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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

American Tower of Babel

I've been trying to read a story, usually something new, every day. It's sometimes tough to stick to it, especially when I'm reading something much longer, but I'm trying to keep it up. I have lots of collections of legends, folktales, myths, and short stories. When I find the story worth writing about, I'll include it here.

So today I read a Choctaw story, collected in Stith Thompson's Tales of the North American Indians, page 263. Thompson calls it "The Tower of Babel," but the tower in the story is never named.
In the Choctaw story...well, it's pretty short, and I've got a moment, so here's the whole thing:

Many generations ago Aba, the good spirit above, created many men, all Choctaw, who spoke the language of the Choctaw and understood one another. These came from the bosom of the earth, being formed of yellow clay, and no men had ever lived before them. One day all came together and, looking upward, wondered what the clouds and the blue expanse above might be. They continued to wonder and talk among themselves and at last determined to endeavor to reach the sky. So they brought many rocks and began building a mound that was to have touched the heavens. That night, however, the wind blew strong from above and the rocks fell from the mound. The second morning they again began work on the mound, but as the men slept that night the rocks were again scattered by the winds. Once more, on the third morning, the builders set to their task. But once more, as the men lay near the mound that night, wrapped in slumber, the winds came with so great force that the rocks were hurled down on them.

The men were not killed, but when daylight came and they made their way from beneath the rocks and began to speak to one another, all were astounded as well as alarmed--they spoke various languages and could not understand one another. Some continued thenceforward to speak the original tongue, the language of the Choctaw, and from these sprung the Choctaw tribe. The others, who could not understand this language, began to fight among themselves. Finally, they were separated. The Choctaw remained the original people; the others scattered, some going north, some east, and others west, and formed various tribes. This explains why there are so many tribes throughout the country at the present time.

Thompson gives us the literary source: the Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology, volume xlviii. No Choctaw narrator is named, as is common with old collections of this sort (Thompson's book was originally published in 1929, and the Bulletin was published twenty years before that).
The Babel parallel, or perhaps source, is striking, but for me the differences are more fascinating. Genesis 11 gets into the bricks used, instead of plain old stone, but here rocks are the building materials. I think it's also interesting that the Choctaw teller naturalizes the Choctaw language, and attributes violence to the people who no longer speak it. Also of interest is the different motivations given. In Genesis, the builders of the Tower want to "make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth," if I may quote the folks who put together the New International Version. In contrast, the Choctaw are merely curious. They wonder what's going on up there, with the blue sky and the clouds. Note the folktaleish repetition of three days and three attempts to build the tower, too.

Many myths account for differences between peoples, especially linguistic differences. I've been collecting these sorts of stories for a book project that will probably take the next two or three decades.

I'm no expert on Choctaw folklore. Tom Mould is. He's a folklorist who collected and annotated a book called Choctaw Tales. I remember seeing his dissertation on the shelf among the others at the Indian University Folklore department. It's called Choctaw Prophecy, and my guess is that his book of that name is a revision of that dissertation. Stith Thompson started the Folklore Institute at IU, which later became a full-fledged Folklore Department, and more recently the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. The department recently moved from a condemnable old fraternity house on 9th and Fess to the recently built and boringly named Classroom Office building on Third Street. I don't know if the bust of Stith Thompson, which sat for so long in the old building, has made the move. Or the dissertations.

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