Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Report: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Well, as may have been evident from my earlier comments, this one was a bit of a slog. The book is divided into halves, the first of which is a sociological exploration of native america by a man who, for his time, was quite forward thinking. However, the prejudices of his race and his time are obvious in his language and attitude. He writes of the natives as though they were interesting animal specimens, like rhinoceroses or galapagos tortoises, not as though they were men. He frequently addresses the reader in tones of surprise when he discusses the depth and richness of aboriginal society, as though the pre-European inhabitants of North America were like dancing dogs: animals who had learned some amusing tricks.

It's all a little hard to take, yet it's valuable both for the insight that it does convey about this country's inhabitants before "civilization" was inflicted on them, and for the window it opens on a time and a people (American social scholars) now more than a century gone.

The second part of the book is chiefly concerned with relating the myths of the title, breaking them down into language groups and geographical distributions. And this part is fascinating. There are parallels to Greco-Roman mythology, particularly in its depiction of the underworld and death, and to Christian beliefs such as monotheism and the existence of a messiah. Of course, I can't tell how much of what Spence relates is unspoiled native myth and how much has been corrupted by European influences by the time they were recorded. Regardless, the best of them have a beauty and a rhythm, a certain simple power, that rivets me every time I read them.

Primarily useful as a research work. I can't recommend this for light reading.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.

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