By Eliot Weinberger, from Little Star #6. Weinberger’s books include An Elemental Thing and Oranges & Peanuts for Sale.
On June 9, 1603, Samuel de Champlain attended an Algonquin victory ceremony along the banks of the Ottawa River. He sat with the Grand Sagamore, Besouat, in front of a row of spikes topped with the heads of the defeated enemy, and watched as the Grand Sagamore’s wives and daughters danced before them entirely naked, wearing only necklaces of dyed porcupine quills.
After the dancing, the conversation turned to theology. The Grand Sagamore told Champlain that there was one sole God. After God had created all things, he stuck some arrows in the ground, and these turned into the men and women who populated the earth.
Champlain told the Grand Sagamore that this was pagan superstition, and false. There was indeed one sole God, but after he had created all things, he took a lump of clay and made a man, and then took one of the man’s ribs and made a woman. The Grand Sagamore looked doubtful, but, following the rules of hospitality, remained silent.
the frog groom
Each year, in the village of Pullipudupet, in southern India, a very young girl is selected to marry a frog. The customs of a traditional Indian wedding are followed. Half the village becomes the bride’s family, and half the groom’s. Accompanied by a marching band, the groom is led on a white horse to be welcomed at the bride’s home. The entire nuptial ceremony is performed: the couple circles the sacred fire seven times; the edge of the bride’s sari is tied to the groom’s sash; their heads are held together by the priest. After the wedding banquet, the frog is released in a pond. The bride returns to her life as a schoolgirl. When she grows up, she is free to take a second, human husband. An Indian journalist visited Pullipudupet to witness the ceremony. He asked the villagers why, each year, they marry a very young girl to a frog. No one knew; it was just what they had always done.
The Mara, in northeast India, say that ordinary mortals, when they die, go to Athiki, the village of the dead. There it is night when it is day here, and day when it is night. Fish are bamboo leaves there, and bears are hairy caterpillars. The spirit lives for a long time in Athiki, but ultimately dies and comes back to earth. The spirit of a powerful person turns into a bit of heat mist that rises into the sky. The spirit of a poor person becomes a worm and is eaten by a chicken.
They say that when people dream, their souls wander off at the end of a long invisible string. When they have a bad dream, they tell everyone about it. When they have a good dream, they keep it to themselves.
They say that there is a giant ficus tree growing on the moon, and the marks on the moon’s face that we see are its branches. Living in the tree is a headless monkey.
The greatest hunters go forever to paradise, called Peira. It is close to the one God and occupied by few, for one must have killed a man in battle, an elephant, a tiger, a bear, a small tree bear, a serow, a goral, a mithan, a rhinoceros, a sambar, a barking deer, a wild boar, a crocodile, a hamadryad, an eagle, one of each of the kinds of hornbill, and a king crow. Government troops now keep the peace, and many of the animals are no longer there, so it is unlikely that any Mara will ever go to paradise again.
The Lushei, neighbors of the Mara, believe that earthquakes are caused by the people who live in the lower world shaking the ground to see if anyone is still alive up here. When an earthquake occurs, the Lushei run out of their houses and shout, “Alive! Alive!” so that those below will know, and stop the shaking.
The Tso Chuan, a Chinese history from approximately the third century b.c., records that an official of Lu dreamed that he was crossing the Huan River. Someone gave him pieces of agate as food. He wept, and his tears turned to pieces of agate that filled his arms. He sang a song:
I crossed the Huan River,
and was given pieces of agate.
Go back! Go back!
My arms are full
with pieces of agate.
When he awoke, he was afraid and dared not ask to have the dream interpreted, for he knew that pieces of agate are placed in the mouths of the dead.
The years passed, and his power grew. Confident that the pieces of agate symbolized his great number of followers, he arrogantly asked for the dream to be interpreted. The true meaning of the dream was told, and he died that night.
It is not to honor the dead: it is to keep them from coming back. The heavy stones on the grave; the high walls and fences around cemeteries; the sturdy, well-sealed coffin. The dead with hands and feet tied; the dead implored to stay where they are. The dying sent off somewhere else to die, so the dead won’t linger in the house. Their eyes are closed, they are wrapped in a shroud so that they cannot see the way back. Circuitous paths to the graveyard; burials at night; masks on their faces that they cannot remove. A tiny house for them to live in, and stay there. Food and drink on the grave, the corpses dressed in fine clothes, money in the grave, so that they will not come back for more. A canoe or raft sent out to sea; the body burned to ashes; the body eaten by vultures. Loud noises, firecrackers, gongs, shouts, church bells ringing to frighten them away.
While the corpse is still in the house, one cannot eat, for it too will want to eat.
The name of the dead cannot be spoken, for it will think it is being called. The Abipones of the Gran Chaco had the given names of plants and animals. When one of them died, they had to invent something new in the language. The word for “jaguar,” a common name, changed three or four times a year. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was no one left who spoke the language and could inadvertently summon the dead.
Pascal said that all of man’s problems come from the inability to remain in one room. The life of William Sharp, who lived on a farm called The Worlds near the village of Keighley, in Yorkshire, and died on March 3, 1856, would be, then, exemplary.
Sharp, the son of a prosperous weaver and notorious skinflint, spent much of his time in the local pub. He fell in love with the pretty barmaid there, proposed, and was accepted. But on the day of his marriage in Keighley Church, his father refused to settle any money on the couple, and the bride’s father, in a rage, tore up the certificate.
Sharp took to his bed. He was thirty years old, and he stayed there for the next forty-nine years. The room was nine feet by nine feet, with a cold and damp uncovered stone floor and a fireplace that could only be lit on the days when the wind blew in a certain direction. The single window was not opened for the last thirty-eight of those years. The only furnishings were the bed, a small oak table, and — although it seems too perfect — a grandfather clock that had neither pendulum nor weights, and was covered with cobwebs.
He lay naked in the bed and refused to speak. When someone entered the room, he would hide under the sheets. Thanks ultimately to a bequest from his father, he was well maintained and fed, and was in perfect health throughout his life, though he grew obese and his legs atrophied and bent backward. At his funeral, attended by crowds of the curious, the coffin was a cube and weighed 480 pounds.
Someone once spied through the window and saw him spinning his dinner plate on his finger, in the manner of a Chinese juggler. But he was apparently not without problems. On the last day of his life, he finally spoke again. He said: “Poor Bill! Poor Bill! Poor Bill Sharp!”