriptions of longer Portuguese versions, careful transcriptions of recordings made in the native languages, collections recorded and translated by the Indians themselves, and bilingual publications designed for use as primers by the groups who tell the myths. These improved collections will allow specialists and nonspecialists alike to better understand the myths and evaluate analyses of them.


The outstanding English source for Ge myths is Johannes Wilbert's Folk Literature of the Gê Indians, 2 vols. (Los Angeles, 1979, 1984). In addition to assembling and translating the major published collections, Wilbert has indexed the 362 narratives using the Stith Thompson folk-literature motif index, which may aid comparative work. Texts collected and translated by Indians at a Salesian mission appear in Bartolomeu Giaccaria and Adalberto Heide's Jeronomo Xavante conta mitos e lendas and Jeronomo Xavante sonha contos e sonhos (both, Campo Grande, Brazil, 1975). Anton Lukesch presents an analysis of the major propositions of Kayapó mythology in Mythos und Leben der Kayapo (Vienna, 1968), translated as Mito e vida dos índios Caiapós (São Paulo, 1976). For ethnographic background on the Ge, see Curt Nimuendajú's The Eastern Timbira (Berkeley, Calif., 1946) and David Maybury-Lewis's edited volume Dialectical Societies: The Gê and Bororo of Central Brazil (Cambridge, Mass., 1979). Nimuendajú gives a detailed description of a single society, and Maybury-Lewis provides a good background on the sociological issues among the northern and central Ge. Claude Lévi-Strauss's four volumes on Amerindian mythology, published originally in French (Paris, 19641971), have been translated into English as The Raw and the Cooked (1969), From Honey to Ashes (1973), The Origin of Table Manners (1978), and The Naked Man (1981). My own Nature and Society in Central Brazil: The Suya Indians of Mato Grosso (Cambridge, Mass., 1981) demonstrates that many of the ideas and categories Lévi-Strauss discovered through the analysis of Ge mythology are indeed to be found in other aspects of the cosmology, social organization, and values of the Suyá, one of the northern Ge groups. For a critique of Lévi-Straussian structuralism and a reanalysis of one of the Ge myths, see Terence S. Turner's "Narrative Structure and Mythopoesis: A Critique and Reformulation of Structuralist Concepts of Myth, Narrative and Poetics," Arethusa 10 (Spring 1977): 103163; and "Le dénicheur d'oiseaux en contexte," Anthropologie et sociétés 4 (1980): 85115. Roberto DaMatta's "Mito e autoridade domestica," in his Ensaios de antropologia estrutural (Petrópolis, Brazil, 1973), is an excellent example of how the analysis of a single myth common to two societies can reveal differences in their social organization.

Anthony Seeger (1987)