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    Relations between oral tradition and social representations studies

    Eugenia Coelho Paredes (Federal University of Mato-Grosso, Brazil)


    Narrators of Brazilian indigenous myths, while maintaining identity and social memory, allow the continuity of ways of living the relationships among men. The narrative of the Iamaricuma’s myth allows us to see the impacts on contemporary life, and attests its reflexes among the Kamaiurá people and culture.

    Introduction, objectives and method
    From 2003 to 2005, our research group, which works in the centre west of Brazil, accomplished three expeditions to Alto Xingu region, in order to study an Indian people.
    Where do the Kamaiurá society lives? In the geodesic centre of South America there’s a Brazilian town called Cuiabá, capital of the state of Mato-Grosso. In the northeast of Cuiabá is situated the Indian Reservation of the Xingu, a region picked out and reserved for sheltering 14 Indian peoples.
    The investigation allowed studying the ways of oral transmission of the mythical narrations, the social representations that they transport and their function in the management of the daily life, in a situation where cultural changes are increasing rapidly.
    Based on systematic observation, interviews and sessions of informal conversations, the study describes what has been possible to notice from a daily coexistence with part of the residents of the Ipavú Village. The data analysis receives supports from both the Theory of Social Representations and the Cultural Anthropology.
    There live in Ipavú a little more than three hundred persons, between adults and children. In the central yard, women may be planning the Iamaricuma’s celebration. This leads us to our subject, because that party is related with an important myth of the Kamaiurá people, and is on myths that we shall discourse.
    Our attention will be focused on narratives that speak to us about the knowledge of a people and of their explanatory argument on the relations with the world and among men.
    We will lead with myths that come from a society without writing, called, in Greek language, Άγραφα. It is not possible to think the oral discourse by categories appropriate to the exam and understanding of the written and fixed production; instead, it is to walk among mutations. In fact, it is exactly because of the changes that we will speak about the possible relationships between myths and the social representations.

    Life among the Kamaiurá
    The great distance that separates the Kamaiurá village from Brazilian urban centres leads to the perception of the two ways of living. What makes life different among the Kamaiurá? What does living mean? Living means living together. Soft tone talking, affectionate manners, respect towards human acts, trust in reciprocity give colour to relationships. Intense exchange, intimacy are not only the base of the familiar nucleus, but of life itself, though nothing escapes to the tribal norms.
    The morerekwat, the house’s owner conducts the social and productive activities of the people who are around him: men brothers, parallel cousins, ascendants and descendants. Married men, who can be found there and are classified in the category of sons-in-law, will have already paid or will be paying their wives’ cession to the father-in-law, in work or goods.
    While children are allowed an exercise of freedom that does not find a counterpart among the so-called civilized people, pubescent young girls and boys are isolated and kept secluded for long periods of time. The Kamaiurá teen-agers, from both sexes, go through a reclusion period so much longer as their possibilities of assuming great responsibilities are, such as a cacique’s (1). Girls, who will never take up commanding functions, learn the feminine tasks during their reclusion time. And the centre of the whole education system, are renouncement and obedience. Thus, submission, consonance, generosity, must colour the behaviours, the attitudes, the habits, the beliefs of each bearer of representations so carefully maintained in the hard core of culture.
    During the time that a young girl stays secluded, kept in her hut’s depth, even her skin becomes whiter. And because of the roping to which she is subjected, there is some deformity in her shape in the pursuit of a beauty ideal. This beauty pattern is completed with corporal paintings.
    Contention and solitude impose some sort of reflection to the future adult, preparing him for a daily living in which harmony in social relationships is praised.
    Although this is not different in various cultures, marriage is done with the view to establish or strengthen economical, social and political alliances. For that very reason, in agreement with traditions, they are ideally negotiated by the parents, although even for married people sex practices are free. But a fantastic detail exists: no woman can be obliged to make sex. It is necessary that full assent exists. The man would be deeply ashamed if he came to force any sexual practice.

