Bird singing the blues: Revival of a native tradition

When looking at the collective stories of any group of people it is not only important to look at what the stories say but also how those stories are attained. In his book “Reading the Voice” Zolbrod hypothesizes that oral poetry is meant to be transmitted from spoken voice to listening ear and that when it is encountered in a written form, it needs to be acknowledged that something is lost because the words are meant to be encountered not read. While the words themselves have importance; the rhythm, the tonal inflections, the language, and the experience of one person speaking or singing the poetry and the other hearing it are just as important. There are benefits and constraints to both the written word and the spoken word. Scholars have been working to put onto paper the songs and stories of non-written cultures in order to share and preserve them but what is lost is the context which must be in the least, acknowledged and ideally, experienced.

As I mentioned, there are benefits and constraints to both oral and written transmission of stories.  While documenting a story by putting it on paper or on a recording does give the story a level of authenticity and permanence that can’t be assured with oral transmission; it does not have the same power.  Written words do not change, they are fixed so generations from now, a person can read and know the stories.  The stories may even be recorded electronically so the voice is still heard, the body movements, and experience seen but that is still not oral transmission.  With oral transmission, there is a human contact that over time, becomes a relationship.  It means the student is accountable to an elder or elders.  These relationships also carry traditions, responsibilities, and guidance to the young people that seek them.  The drawback to oral transmission is twofold as I see it.  First, there must be a teacher for the student.  Oral transmission can’t occur unless there is someone willing and able to pass on the traditions.  The other drawback that may be seen as a positive by some is that the oral transmission can be fluid.  Stories, even when sung and passed down through the generations can change.  As seen with bird singing, the songs may lose their words because the singers don’t know the language they are singing or they may lose their sound due to younger singers trying to set themselves apart in pow wow competitions. Neither written or oral transmission is superior, they are just different and have different purposes.  For bird singing the transmission must be oral and experiential.   

For this paper, I will be looking at the transmission of a specific form of poetry, the bird songs of the local Cahuilla people. The Cahuilla people can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. There are a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations (Green). This form of oral poetry was almost erased from the culture by the years of forced separation, assimilation, and education of Native children by the American government.  Its phoenix-like resurgence in the local Native communities is a testament to the power of the songs and their need to be heard.  Now that more people have been exposed to the bird songs, issues of transmission and legitimacy are being raised.  The question of what it means to be a bird singer has been raised and the importance of how the songs are learned is a major part of that discussion.  In this paper, I will attempt to offer a glimpse of the Cahuilla people through their songs.  Not the words of their songs, the experience of the songs and their importance to the people.

For eight years, I worked at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation in Southern California.  It was there I witnessed the revival of bird singing.  Today, if you attend a pow wow or similar function in Southern California you will likely see several bird singing groups, each with their own set of songs, sometimes the same words just sung in a subtly different way.  The practice is so prevalent that it is hard to believe that the tradition was almost lost when the last ceremonial singer, Joe Patencio, passed away in 1977. A group of men decided to make an effort to bring the songs back to the people.  With the help of a grant from the California Arts Council, young men within the tribe were partnered up with mentor bird singers to help the practice continue to the next generation (Sing birds, 2009).  It was their passion and dedication for sharing the songs with the young men of the tribe that brought this tradition back to life.  

Working at Noli Indian School, I learned a lot about bird singing and had the fortune to listen to many of the elders like Ernie Morreo, Alvino Siva, Anthony Andreas, and Sat Torres in person before they passed away.  Also, I had the honor to work alongside Kim Marcus, the man responsible for so many young native youth learning their songs and culture.  Mr. Marcus is the school counselor, culture teacher, distinguished elder, and bird singer at the school.  It is due to his efforts that bird singing is such a large part of the culture of the school.  In culture class, boys make gourd rattles and girls sew ribbon shirts and ribbon dresses worn by the singers and dancers. Songs are a part of the everyday life of the school, not something learned as much as experienced naturally.  Those that want to learn can practice and perform at school functions and weekly during lunch breaks.  Elders within the community are often present on campus helping transmit the songs to the next generation.  Many bird singers perform with the students and the school has its own group that performs at local cultural events to educate people about bird singing, this is Mr. Marcus’s group, the Noli Bird singers.  This group includes Mr. Marcus, elders like Willis Torres, students that are establishing themselves as bird singers, and students that are just learning bird singing.      

In my eight years at the school, I saw a handful of students that actually bore the label of bird singer.  Bird singing can be practiced by any of the students but only certain students labeled and respected as actual bird singers.  Since there are no longer any practicing Shamans, the official title of ceremonial bird singer has been lost but there is a difference in stature of a boy that is learning the songs and a boy that is a bird singer.  These boys were also usually in a lineage of bird singers, they came in knowing their culture and the school just nurtured their growth. Some of the boys I watched become bird singers were Bo Bullchild, Joe and Dominic Duro, Julio and Daniel Briones, William Morrell, Dusty and Rocky Rhodes, and Adam Trujillo.  To “be a bird singer” is more than just memorizing the songs and performing.  A young man couldn’t just sing the songs, he had to know what they meant.  This means the young man has to learn his culture, learn his language and adhere, or attempt to adhere to the code of conduct of bird singers.  They had to carry themselves in a manner that befitted the respect they received from the community.  For instance, bird singers are not permitted to use drugs or abuse alcohol.  If a singer is using drugs or drinking excessively, the other students would become upset with them and help them to get back on the path.  Out of respect, singers should stop singing when they know they aren’t living an honorable life. This has led to some tensions within the community as many of the younger singers bend the rules, especially the use of marijuana and alcohol. 

