(I reproduce this essay from my website as an introduction to some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas. I no longer agree with my linking of the Native American twins motif with a wild/civilized dichotomy – only a few tribes have myths that might be interpreted that way. It is definitely true of Cain/Abel, Esau/Jacob and Ishmael/Isaac, however.)
Occasionally, across the gulf that is said to separate us dull-eyed, tin-eared interlopers from the ancient owners of the land, there comes a familiar cry. Some sign of our shared humanity, perhaps, reminding us that for them, too, the world was always an ineluctably tragic place. The great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade somewhere says that the major problem with the myth of the “noble savage” is that the so-called savages, too, believed it–about their own, most distant ancestors. Which is to say, in the mythologies of virtually all peoples, indigenous or otherwise, paradise is lost: either in time, or in space. And it’s this acute sense of fallenness that has given rise to codes of ethical behavior based on Welcome to the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land. Any one of these wanderers (literal or figurative) could be an emissary from that back-of-beyond in the sky, or in the heart of the hills.
But for many traditions, that seemingly inaccessible realm remains nonetheless at hand, in the form of all that is irreducibly Other, beyond human control or comprehension. For American Indians as for the ancient Hebrews, wilderness constitutes a kind of mirror to the settled, human domain. For both, this relationship is most often symbolized by the sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic bond between brothers or twins. As in many cultures, the realm of the sacred manifests itself as a living paradox, a union between the two poles of Human and Wild that may be approached through ritual but only experienced directly at death, or through dream and vision. A place inhabited by the sacred is like a transformer, crackling with power and danger. And in fact, the imperative to protect sacred places is sparking a return to traditional conservation values among Native peoples throughout the hemisphere.
I worry that, in trying to understand such traditional worldviews, we risk distortion by assimilating them to our own abstract dichotomies. For instance, is finding a spirit guide really the romantic errancy that New Age would-be practitioners of shamanism imagine–or simply a pragmatic necessity for survival among potentially malevolent forces? There’s very little that one could call dreamy or sentimental in the visionary experiences of Elijah in I Kings, or of Tecumseh, Black Elk or Handsome Lake.
With this lengthy introduction I offer a quote from historian Anthony F.C. Wallace. At issue here are the dream-therapy customs of the Huron as described by early Jesuit missionaries. To my way of thinking, this has the quality of an environmental morality tale.
“The whole village vied to give the sick person his every wish, for any frustration was a threat to life. A dying man might be seen surrounded by literally thousands of scissors, awls, knives, bells, needles, kettles, blankets, coats, caps, wampum belts, beads, and whatever else the sick man’s fancy, or the hopeful guesses of his friends, suggested. And if he died at last, “He dies,” the people would say, “because his soul wished to eat the flesh of a dog, or a man; because a certain hatchet that he wished for could not be procured; or because a fine pair of leggings that had been taken from him could not be found.” And if, on the other hand, he survived, the gift of the last thing that he wished for during his illness was cherished for the rest of his life.” (The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Random House, 1969, pp. 70-71.)
As Americans, I believe it is our sacred and patriotic duty to pay much closer attention to the often barely comprehensible demands of our most afflicted: the dreamers and the drug addicts, the autistics and the schizophrenics, the nihilists and the fanatics. Edward Abbey once pointed out that unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Out of the depths of our shared sickness, what is it that we truly crave? What gift will save us?