Beauty in life and in death

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Oppitz. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.013


Beauty in life and in death

Michael OPPITZ, University of Zürich

Comment on Turner, Terence. 2017. “Beauty and the beast: The fearful symmetry of the jaguar and other natural beings in Kayapo ritual and myth.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 51–70.

On the fringe of a conference held in the summer of 1973 at Oxford University—a highlight of which was an impromptu fireworks speech by Sir Raymond Firth (dressed up in a gaily painted Hawaiian outfit) in response to a lecture delivered by Maurice Godelier on neo-Marxist economics—Terence Turner put a manuscript into my hands, entitled, “Myth as model: The Kayapo myth of the origin of cooking fire.”

I was so taken with Terry’s text that I included a detailed paraphrase of his myth interpretation into my doctoral thesis on the history of structural anthropology, which was soon to be published in German (Oppitz 1975: 314–325). This was perhaps the first printed reference to the genesis of a book that would take four-and-a-half decades to ripen: The fire of the jaguar (Turner 2017). Terry’s odyssey with this book—writing and rewriting it, changing, deleting, modulating, and amending it, announcing it and canceling the announcements—never reached the printed harbor in his lifetime. It thus became the most anticipated publishing enterprise of the trade and of the author as a postmortem single-book man. With this book odyssey in mind, one may call it a predestined coincidence that Turner lived and died in a place named Ithaca.

What attracted me first and foremost in “Myth as model” was Turner’s profound drilling into a single myth. This included the close adaptation of the original, annotated with illuminating indigenous terms; his focus on the affective reactions of narrators and audience to the plot when told; the sound and motoric quality of language and gestures; and the emotional states of the protagonists inside the story. It included the formal qualities of the myth, its structural features, and the recurrence [88]of a common generic pattern of what he called elementary “significant clusters.” And his deep drilling meant a constant alertness to the manifest and hidden connections between this specific myth, shifted into primordial times, and the social reality of the present-day Kayapo. Terry’s interpretation of the fire myth emerged indeed as a convincing example of a genesis story to be read as a model for contemporary social facts (Turner 2017).

After I had spent two years of ploughing through the monumental four volumes of Mythologiques (Lévi-Strauss [1964–1971]1969–1981), in which its author had disclosed and interconnected more than eight hundred myths of both South and North American Indian societies as transformations, Terry’s return to an individual myth common to a single place came to me as a convenient intermission. To the horizontal study of myth, in which concentric rings of variations from nearby to transcontinental distances were compared, Turner added a vertical study of myth, deep-diving to the ethnographic bottom of a single society. Both approaches I understood as complementary forms of structural research. For even if Turner had criticized his French challenger severely on repeated occasions and kept the label of “structuralist” resolutely at a distance from himself, it cannot be denied that both “structure” and “transformation” ranged prominently in his own titles and expositions. The concept of “transformation,” which would survive the short memory of anthropological discourse the longest and with considerable profit, was applied by Turner in a manner not directly intended by Lévi-Strauss: by interiorizing it, using it for comparisons on the microlevel to characterize relative isomorphisms between different episodes inside a single myth.

It goes without saying that both approaches to myth—an in-depth, vertical reading of a single story and a horizontal, comparative reading of many related myths over a vast territory—will improve in persuasive power the more they can be backed by a wealth of ethnographic context. Each of the two approaches, however, is bound to different dispositions: the comparatist, such as Lévi-Strauss or Dumézil, depends on and selects from heterogeneous material, assembled by others at different times and under unequal conditions; while the one-myth analyst, such as Turner, usually in the lucky position to fill in gaps by personal contact with his informants, can rely on more homogeneous narrative matter, dug out, arranged, and translated by himself (in his case, the provider and interpreter of the source are identical). In the end, both approaches complement and enrich one another, trying from different angles to elaborate collective ways of thought inherent in origin stories.