The songs have importance because they hold the history of the tribe and to sing them in the wrong way is to take power from the songs.  It is important how they are taught and practiced.  Both student and mentor need to recognize the sacred nature of the songs and the relationships that grow from their transmission.  The relationship between elder and apprentice bird singer is a special one, not unlike the relationship between Guru and disciple. This is because of the sacred nature of the material.  It isn’t just teaching, it is mentoring.  It is a care relationship not unlike father and son.  “The transmission of Dharma requires language, encounter, and human relationships” (Tsyogal) just like bird singing.  Some people try to learn the songs by listening to the recordings and imitating them but this is the wrong way.  It must be transmitted just like Dharma, by acquiring the language, encountering the songs and their ceremonies and by building relationships with elder singers.

The songs tell the creation story, track tribal migration and history and reinforce native language transmission but they also foster a code of conduct in the community. They are a major part of tribal gatherings and bird singers are respected members of the community, members that are following their cultural calling and keeping the songs alive.  Being a bird singer is no small task.  Bird singers are often asked to perform at gatherings and ceremonies.  In the community, if there is a death, the bird singers will be asked to sing.  On the night of the wake alone, the singers will sing from sundown to sunup, often in a small room with tobacco smoke hanging in the air.  The bird singers are often exhausted both mentally and physically after these events.  Many times, Mr. Marcus would hardly be able to speak after perfoming the songs for a passing tribal member. The importance of teaching the young people culture, especially the bird songs is highly stressed at Noli Indian School as well as on the reservations. “A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older” (Green).  Soboba tribal hall hosts weekly storytelling nights, language classes, and basket weaving gatherings. Many of the other local reservations have similar events and most have annual gatherings and pow wows where bird songs are sung and danced.  Each day Noli School begins with tobacco offering and prayer, at least once a week bird songs are performed at lunch, often with community members in attendance, and special events occur throughout the year like presentations from community members and the annual gathering. 

The important lesson is not the songs themselves necessarily but the way they are taught and what they have to teach.  Since these songs are taught through practicing together, there is a strong bond that develops between the elder singer and his students.  Most men teach the songs to boys in their direct family; sons, younger siblings, or nephews.  Even with the resurgence of the tradition, the tradidion struggles to survive intact.  Life on the reservation is a struggle for the young men and many from the reservation die young or find their way into the prison system. Sadly, two of the bird singers I saw emerge from the school Dusty Rhodes and Joe Duro died shortly after they graduated high school from gun violence while others ended up in prison, or fell prey to addiction or crime.  This is part of the reason many boys at Noli School do not have that strong male role model to teach them the ways of their people.  Many of the families were led by women because it was the women that were the ones that raised the families and become elders.  This is where men like Kim Marcus and many others stepped in to give these boys instruction on what it means to be a strong, Native man.  They were taught what it meant to have cultural pride and a heritage.

The way these songs are taught are by experience and social interaction.  The men and boys get together and sing.  They sing at social gatherings like funerals, fiestas, and even just backyard get togethers, anywhere can be a place to sing.  At first, a boy will just shake the gourd rattle with the others, next he will hum along but eventually, he will sing. By the time the boy sings, he will have spent enough time with the elder singers to have learned much more than the words to the songs, they will have taught him about his culture and how to be a man.  They will have created bonds that hold the young man to have respect and act in a manner that is culturally acceptable.  This is why the method of transmission is so crucial for keeping the bird songs alive.  In our world today of electronic media, the songs have been recorded, the words and stories will no longer be lost but the tradition, the language, and the social interactions are also in jeopardy of being lost.  Now that the words of the songs, the performance aspect is safe, the sacred needs to be protected.    

The revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird singing. “The loss of the Cahuilla language, infusion of money from Casinos (in some of the bands), contemporary western culture and issues of mixed blood have all affected the intention of the singers and the purity of the bird songs” (Sing birds : following the path of Cahuilla power – National Film Network).  The culture of the Cahuilla people was almost destroyed through the over 100 years of forced assimilation of reservation youth.  Now that the culture is being brought back to the reservations, the people need to decide how much they will allow the old rules to bend in order to attract the younger people to participate.  This is not limited to Native cultures but can be seen universally. The issues have to do with who can participate, how they need to be taught, and how they must behave once they are taught.  This is not a matter of who is allowed to participate in social gatherings or simply want to know about the songs, which is open to everyone.  This concerns becoming a ceremonial bird singer; one that has the respect from the community, sings at special functions, and learns the sacred songs.  I will attempt to introduce and look at each of these issues.  I am only trying to look at the arguments, I am not trying to take any position on the subject.  They are part of an ongoing conversation within the bird singing community and in many Native communities.  There is no wrong or right answer, just a conversation. 

