Monday, November 19, 2007

Leisure in Action: Work as Play! The Yeguanas


"Several more contributions to an alternative point of view on the subject of work penetrated past the intervening layers of my prejudice ...

... One was the apparent absence of a word for 'work' in the Yequana vocabulary."

In her book "The Continuum Concept" Jean Liedloff describes her experience of living with Stone Age Indians in the South American jungle for two and a half years. (Most of her time was spent with the Yequana.) She found these people to be the happiest she had seen anywhere. What stuck most in my mind on reading this incredible book was the Indians' attitude towards "work," or rather their experience of all activity as play; they made no distinction between work and play ...

"There appeared to be no Yequana concept of work similar to ours. There were words for each activity that might have been included, but no generic term."

Jean initially visits the jungle with two young Italian explorers on a diamond hunting expedition. Soon after her arrival she is presented with a powerful example of the Indians' radically different approach to life ...

"Some small illuminations did get through to my civilization-blinded mind: for example, some concerning the concept of work. We had traded our slightly too small aluminum canoe for a much too big dugout. In this vessel, carved from a single tree, seventeen Indians at one time travelled with us. With all their baggage added to ours and everyone aboard, the vast canoe still looked rather empty. Portaging it, this time with only four or five Indians to help, over half a mile of boulders beside a large waterfall, was depressing to contemplate. It meant placing logs across the path of the canoe, and hauling it, inch by inch in the merciless sun, slipping inevitably into the crevices between the boulders whenever the canoe pivoted out of control, and scraping one's shins, ankles and whatever else one landed on, against the granite. We had done the portage before with the small canoe and the two Italians and I, knowing what lay ahead, spent several days anticipating the hard work and pain. On the day we arrived at Arepuchi Falls we were primed to suffer and started off, grim-faced and hating every moment, to drag the thing over the rocks.

When it swung sideways, so heavy was the rogue pirogue, it several times pinned one of us to the burning rock until the others could move it off. A quarter of the way across all ankles were bleeding. Partly by way of begging off for a minute, I jumped up on a high rock to photograph the scene. From my vantage point and momentary disinvolvement, I noticed a most interesting fact. Here before me were several men engaged in a single task. Two, the Italians, were tense, frowning, losing their tempers at everything, and cursing non-stop in the distinctive manner of the Tuscan. The rest, Indians, were having a fine time. They were laughing at the unwieldiness of the canoe, making a game of the battle, relaxed between pushes, laughing at their own scrapes and especially amused when the canoe, as it wobbled forward, pinned one, then another, underneath it. The fellow held bare-backed against the scorching granite, when he could breathe again, invariably laughed the loudest.

All were doing the same work, all were experiencing strain and pain. There was no difference in our situations except that we had been conditioned by our culture to believe that such a combination of circumstances constituted an unquestionable low on the scale of well-being, and were quite unaware we had any option in the matter.

The Indians, on the other hand, equally unconscious of making a choice, were in a particularly merry state of mind, enjoying the camaraderie; and of course they had had no long build-up of dread to mar the preceding days. Each forward move was for them a little victory, enjoyed to the full."

Not only was I struck by the Yequana's playful attitude to all activity, but also by their complete freedom from the moral judgment, resentment and guilt that is so often, and so unecessarily, attached to such concepts as "working hard" or "being lazy" in western "civilised" society ...

"Another hint about human nature and work came later.

Two Indian families lived in a hut overlooking a magnificent white beach, a lagoon in a wide crescent of rocks, the Caroni and Arepuchi Falls beyond. One paterfamilias was called Pepe, the other, Cesar. It was Pepe who told the story.

It seems that Cesar had been 'adopted' by Venezuelans when very young and had gone to live with them in a small town. He was sent to school, learned to read and write and was reared as a Venezuelan. When he was grown, he came, like many of the men of those Guianese towns, to the Upper Caroni to try his luck at diamond hunting. He was working with a group of Venezuelans when he was recognized by Mundo, chief of the Tauripans at Guayparu.

'Were you not taken to live with Jose Grande?' Mundo asked.

'I was brought up by Jose Grande,' said Cesar, according to the story.