    The myth characters are, in the first place, the narrator himself and his necessary listeners. In the sequence, appear the hero who founded society, their civilizing heroes, the stars and the planets and the savannah animals and vegetation.
    Why did I invert the characters’ habitual sequence? Which would be the reason to put the narrator – and his listeners – before, for instance, of the important personage of the founder hero? First of all because it is important to emphasize that the illiterate peoples immortalize their stories through the myth narrators’ action.
    The narrator doesn’t just tell a history; therefore introducing changes, becomes its co-author. But he is not an independent and arbitrary author. Although the narration depends on his age and sex, for instance, he allows hearing the circumstances that are in the present time of all his people. The listeners, inside of the communication process, they also receive and understand the plot in agreement with their personal characteristics and the circumstances in which they live.
    The narrators work preferentially in two places: in “the men’s house”, also named “the flutes house” which is in the centre of the village, or at the school, where the students, children and teenagers meet. Indeed, the young people and the children are the privileged listeners of the myths.
    However, listening to myths is an event that may be spread all over the village, without a right day or hour to happen. For example, the father can make the recitation during lunchtime. Maybe they can be companions to the walks, to the fishing activities, to the work of weaving the hammocks, or of sitting down, wthout worries, when night falls, under the skies full of stars.
    Usually the narratives are as rich in incidents as full of repetitions. The incidents serve to maintain the attention of the audience. The repetitions operate in the sense of internalizing the messages.
    Charming in the plot and in the solutions, dealing with daily problems, explaining the everyday life, it claims for the presence of intuitive adhesion. However, the main point of the credibility is in the hands of its central character: the narrator. It is plain fact that he is knowledgeable, being a partner of the oldest members of society – those who own the tribe wisdom. Having accumulated knowledge, he is treated as an expert.
    When we requested Wary, our companion, the indigenous researcher of our group, to tell his own version of a myth, he became embarrassed, and refused to do it. Wary, in fact, is one of the narrator Koka’s grandsons, besides having a graduation degree in Education. He said, uneasy, that he could not assume a position that would never be accepted, maybe not even simply tolerated by the real knowledge holder. He would commit insolence without forgiveness, because the power of words would have been taken and not given, and even less conquered.
    Magnificent in his art, the narrator insinuates, provokes, despises, gives away, and releases a repertory of representations, which go spreading through several places of life and of the tribal relationships. It is true that he represents himself as a transmitter of the cultural memory of the group designating with his work the small nets of the processes of behaviour formation and guidance of the communications that his people present and entertain.