First, there is the matter of exclusivity.  The battle to keep the culture alive has not been an easy one through the years.  It makes sense that after struggling so hard to revive the culture, the people are now very protective of that culture and do not want it put under the scrutiny of those that do not understand the context.  Bird singing is a sacred tradition and the songs hold power.  Some members of the community argue that anyone that wants to learn the songs, if they want to do it from their hearts, should be permitted to learn.  They are more concerned that the songs do not die out.  Then there is the other side which wants to limit the songs to members of the tribes that traditionally practiced those songs.  They may talk about blood qualifications and tribal enrollment.  The matter of blood quantum and enrollment is a huge, heated issue in the local tribal communities especially since the economic boon of casinos hit those communities.  Members that have identified themselves with a tribe for generations have been and continue to be disenrolled to increase the payouts for the members that are still enrolled. I admit to feeling slighted as an outsider when I hear that tribal members want to exclude outsiders from learning their traditions.  This is natural but I have to look at it from the perspective of the people that are trying to protect their dying culture. It is not about keeping people out, it is about preserving the specialness of the songs.

By limiting the amount of people that learn the songs to specific individuals, the members are trying to protect the way the songs are transmitted and also keep the power and sacred nature of the songs alive.  While tribal members may also approach the songs in the “wrong way” just like an outsider, it is less likely that they would do so if properly exposed to the culture. When too many people learn a tradition, the tradition begins to weaken.  People begin to learn the songs without the traditions, they do not understand the power of the songs so the songs begin to lose their power.  We as humans value that which is limited, like time or gold.  If everyone could sing the songs, eventually they could lose their meaning, especially when the people singing the songs do not know the language.  It becomes more performance than ceremony and loses its power.

 One way to protect the bird songs from becoming performance pieces is to limit the way these songs are learned. In my mind, this seems to be a bigger issue than the first.  The manner of transmission has everything to do with what is sacred and powerful about the songs. The songs are not something that can be learned from recording or books.  They have to be learned experientially and through human interactions. Many would also argue that to sing the songs, the singers should know the language and understand what they are singing.  While many of the young singers know the songs and their meanings, not as many know the individual words they are using.  When the singers do not know the individual words and their meanings, it is more likely for them to sing the songs incorrectly, the songs just being sounds not actual words.  This is a criticism from some of the elders that do not just want to see the practice of bird singing survive, they want to see the transmission of language and culture to follow that practice. 

The last issue raised is the code of conduct for bird singers.  This is a difficult line to balance when trying to keep a tradition alive.  Similar to the issue of who can learn the songs because it is about protecting the power of the songs.  Reservations are known for their alcohol and drug problems.  Many of the young men that want to learn the ways of bird singing also want to experiment with drugs and alcohol with their peers.  The problem with this is what to do when a singer becomes involved with “small” infractions, like smoking marijuana.  For some members of the community, this is not seen as a “big deal” but others lose respect for the singers when they do these things.  Respect from the community is crucial for the songs and singers to have power in the community.  At all bird singing events on campus, the respect for the songs was maintained and emphasized.  Staff members and often other students would remind each other to remove hats and cease speaking as the songs begin.  The respect for the songs gives them the power and by holding themselves in a place of honor with a code of conduct helps to give those singers their respect within the community.

The future of bird singing is much brighter than it was thirty years ago but it is still a shaky future.  With high rates of death, incarceration, alcoholism, and drug use on the reservations it is easy for young men and women to stray from the cultural traditions.  I saw the young bird singers struggle with trying to stay on the path.  Even some of the older bird singers stray occasionally.  It is a difficult responsibility to hold the position of ceremonial bird singer.  Not only to keep a code of conduct but also to perform at so many functions all over southern California.  It is a daunting task that not many young men today are willing to attempt.  The songs may live on but the traditions and culture that are transmitted with those songs are still on shaky ground.    

It is important for the Cahuilla people to keep their songs alive but it is also important to humanity.  We are at an interesting time in history.  With technology and globalization, cultures are mixing and melding at a rapid pace.  This is at the same time wonderful and alarming.  It is amazing and wonderful the amount of information one can find simply by turning on the computer but what is the cost of this convenience?  Globalization can also be called assimilation into a larger world community and when assimilation occurs, often so does a loss of the original culture.  This is not always a bad thing, some cultures need change but they shouldn’t be forgotten.  By looking at the issues facing the Cahuilla and their attempts to revive their cultural tradition of bird singing, we see our own desire to connect to a larger cultural context and what that means in a society of instant information.  The transmission of stories, language, culture, and the mentoring to the younger generation are issues that face all of humanity not just the Cahuilla.

Works Cited

Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.” The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://augustinetribe.org/cahuilla.html&gt;.

Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power. No Special Ability Productions, 2009. DVD.

“Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network.” Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network. National Film Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <https://www.nationalfilmnetwork.com/store/ProductDetails.aspx?ProductID=1110&gt;.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

Among Snakes and Clovers

Growing up in Southern California, to me, Saint Patrick’s Day meant wearing green, pinching people, drinking excessively, being Irish, and people eating corned beef and cabbage.  It wasn’t a big deal but now that I am older, I really like Saint Patrick’s Day.  It is a day of metaphor and stories.  Saint Patrick was a real person that died on or around March 17, 461.  He was born in Britain to a wealthy family.  At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and spent the next six years as a slave in Ireland.

During his captivity, he was a lonely shepherd and became a devout Christian.  Because Patrick was a writer, we know that he had visions, heard voices, and was guided by his dreams.   God spoke to Patrick in a dream and told him it was time to escape Ireland.  In a second dream, an angel told him he should return to Ireland as a missionary.  Following this guidance, Patrick entered religious studies for the next fifteen years.  He did not actually introduce Christianity to Ireland but he did popularize it.

Saint Patrick is not only falsely credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland, he is also credited with driving out the snakes.  Ireland is one of the few countries were snakes have never been native.  During the Ice Age, the island was too cold for snakes and later it was too far for snakes to swim. This myth was most likely a metaphor for what Saint Patrick really did, he helped Christianity to prevail over paganism in Ireland.  Metaphorically, for Christians, serpents are evil creatures.  They are low, they slither on the ground, and of course, it is the serpent that tricked Eve into eating the apple and introducing evil and suffering into the world.  In reality, the biggest obstacle to Christianity in Ireland was the established Celtic and pagan religions and celebrations.  Instead of trying to eradicate these traditions, Patrick decided to incorporate them into his lessons on Christianity.  By doing this, he helped popularize Christianity and thus banished the snakes (paganism) from Ireland.

What can we learn from Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s most popular stories are false but his true history has much to teach us today.  Patrick listened to his inner voice and followed his dreams.  As a shepherd and slave, he dreamed of his escape, return, and conversion of the Irish people to the Christian faith.  He knew the importance of his dreams and he not only recorded them but he allowed his life to be guided by them.

Saint Patrick’s true success came from his ability to compromise.  His goal was to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. He was not the first missionary to attempt this goal but he was the most successful because he knew the Irish culture.  Instead of just trying to convince others to believe the way he believed, he learned about their beliefs and incorporated them into his own.  These incorporation made the Christian beliefs more acceptable to the pagans of the day but also more interesting and rich for those of us that celebrate these holidays today.  Think about Easter without the eggs, Christmas without the tree, or Saint Patty’s Day without the green beer (our modern day compromise of turning a religious holiday into a secular drinking event).  I like to think that it was Saint Patrick’s example of incorporation that led to these other rich traditions of merged cultures that have become our new cultural traditions and old historical rituals to discover.

America has often been called a melting pot.  In a melting pot, all of the original ingredients are melted down into one new creation.  This new substance is usually most characterized by whatever element is most prevalent within the mix.  America isn’t and shouldn’t be a melting pot.  We can take our example from Saint Patrick and instead make a nice hearty stew of incorporation.  In a stew, all the elements retain their unique characteristics adding to the flavor, complexity, and beauty of the whole.  Carrots on their own taste great but when cooked in stew, the flavor remains but it is enhanced by the savory warmth and flavor of the meat and gravy.  Our country is great because it is not a melting pot, it is a hearty and ever changing stew.

The lack of Aphrodite in “The Sopranos”

The Sopranos was a series directed by David Chase about a fictional character named Tony Soprano played by James Gandolfini.  In the show, Tony is the head of the New Jersey crime family.  His position should make him Zeus, the boss and in control but the series shows that Tony is really a broken Zeus.   In the first episode, he suddenly passes out while bar-b-quing making a dramatic explosion which leads him to go to the hospital for a series of tests (19:00-19:45).  This event also coincides with the loss of the ducks that will be discussed later in the paper.  When the tests conclude that nothing is physically wrong with Tony, he secretly begins therapy to attempt to end the panic attacks and regain control in his life.

For Tony, therapy is complicated.  He doesn’t see himself as needing therapy and he is resistant to the idea of therapy.  “They said it was a panic attack ’cause the blood work and neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here” (2:55-3:05). He is reluctant to seek therapy not only because in his line of work, therapy can be seen as a betrayal of confidence within the organization but also because he sees therapy as a crutch for weak minded people.  He thinks that talking about feelings makes him unmanly.  For a man that not only wants to but needs to represent Zeus, being weak and unmanly is unacceptable and leads to self-loathing. Therapy is not the cure for Tony, he needs Aphrodite to give him control and ease his sadness.  Even though he is Zeus and he has a Hera, he needs Aphrodite, especially in his business where he makes his money off of thievery, the selling of sex and pleasure, and gambling.  These trades need Aphrodite to balance the brutality, without beauty, a strip club is an ugly, sad place.  Without something beautiful to protect, violence is also ugly and only for the gain of power.  Tony is desperately seeking to have some beauty, something to protect, something to civilize his rage but as he seeks for his Aphrodite, he becomes more and more depressed with the frustration that he will not ever attain her.