'Then you have come back to your own people. You are a Tauripan,' said Mundo.

Whereupon Cesar, after a great deal of thought, decided that he would be better off living as an Indian than as a Venezuelan and came to Arepuchi where Pepe lived.

For five years Cesar lived with Pepe's family, marrying a pretty Tauripan woman and becoming the father of a little girl. As Cesar did not like to work, he and his wife and daughter ate the food grown in Pepe's plantation. Cesar was delighted to find that Pepe did not expect him to clear a garden of his own or even help with the work in his. Pepe enjoyed working and since Cesar did not, the arrangement suited everyone.

Cesar's wife liked joining the other women and girls in cutting and preparing the cassava to eat, but all Cesar liked was hunting tapir and occasionally other game. After a couple of years he developed a taste for fishing and added his catches to those of Pepe and his two sons, who always liked to fish and who had supplied his family as generously as their own.

Just before we arrived, Cesar decided to clear a garden of his own, and Pepe had helped with every detail, from choosing the site to felling and burning the trees. Pepe enjoyed it all the more because he and his friend talked and joked the whole time.

Cesar, after five years' assurance, felt that no one was pushing him into the project and was as free to enjoy working as Pepe, or any other Indian.

Everyone at Arepuchi was glad, Pepe told us, because Cesar had been growing discontented and irritable. 'He wanted to make a garden of his own,' Pepe laughed, 'but he didn't know it himself!' Pepe thought it hilarious that anyone should not know that he wanted to work."

We have focussed here on the Indians' approach to 'work.' In 'The Continuum Concept' Jean goes on to explore their attitudes to all areas of life, particularly child-rearing and looks at why they are so much happier and at ease with themselves than the average 'civilised' person. Her revelations are profound and their implications far-reaching. Everyone should read this book.

All extracts taken from The Continuum Concept, written by Jean Liedloff in 1975.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Pagan Mari Sacrificial Prayer from the 19th Century


This prayer song, performed in a sacrificial festival of the Cheremiss people (indigenously called the Mari) was preserved by the scientist, A. Genetz, in the Krasnoufimsk kray of the Perm oblast. Here the prayer is presented in the form it was published in the legendary work "The Cheremiss Religion" by Uno Holmberg (Harva) in 1914. The surviving wording of the prayer represents an altered tradition contaminated by the Greek Orthodox church and the Islam practiced by the neighboring Tatars and Chuvasses. This may have affected the characterization of the concept of god, and certain words could be borrowed.
Although the written text shows various cultural layers, the most ancient and most essential core is clearly present. The traditional (earth) religion of the Volga Finns is part of the living religious tradition of the European pagan agricultural population, and its social and ethnic function has not essentially changed from the times when the European peoples began to till soil and cultivate plants, although new elements and overtones have been added along the millennia. For example, the central position of festival beer is a very original trait.
This prayer has been performed on an occasion when the village community has gathered to a sacred site to perform a regular sacrificial rite. The sacrificial priest reads aloud or sings the prayer while the others listen seriously. The prayer enlists all the sources of livelihood essential to the village community, asking blessing for them, remembers the relatives enlisted in the imperial service (war) and implores the Cheremiss gods to protect the rulers of the country, especially the Czar. It is odd that they should have mentioned bleeding among the dangers threatening the ruler--it is unlikely that the people living on the shores of the Volga have had any information about the affliction of the Czarevich [son of the emperor suffering from hemophilia; but was Alexei Nikolayevich even born when this prayer was chanted? Perhaps a form of prophecy?] Other sequences listing various dangers do not mention bleeding in particular.
Mentioning the ruler within the prayer may have been inherited from the period when the Volga Finns had countries of their own. During the wars waged by Ivan the Terrible against the Kazan khanate the independent duchies of the Mari and the Mordvins were destroyed, but rural life continued as usual, with a pagan religion, still for centuries to come.
The prayer is addressed to the godhead of fire who forwarded the messages on to greater godheads. An interesting feature: the priest wishes that "the two worlds" remain in harmony and aid his community. A. Genetz has paid special attention to the denomination used of the "circle" responsible for the sacrificial festival, certain houses or villages: MIR. In Russian it is a common word for a village community with a wider meaning of e. g. world, now also world peace etc. [Before the 1922 orthography reformation, the two mir's were separated by writing 'world' with 'i s tochkoy', looking like the Latin i, while 'peace' was written with the regular 'i' resembling an N upside down, derived from the Greek eta.] Finnish has assimilated the word through Karelia in the form 'miero.' When someone was 'mieron tiellä' [on the road of/to miero,] he was dependent upon the welfare food given away by the community. The word 'miero' was used among others during the starvation mutiny of the Käkisalmi county in the name of a mutiny meeting: "Musta miero" [Black Miero.] Probably the word mir/miero is precisely the original denomination of the habitations belonging to the same sacrificial circle, just like "pogosta" (bog = god.) Anyway, the text of this prayer offers a rare view of the pre-Christian culture of the Finno-Ugrians and the Europeans. Most notably: the pagan tradition of the Volga Finns has continued without interruption from the introduction of agriculture in Europe until the modern times, and still continues. [Wherever one personality is addressed, forms of the word 'thou' have been used, in the case of several, the word is 'you' and its forms. The difference is not always quite clear.]

