Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Wolverine Creates the World

I love this story so much...

It starts before stuff, when pretty much everything in the world was under water. Wolverine survived by leaping from stone to stone. He worried that things would get worse, and that would be the end of his wandering. So he called all the water animals together, and asked them to dive down below to bring up some land.

Otter went first, but he couldn't find any soil. Then Beaver dove down, but he couldn't stay under water long enough to find anything. Then Wolverine told Muskrat to go, but Muskrat said he'd go only if Wolverine tied a strap to his leg. Wolverine complied. Muskrat was gone a long time, long enough that Wolverine pulled the strap back up only to find that it had come untied from Muskrat's leg.

And everybody thought that was the end of dry land. From this point on, I'm just going to quote the story directly:

But just when he had given up, Muskrat surfaced. His mouth was so full of ground that he couldn't talk. Nor could he breathe. Wolverine put his lips to Muskrat's ass and blew as hard as he could. Out came the ground from Muskrat's mouth, more and more ground, heaps and heaps of it, seemingly without end.

This ground is the very earth we walk today.

I first encountered this particular version of the earth-diver tale (which is how mythologists refer to it; it is the story organized around motif A812) in Brian Swann's Coming to Light, a collection and contextualization of native North American stories. It also appears in Wolverine Creates the World, by Lawrence Millman (which may or may not be about to be reprinted later this year as Wolverine the Trickster). It's a story told by the Innu people of the Labrador Peninsula in Canada. They call Wolverine Kwakwadjec, in case you were wondering. Millman--who's not an Innu--tells us that Wolverine stories are "much closer to dirty jokes" than the cycles of trickster myths common in other parts of native North America. Also unlike most myths, Wolverine stories lack ritual context and prohibitive storytelling conditions.

The earth-diver story is not confined to North America. The folklorist Alan Dundes wrote an interesting analysis of it in Freudian terms. It appeared originally in American Anthropologist, where it sparked some debate (there was a response to it in the next Volume of the journal, and then Dundes wrote a rejoinder), and shows up in the collection Sacred Narrative, which the author edited. Dundes sees the earth-diver as a story told by men to compensate for their lack of procreative power; they postulate a cloacal theory of birth and pregnancy envy. Which, you know, might be true in some sense.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? Go back and reread the italicized part if you need to figure it out.

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