Tony is diagnosed with depression; rage turned inward, and begins the combination of Prozac and therapy.  Even though the show spans several years, for this paper, the focus will be primarily the first episode.  The first episode is crucial to any television series because it is when the audience first “meets” the characters.  Traditionally, mafia shows focus on the men, the mobsters, but “The Sopranos” also includes a strong female presence.  However, as strong as the female presence is in the show, the lack of Aphrodite is just as strong.

In the series, Tony is surrounded by women: his wife, mother, daughter, sisters, strippers, girlfriends, and therapist.   With all of the women that appear in the series over the years, Aphrodite does try to make an appearance but she is always just out of reach for Tony. After discussing some of the women in the show, I will use four points about the nature of Aphrodite that Dr. Paris makes in her book “Pagan Grace” to show that while Tony’s profession does not lend itself to happiness and well-being, it seems that Tony’s biggest problem is the lack of Aphrodite in his life.  Dr. Paris explains in detail in writing how the loss of Aphrodite leads to depression but I liked this quote from class.  “She is the smile personified” (Paris lecture). Aphrodite is connected to civilization, flowers, and of course, sex and its purpose.  By showing how these four elements are represented, depression, civilized nature, flowers, and sex in the episode, I plan to show Aphrodite is not only absent but it is made a point of the show to demonstrate her absence.

Lots of women but no Aphrodites

After opening credits, the series begins with a shot of a naked female statue in the therapist’s office.  She is metal, hard and cold, not in the least bit sexual and Tony appears uncomfortable. Next, the first female in the series is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco; Tony’s therapist enters the scene.  She is attractive but she is not Aphrodisiac, more Athenian.  She is wearing a tan pantsuit and puts her glasses on to show she is in therapist mode. She keeps her arms and legs crossed while they speak, further distancing herself from Tony and Aphrodite (1:40-3:50).  Of the important women in Tony’s life, Dr. Melfi is the closest to Aphrodite.  He does experience a longing for her but she rebuffs his attentions.  Even in her personal life, Dr. Melfi struggles in the realm of Aphrodite. She is not in touch with the Aphrodite inside herself; she is always in the realm of the mind.  She needs Aphrodite as much as Tony.

The second and third women are Tony’s daughter and wife, respectively.  In a scene at the Soprano home, Tony is excited about a family of ducks that made their home in the family pool.  This is one place Tony shows real joy but it is a break from his archetype, he walks into the pool wearing his robe, the reaction from the others shows how it is out of his character (5:15-6:04).  It seems to make them uncomfortable.  Also, as we see by the end of the episode, the ducks, just like Aphrodite are impermanent.  As they walk into the house, his daughter and wife want things from him.  His daughter, Meadow Soprano, played by Jamie Spiegler, informs him that she and her friend are late for school.  Next, after a brief exchange to his young son, we meet Tony’s wife, Carmela, played by Edie Falco.  Together, Tony and Carmela make an excellent representation of Zeus and Hera.  In the first shot we get of Carmela with Tony, her body posture is tense, almost aggressive.  She talks to him about familial, social obligations and makes a cutting remark about his extramarital affairs that is so subtle, it can almost be overlooked  (6:50-7:16) but later in the episode, the extramarital affairs and loss of love is shown very clearly when Tony is in the hospital for tests (20:25-21:45).  In many of the scenes with Carmela in this episode her priest is also in the scene (18:30-18:40).  Carmela while not unfaithful like Tony has an unnaturally close relationship with her young, attractive priest that Tony insinuates may be seen as inappropriate.  She wears fine clothes and jewelry but she is fierce in her ability to protect her position as Hera.  She protects her family but is not loving toward her husband.  When she hears a noise outside, she does not cower or look for help from the priest who is at her house watching movies, she grabs a large gun and walks outside to confront the cause of the noise, the daughter, Meadow (25:00-25:21).

In this first episode Meadow’s character is still not clearly defined because she is still figuring out her own place in the world.  She is young and she battles with her mother for independence.  Later in the series, we see Meadow try to find herself by trying on a variety of archetypes.  She eventually becomes a college student interested first in pediatric medicine, then finally law. Eventually, in the series she does bring Tony some glimpse of the goddess and mild joy but in the first episode, she is moody and causes tension within the family.

The last and most dynamic woman to be introduced in the episode is Livia, Tony’s elderly mother.  Dr. Melfi says that Tony describes her as a helpless old lady but also as a larger than life character.  While she is Tony’s mother, there is nothing of Demeter in Livia and definitely an absence of Aphrodite.  Her house is old fashioned, Tony has to knock several times before we hear the half fearful, half angry response from inside and she unlocks the locks to allow Tony entrance to his childhood home. She tries to feed him and when he refuses, she gives him food anyway.  The conflict between Tony and his mother arises that he wants to have her move to a retirement community and she doesn’t want anything to do with it.  She is completely resistant to any kind of change and shows major signs of depression herself.  Her house is dark and stuffy.  All the windows and doors are closed and locked.  Her hair is disheveled, her robe is misbuttoned, and she is wearing worn, old styled slippers.  She seems to be a Hestia figure but she is losing her capabilities for living in her own home.  She rejects change and has an extreme fear of the outside world (14:46-18:30).  Now to contradict the picture of helpless, fearful old woman, we learn that Livia also embodies another archetype.  She reveals herself as one of the puppet masters of the mafia family.  To most, she seems like just another elderly woman but it is her cunning that makes things happen within the family.  Her cunning and position are only introduced in this episode but it is already clear to the audience that while she appears to be a Hestia, she is actually Athena in disguise.  While she can no longer manage to make herself a meal without a catastrophe, she is able to plot and scheme all the way to trying to have her own son murdered.   She is a major player and skillful manipulator.  If any person in the series would benefit from Aphrodite, it would be Livia.  It would go against everything she is to have Aphrodite in her life – she is the complete opposite and absence of Aphrodite.  In fact, the archetype that Livia fits is that of the anti-Aphrodite, she is angry, loveless, depressed, and cruel.