    How do the myths influence the Kamaiurá everyday life?
    The myth comes from a extremely far away past. It crosses, through time, the changes brought by innumerable narrators and their circumstances. In addition, the myth arrives in the present; the changes do not matter, to answer some issues among which I choose one that will point to some aspects of the feminine group’s condition – the Iamaricumá’s myth. This story is not only a sort of counter-myth, since it is that in which the women leave their inferior positions and become the main protagonists. Besides, it has the virtue to fully show its contemporary face, in the festival and in the connected rituals that happen yearly in their village. Finally, the interest is linked to the fact that in its consequences in the present daily life, it clearly shows the power of the myth – its efficacy on social thinking and behaviour.
    Surely, the actions are in their passing and consequences, a set of models and laws that support the social body, that codify the behaviour inside the culture and that serve the writing of the social rules, on the limit, giving parameters to the moral judgments. They are clearly the signs of the knowledge and the precepts that each one should carry to live with everyone.
    Any myth is created through the report of the actions. In the case of the Iamaricumá, although there are thematic branches, the thickest part of the deeds follows closely the female reaction to the husbands’ behaviours.
    Therefore, what happens in this specific narrative?
    After the passage of the ritual ceremony related to pierce boys’ ears, the men of the village decided to go fishing. They were late to come back and the women were worried. They sent a messenger to the river to call them back. It was useless, although the men sent word saying that they would be going back soon. The women sent the messenger again but with no success. They sent the messenger again, who warned the fishermen, without success, about the anger of the women.
    Afterwards the women stopped being worried, became angry and met in order to decide what they were going to do. They stopped doing their everyday chores and started to dance and sing. Finally, in yet another attempt, the messenger, on his arrival, said that the men were not fishing, but changing into wild animals. The women intensified their dances and songs, already using male ornaments and symbols.
    They danced so much that with the beating of their feet a hollow appeared on the ground of the central yard. So, they asked for the help of one armadillo, whose long nails changed the hollow into a tunnel.
    The woman kept on dancing…
    Warned by the alarmed messenger, the husbands already changed into animals, returned, but were not received by their wifes, and they called out begging for them to stay and take care of the children.
    Spreading the odour of the kuritsé, their invention, which made everyone crazy; guarding the passages through which they went with wasps and bats, the women entered the hole taking only the girls and leaving the boys behind.
    They started a long journey that stopped periodically, visiting other villages whose women joined the march until very, very far away they all decided to stop and build another village to live in.
    By hearing the saga of the Iamaricumá, one can infer that the actions happen to deny resentment. As the gods do not come to change the painful situation of abandonment in which the women were put by men, the women became agents of their own fate, makers of their destiny. From the dependent situation in which they lived, and leaving the resentment for the action, they scorn the susceptibility, the disgust, the bitterness, and reform their identities. They cancel the uncertainty, the waiting and the possibilities of reconciliation.
    Early in the story – on its complete report – we find an interdependence relation while they work in their daily tasks. Next, there is dependence when the husbands are late in returning to the village. The women wait passively for the return, and when this does not happen, they ask a man to go and bring news. It is not one of them that go; they send a man, that is, an element that would not disturb – a choice that could confirm their inferior position. The lateness and later the return procrastination permit the independence of the female group, letting the Iamaricumá to take the decisions.
    The revolt against the men, which happens next, is shown by the possession and use of their coat of arms, weapons and ornaments, of which the bow that is used frequently reduces their left breast – there come the Amazons! (2) Thus, what seems to be just a detail would be sufficient to guarantee that the narrative flows about rebel, warrior, and unsubmissive women.
    The changes of order and the customs follow rapidly through a flaming trail: the women stop their daily chores, dance and sing incessantly, day and night without tiring.
    In the sequence, the women produced the kuritsé, which today they call feminine urucum (3), about which they give explanations full of doubts and uncertainties – suggestions only insinuated, almost always linked to a powerful strength of sexual attraction.
    Abbandoning their sons, indifferent to their suffering, the women show, for the last time, the rupture with the masculine, and consequently with order and daily life.
    According to one of the collected versions, told by a woman, the Iamaricumá seduced the old man, which acted as a messenger to their husbands. As well as the armadillo, he also worked digging the tunnel. As an instrument for excavation, because he did not have long nails, they give him the stick for flipping the manioc pancake – the beijú. Another instrument used by the women to dig the manioc out of the ground has been used to torture the old male: the man was empalado, that is, the stick was introduced in his anus. What for? Emasculate, divest of virility?
    When these women submit an armadillo and the old man to work for them in the opening of a tunnel, the question that can be made is: where will the dug tunnel end up? For instance, the destination could be in a supernatural space. But, nothing of this, it is always in one or another Indian village that they’ll arrive. They don’t go out of the level of a possible concrete life, to enter dimensions of the supernatural and from there, obtaining or drawing out solutions for their restlessness.
    Finally, the woman went through far lands; they cut off the men’s access to them by putting as guardians fearful animals therefore not letting them pursue or follow their trail.
    All the women entered on the tunnel, proceeding to a long trip periodically interrupted in order to visit other villages, of which the women adhered to the march, until, there, far away, in a very distant place, they all decided to stop and to construct a new village. Rights and obligations were subverted!
    To tell about the Iamaricumá is not to create a cast of heroines but, maybe, it is to tell about the revolts and uneasiness of the women.
    Up to the birth of the contemporary youth, women that become pregnant from relationships that are considered extra-matrimonial should sacrifice the newborns as soon as they were born, by their own hands! For sure it was not a Kamaiurá’s invention. The practice occurs inside several societies. The sacrifice of carrying physically handicapped children, the murder of one of the twins, for instance, has been object of many studies and reports, mainly of Lévi-Strauss (4). However, there are reports that, in the beginning of this century, one or another child born in a socially not acceptable union survived this ancient practice.
    Another revolution, which is on the way, comes from the possibility, already a reality for some young marriageable girls, of choosing their own husbands. This will cause, perhaps, the extinction of the traditional way in which the parents arranged the marriage. Concession or conquest? They seem to be consequences that happened through time, slowly, little by little, mainly because of the contact with the Brazilian society. Daily life suggests some questions whose solutions are shown, for example, on the TV programs, specially the soap operas, that they are nowadays watching.
    One can see there that the content of what is transmitted by the myths finds different elaborations in the battles between the consensus and the disagreement of the ones who live in the new times.
    Of course, the story of the Iamaricumá does not provoke trips in search of new horizons. But, to narrate the saga of the Iamaricumá, actually, is to revive a plot that celebrates, solitarily, the force and the power of the women.
    The saga of the Iamaricumá is relived every year in the celebration that carries the same name. The celebration demands preparations, which include sending invitations to the women in neighbouring villages, to other peoples, which remembers the visiting of the first Iamaricumá to other villages. There is, also, an actual visitation, to the Indian huts, during the rehearsals. Without any ceremony, the singing dancers enter each of the Kamaiurá huts and go out followed by other women.
    Real life dominates and enlarges the imagination field, breaking the barriers and revealing itself as of an unimaginable vastness.
    During the celebration, the women simply reveal what cannot or should not be admitted. Many years ago, a white woman, a health worker, which was said to be sleeping with Indians, was almost killed under the fury of the Iamaricumá. Few years ago, the Kamaiurá women, possessed by the energy of the Iamaricumá, decreed the exile of a white teacher, declaring that she was more a foreigner than she had ever been.
    In the Iamaricumá myth, there are no similarities for these actions. However, it is there that the strength of the women receives the power to determine fates. By reorganizing the range of their command, the women even banish those that they do not like. Here there is an important dimension of the myths – as a power that gives authority to the reversion of behaviours, which are structured according to the circumstances of the present time. But, also, it is like this that one can clearly notice the efficacy on social thinking and behaviour caused by the social representations – which are connected to the myth.
    Young and older women, those that are interested in the providence, refuse to have sex with their men. However, it is mainly out of the hammocks, far from the sands of the lake, of the ground covered with leaves that the biggest avoidances and the most important confrontations happen.
    Sadness, sufferings, resentments that are never shown, even through tears, appear as fair fights that are established under the inspiration and the protection of an authority that will not be questioned. Courage, ambiguity, cowardice or certainty, enter the plot and weave a continuity in which the old harmonizes with the new, and everything goes on following in the track of the ancestral stories.

