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May 23, 2013: Homo Narrans

May 23, 2013
"Bru na boinne" or Newgrange by SE Vedder

“Bru na boinne” or Newgrange by SE Vedder

A few weeks ago I was reading the short story by Lafcadio Hearn “Horai” in his book Kwaiden (1904.) “Horai” is a story Hearn wrote inspired by a silk print in his house depicting the utopia otherworld influenced by a Chinese myth from 2100 years ago. As i was reading the story, I realized that I had read Hearn’s description of Horai before…but it was from a land, people, and culture half a world away from Japan and China!

I have never been completely comfortable with the name we choose to call ourselves: “homo sapiens” or “wise-man.” Partly because it sounds like we are pretty full of ourselves, but mostly it is, where I allow an occasional wise action taken by a single man, and I have met a few rare truly enlightened individuals,  “homo sapiens” implies that we are altogether, and consistently wise. If we were honest, we would have to admit this is blatantly false. A more accurate moniker for humankind would be rather “homo narrans” or “story-telling man.”

Our stories are the most constant and important part of who we are as a creature. Our stories reflect our wishes, desires, fears, hatreds, loves and hopes. Better..our stories are told and universally understood (properly translated, of course) by almost every human on the planet, regardless of political boundary, economic condition, culture and even over the expanse of time. As long as we have been telling stories, they have reflected our very souls.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

The idea that our collective unconscious is represented in the themes of our stories is not an original one. Much as been said by sundry experts of psychology and sociology, not the least of which is Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell (most especially in his “Hero of a Thousand Faces.) I only offer the Horai story as a new one as an example that I, at least, hadn’t heard before.

Penglai_Island

Mt. Penglai

The story of Horai is that of a mystical land on an island that has a mountain. The original Chinese tale is associated with Mt. Penglai in the Shandong province. One theory states that migrants from the Shandong region might have brought the story with them to Japan in the late stone age. This theory connects similarities of prehistoric tomb styles in both Japan and the Shandong region. Since then, Japanese have adopted the tale, changed its name to “Horai” and even named a mountain in Japan after it.Hearn describes Horai as such:

Mt Horai_sm“In Horai there is neither death nor pain; and there is no winter. The flowers in that place never fade, and the fruits never fail; and if a man taste of those fruits even but once, he can never again feel thirst or hunger. In Horai grow the enchanted plants So-rin-shi, and Riku-go-aoi, and Ban-kon-to, which heal all manner of sickness;–and there grows also the magical grass Yo-shin-shi, that quickens the dead; and the magical grass is watered by a fairy water of which a single drink confers perpetual youth. The people of Horai eat their rice out of very, very small bowls; but the rice never diminishes within those bowls,–however much of it be eaten,–until the eater desires no more. And the people of Horai drink their wine out of very, very small cups; but no man can empty one of those cups,–however stoutly he may drink,–until there comes upon him the pleasant drowsiness of intoxication.”

When I said I had read this before, I am referring the descriptions of Tir na nOg, the Irish otherworld “land of youth and beauty.” Ti na nOg is described thusly:

Tir Na Nog-V“It is the most delightful land of all that are under the sun; the trees are stooping down with fruit and with leaves and with blossom. Honey and wine are plentiful there; no wasting will come to you with the wasting of time; you will never see death or lessening. You will get feasts, playing and drinking; you will get sweet music on the strings; you will get silver and gold and many jewels. You will get everything I said…and gifts beyond them which I have no means to tell of.”
-description of Ti na nOg by Niamh of the Golden Hair to Oisin

Curiously, both these collective utopias originated in the late stone age by cultures that never could never have had any contact with one another, yet each description is almost a perfect facsimile of one another. Theses wishes for perpetual youth and health, mild weather, plentiful food and drink are natural enough ones for a hunter/gatherer society, but have human wishes changed that much in all those years? Isn’t our Christian idea of heaven very close to either Horai or Tir na nOg?

tir-na-nog by Robert HughesThere seem to be a few “rules” regarding humans entering the otherworld, whatever the culture:
1. The otherworld is ruled by faerie, magical creatures with preternatural abilities.
2. Unless invited, the otherworld will be difficult to reach for the human.
3. The human is almost always required to achieve a quest of some kind, for which he is richly rewarded by the faerie.
4. Once leaving the otherworld, “all bets are off” for the human. Gold turns to acorns; his youth instantly disappears; his faerie love remains in the otherworld.

As to being hard to reach, otherworld is often on an island (often a disappearing island,) through mist, under lakes, in a cave, and even within burial chambers (in Ireland, one word for a burial mound is bruidhen, a word that means “hostel” as in a place of sanctuary and comfort!)

Perhaps as a reflection of human imagination, or just a further extension of our wishes, the otherworld seems to adopt a kind of metaphysical silly-putty: seasons merge as trees bear both Spring buds and Autumn leaves; space expands as rolling fields are contained in a “faerie mound;” and in a kind of Einsteinian-relative-elasticity, time stand still in otherworld. Most amazing is that the otherworld seems to adapt to the attitude of the human entering: a fighter seeking conquest is met with arcane foes and weapons, while a peaceful man invited within is treated to superlative food, drink, and entertainment of magical proportions.

 

Our tales express us, bind us, hold us. Our stories, with words, sculpt not only who we are, but who we wish we could be. The idea that such similar stories could originate completely independent of one another, shows that whatever our nation, our culture, our beliefs…we are more alike than different.

Throughout the world, and through his stories, homo narrans continues to speak out his deeds, thoughts, and desires, linking us all in a legacy that celebrates our collective imagination.

 

[Special thanks once again, to the staff of the Hudson Public Library (most especially April) that provided valuable sources  for this article.]

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One comment

  1. The otherworld impinges on early Irish literature in many other ways than in these specific genres about incursions to the otherworld. Early Irish literature is noted, in fact, for the role of the gods in the stories; in Irish hero tales, as in the Homeric epics, the gods play an active role, and this is one of the ways in which early Irish literature is much closer to classical tradition than to its medieval counterparts in other European vernaculars. Otherworld figures meddle in human wars, beget offspring, seek human lovers, ask for human assistance, and so forth. See, for example, AIT 134–36, 176–98, 229, 439–56, 488–90, 546–50. The deities of the early Irish otherworld literature in some cases have lingered on as fairy kings or queens in the living oral tradition. For examples, see Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology 85–86.



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