The important women in Tony’s life are lacking Aphrodite but even the setting lacks the goddess.  Tony works out of two places, an Italian meat market/deli and a strip club, The Bada Bing.  In this episode there is a scene where the guys are having an informal type meeting in the club.  It is bright outside and not busy in the club.  The men are seated at a small table drinking; they are not in the same room as the dancers.  They have a view of the dancers but they are turned away from them, they don’t notice them.  When the waitress does come by with drinks, she is seen as an interruption and nuisance.  For Tony and his crew, these women are not beautiful or even worth looking at; they are simply another form of income.  The women are topless and dancing but their movements seem somewhat mechanic and out of tune with the music, like they are bored or drugged.  Also, they are not really attractive but all this doesn’t matter because no one in the room is looking at any of the dancers anyway.  Even in a place where the goal is to arouse men, the focus is not on the beauty or sexual attractiveness, it is about profit. This is a place of commerce, not beauty or grace.

The Unattainable Aphrodites

Aphrodite does attempt to enter the show.  In episode twelve, we get a glimpse of hope for happiness for Tony.  His life seems like it is adjusting with the therapy.  Tony has encounters with a beautiful, Aphrodisiac woman named Isabella.  In the episode, we learn that she is visiting from Italy and staying with the neighbors.  She is graceful and attractive and Tony enjoys her company.  The problem with this Aphrodite is that she turns out to not be real; she only existed in Tony’s mind.   Dr. Melfi and Tony conclude that Isabella is the result of the need to alter Tony’s medication.  It is interesting that Aphrodite appears here as not only fictional but a result of anti-depression medication. She is beautiful and graceful and just like a flower, impermanent.

Another brush Tony has in the series is Adriana, is Tony’s nephew, Christopher’s, fiancé.  She is completely unattainable to Tony because of her relationship to his nephew.  In episode fifty-seven, Tony talks about his desire to be with the young, pretty Adriana to Dr. Melfi.  In the end, Tony recognizes that his desires can’t be acted on as it would destroy his relationship with his nephew and wouldn’t actually be possible.  In the end, it is just like Isabella, the Aphrodisiac experience only exists in the mind.  For a twist, Tony and Adriana end up in a car accident under questionable circumstances.  The nephew and other members of the crew believe there may have been a sexual encounter and Tony has to deal with fallout from an unrequited encounter with Aphrodite, the closest he ever comes to the elusive goddess.

Depression and the lack of Aphrodite

Tony suffers from depression; he is a broken Zeus.  His world is filled with ugliness and violence. He lacks beauty, civilized nature, and love.  Through the series, Tony battles depression and the fallout from being a mob boss with the perceived weakness of having a mental illness.  Even though Tony is depicted in scenarios where he enjoys being extremely violent and cruel (10:50-11:00); in reality the audience is made to have sympathy for him. The lack of Aphrodite, the lack of beauty and civilization causes Tony to continue to pursue the goddess but he never seems to reach her. This frustration causes him to have more and more sadness and self-pity.

Aphrodite, the civilizer

The world in which Tony lives is untamed.  It is crude and uncivilized.  Men settle conflicts with force and laws are regularly broken, not only as a rule of business but just in everyday situations.  When Aphrodite is present, she must be protected.  In order for Aphrodite to be protected, we must have rules and we must follow those rules.  Tony is quick to anger; he uses violence to resolve issues in most situations.  He is fierce and dangerous; he is arguably an Ares outside of the family setting.  Ares seduces Aphrodite and protects her but Tony is an Ares without an Aphrodite to protect.  Instead of being civilized and living in a way to protect the beauty of the world, Tony and his crew cause violence and destruction in almost every episode.

The Garden State

It is interesting that the setting for the show is New Jersey, the Garden State.  Gardens are cultivated and organized.  They are the safe version of Aphrodite.  This combines the beauty and impermanence of flowers with the civilizing nature of Aphrodite.  This is not Tony’s New Jersey.  Tony’s New Jersey is not safe, it is not civilized, and it is not beautiful; it is hard and gritty.  His New Jersey is introduced in the opening credits of the series.