A Cheremiss Sacrificial Prayer:

Dear, great god, dear god of providence, dear god of thunder, dear god ruling over children, great divine force (?), dear god of the sacrificial mir [vide supra], dear mother of god, dear providence, dear prophet, dear protection angels, dear spirit of home and hearth, dear angel of the day of rest, dear mother earth, dear mother sun, dear mothers moon and wind, dear old man and woman frost, dear mother water, dear familial prosperity, grant the family a long life; dear birth-giver of cattle, ruler of cattle, dear birth-giver of grain, ruler of grain, warehouse of grain, key to the warehouse of grain, open thy warehouse of grain; dear birth-giver of grain, ruler of grain, grain prosperity, grain chief, open the warehouse of grain, key to the warehouse of grain, open thy warehouse of grain; Birth-giver of bees, ruler of bees, bee prosperity, bee chief, bee warehouse, key to the warehouse of bees, open thy warehouse of bees; warehouse of triple money, key to the treasury, open thy treasury!

Dear, great god, god of thunder, ruler of children, divine force (?), god of the Mir, mother of god, providence, prophet and dear protection angels, be merciful and receive with joy from this large sacrificial table the abundant steam of my feast which I have prepared and put forth with loaves of uncut bread, fragrances rising up from a large frying pan and with abundant beer mixed with mead! After you arrive to the fragrant smoke and settle down, do leave us pure like the flame of fire, light and unpolluted like smoke; surrounding us with fire and smoke, banish evil where smoke does not reach! Thus do we say, pray and beseech, amen be merciful to us, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you!

With the first uncut loaves of bread do we pray for your blessing, dear gods; follow the clinking sound of iron and settle down here, grant us the hardness of steel, the purity of iron and beating with your steel knives and axes, banish and drive away evil where the sound of iron does not reach, to the shores of night which the running water of the stream does not reach, where salt and bread are not eaten! For that do we beseech and pray, for such blessing do we ask, dear gods, dear angels, amen; unanimously be merciful to us, dear gods!

Dear gods, dear angels! Wherever we may walk, allow us to roam safely, wherever we may sit, allow us to be happy and to roam safe from pestilence, diseases and spells, do protect us from knives and axes hanging from belts, from fires and witches and warlocks, you, dear gods yourselves; do not allow our minds to err, our feet to stumble. There must be those who wish to damage whatever is found in our habitations, there must be those who wish evil to the triple family of the house: do not leave it in the hands of evil but banish the ill-willed; protect the triple cattle wealth living in the corral; probably there are also those who plan destruction for our triple grain; do banish the evil of mind; should anyone envy our bee wealth, drive the envier away from us, should anyone envy our triple wealth of money, banish him as well, so that we might live and prosper in the habitations built with our own hands with our triple families, with our triple cattle living in the courtyard, with our warehouses of triple grain, with our treasures of bees and money! For that do we beseech and pray, dear gods, for your blessing do we ask, amen; have mercy upon us! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you, dear gods!

