Re: how reliable is the oral tradition ?

29 Nov 1994 00:07 CST

In article <3bdqmj$>, (Michael K Lerch) writes...
>Rod Hagen ( wrote:
>: I'm always a bit worried about those looking for "primal knowledge" on the
>: one hand or "reliability" on the other. Societies and their circumstances
>: change. Myth, to remain vital, needs to maintain some contemporary
>: relevance. The search for "eternal verities" in myth seems similar in some
>: ways to the "record it before they die out" philosphy that many
>: anthropologists in Australia focused on in times gone by.
>I think you make a very good point here. We often tend to forget
>that written history also changes in order to maintain comtemporary
>relevance. Oral tradition is no different. Cultures change over time,
>and so does their view, and memory, of their past.

This is true. I would like to illustrate this point and give an extra

In "The Caste War of 1869", Jan Rus demonstrates how this occurs (and in
doing so refutes an earlier named source, Victoria Bricker). The Caste War
is a famous insurrection of Maya peasants that occurred in Chiapas (you have
to admire the tenacious way they have fought back even to this day). Most
anthro's (including Bricker) have chalked this up as a "revitalization
movement" that occurs when a group wishes to reassert themselves and fight
off continual amalgamation--fighting to retain their identity.

Well, the Maya were supposed to have went on a rampage and went about killing
all the ladinos (non-indians) and even sacrificed a "indian christ" of about
12 yrs of age (I forgot to mention that the revitalization movements are
usually always intertwined with a reassertion of their religious beliefs in
particular). Most anthro's that wrote of the Caste War bought this whole
scenario hook, line, and sinker. The story is further substantiated by a
whole slew of Maya oral histories. (Many of these are cited in Bricker's
_Indian Christ, Indian King_).

Rus, using much evidence from a variety of sources, has compellingly
shown that the whole scenario is false! Apparently, the Maya were
attempting to start their own "church" and, as a result of a concommitant
market that arose, were taking a large amount of revenue away from the ladino
merchants. This didn't fly well with the merchants or the Church and they
went about setting things straight. Long story short, after they massacred
the "rebels" they went about hanging any participants and bannishing the
rest from the province. As a result, their wasn't anyone left that actually
knew what had taken place and they started this "story" that placed the Maya
(actually they were Tzotzil I believe) as the aggressors! The ones that
are this day yabbing about their "history" are actually reciting an IMPOSED
HISTORY. Perfect example of Foucault's "what counts as truth depends on its
relation to power" belief.

>: The search for "reliability" implies (or is often used to impliy) that
>: changes in myth somehow lessen them. Understanding myth as part of a
>: living dialectic between people and their social and spiritual world seems
>: much more interesting and much more important to me.
>Agreed. If a diachronic record is available, one might ask why the oral
>tradition has changed, rather than discount it because it has changed.

Yes, or like Rus, dig into every aspect of the situation (e.g. merchant
receipts) and look for *inconsistencies*.

Viva la Zapatistas!

james b.