Simone Weil and a myth of the Okanagan
The reading of Dirty-boy – a myth of the Native American Okanagan– allows us to briefly analyze the religious conception of Simone Weil in the second part of the post, The Great Revelation. The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a remarkable thinker and activist who speaks to the complexities of our times. She defies the usual religious categories and remains one of the most interesting spiritual figures of the twentieth century.
The moon had taken on the aspect of a decrepit old woman in rags and the sun that of a dirty boy, with his face covered with scabs, disgusting. They had come down to earth to overcome the resistance of the beautiful daughters of the Okanagan leader.
They had rejected all the young men that her father had proposed to them in marriage. To win the chief’s daughter, Dirty-boy must participate in two skill competitions.
In the first, he has to hit an eagle in flight with an arrow, and in the second, he has to show his ability to capture an animal that lived in the mountains and was quite rare in those parts.
Dirty-boy wins both contests, despite never having used a bow and arrow and being unable to walk.
Everyone had made fun of him, and the boss had done everything possible to prevent that lousy boy from becoming the husband of his daughter. But now, he too had to yield to the evidence and give the girls in marriage to Dirty-Boy.
On their way to their future husband, the elder daughter stopped by Raven’s house and eventually decided to become the wife of the eldest son of that family. Like all the other Ravens, he was ugly and had a big head; but she thought it better to marry him than to become the wife of a dirty, sickly boy.
The younger daughter went on, entered Dirty-Boy’s lodge, and sat down by his side. The moon-old woman asked her who she was and why she had come. When the old woman had been told, she said, “Your husband is sick, and soon he will die. He stinks too much. You must not sleep with him. Go back to your father’s lodge every evening, but come here in the daytime, and watch him and attend him.”
Frida Kahlo (1942). Portrait of Lucha Maria, Girl from Tehuacán (Sun and Moon).
The younger sister paid no attention to the elder who was making fun of her with her husband. She returned every morning to help her grandmother-in-law gather firewood and attend to her sick husband.
For three days, matters remained this way. In the evening of the third day, Sun said to his sister, “We will resume our true forms tonight so that people may see us tomorrow.” That night they transformed themselves. The old mat lodge became a fine new skin lodge…
The old woman became a fine-looking person with a tall figure, clothes covered with shining stars. Dirty-Boy became a young, handsome man of light complexion. His clothes were covered with shining copper. His hair reached to the ground and shone like the rays of the sun.
When the girl arrived, she was much surprised to see the transformation. The moon-woman addressed her in a familiar voice, saying, “Come in and sit with your husband!” The girl then knew who she was.
When she entered, she saw a handsome man reclining, with his head on a beautiful parfleche. His garments and hair were decorated with bright suns. The girl did not recognize him and looked around. The woman said, “That is your husband; go and sit beside him.” Then she was glad.
Sun took his wife to the copper kettle which stood at the door. It contained a shining liquid. He pushed her head into it, and when the liquid ran down over her hair and body, lines of sparkling small stars formed on her. He told her to empty the kettle. When she did so, the liquid ran to the chief’s lodge, forming a path as of gold dust. He said, “This will be your trail when you go to see your father.” (Thomson, 120-124)
2. Simone Weil and the great Revelation
This myth of the North-American Okanagan, which I have partly recounted and partly quoted from Thomson’s Tales of the North American Indians, is one of the mythological tales analyzed by Simone Weil in her Cahiers d’Amerique. Unlike her teacher Alain, for whom myths are a creation of the human spirit, Simone Weil argues that myths are a metaphor for divine truth: “The foundation of mythology is that the universe is a metaphor of the divine truths” (First and Last Notebooks, 191).
For Simone Weil, divine truths are inscribed in the universe, and it is necessary to recognize them. Her conception of mythology appears to be linked to her religious conception, which emphasizes similar spiritual needs in all humans regardless of their spatial-temporal location.
After the rapprochement with Christ, the desire to verify the universal character of the Gospel led her to dedicate a large part of the research on mythology of the last years of her life (1940-43) to the identification of elements similar to the story of Christ in the different mythologies. Simone Weil’s religious conception is based on the idea of a “Great Revelation” according to which God and the “supernatural” are everywhere if only we can recognize them.
For Weil, all humans of all times have access to this “Great Revelation;” between them and God, there is an abyss that can be bridged thanks to the work of different forms of mediation and mediators. In myths, these mediators take the form of divine incarnations for the benefit of humanity. The incarnation is combined with the idea of suffering endowed with a spiritual value both in the form of redemptive suffering and in the form of suffering that allows access to “supernatural knowledge.”
A group of myths studied by Simone Weil in the “Great Revelation” perspective concerns the search for humans by God through the descent and the incarnation. At a certain point in the myth, the seduction of the soul by God occurs and thus leaves a sign of its passage on earth. Simone Weil is not interested in the considerable difference between the gods of ancient Greece, the cosmological beings mentioned in American Indian myths, and the historical figure of Christ. What interests her is the common essential symbolic structure of stories and myths that are very distant and different. In all these myths, as in the Greek myth of Prometheus itself, Simone Weil sees Christological figures, mediators who allow access to the supernatural.
In this light, Simone Weil also interprets the myth of the “Dirty-boy” of the North American Okanagon. For her, that myth is a myth of Incarnation and Redemption. The Sun and the Moon, once incarnated, had lost consciousness of their divine character. After all, in the sky, there was always a sun because there were days and nights. But above all, it seems remarkable to her that the chief’s young daughter must have rejected all her suitors before the sun came down to earth for her sake.
Simone Weil sees an image of Christ connected to a myth of Resurrection also in the custom of the North American Indians of not breaking the bones of animals killed in hunting and eaten to allow their resurrection. She also suggests a biblical parallel in the practice of not breaking a single bone of the paschal lamb. She points out that the bones of the slain animals were thrown into the water, which was considered a factor of resurrection, as will later happen in baptism.
In another post on this blog, the Pale mountains, we applied Weil’s ideas to a Ladin myth of the Dolomites. Here we have a divine image of the moon in the form of a princess who comes down to earth to reign with a prince who is in love with her.
The divine female lunar figure in the ancestral knowledge of many peoples, including the Greeks and the peoples of the Mediterranean, plays a mediating role between the extreme poles of life and death, indicating the possibility of rebirth and fertility in the perseverance of the life cycle. This is what the Greek myths relating to the lunar deities such as Hecate and Artemis speak of. The female deities of the earth such as Demeter and Persephone are connected to them and speak of the same vital cycle. The interpretation of Simone Weil emphasizes in these myths their prefiguration of Christ, the divine mediator who has imposed himself with Christian culture. As she writes in Letter to a Priest,
“All the mediator-gods, comparable to the Word, are lunar, bearers of horns, lyres or bows that evoke the crescent (Osiris, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, Zagreus, Eros, …). Prometheus is the exception, but in Aeschylus, Io is his counterpart, condemned to perpetual vagabondage as he is to crucifixion, and she is horned. (It is worth remarking that before he was crucified, Christ was a vagabond—and Plato depicts Eros as a miserable vagabond). If the sun is the image of the Father, the moon—perfect reflection of solar splendor, but a reflection that we may contemplate (i.e. gaze on), and which suffers diminution and disappearance—is the image of the Son. The light is then that of the Spirit” (292).Continue reading…