Grant us brightness of the sun, fullness of the moon, fertility of the earth, purity of water, mildness of temperature for us to live, rising like the morning star, jumping like the flea, gathering steadily like the beaver, moving gracefully like the otter, chirping like the swallow, waving like the hop, hanging like the pea-stalk, blossoming like the flower, soft like wax, durable like silk; grant us high age, long years and long days! For this do we beseech and pray, dear gods, amen; have mercy upon us! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you.

Let two complete strangers unite, let them go to bed as two, let them rise as three, let them bear seven daughters, nine sons; let their seven daughters find a new homeland beyond the stream, and their nine sons a bride beyond nine streams, may the names of the daughters be known in the country, may the fame of the sons spread up till the emperor! Let two complete strangers unite again, let the offspring of these strangers be numerous like cuckoos; and so that they may live conversing familiarly, let them have high age, long years and days! For that do we beseech and pray and ask of you, amen; have mercy upon us, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you.

Wherever the family travels, let it travel safely, wherever it sits, let it be happy; protect it from various diseases, do not let its mind err, its feet stagger; protect personally, dear gods, it from knives and axes hanging from belts, from fires, witches and warlocks! For that do we beseech and pray, amen; have mercy upon us! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you.

Grant them brightness of the sun, fullness of the moon, purity of water, mildness of temperature, so that they might live, rising like the morning star, jumping like the flea, gathering steadily like the beaver, moving gracefully like the otter, chirping like the swallow, waving like the hop, hanging like the pea-stalk, blossoming like the flower, soft like wax, durable like silk; grant them high age, long years and days! For that do we beseech and pray of you, dear gods, amen; have mercy upon us! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you.

When the family has received abundant blessings to its triple cattle which it grasps each morning and evening to fondle it, and, in the springtime, after it has sent the cattle in three groups to the valleys of the field, make the sick healthy, the infertile fertile, to the fertile give offspring in abundance, and at the same time, protect, lead, and take care of them; let the grass that they eat be sweet and the water they drink tasty, let their resting places be soft; protect the creatures against dry and stinging twigs, the claws and teeth of wild predators, swamps and deep riverbeds, protect them from envious looks, evil tongues, witches and warlocks. When autumn sets in and snow falls upon black earth, let a cattle-shed be built beside another, let the cattle be rounded up and enclosed in the corral in one group, the same cattle which in three groups was sent out to the pasture; let us wake up in the middle of the night if a calf lows, a lamb bleats, or a foal neighs; when the cattle is being taken to drink, let one end of the herd be already by the hole made in the ice while the other still moves around by the habitation; grant us wealth of cattle, and multiplication of the herd the way you did to the people of yore. Thus do we say, pray and beseech, amen; unanimously have mercy upon us, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you.

When springtime comes and it is time to bring out the rooster-shaped plow and set its both plowshares in parallel, do grant people intelligence and understanding, set the tools in order, give power to the powerless horse, so that the plowmen, having reached the end of the ditch and stopped and saying "bless!" might plow a deep ditch into the fallow field, and having plowed one, might reach a third ditch, having plowed the third one, reach a fifth, seventh, ninth one, and having plowed the ninth one might reach a thousandth one, and with the thousandth time might turn over like a black cloud. And when the sower, having stacked three kinds of seeds in his load carries them to the field, and saying "bless!" sows a seed, let it become a thousand grains, may the root spread as wide as a plate, the straw grow solid like pearled grain, hard like an egg, smooth like butter, sturdy like fresh bulrushes, the heads strong like silver buttons; fertilize the pistils and let the flowers blossom; with warm thunderstorms, warm lightnings, warm winds and rains let the grain ripen, let it swell like dough; protect it against biting frost, and the damage caused by cold or heat, protect it against sharp wind and hails; from greedy herds of cattle, chewing mice, hungry rats, lusty grasshoppers, gnawing bugs and worms keep and protect it! Allow the owner, after he has inspected every part of the field, return home, rejoice with his next of kin and talk about it while sitting with the family.

