Indian Mythology

Winnebago Mythology and Literary Tradition


Like most American Indian tribes, the Winnebago divided their prose narratives into two types: those that dealt with a past that was irretrievably gone and which belonged to the realm of things no longer possible or attainable by man or spirits; and those which dealt with the present workaday world. The first is called waikan, what-is-sacred, and the second worak, what-is-recounted. No waikan could be told in the summertime or, at least, when the snakes were above ground. Waikan could not end tragically, that is, the hero could not be represented as dying or being killed except temporarily. Such an ending was, of course, conditioned by the fact that the heroes of a waikan were always divine beings, and divine beings among the Winnebago were regarded as immortal unless they belonged to the category of evil beings. The worak, in contrast, could be told at any time and had to end tragically. No worak could ever become a waikan, but a waika could, under certain circumstances, be placed in the category of a worak. The heroes of the worak were always either human beings or, very rarely, divine beings who had thrown in their lot with man.

The heroes of the waikan were either spirits and deities like Thunderbird, Waterspirit, Sun, Morning Star, or vague semideities like Trickster, He-who-wears-human-heads-as-ear-pendants (also called Red Horn) and Bladder, or animals like Hare, Turtle, Bear, Wolf. These animals were, however, really regarded as spirits. The Winnebago made a clear distinction, at least the Winnebago 'theologians' did, between the animal-deity who presided over all the animals of a given species and the concrete animals themselves. It is those presiding animal-deities who appear in the waikan. Certain of the animals belong to a special category, for instance, Hare, Turtle and possibly Bear, for there is some reason for believing that the first two at least were once deities who have secondarily lost their primary divine traits.

Like their close kinsmen, the Iowa, and their more distant relatives, the Ponca, as well as their non-Siouan speaking neighbors, the Ojibwa and Menominee, the Winnebago had a marked tendency to group the adventures of their heroes into large units, into cycles. The most important of these myth-cycles were those connected with Trickster, Hare, Red Horn, the Twins and the Two Boys. (Cf. P. Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles, Indian University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir I, Baltimore, 1945, and The Evolution of an American Indian Prose Epic, in Special Publications of the Bollingen Foundation, No. 3, Basle, 1954.) Perhaps it is best to give a summary of the contents of the Red Horn and Twin cycles in order to contrast the episodes found therein with those of Hare and Trickster. For the Hare cycle, see pages 63 - 91.

The Red Horn Cycle

  • First Episode

    • 1. All but the youngest of ten brothers are invited to participate in a race, the chief's daughter being the prize. The youngest, however, joins them and discloses himself as Red Horn. Red Horn wins the race.

  • Second Episode

    • 2. All the brothers are invited to go on a warpath. Red Horn obtains the first war honor.

  • Third Episode

    • 3. Orphan girl is told by her grandmother to court Red Horn.

  • Fourth Episode

    • 4. Red Horn pulls out an arrow from a Wounded man.

  • Fifth Episode

    • 5. Red Horn and his companions go to the aid of human suppliants to defend them against giants. They defeat the giants in a ball game.

    • 6. They defeat the giants in a game called Who can shoot farthest.

    • 7. They defeat the giants in a dice game.

    • 8. They defeat the giants in a game called Who can stay under water longest.

    • 9. They are defeated and killed by the giants in a wrestling game.

  • Sixth Episode

    • 10. Red Horn's two wives give birth to two boys.

    • 11. Red Horn's children restore their father and all the other inhabitants of the village to life, after killing all the giants.

  • Seventh Episode

    • 12. Red Horn's children obtain a warbundle from Storms-ashe-walks, and attack two spirits whose bodies are made of iron (copper).

  • Eighth Episode

    • 13. The younger of Red Horn's sons is enticed by a woman who pursues him and is demeaned.

  • Ninth Episode

    • 14. The companions of Red Horn return to their homes.

The Twin Cycle

  • First Episode Father-in-law ogre kills his daughter-in-law. Removes from her body two children. He throws one into the corner of the lodge, the other into the hollow of a tree stump. Father returns and finds the first child, Flesh, and rears him.

  • Second Episode The second child ( Stump) appears and plays with his brother. Father finally captures him.

  • Third Episode Father warns his sons not to go to certain places.

  • Fourth Episode The Twins kill the snakes.

  • Fifth Episode The Twins kill the leeches.

  • Sixth Episode The Twins kill the thunderbirds.

  • Seventh Episode The father flees from the Twins.

  • Eighth Episode The Twins direct their father to a village.

  • Ninth Episode Twins visit and kill the ogre who killed their mother.

  • Tenth Episode Twins visit the evil spirit, Herecgunina.

  • Eleventh Episode Twins visit Earthmaker.

  • Twelfth Episode Twins visit Herecgunina again.

  • Thirteenth Episode Twins visit their father and mother.

  • Fourteenth Episode Twins go on warpath with Red Horn.

  • Fifteenth Episode Twins destroy a beaver, one of the foundation-posts of the earth.

  • Sixteenth Episode Earthmaker sends his messenger to frighten the Twins and stop their wandering.