The show starts with the view from inside the car.  The car is crossing the bridge into city.  Everything is hard and industrial.  The scenery is old, dirty and dilapidated.  Tony is driving the car.  He is smoking a cigar and we see the progression from the New Jersey turnpike to Tony’s home.  “The New Jersey Turnpike, at least the northern part, is an adventure. Its abstract expressionist shapes, strange lines and angles, concentration of various transport, kinetic energy and tumult, wildlife and history, the things you see from it, its concrete and iron and rubber, its noise and smells and speed, make it a thing of gritty beauty.” (HBO)  This is a good description for Tony’s New Jersey.  It is also most certainly a place that lacks Aphrodite.  It lacks her beauty, it lacks her grace, and it lacks her civilizing nature (0:00-1:39).

Sex in Sopranos

The last important connection with the series and Aphrodite’s absence is with the representation of sex in the series.  As I have previously discussed, Tony works out of a strip club.  The women are treated as objects for sexual gratification but none of them are in any way Aphrodite.  The sexual acts with the strippers are for commerce, they aren’t joyful, graceful, and certainly are not portrayed as beautiful or loving.  The characters do not contain Aphrodite so neither does their sex.  Carmela, Hera, has sexual obligations to Tony but that is not aphrodisiac, it is more out of duty than love or passion.  When we see Tony in sexual encounters outside the marriage they are usually more violent than beautiful.  Every woman he dates is psychologically damaged and depressed.  The women all lack Aphrodite and end up doing Tony more damage than good, leaving him more depressed and further from the goddess.

This wraps up Tony’s sad state through the series, there is no love, no beauty, no grace, no compassion, no tenderness; basically no Aphrodite for Tony.  While telling the story of a New Jersey crime boss we also learn what it means to lose a goddess.  Her absence is felt through the entire series.  The audience, while maybe unable to verbalize it as such root for the violent, sad man to have some Aphrodite in his life; an ease to his suffering.  Tony can’t attain his goal of attaining Aphrodite, if Aphrodite appeared, things would be righted and there wouldn’t be a show.  The only way the story could continue would be for the goddess to keep alluding Tony.  As Tony would say, there is no happy ending for a mob boss.

Works Cited

Paris, Ginette. “Aphrodite, Ares, and Athena.” First Session. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpentaria, Ca. 4 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Paris, Ginette. Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia. Dallas, Tex.: Spring Publications, 1986. Print.

The Sopranos. Perf. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Lorraine Bracco. HBO Home Video, 2001. DVD.

Page, Jeffrey. “The Sopranos.” HBO: Homepage. HBO. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://www.hbo.com/the-sopranos#/&gt;.

 

 

Fly fishing – hobby, sport, or ritual?

grandpafishing
Grandpa on the Santa Ana

 

Is fly fishing a hobby, sport, or ritual?  To answer this question, one must first have a working definition of what ritual is. According to my understanding of his article, Jennings asserts that ritual contains three key elements. First, that it is a pattern of action, something done in the same way over time. Second, that pattern of action is the symbolization of what is known or manifested through myth, this is the way we understand and explain our world through myth not science – it is symbolic. Finally, ritual is a means of transmitting and gaining knowledge (111-113). To these criteria, I would like to add inclusion, the knowledge is shared by sharing the ritual, it is through the experience of sharing the knowledge and the ritual acts, that it is through the experience, the participants gain a bond, and a sense of community. I will use these three components for defining ritual to determine if fly fishing is in fact, a ritual.

Some people may try to argue that fly fishing doesn’t qualify as a ritual, that it is a skills-based activity that lacks a deeper meaning, a myth, but to authors like Snyder, fly fishing isn’t just a ritual, it is an entire religion, which is the myth. He argues that there is a spiritual component between man and nature that exists in the act of fly fishing. He points out that “fly fishers around the world frequently describe their experiences of fishing through the use of terms such as religious, spiritual, sacred, divine, ritual, meditation, and conversion. Further, drawing upon religious terminology, fly fishers will refer to rivers as their church and to nature as sacred” (Snyder). As an avid river lover and fishing enthusiast, I lean toward Snyder’s assertion that it is most certainly a spiritual experience that fits all the criteria to qualify fly fishing as a ritual.

Pattern of action

Ritual is a pattern of action. It includes repetition, but not all repetitions are rituals. The action can occur for multiple individuals, like high school graduations or weddings, or it could occur multiple times for an individual like a ritual before a football game for a team or individual. A ritual must also have symbolic meaning, the actions need to have meaning based on myth, not science. Brushing your teeth every day is a pattern of action but we do it because we know, based on scientific evidence, not just beliefs, that it will help our teeth from decaying, so brushing your teeth is a pattern of action that is not a ritual.

Fly fishing is a pattern of action. Fly fishing is a delicately balanced sport, a mixture of scientific and mythical movements. Each flick of the wrist is done with a finesse from repetition and rhythm, the fisherman consistently attempts to improve his technique through repetition. There is a slow, meditative quality to the actions, a sort of grace in the technique that adds to the mythology of fly fishing. It is a sport, a pattern of actions filled with meaning and symbols that makes it a ritual as well a sport.

