Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Dance Hall of the Dead

The knights of reason get things right in the hard world of concepts, but for inspiration we look to poets, visionaries, and to mystics. Storytellers belong to the latter tribe, albeit at the humbler working level, hence we often learn something about mysterious and hidden matters from novels and the like. From Tony Hillerman we have The Dance Hall of the Dead, a vivid glimpse into the religious life of the Zuni Indians, a tiny group, part of the Pueblo Indians, about 12,000 all told today, less than 8,000 living the Pueblo life. Yet in that obscure and ancient tradition lives a mythological conception you will find echoing the experiences of Swedenborg, say, of the Tao Te Ching, with hints of reincarnation included. But it takes poetic imagination to do the fusion I’m suggesting.

Here is a summary in Hillerman’s novel put into the mouth of a fictitious Franciscan, Father Ingles. Ingles is speaking.

“What made me think of Kothluwalawa was that business of the dance hall. If you translate that word into English it means something like ‘Dance Hall of the Dead,’ or maybe ‘Dance Ground of the Spirits,’ or something like that.” Ingles smiled. “Rather a poetic concept. In life, ritual dancing for the Zuni is sort of a perfect expression of …” He paused, searching for the word. “Call it ecstasy, or joy, or community unity. So what do you do when you’re beyond life, with no labors to perform? You spend your time dancing.”
Now it turns out that this place, in scholarship as well as in the novel, is a sacred lake near the place where the Zuni river joins the Little Colorado in Arizona. Its formal name is Ko-tluwallawa. Ko stands for “god” and “tluwallawa” for town, city, or pueblo. Thus the name really means “god-town” and also, as I will rapidly show, the Abode of the Dead.

To quote a scholar (A.L. Kroeber, link) here is the original myth of how the watery Dance Hall of the Dead came about: “As the ancient people crossed the [Zuni] river, the mothers dropped their pinching and biting children, who turned into tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and other aquatic animals and descended to the ‘god town’ in the sacred lake, and there at once became the kokko.”

Now the knights of reason will have some problem with that myth—and doubly so when they are told that for the Zuni the word kokko means “gods.” In the Zuni conception the dead are gods—much as in Swedenborg’s writings all angels are former humans. This view has greatly puzzled scholars; they’ve evidently ignored or dismissed voices like Swedenborg’s. The kokko, mind you, aren’t God. That person, in Zuni culture, is Awonawilona, the supreme being, thought of as bisexual, referred to as He-She, the giver of life and present everywhere. Parsed apart further (by Kroeber), the word really means He-She who owns all roads, paths, and ways—and someone like me can’t help but immediately to think of the Tao.

The hint of reincarnation I mentioned above comes from a Zuni belief that every person has an appointed path his or her own—completion of which is mandatory and may not be cut short by suicide, however caused, including excessive grief. Those who thus violate the dispensation must complete that path first before they can descend into the sacred lake and take up their dance in the Dance Hall of the Dead. What little literature is readily available to me does not describe how “finishing the interrupted path” might be accomplished, but it does strike me that in Ian Stevenson’s studies most of the cases of people who recall previous lives feature individuals who died young and by violent means. They remember interrupted lives.

1 comment:

  1. Great!
    I am reading this on April 29 2011, and it seems very much connected to the sermon by the Bishop of London this morning, particularly the quote from St. Catherine of Sienna.