When the time is up, let him lift an arched iron upon his shoulders and, having bound up the hems of his garment, in a good and playful mood step to one end of his ditch and, saying "bless!", cut the straw; instead of a straw, let him fold up a bunch, instead of a bunch let him gather a sheaf, and instead of a sheaf, build a whole stack at each angle of the field, thus making the field pleasant like a wood! Should the cattle have dropped something, should something have been strewn from the hands, should something have gotten under the feet and left in the ditch, do gather the grains into the lap of their mother without harming them and send them speedily to the grain stack! That do we beseech and pray of you, amen; have mercy upon us, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you. When the autumn sets in and snow falls upon the black earth and the time approaches to take the sheaves from a threshing house to another and when they are shoved into strong heat and their drying begins, let them dry, protect them from burning fire through the smoke of strong heat, and when threshing begins and when, after threshing, the grain has been winnowed with a grain-filled shovel and the grain is carried into warm wind to be cleansed from chaff and the airing of the grain has been started, grant that the grains will be like the sands of the Belaya [white] river, and when three or four granaries have been shoved full, and when god and providence have been worshiped with the first uncut bread and when the one who has arrived hungry has left sated, the beggar has been given his share and the borrower has been given his part, let us receive during one day three or four times, "let god repay you!" as thanks. Grant us property and agricultural prosperity which you have granted to the people of yore, so that when we scoop, our sieves or baskets will always be full of grain, and when we say "old, old! sour, sour! [leavened?]" we could never finish it by eating or drinking! For that do we pray and beseech, amen; have mercy! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you.

Perhaps thou hast been granted a beehive manufactured by the owner's father, himself, or his forefathers, hollowed inside a tree trunk, which, if set upon the ground, spreads like a woolen carpet: do set the one above and the one below at the same height, do set the damaged right, do make the inner part resplendent like mother-of-pearl, do make the honey-cakes like gold and silver! Perhaps thou hast been granted the bees of the proprietor or thou hast been entrusted with the bees of the community, perhaps their buzzing resounds in bright daylight or accompanies the moonlight, possibly thou hearest it from the cliffs or an island in the sea, perhaps thou hast bees that have come on their own accord; strengthen the wings of the queen bee and lead the swarm like a black cloud over the mountains, set them in every tree-trunk, let them settle therein. Thus we say, pray to you and beseech, amen; have mercy, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall be grateful to you.

The infertile render fertile, grant the fertile offspring in abundance, make the drones industrious, grow flowers useful to them, protect them against sharp winds, thick fog, claws and teeth of predators, save them from evil looks, evil tongues, witches and warlocks and allow them to develop in peace. Let the owner, when he goes to inspect and peeks around, find now ten, now fifteen, until he returns home; let a stranger notice what he has not seen himself and let him know; let him sit with his family and neighbors full of awe and conversing joyfully; let the bees prepare honey resembling dough, and when the time of gathering draws nigh, let the owner leave walking and bring back walking, let him leave by horse and return having loaded the animal with such a load that its back gives way under the weight; whatever he has not been able to bring back home, let him leave there, hung in a tree in the meadow; let him sacrifice the first part to god and providence, whatever is left in the crock let him eat and drink with his family, his closest neighbors, and relatives coming and leaving; grant us infinite multiplication of honey and unending abundance of honey! For that do we pray and beseech, amen, be merciful, dear gods! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you.

When youths gather from everywhere, grant them intelligence and understanding; give their dogs good scent, make their steeds fiery; when they go wandering over woody hills and through valleys, let them find close by what they desired to meet far away, turn towards them the game that had turned its back to them, and shorten their wide tracks! Thou hast bushy-tailed squirrels and hares with plow-shaped legs, thou hast black-tailed weasels and fast-running brown and black foxes, and the grouses and capercaillies of the forest are thine. For the benefit of the high emperor, grant them wisdom and understanding to collect the quarry from the bosom of every fallen tree and with the speed of fire take every shot creature from each tree-trunk! For this we beseech and pray; if you grant it to us, we shall praise you.

