(Part III explored the idea that using language in any way is an act, and so barbed or deadly language may threaten or damage the physical or psychological wellbeing of its intended victim as effectively as physical acts do. Language invested with the task of wielding control must be carefully focused. In cultures where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemomenon, certain sets of words, followed by unaccountable misfortune, mark an attack. In cultures where witchcraft is not acknowledged, the witch uses perceptive language to find and manipulate the psychological “Achilles’ heel” of his or her victim. An important feature of such language is that it strives to convince its victim that the witch’s proposed course of action is “the only way,” thus sealing off avenues of escape.)
As the language of witchcraft weaves to close corridors of escape, sacred language, including holy words, the language of healing ceremonies, tales of resolution and recovery, and words of comfort and wisdom, labor to unravel the trap and deliver the sufferer. The natural remedy for captivating language is language that creates alternatives outside of the choices established–language that opens up possibilities. But if you are a sparrow, finding such language is difficult. You need the help of a god, a shaman, a priest, a hero, or some other person with “strong blood”–the power to reveal “ways out” you might not imagine or choose for yourself.
An Apache tale recounting the origin of healing ceremonies is one of many that demonstrates how help for sufferers comes from outside (Erdoes 1984:38). Two men become sick but their people can’t help them because no one has ever become ill and no curing knowledge exists. The One Who Made The Earth intercedes, telling one sufferer, “Everything on earth has power to cause its own kind of sickness, make its own trouble. There is a way to cure all these things.” Then come the story’s point: “Now this man understood that knowledge was available.” Four men facing in the sacred directions start chanting. The story tells, “They did not conceive this pattern in their own minds “¦ It was as if the knowledge of what they could chant or sing had suddenly been transmitted to them from outside.”
Whether holy ways or ways out are revealed to a people by gods or by someone with wisdom and prophetic insight, or whether they’re uncovered by a hero who through strength or resourcefulness frees his people from a monster’s tyrrany, freedom and wholeness must be begotten upon the consciousness of entrapped people by someone who knows something and is himself fertile with possibilities. The reservoir of stories recounting what heroes do in archetypal events forms an encyclopedia of ways out. Adding to such a collection and then passing it on helps provide for the health and safety of the culture that inherits it.
As a witch must have an actual subject to speak against and ensnare with words, so also must an unwitcher, shaman, priest, or sacred storyteller have a genuine need that he strives to fulfill with language. Simply having tales, chants, and rituals at hand is not enough, since disembodied from relevant circumstances they are merely generalities without referents.
Barre Toelken notes the marked difference in the way the Navajo storyteller Yellowman spoke his Coyote tales to a tape recorder and the way he performed them for his children (Toelken 1969:221). Toelken says it became clear to him ” . . . that Yellowman sees the Coyote stories not as narratives (in our sense of the term) but as dramatic presentations performed within certain cultural contexts for moral and philosophical reasons” (Toelken:244). Furthermore, Yellowman casts light on the storyteller’s belief in what the need for such stories might be. When Yellowman stressed the sacred nature of Coyote, Toelken asked why, if Coyote is such an important mythic character, does Yellowman tell such funny stories about him?
Yellowman’s answer: “They are not funny stories.” Why does Everyone laugh, then? “They are laughing at the way Ma’i does things, and at the way the story is told. Many things about the story are funny, but the story is not funny.” Why tell the stories? “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”
For Yellowman, the Coyote stories are a rainbow of possibilities that he spreads before the eyes of his friends and family members. One implication of such belief is that if Yellowman or someone else did not lay these options out, people might not discover them and the likelihood of their being caught is magnified. Another implication is that if storytellers withheld their stories as a season sometimes withholds rain, they would be responsible in part for the resulting drought of spirit and spirituality.