We are probably dealing in these cycles with an old Siouan literary form for, to a certain extent, we find it among some of the western Siouan tribes, such as the Hidatsa and the Crow. It is quite clear that, originally, many of the incidents and adventures recounted in these cycles, particularly in that of Hare, were independent myth-incidents. As such they are found throughout aboriginal North America. Nor have they always been combined in the same manner, even where cultural similarities were as close as among the Iowa and the Omaha. In fact, even among the Winnebago themselves, different raconteurs, while in agreement about what incidents and exploits were basic and had to be included in a given epic as well as about the sequence in which these had to follow one another, frequently added certain incidents and omitted others. This variability, large and small, must not be dismissed as accidental or as due necessarily to a faulty recounting of the myth or myth-cycle. It generally had some real significance. What we always have to determine then is, first, what incidents and exploits, in a given tribe, were regarded as fundamental and could not be omitted and what were regarded as secondary and could be. These same considerations hold for the various themes, for the way in which the actors of the plot are characterized, and for the identity of the actors. And this brings us to one of our fundamental questions: what role are we to assign the narrator in accentuating changes and even, at times, in bringing about new styles and suggesting new interpretations? This question must be answered if we wish to understand the nature and significance of the Trickster mythcycle.

It can be safely asserted that there exists no aboriginal tribe in the world where the narrating of myths is not confined to a small number of specifically gifted individuals. These individuals are always highly respected by the community, and they are permitted to take liberties with a given text denied to people at large. In fact they are sometimes admired for so doing. While unquestionably the accepted theory everywhere is that a myth must always be told in the same way, all that is really meant by theory here is what I have stated before, namely, that the fundamental plot, themes and dramatis personae are retained. In short, no marked departure from a traditional plot or from the specific literary tradition is countenanced. The liberties that a gifted raconteur is permitted to take with his text vary from myth to myth and from tribe to tribe and, within the tribe itself, from period to period.

Among the Winnebago the right to narrate a given myth, that is, a waikan, belongs, as I have already indicated, either to a particular family or to a particular individual. In a certain sense it is his 'property', and as such often possesses a high pecuniary value. Where the myth was very sacred or very long; it had to be purchased in installments. The number of individuals, however, to whom it would be sold was strictly limited, because no one would care to acquire the right to tell a myth out of idle curiosity nor would it be told by its owner to such a one. What actually occurred was that a waikan passed, through purchase, from one gifted raconteur to another. This meant that its content and style, while they may have been fixed basically and primarily by tradition, were fixed secondarily by individuals of specific literary ability who gave such a waikan the impress of their particular temperaments and genius. That they would attempt to narrate it as excellently and authentically as their most gifted predecessors had done stands to reason. The strict conformists and 'classicists' among the raconteurs would manifestly try to preserve the exact language of a predecessor. However, fidelity was not demanded of him. In fact, an audience generally preferred and valued a raconteur in terms of his own style and phrasing, that is, in terms of his own personality. We must never forget that we are not dealing here with narratives that were written down. Every narrative was, strictly speaking, a drama where as much depended upon the acting of the raconteur as upon his actual narration. This may seem an unnecessarily elementary point for me to stress, but it is frequently forgotten.

Only an example, however, will make clear the nature of the variations a raconteur can introduce without it being felt that he had departed from the traditional manner of telling a given myth. Two Winnebago, Sam Blowsnake and his older brother, Jasper, gave me versions of The Twin Myth which they had obtained from their father, a well-known raconteur who owned the right to narrate it. (Cf. Winnebago Hero Cycles, pp. 46 -55 ; 137 - 152) Of the seventeen episodes included in the myth by Sam Blowsnake, Jasper Blowsnake had fifteen. The latter, on the other hand, had two not mentioned by his brother. Both of those added by Sam Blowsnake clearly do not belong to the traditionally accepted plot, yet they clearly were not added without a specific reason. The first was introduced to add a humorous note to a humorless plot, the second, to bring the heroes of the myth into relationship with certain hero-deities in order to increase the prestige of the former, who were not deities. Of the two Jasper Blowsnake included which are not found in his younger brother's version, one definitely belongs to the Twin Cycle and was accidentally omitted by Sam, the other was quite unimportant and belongs to an entirely different myth-cycle.

The differences between the two versions are thus quite minor as far as the exploits of the Twins and their sequence are concerned. Apparently little deviation was countenanced in this respect. When, however, we compare the two versions from the point of view of narrative style or with regard to the motifs employed, the sub themes and the precise characterizations of the dramatis personae, then numerous differences, some of considerable importance, immediately emerge. Only when one knew the two individuals in question well can these differences be explained. Sam Blowsnake was facile of speech, sociable, superficial, self-important, possessed of very little religious feeling and with little interest in the past. He had, however, great literary gifts and a fluent style which was at its best when narrating personal events or novelettes, that is, worak, as opposed to waikan. He was fundamentally a non-conformist, and where tradition permitted, only there -- for he was until he was fifty years of age, still rooted in the old culture -- he introduced new stresses and nuances and at times even drastic remodeling. His brother was his complete antithesis. He was deeply religious, a complete conformist, insistent upon transmitting what he knew as faithfully, indeed, as meticulously as possible. Consciously he changed nothing. His version of The Twins is unquestionably closer in style of narration and in vocabulary to what can be termed the classical manner of telling this myth than is that of the younger Blowsnake.

The temperaments, the personalities and the literary gifts of the raconteurs are thus of tremendous significance in studying the myths of the Winnebago, in fact of all aboriginal peoples, and trying to determine what is fundamental, what accidental, what primary and what secondary.

Source: The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, by Paul Radin; published by Philosophical Library, New York, 1956; pages 118-124.

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