by contemplativeinquiry

A Guatemalan story illustrates the traditional role of elders. The Goddess of Water has been dismembered and her heart captured by the Lords and Ladies of Death. Her (non-divine) partner collects her bones together and descends into the infernal realm to recover her heart. He succeeds at a price, returning to the earth’s surface with only a toe bone and a tooth to go with the recovered heart of the Goddess, himself do badly wounded that he dies.

Four elders – Grandmother Growth, the Father of the Mountain, the Old Woman and the Old Man – now intervene. Covering the body of the man and the toe bone, tooth and heart of the Goddess with a blanket, they sing their wisdom. ‘The world wept and whimpered in the ground while the two gods and two old humans sang the ancient life-giving songs’ (1). After the old ones have nearly exhausted their repertoire of 200 songs, the blanket is lifted. Man and Goddess (now a mortal woman) have revived and are whole. The elders comment, ‘it’s the same every year’.

The story contrasts the distinctive roles of the younger and older generations. For the former the action presents a vivid and dramatic trial. The old ones participate through their knowledge of the ‘ancient live-giving songs’ and with the relative detachment of those who’ve seen it all before. They have not ‘retired’ but they have progressed to a different and more reflective way of making an impact on their world, using their resources as culture bearers.

Martin Pretchel, who recorded this story, spent his life ‘married to the meaning’ of such stories. In the Guatemalan Highlands of the 1980’s the indigenous Mayan community was under enormous pressure and threat. Martin, a mixed ancestry outsider from New Mexico, joined several hundred old Mayan men and women and ‘like a friar I became another of their wool-blanket-wearing order, dedicated to remembering back to life She who had been dismembered and therefore do what we could to keep Holy Nature dancing’.

The story telling activities of the elders are not simply forms of reminiscence. They can a front-line in the defence of land, life and culture. (Martin Pretchel eventually took refuge from threatened assassination in an unfriendly US embassy and was promptly deported.) It seems that deep Bardistry, maintaining the long cycles of cultural memory, and current political witness go hand in hand.

  1. Martin Pretchel The toe bone and the tooth London: Thorsons, 2002