Re: Amimal Myths

Richard Reichart (reichart@PLUTO.NJCC.COM)
Sun, 17 Mar 1996 00:42:50 -0500

Sorry to be so late in responding -- can't keep up with all the
interesting things posted on this list! Also that I have to respond
on-list because I've lost Mr. Healey's address :-(

On Thu, 1 Feb 1996, Mr P.R.M.G. Healey wrote:

> Does anyone know of material dealing with myths or stories about snakes,
> giant snakes in particular. Material in portuguese, English or Spanish
> would be best. I am looking at Latin America in particular.

I recall a semi-amusing story in Alan Holmberg's "Nomads of the Long Bow"
--his dissertaion, published by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1940's
(with the references to sex deleted!). Although I've recited it at enough
cocktail parties in the past 40 years to have most likely altered it
in the process, it is this:

The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia had a custom that food (especially meat -- a
scarce resource) would be shared among all in the band, that each would
take his or her portion away privately and eat as quickly as possible,
and then look around for someone not yet finished to beg for more.

Holmberg had a rifle and shotgun, and his ability to supply meat
contributed significantly to his acceptance (in 1939-40?) among the
Siriono. One day he killed a very large, fat boa constrictor, but nobody
came around to ask for some when he cooked it. However, he rendered the
fat and treated himself to some baked bread for the first time in
months. The older men, in particular, became curious seeing him eating
this unusual food, and naturally, in accord with the custom, begged for
some, which he gladly gave them and which they ate with pleasure.

Then one casually asked how he'd made it, and upon being told of his use
of the snake fat, they all promptly jumped up, stuck their fingers down
their throats, and regurgitated. Subsequently, nobody would take any
food from him until they were certain he had disposed of all of the boa .

I believe Holmberg described this as how he'd learned that the snake was
a revered ancestral totem for the Siriono.

The story was more than incidental. My recollection is that Holmberg's
theoretical interest was whether the Siriono, nomads in a forest where
their 6-foot bows were an inappropriate hunting tool and generally short
of food, would display the standard Freudian patterns of sexual interest
(then still fairly new stuff in the U.S.). His conclusion, I believe, was
they were far more psychologically involved with food than with sex -- so
the reaction to inadvertently eating the prohibited snake, and indeed the
very existence of the prohibition, were of significance.

... Dick Reichart