The Significance of Myth in the Novel Ceremony

Many people in our culture misunderstand the function of myth. We usually assume that there are two kinds of narrative, completely different from one another: a journalistic compilation of facts, all literally true and verifiable, or stories spun by a fiction writer for the purpose of entertainment only. Myth, we assume, falls resoundingly into the latter group. While primitive and superstitious people may have once believed that the sun was pulled across the sky by a chariot, we in our infinite scientific wisdom know that is not the reason that the sun appears to move in the sky when viewed from earth.
Therefore, the myth is written off purely as a work of fiction and fantasy. Indigenous peoples throughout the world, however, look at their myths and folktales in quite another way. They recognize in them an explanation, not for the way physical science works or history occurred, but for the way their culture feels about itself. For Native Americans, these stories concern the universe and the spiritual domain. They are didactic because they teach the history of the people, how to live, and how to survive.
According to Paula Gunn Allen, “myth is a story of vision;… a vehicle of transmission of sharing and renewal. ” It connects the past with the present. Myths “show us that it is possible to relate ourselves to the grand and mysterious universe that surrounds and informs our beings…The mythic heals, it makes us whole” (Allen, 116-17). Myths explain by analogy concepts that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to explain literally. They do so in a way that bypasses the conscious, analytical mind and heads straight for the heart (technically, the unconscious).