Grant each man intelligence and understanding so that, having taken a backpack, preparing for a long journey and entered a dark spruce forest, he might find game near by; direct to him any creature that has turned its back to him, shorten the wide roads! Thou hast long-legged deer and moose that run speedily, thou hast furry bears, red foxes ready that escape quickly, and martens with green necks, and also thou hast beehives not made by human hands, greenish and sturdy. Grant the men wisdom and understanding so that, for the benefit of the high emperor, they might collect every shot creature from the bosom of each fallen tree and claim it for themselves from each tree-trunk! For this do we beseech and pray; have mercy, dear gods, and be unanimous! If you grant this to us, we shall praise you. After leaving the game tracks and entering the riverbank, they will notice that thou hast many gray partridges in the alder grove; thou hast geese and swans prone to be trapped, and also river fish, beavers, polecats and water bulls. Grant them intelligence and understanding for the benefit of the high emperor to attack the game like the foam of water against the current, so that the bodies strike sparks! For that do we beseech and pray, amen; if thou grantest that to us, we shall praise thee for it.

When there is a stock of wares gathered from cattle or grain or game, when it has been bound into groups of ten and polished bright like metal, shimmering like the sky and glimmering like mother-of-pearl, and when it has been brought to the marketplace of the high emperor, let the price of each item be multiplied by three, seven or nine, and let us return with our trunk full of money. Part of it shall be saved, part of it shall be used for necessities, buying garments and underwear, for gloves and footwear, for purchasing salt and food, for paying taxes to the high emperor, and giving to the beggar and whoever wishes to borrow; present us with three kinds of money, infinite like groats! For that do we pray and beseech, amen; unanimously, have mercy upon us, dear gods! If you grant that to us, we shall praise you.

To the high emperor, whose subjects we are, with all his various nations and all his troops, grant long life, many years and days, health, wealth and strength and, wherever he may move, grant him success, wherever he may sit, make him happy; protect him against all kinds of illnesses and pestilence, all mishaps, malicious rumors, knives and axes hanging from belts, and fire; do not allow his understanding to fail or his feet to stagger, so that he may without injury or bleeding act and work; grant him high age and long years of life! For that do we pray and beseech you, amen; have mercy! If you grant us this, we shall praise you.

To the emperor whom we revere grant purity of the sun, fullness of the moon so that he may live and work, rising like the morning star, fertility of the earth, mildness of temperature, purity of water, so that he may live jumping like the flea, gathering like the beaver, crawling like the otter, chirping like the swallow, waving like the hop, hanging like the pea-stalk, blossoming like the flower, soft like wax, durable like silk; may he be granted high age, many years and days, firmness and strength! Thus do we say, pray and beseech, amen; have mercy, dear gods, dear angels! If you grant us this, we shall praise you.

When children of mothers and fathers embark upon a journey to the high emperor to serve him, fathers and mothers send their prayers to god for the high emperor, mother with mother, father with father shed tears for their children who leave to serve their high emperor, then spouses cry together and children likewise for those leaving to serve the high emperor, father and mother pray to god for happiness and luck for their children: "Dear, great god, return him and lead him back home!"

Dear spirit of fire, thy smoke is tall, thy tongue is sharp, pray for us in front of the good gods, let the first bits of sacrifice be ready, take everything with thee and give on to the good gods! Dear spirit of fire, thy smoke is tall, thy tongue is sharp, of the good gods do we pray this day for augmenting the family, we pray for a long, sinless life to the family, three kinds of cattle wealth, three kinds of grain and bee stock, three kinds of money treasure do we beseech; whether the riches you are going to give us are up in the heavens or down on earth, do reign rising like the morning mist, light like the water foam, allowing the two opposite worlds to shine, and impart us infinite happiness unanimously, dear gods! For this blessing do we pray you. Dear spirit of fire, let them consume entirely the butter and milk bread and the great sacrificial beverage, blessing with loving hands and feet the abundance of the sweet fragrance, saying, "bless!" Dear spirit of fire, eat thou the first sacrificial bits together with those in hand, take them with thee and give to them, amen! Unanimously, have mercy, dear gods! Dear spirit of fire, thy smoke is tall and thy tongue is sharp, give thou them, in our name, the blessing of the sweet smoke, carry it on and give it to them! Therefore may blessing follow thee, and may gratitude be thy own part, dear spirit of fire!