Reading Peter Dickinson’s The Kin is intriguing. I am not yet finished, but want to take a bit of time to think about stories of origin and how he creates and presents them in between the narrative chapters, the things he calls the Oldtales. Origin stories are interesting in Dickinson because they illuminate the actual tale of the children of the Moonhawk Kin, and their relationship to the places through which their Kin travel.
However, preparing a blog on them I thought I would go back to source books that in turn illuminate “our” own origins (the “our” is in doubt, of course, because of the ways in which increasingly we view our origins: Chris Stringer and Adam Rutherford, for example, give us lively accounts of a trail of humanity that does not include Adam and Eve). I went back to Mircea Eliade to read of the ‘African High Gods,’ of Ngai, of Ndjambi Karunga, and to read the beautiful Hymn to Shamash from Mesopotamia and prayers of a !Kung hunter – and I thought of the stories in Genesis that explain Mamre and Moriah, Beersheba and Bethel. The connections to Peter Dickinson (whose books tell us he was, as a long-term project, often to be found exploring myth and religion in his writings) are really interesting, but didn’t illuminate what I was looking for. How does these stories resonate with the reader? Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces brings me, tantalisingly, to the Bacchae and thence to Thursbitch (“O Bonny Bull”), but again and again I find myself looking at the first stories in Genesis.
They are worth a read in an attempt to see quite what they have to say about earlier views of where we come from, but as Robert Alter in his Art of Biblical Narrative suggests, we need
…some detailed awareness of the grid of conventions upon which, and against which, the individual work operates… am elaborate set of tacit agreements between artist and audience about the ordering of the art work…
and he warns that when we look at biblical narrative
we have lost most of the keys to the conventions out of which it was shaped.
This gives Dickinson a free hand in creating the stories that illuminate the main narrative, of course, and the creation of the Good Places, the multiplication of the sons of An and Ammu – so that these “folk tales” are all distinct, sort of working with the main narrative, sometimes not (yet) – but the opposite is true when we look at our own old tales. We are encouraged, I think, to see them as part of a single book, The Bible, when it might be better to see the biblical texts as a collection – and Genesis itself to be a collection within the collection. All of a sudden I am back in my Old Testament tutorials as an undergraduate, reading Gerhard von Rad.
Von Rad proposes a number of narrative sources, “woven together more or less skillfully by a redactor.” This, in part, explains the two creation stories at the start of the Genesis collection “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and then “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” which leads to the next story beginning “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” The gods (in the plural form Elohim: we are already into controversy here, but remember that “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” not to mention the “sons of God” in chapter 6) make choices about the world: reading these stories out of their stained-glass attitudes we have a different sort of world, closer to the movements of Dickinson’s Black Antelope, where the text of Genesis is “de-Biblified,” taken as origin-text rather than sacred story.
Except, maybe, all origin-tales, to sound “right” to us, have an element of sacred story about them? I think I have a lot more to think about.
The amazing Neil Philip, on Twitter, has helpfully informed me and Mat:
The Genesis Rabba, a Jewish commentary of c.400 CE, says that while G-d created Adam in his own image, this likeness to G-d only lasted until Enosh, son of Adam’s 3rd son Seth, after which humanity degraded and acquired faces like apes. Also says humans had tails like animals.
Loads and loads more to think about then!