Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part V

(In Part IV of this series we looked at how sacred language and stories of resolution and wisdom labor to unravel traps that deadly language weaves to catch its victims. Shamanistic or holy storytellers act as repositories of “ways out,” keeping alive important language that tells what heroes or gods have done over the ages to combat monsters, witches, and other evils. Also, good language reveals or explores what is possible. As such, sacred stories, songs, and prayers help maintain the momentum of human culture and progress. Part V is the final segment of this series.)

Ceremonial language intended to heal a victim of a witch attack or related trouble guides the bewitched carefully along established paths to health and readmission to society. The linguistic dance steps undertaken during such ceremonies are as carefully choreographed as those that the witch used to isolate the victim and move her into position for attack. The simple yet elegant language of the Coyoteway curing ceremony is just such an example of carefully choreographed language. A series of chants made on the eighth and ninth days of the Coyoteway demonstrate how deliberately the shaman leads the bewitched out of captivity and returns her to sanity and to her cultural context. The following interpretation of Coyoteway songs are from Karl Luckert’s Coyoteway, University of Arizona Press. For the purposes of restoration, the patient’s “Mind” moves separately from the “I” of the song, the patient. The remainder of this segment of the chant recreates a context for the song’s “Mind” and the “I,” placing them together on holy paths:

With my Mind I walk in the presence of the Sun,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk,
with my Mind I walk, with my mind I walk.
Beneath the Two Rising, with my Mind I walk.
Where White Coyote Medicine is, with my mind I walk.
Where White Air is, with my Mind I walk.

The remainder of the chant recreates a context for the Mind and the “I” of the song, placing them on sacred paths:

On the Path of yellow Cornpollen, with my Mind I walk.
Among Rainbows, with my Mind I walk.
Amid round Corn, with my Mind I walk, with my Mind I walk.

And so on along paths of beauty that wind through the harmonious universe.  Then the song takes the next step, which is to begin reuiniting the patient with his Mind:

I am looking for my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I am looking for my Mind, I am looking for my Mind,
I am looking for my mind “¦

Next, the “I” in the chant finds “Mind”:

I have found my Mind in the presence of the Sun,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind,
I have found my Mind, I have found my Mind “¦

Now that the “I” and “Mind” have found each other, the “I” brings “Mind” back, revives it, and learns to walk with it all over again in increasing wholeness. The chant invokes positive and powerful dieties who surround the patient, and “everything is made Happiness.” The dieties sing for the patient, restoring identity and position in the Navajo Way. The singing penetrates to the “rain behind the Rainbow,” “among ripe plants behind the rain,” “at the roots of Sunshine.” Now that rain has been stimulated at its roots, it begins to fall, cleansing and futher restoring sanity and harmony. The song ends with the chant, “The blessing is given.”

The painstaking steps through which the Coyoteway chant progresses are maintained through nine days of ceremony and one-hundred-and-sixty songs. Step by step, the path to social consciousness is re-established, uniting the patient not only with his Mind but also in harmonious song with Nature and the dieties that have combined to grant the supplicant her blessing of sanity, restoring balance and happiness, which she shares then with the community and world to which she belongs.

Sometimes in folk literature, the object of a witch’s attack is portrayed as an innocent and helpless victim whose only offence is being in the wrong place at the wrong time; that is, she stumbles into the witch’s path or is otherwise targeted for capture by all-knowing and inescapable powers. In some cases this is true, but more usually the sufferer is in some way responsible for her peril. Satanists admit to preying on others by striking at the heart of their intended victim’s personal weaknesses or vices, not by uttering a catch-all formula that affects everyone equally. Commonly, such “Achilles’s heels” are drives and ambitions–hubris, envy, various and assorted lusts–that are themselves characteristic traits of witches. The target, operating under the influence of one of these drives, puts herself in harm’s way or at the very least is perceived as having done so. Children’s naivete and adult ignorance furnish some exceptions, but in such cases the community may share the responsibility for improperly educating its members on the hazards of contact with vindictive and dangerous people, for neglecting to teach the social and personal dangers of transgressing vital communal or sacred laws, or for failing to teach its members the finer points of walking the Earth with respect for all Earth’s inhabitants. In other words, in instances where the community fails to endow its individual members with empowered language, the entire community may suffer the consequences when one of its members comes under attack.

Commonly, shamans or “unwitchers” join their death wishes to the victim’s to turn the witch’s evil back on him. However, this puts the witch in a position identical to the one the victim occupied formerly, with the shaman replacing the witch as the attacker.

Generally, a witch attack may be interpreted thusly: an idle, greedy, or otherwise troublesome person pursues a path of selfish or dangerously curious desires and is confronted by a danger greater than the one harbored in her own character. This dangerous entity either desires to have her for its own or to punish her for her presumtions, thus magnifying its own power. At the point of crisis, the witch’s powerful language blinds its victim with fear and hopelessness; the victim cannot see through the witch’s language to spring clear of the trap. In archetypal ceremonies such as the Coyoteway, a guide undertakes ritural journeys of strong language to retrieve the patient from the trap, employing prayers, chants, medicine, and counseling. Using such language, the guide travels with the patient through points of reconciliation and repentance, revealing and restoring intricacies of relationship the patient has shattered and is incapable of repairing herself or even of seeing the need for repair.

Much room remains in the world’s cultures for stories, songs, prayers, ceremonies and language of all shapes that work at the knots of spellbinding tales like “The Dead Princess.” Older story matter from many sources, whether it’s generally considered great literature or sacred matter or not, ought to be passed around freely. We should preserve and build upon reservoirs of sacred words that not only restore victims’ lives to them and harmony to the world but that also consider the victimizer to avoid perpetuating effects of harmful language. Also, the need exists for stories, songs, prayers, and ceremonies that open ever broadening paths for our cultural, spiritual, and intellectual progressions.

Literature Cited

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Lehmann, Arthur, and Myers, James. Intro. to “Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Other Evil Forces.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the
. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985.

Luckert, Karl. Coyoteway: A Navajo Holyway Healing Ceremonial. Tucson and Flagstaff: The University of Arizona Press and the Museum of Northern Arizona
Press, 1979.

Moody, Edward. “Urban Witches.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Offiong, Daniel. “Witchcraft Among the Ibibio of Nigeria.” In Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Ed. Arthur Lehmann and James Myers. Palo Alto and London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1985. 427-37.

Straub, Peter. Shadowland. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.

Toelken, Barre. “The Pretty Language of Yellowman: Genre, Mode and Texture in Navaho Coyote Narratives.” Genre 2 (1969): 211-235.

One thought on “Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part V”

  1. Excellent! I love how your treatment speaks about the supernatural in comprehensible clinical language without losing its soul. 

    Posted by XON

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