Terence Turner succeeded in doing this by circumambulating the Kayapo myth on the origin of cooking fire many times. It was his mythe de référence as well as his mythe de destination. And one can understand why. It was substantial, fantastic, earthbound, transcending, and it was beautiful—the right stuff for Kayapo children (to whom the myth was preferably told as a bedtime story) to learn from the adventures of a young lad the ideal for their own socialization. Parallel to the passage from boy to manhood in the fire myth runs the coming of age of society—from a savage state as eaters of raw food to the civilized state of eating food cooked—by the acquisition of fire, purloined from the household of the jaguar. The fire itself passes through transformational stages: at first, the only fire known is the sun, out of reach high up in the sky, not strong enough to cook meat; later, on earth, it is [89]the fire of a burning jatoba log, also red and round, monopolized by the jaguar out in the wilderness; stolen from there and carried to the central plaza of the Indian village and, from there, to the female households around the men’s house, the fire finally reaches its socialized destination. These transformational movements find their stage in the ground plan of the village. Born into his maternal house on the periphery of the circular village, a Kayapo male ends up in another house on the periphery, the house of his wife, with an intermediate residence (in his later boyhood and bachelor years) in the men’s house in the center. Thus, the architecture inscribes into its layout the basic pattern of society’s dynamic structure, to which the fire myth offers its own symbolic watermark (Turner 2017).

In his Marett Lecture, delivered late in his life, Terry came back once again to the jaguar myth, to the socialization process of Kayapo youths, and to the lifelong movements over the grid of the village layout—main arteries in his own life as an ethnographer. One who has spent considerable time in a society very different from his own will be tempted at times to perceive its body or parts of it as a sculpture, as if this society with its institutions and customs were a collective work of art—examined now with the eye of a connoisseur. Little surprise, therefore, that the late Turner moved his attention to aesthetic ideas of his Amazonian friends. He showed that in Kayapo perception, beauty as a quality of a person is less a gift that nature allots arbitrarily than it is one acquired painfully at the end of adolescent dramas and is ritually bestowed by designated relatives. The distinction comes in the form of beautiful names and valuables. Not anyone will be blessed by this honor and those who are not will be marked as commoners.

Beautiful people may pay for their excellence with a price: some are particularly prone to temporary madness, to fits of berserk and murderous fury, whose unpredictable aggressions are the antisocial opposite to the expectations of a beautiful person. This state, called aybanh (described in Kayapo as “eyes roll around” so only the whites show), is said to be transmitted by contagion through contact with the hair or blood of the jaguar or by consuming its flesh. An individual overcome by aybanh acquires a jaguar-like, ambivalent identity: awe-inspiring for its horrifying wildness and admired for its strength and beauty. The aybanh trance, moreover, is compared to that of a shaman—with the difference that the latter enters his trance voluntarily, always remaining aware of his human qualities, even when he assumes nonhuman forms.

Turner ends his excursion into Kayapo ideas about beauty with a sortie on death, the final transformation of the social and physical body. The funerary practices embody this process of disintegration. When a person has died, his corpse is painted and put into a hole, dug out in the soil outside the village. The hole is covered by a conical tumulus made of dirt piled over logs and mats. The belongings of the deceased are broken and thrown on the grave, never to be used again by the living. After a while, the tumulus disintegrates and the remains sink into the hole, keeping pace visibly with the annihilation of the corpse.

This poetical habit has its counterpart on the other side of the globe. When a shaman of the Himalayan Magar has died, his body is put in an upright position into a conical cairn looking north, the home of his first mythical predecessor. His drum is smashed and hung with the rest of his regalia into his life tree rising out of the cairn. When the cairn disintegrates, it may be repaired, provided the healer [90]was famous. In the end, even the cairn becomes an indistinguishable piece of earth (Oppitz 1982, 2017).

Both examples remind us of why we do anthropology—for the beauty of it.

References Cited

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. [1964–1971] 1969–1981. Mythologiques, volumes 1–4. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper Row.

Oppitz, Michael. 1975. Notwendige Beziehungen. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

———. 1982. “Death and kin amongst the northern Magar.” Kailash 9 (4): 377–421.

———. 2017 (1980). Shamans of the Blind Country. DVD Film-Box. Arthaus Musik.

Turner, Terence S. 2017. The fire of the jaguar. Chicago: HAU Books.


Michael OPPITZ is an anthropologist known for his ethnographic fieldwork in the Himalayas and many books on local cultures in Nepal and China, as well as his work in mythology and oral tradition, visual anthropology, and on anthropological theory and films on shamanic ritual.


Michael Oppitz
Professor Emeritus
Ethnographic Museum
University of Zürich