Tony Hillerman grew up in Oklahoma, and attended St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school intended for Native American girls. One of the few boys permitted to attend, he developed a sensitivity for the various Native American cultures, mythologies, and religions.
He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, was wounded in battle in 1945, during World War II, and suffered for several months with broken legs, foot, ankle; plus facial burns, and temporary blindness.
A decade later, Tony was visiting Crownpoint, New Mexico, when he met a group of Navajos, who were riding horses, dressed in feathers, and wearing face paint. He was most curious and learned that:
“They had been holding a Navajo Enemy Way, a ceremony for a soldier, a curing ritual that exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle. Mr. Hillerman had himself just returned from the war after a long convalescence.
“ He was so moved by the ceremony and stirred by the rugged landscape that he resolved to live there,” in New Mexico.
The Enemy Way is the Navajo people’s method of addressing PSTD, attempting to heal and cleanse a soldier’s mind of memories of desperate and brutal battles in a foreign war.
All together, Navajo “singers,” perform almost 60 different ceremonies, such as: BlessingWay, Fire Dance, Night Chantway, Holy Ways, Evil Ways, and War Ceremonials. Included in each are songs, prayers, magical rituals, prayer sticks, masked dancers, and dry paintings with colored sands.
Each ceremony may last a couple of days, or as many as nine days. The singers display prodigious memory skills, reciting hundreds of words contained within the dozens of songs, prayers, and chants.
Tony Hillerman entitled his first fiction book The Blessing Way. In it, he included Lt. Joe Leaphorn.
Legends, folklores, and myths. No matter how civilized and sophisticated, a given culture retains stories of their people’s origin and progress from the distant past into the current moment. It is memory personified, and brought forward into the present.
The English refer back to Robin Hood of Sherwood forest, who outfoxed the Sheriff of Nottingham, and to St. George taking on a dragon. Certain Celtic gods—Dagda, Oestre, and Macha—find their way into the folklore of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people.
For those brave in battle, Norsemen warriors were promised a throne in Valhalla, a hall in Asgard, the Vikings’ heavenly home. Americans can point with pride to the giant Paul Bunyan, his huge blue ox named Babe, and also to Pecos Bill, who ropes and rides a tornado.
Brer Rabbit’s stories were printed in America, but they drew deep from African folklore.
And then there were the ancient Greeks. Their gods and goddesses were fun-loving, observant of human ways, anxious to redirect human beings’ passions, but human-like. “What is invisible is made visible.” Again, it is memory personified.
There was Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Dionysius, plus Hades, god of the underworld. To get into Hades, a dead person paid a fee to a ferryman named Charon, who carried that person’s soul across the River Styx.
Myths feature battles between deities, between good and evil forces, or tell of an ordinary person expected to perform superhuman acts, and thus transform himself into a hero. An example is Hercules.
Myths attempt to explain natural events. Zeus throws a bolt from Mount Olympus, and the ancient Greeks heard thunder and witnessed lightning. Myths contain early science, early literature, and early religion, and yet they provide wonderful entertainment and delightful story-telling.
Something is lost when the myths die, as they all do.
The current month is May. Over two thousand years ago, Roman soldiers in Britain celebrated the arrival of spring by dancing around a tree, festooned with ribbons, and thanking their goddess Flora. Hence, a Maypole.
The first of May marked the Romans’ festival of flowers. Hence, a May basket, filled with flowers.
In addition, May features Mothers’ Day, but for the Navajo, a Blessing Way, an initiation ceremony, when maidens become mothers for the first time. Also, May features Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor human memory, of those loved ones who have passed on during a war or during a lull in wars.
At any given moment, we retain memories of past scenes, of people we have met, of their faces, of their emotions that we have felt. We also sense the future, a series of blank pages, each with endless opportunities. If we want, we turn our memories into lessons, and our opportunities into challenges.
This weekend, try to remember and reflect upon each of your loved ones, those who have passed on, and those who still live. We can celebrate Memorial Day.