Symbolization of what is known or manifested through myth

In order for a pattern of action to be a ritual, it must also have a symbolic component, it is something based on beliefs, not proven fact. While those beliefs may also coincide with proven fact, they are based on what is known through myth, not science. The actions are driven by the ritual and the symbolism of the actions, such as studying the life cycle of a mayfly to connect with nature and learn more about your ritual, not strictly for the sake of data for future practice of the sport.

What is the myth of fly fishing? Snyder’s article is a great example of the myth of fly fishing, that it is a type of religion that connects the participants to nature in a deep spiritual way. Fly fishing is certainly a symbolic structure that leads to a knowledge of nature. To become an adept fly fisher, one must learn about the fish, the insect life, and the river and apply this knowledge to the growth and improvement of their ritual. I think these components of fly fishing not only show that there is a myth for fly fishing. The belief is that fly fishing connects the participants to nature, to a higher power, and helps them feel connected to their world, it is not about catching fish for food or competition, it is purely a way to “construe and construct their world” (Jennings, 112). Since ritual and myths must be learned or shared, ritual need not only be a symbolic pattern of actions, it is a way of transmitting the knowledge contained in and around the ritual.

Knowledge transmission and inquiry and discovery

Ritual is a means of knowledge transmission that encourages the participants to conduct further inquiry and discovery. The participants share knowledge with each other and are led on a path of continued inquiry. Rituals are a process of learning, the participants learn and grow with each time they participate in the ritual. Also, since ritual encourages inquiry and discovery, participants often gather information, like reading articles, studying technique, or other forms of inquiries when not actively participating in the ritual. Many fly fishers also tie their own flies, an extension of the ritual or may practice casting even when they are not at the sacred site, the river.

If the participants cease to practice the ritual in the spirit of the ritual and merely a set of actions, it is because the ritual has lost its myth for the participant and in order for the ritual to have that sort of transitive, sacred nature, there has to be a shift in the ritual for the participant. My grandfather told me about a time when a retailer gave him the opportunity to tie flies for money. He enjoyed tying flies and had so many, so he agreed. After completing a few orders, he decided not to do it anymore, it took the myth out of the ritual. He continued tying flies but never again for profit.

Rituals have a transformative nature and often lead to a change in status through participation. To be a ritual, it must manifest some sort of change, growth, or reflection and in society, it establishes the participants as practicers of the ritual. A person has either never been fishing, been fishing, goes fishing, or is a fisherman or angler. All of these terms are levels of status within the fishing community depending on the amount of experience an individual has had with fishing and knowledge acquisition. With fly fishing, the more a participant experiences the ritual, the more they study techniques, materials, and locations, the more respected they become within the angling community, which is true of most but not all rituals.

Participants in a ritual are sharing knowledge of the ritual with each other when they participate in the ritual. In other words, ritual is taught and it is taught through experience so it bonds the participants with a connection to community. Even when the participants don’t experience the ritual together, just both having the shared experiences bonds them, gives them a shared knowledge. The thing that separates ritual from just passing along knowledge is that it does contain myth, so by sharing the experience, we are also sharing the myth and beliefs. It is more than a shared experience, it is a shared experience that repeated with symbolic meaning becomes an action that unites us to each other.

Ties that bond

With knowledge transmission, there is either learning through shared experience or some sort of mentor situation. Most fly fishers fished when they were little kids, often with an older member of the family, sibling, parent or grandparent. For me, it was my grandfather who took me fishing. I feel a connection to him every time I go to the river or think about fishing. He taught the myth to me. Cutchins writes about this in his article, about how the participants of fly fishing expressed how fishing not only made them feel connected to nature, it connected them to each other, it helped to make them feel oriented in their world.

Fly fishing is definitely an act that bonds individuals through shared experience. First, there is the journey to the ritual site, the river and the shared enjoyment and the acknowledgment of the river as a sacred space. This creates a shared belief that the river is sacred so it should be revered, maintained and protected. Not all people are concerned with the health of local rivers but all participants of the ritual of fly fishing share the concern simply because it is their ritual site, a sacred space, and it has symbolic meaning. Next, you have a belief that specific techniques will help you catch a fish, like a special method of casting or place to fish. Anglers can share this knowledge with each other to establish and maintain intimacy because fishermen don’t share secrets unless they feel a connection to the person.

For me, I can’t go to the river or even think of a fish without feeling a connection to my grandfather. By taking me fishing and sharing the mythology of fishing he shared the ritual that shaped who I am today. I am part of the community of people who go fishing, I wouldn’t say that I am of angler status but I can connect with other fisherman through talking about fishing and our shared experiences. It is an instant comradery that is only shared with other members of the angling community. More importantly though, the ritual bonded me with my grandfather in a way that only ritual can do, it created a shift in my belief system, making fishing a part of my personal myth.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cutchins, Dennis. “Elitism, Keeping Secrets, and Fly Fishing in Utah.” Western Folklore 63: 189-202. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.

Jennings, Theodore. “On Ritual Knowledge.” The Journal of Religion 62: 111-127 . JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.

Snyder, Samuel. “New Streams of Religion: Fly Fishing as a Lived, Religion of Nature.” Journal of American Academy of Religion 75: 896-922. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 22 June 2014.