    Oral tradition can be referred to as an object of study or as a tool for investigation on different topics. In some contributions, oral tradition is taken as object, like in the case of mythical narrations. In others, it is a tool used to explore the reconstruction and interpretation of the past, as in the case of life-stories or collective memory accounts.
    If we want to investigate the myth, taking it as object, we will have to deepen the study, for instance, on its significance. Important scholars have been studying in this way (5). If, however, our interest is on considering it as a tool, probably the men’s relationships with the things and among themselves will be a vast exploration field. And, by treading through such road, we can arrive to the spheres of the identity of the group and of its cultural memory.
    Thinking about the narrator’s social and psychological functions, we shall conclude that he is a sort of founder and fundamental character in the maintenance both for the identity and for the tribal memory. And he knows that, very well. He is quite sure concerning the importance of the social role that he carries out. In fact, they know very well, because there are many and different narrators. Almost as a rule, the men emphasize aspects that concern the interests, fears, desires and difficulties to the members of the masculine group. The men don’t hesitate in attributing to the feminine characters their own sexual fantasies and attitudes usually driven to the women. Neither is a little different the women’s behaviour. They use the craft of narrator to display, to expose their gender point of view in relation to the masculine group. And the myths, while vehicle, they carry and transmit all of the versions, without censorship and either without allowing the censorship to install itself in the minds of the listeners. After all, somebody doesn’t censure either question or the voice of the past, or the base of the identity and of the memory. Anyway, inside of the myth are introduced the solutions that come from the soap operas, the different knowledge of living styles that exist in the national society, from the new experiences and needs that the reinvented life introduces.
    As the set of the myths is extensive, this is a good reason for the counteraction to find shelter in the arguments that point with respect to the existing contradictions in the culture. Certainly the different versions of a myth – the intertexts that can be read – illuminate the understanding of the existing contradictions in the culture.
    It seems meaningless to question if determined plot, in its course along the time line, brings and carries what we usually call historical truth. Probably, this would be the most pointless of all the worries we could have. It is interesting in a more and better way, for example, to ask what shapes does it take and how do such forms meddle in everyday life.
    The listeners of the myths can also be mature men, those who take pleasure in going over mythical stories, as a reaffirmation of their way of being in the world. It is well known that they are used to talk about the mythical plots, when sitting in front of the flutes’ house at nightfall. In that meeting of community leaders, they would look like magistrates who leaf through the behaviour codes of their people.
    Regarding to the myths’ functions, we must perceive that they are the creators of how one sees the world, and we can affirm that they direct behaviours among the Kamaiura people.

    Post Scriptum
    Recently, in the Foreword of a book that has been just edited in Brazil, entitled Mythical thought and social representations (6), Professor Serge Moscovici affirms: C’est un fait que mythos et logos sont les deux themata souverains de notre culture.

    [This article is based on the communication of identical name, presented in a Symposium during the 9th International Conferenceon Social Representations (Bali, 2008), and partly drift of notes presented during the VII Lab Meeting, held on the European Doctorate on Social Representations and Communication (Rome, 2008).]

    (1) Indian chief.
    (2) The detail of the shortening of the Iamaricumá women’s breast connects them with similar myths, referring to the Amazons. A-mazon, in Greek, exactly means without breast.
    (3) A sort of Bixa orellana, used to prepare red corporal painting.
    (4) Histoire de Lynx. (1991). Paris: Plon; Le cru et le cuit. (1964). Paris: Plon.
    (5) Lévi-Strauss, C. (1985). Myth and meaning. New York: Random House; Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday; Eliade, M. (1988). Aspectes du mythe. Paris: Folio France, and (1989). Le mythe de l’eternel retour. Paris: Floio France, 1989.
    (6) Paredes, E. C.; Jodelet, D. (orgs). Pensamento mítico e representaçoes sociais. Cuiabá: Ed. UFMT/FAPEMAT/Ed. IUNI, 2009.