Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: Leap of Faith

No, not this one.

I studied folklore because I wanted to learn about the best stories in the world. So it's time to start putting them on this blog. I suppose posting about "Clever Hans" a few weeks ago got me thinking of these stories, but we'll come back to the Brothers Grimm another time.

I want to kick things off with a story that I first found in a book by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, published in 1981. Sahlins is quoting some earlier writers, who tell about a British captain named Vancouver, who tried to "civilize" the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands in the 18th century. Here it is, written by Ebenezer Townsend, Jr., as quoted on page 9 of Sahlins' book:

Capt. Vancouver was very anxious to Christianize these people, but that can never be done until they are more civilized. The King Amma-amma-hah [Kamehameha] told Capt. Vancouver that he would go with him to the high mountain Mona Roah [Mauna Loa] and they would both jump off together, each calling on their separate gods for protection, and if Capt. Vancouver's god saved him, but himself was not saved by his god, then his people should believe as Capt. Vancouver did.

Vancouver declined. 

Mauna Loa.

The basic premise of this story, which we'll call the "Leap of Faith," existed in the mythology and legend of the Hawaiian people prior to European contact. Stories tell of a priest named Paao, who's sort of a culture hero, who built his own house on the edge of a high cliff. Whenever a god came to him and demanded worship, Paao would simply reply that he would worship any god who could survive a leap from the precipice. Many failed, but Makuakaumana flew and became Paao's god. 

So what makes "Leap of Faith" one of the best stories in the world? Well, of course there's no real criterion that could make it so. Best is a subjective term, and I just like this story a whole lot. For one thing, it's funny. And I'm fascinated by stories about contact between different cultures. There's a certain theme of putting your money where you mouth is, so to speak, that appeals to me.

I wish there were variants of this from other cultures, in which indigenous peoples challenge the missionaries to other such leaps of faith. Vikings swearing that they would only worship Olaf Tryggvassen's god if he could slay a bear, or what have you. If there are versions from other cultures, I can't find them. There aren't any in the ATU Tale Type index, nor in Stith Thompson's Motif Index, not even in motif V350 Conflicts Between Religions, though the entries are pretty broad. It would most likely fall under V351 "Duel/debate to prove which religion is better." The interesting thing to me is that all the motifs listed under V350 involve one religion triumphing over another--"Leap of Faith" ends without either winning.

Sorry. I got lost in the Motif Index for a minute there.

There's a beautiful simplicity to "Leap of Faith" that masks the layers of cultural and historical context behind it. As with many of the greatest stories, the more you know about it, the more you appreciate it.

And also, I'm a big fan of early Tom Hanks comedies.

Very a luggage problem.

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