Folklorist Carol Mitchell explains that Silko’s use of the Laguna creation myth at the beginning of Ceremony, “it recreates the power and the time of creation. The cosmic creation is the exemplary model of all life,” and hopes that it will restore the patient, Tayo (Mitchell, 34). Mitchell also believes that the use of this myth is a “spiritual means by which the novelist is inspired in her creative work” (Mitchell 28). The stories are thus emotionally and psychologically satisfying, and can have a very therapeutic effect when an individual’s spirit is sick. Ceremonies are the retelling of the myths by a tribal healer or shaman.
Then there are rituals which are the physical enactments of what is told in the myths. The purpose of the ritual is to “transform something (or someone) from one state to another” (Allen, 103). In the novel is a healing ritual which changes Tayo from a sickly, altered state, one which is of isolation and despair, to a state of health and wholeness with his people. This is the plot in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel, Ceremony. “Her narrative plot follows a cyclical of time, like that found in Native American myths and legends, instead of a western linear sense of time” (Bell, 53).
It is open to irrational spiritual experiences instead of confining itself to scientific logic and reason. In addition, Silko’s main focus is more on the whole community and Tayo’s relationship to that community than it is on Tayo’s individuality. More importantly, she constructs the novel itself as a sacred ritual. Continuously throughout the novel, Silko flip flops between the main plot and various internal poems of Native American origin. One such poem involves a being named Thought-Woman. When Thought-Woman thinks, whatever she thinks about appears. I’m telling the story she is thinking,” says Silko at the start.
The myth is reality, and the novel leads the reader into that unity between myth and reality. “Reality is a story”, Silko explains. The material presented in poetic form paces the reality, leading us to the denouement of the novel, and it also portrays the action of the story and gives structure. When we see the reality of the novel in terms of the mythic poem, is when we see this order in the story. The loss of power and vision, or, as Tayo says, “how the world had come undone,” the fight to return the world to its proper ays, the ultimate end to the crisis, and the identity and harmony created by this successful conclusion of the story are all predicted, ordered, and directed by the myth or poem. The “mythic poem” expresses the poems meaning. It creates that meaning. It is not just a metaphor or a piece of local sentiment. The extended drought, the Whites, the fall of tribal identity and meaning, the war, and even nuclear experiments are given meaning through the poetry, or you could say through the connection and intertwining of myth and reality.
Robert Bennett, in his critical analysis of Silko’s Ceremony, states, “these interspersed poems create a second mythic narrative that runs parallel to the realistic narrative about Tayo. Even though these mythic poems take up less space than the realistic narrative, they are equally, if not more, important than the realistic narrative” (Bennett, 2). The poems mark important mile stones in the story for Tayo. They are placed in the beginning of the novel and at the end. These mythic poems trace Tayo’s recovery throughout the novel.
Gregory Saylor describes the opening of Ceremony as with keeping with Silko’s vision of healing because it is written in the verse of Thought-Woman, who is the giver of all life. He claims that “from these opening pages we learn about the energy of stories, their ability to cure, and their capacity to counter the witchery of destruction” (Saylor, 00). This connection of stories as healing entities and the warriors of witchery gives an intriguing perspective to the purpose of Tayo’s journey. Tayo has suffered what we would consider a nervous breakdown as a result of traumas suffered in the war.
The trauma actually occurred because he encounters enemy soldiers, who seem to bear the faces of his family. He is first sent to a Veteran’s hospital upon his arrival back to the states, where he is diagnosed to suffering from “battle fatigue” and released without being cured completely. He then returns to his home on the reservation, where his symptoms get worse. Tayo has been told by the young doctor at the VA clinic that he really should rid himself from all his Indian heritage as much as possible, because that is what is making him sick, and that the worst thing for him is “Indian medicine” (Silko, 3).
By “Indian medicine,” the VA doctor does not mean herbs and weeds. What he truly means is Tayo’s spiritual condition and the return into the culture and heritage of his people. The Indian culture is of deep spirituality, and it is difficult for an Indian to think of having a mental disorder that is not a sign of a spiritual disintegration. The fact that Tayo feels his connection to his spirit and to the spirit of his people fading is why he perceives himself as “white smoke”.
He feels this mainly because he is no longer completely an Indian, and the smoke is white because Tayo has accepted too much of white culture that differs from his heritage as an Indian. Tayo’s aunt calls a local healer to treat his problem, Tayo’s spiritual distress, which shows his loss of identity with the values and heritage of his people. Betonie, the healer called to help Tayo, makes the surprising claim that Tayo is not to blame white people: “We can deal with white people, with their machines and their beliefs. We can because we invented white people; it was Indian witchery that made white people in the first place” (Silko, 132).
What he means is that Native Americans, by doubting the strength and the rightness of their culture, have allowed the white man to manipulate them; the triumph of white culture, he asserts, is a result of the surrender of the Indian people as a whole. Although Betonie appears to be a classical shaman, with all the usual potions and paraphernalia, he heals through stories intended to put Tayo back in touch with his natural heritage. One of the stories told in Ceremony is that of the magician Pa’caya’nyi and his lure of the Indian people with promises of magic.
The Indians worshipped the Corn Mother by working their fields and helping the Mother grow big amounts of corn. In return the Corn Mother blessed the people’s land. Pa’caya’nyi spoke to the people and told them that they should not work so hard in the fields, it was completely wasting their time and energy. He told them that he could see to it that their fields could continue to be productive just by him using his magic for them. The people stopped working and The Corn Mother became angry with her people, and left them on their own. As a result, a terrible drought came; the corn wilted, and the animals left.
The people realized for the first time that what they had with the Corn Mother was a two-way relationship and that it took work to sustain the relationship. For many years they had worked hard to serve her, and as they had worshipped her, she had blessed them. No amount of magic or witchery could replace what they had once had. Tayo had a natural relationship with the earth based on his heritage, as well as with his Indian spirituality. But he had been seduced by the “witchery” of the white man into believing that he did not need to practice his ethnic heritage.
By leaving the Indian world for the white one, he turned his back on his culture and replaced it with a set of cultural beliefs that seemed more modern and a lot less work. However, in doing this, he lost sight of himself and his spiritual connection to the earth. Betonie proves that what Tayo is, inside and out, is an Indian. To retain an ethnically different heritage in a white world, and to keep that heritage viable and meaningful, is hard work. But the cost to the individual of allowing that relationship to lapse is tremendous. Tayo momentarily paid the price of his neglect with his sanity.
Now he is able to go forward and recapture his cultural inheritance, and by doing so, reclaim himself. Tayo’s return to individual and cultural identity and health through ceremonial integration with a unified story, or reality, is central to the novel. Tayo’s act of cursing the rain parallels the loss of rain in the mystic story. His personal breakdown reflects the breakdown of Laguna cultural integrity. His personal dryness of emotion, spirit, and community identity find physical manifestations in the drought suffered by the people of Laguna.
Betonie’s ceremony is Tayo’s path to reintegration back to identity on the personal, cultural, and mythic level. But it is also the Laguna’s path back to reintegration. Tayo begins to heal when he is able to leave himself open and vulnerable to the forces of myth. Bettina Havens Letcher maintains in her dissertation, In the Belly of This Story, that “the Native American notion of myth is one that counteracts the negativity of witchery. When Tayo begins to live the stories of his youth, he opens his soul to the possibility of healing. He takes his culture and allows it to take over his personality. By losing himself he is able to become whole.
During this journey, Tayo and Ts’eh, in their connection with each other, opens Tayo to the vulnerability that begins his healing. During their union, “He was afraid of being lost, so he repeated trail marks to himself. He eased himself deeper within her and felt the warmth close around him like river sand. But he did not get lost” (Silko 181). Instead he gathers strength from his connection with the land through his physical and emotional connection to Ts’eh. Tayo is healed because he is able to allow himself to join the mythical battle. The importance of Ts’eh in the story is derived from her role in Tayo’s recovery.
Ts’eh lives on her own in the rim rock and is in touch with her land. Being out o f touch with his heritage and caught between the white world and his own peoples world, leaves Tayo feeling invisible and hollow inside. Through the power and strength of nature, Ts’eh helps Tayo become in touch with his Indian side. She instructs him on how to use certain plants, flowers, and ceremonies and how they are helpful to Native Americans. When Tayo falls in love with her is when Tayo begins to feel alive again. He restores his connection with his culture and no longer feels invisible anyone.
Ts’eh takes away all Tayo’s nightmares and replaces them with pleasant dreams, like when one night he awoke “dreaming of her arms around him strong” and “he was overwhelmed by the love he felt for her” (Silko). Nevertheless, Tayo has completed his healing journey and feels whole again. Tayo no longer feels like a walking shadow, but finally a real person with feelings and emotions, other than anger and guilt. It is with the help of Betonie and Ts’eh that he discovers himself and is ultimately able to overcome the trauma inflicted upon him by his birth mother and Aunt. He is able to accept his mixed ancestry in a changing world.
Therefore, when Ts’eh finally leaves him, Tayo is able to go on living and remembering all that she has taught him. Overall, Tayo’s healing process was long and arduous. However, it was successful. With the guidance and support of Betonie and Ts’eh, Tayo was able to complete his healing journey on his own. In essence, he was able to recover his own life and find a desire to live. In understanding that the real world and the mythic world is one in the same, Tayo is healed and the reader is shown how the combination of the two leads to the success of not only Tayo, but to the story as a whole.

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