Friday, August 9, 2013

Sugary Myths

You say dirt-man and a rib transplant outside the Garden of Eden, I say ancient man copulating with sugarcane.

The cover story in the current issue of National Geographic (August 2013) is devoted to sugar.  Reading the article my attention was naturally caught by this sweet mythological tidbit:
"In the beginning, on the island of New Guinea, where sugarcane was domesticated some 10,000 years ago, people picked cane and ate it raw, chewing a stem until the taste hit their tongue like a starburst.  A kind of elixir, a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood, sugar featured prominently in ancient New Guinean myths.  In one the first man makes love to a stalk of cane, yielding the human race.  At religious ceremonies priests sipped sugar water from coconut shells, a beverage since replaced in sacred ceremonies with cans of Coke." (Rich Cohen, "Sugar Love (A not so sweet story)", 82 and 86).   
Fortunately the image of us replacing the cups of wine & juice at my Mennonite church with shots of Coca-Cola took root in my mind before I started visualizing the agro-sexual creation myth.  This myth did, however, intrigue me enough to try tracking down some additional information. Unfortunately my very brief search (I did not want to take too long of a break from my admittedly less interesting thesis research) did not turn up any good resources verifying this specific myth or offering additional information on it, but I did come across a few related bits about sugarcane in mythology that I thought I'd share:

  • Keith Sandiford says this about the role of sugarcane in some Pacific mythologies: "But an even more audacious narrative places the sugar cane in the imaginary as myth, indeed names it as the rhizomes of origins for the human race.  For among these same people, the legend arises that human beings first sprouted from a stalk of sugar cane, and that the first woman also emerged from a cane shoot.  A version of this myth associated with the Solomon Islands features a single cane stalk in a narrative of simultaneous cogeneration: two knots sprouting on that stalk each brought forht, respectively, a man and a woman who thus became the race's first parents.  Similar versions of this myth accounting for human beginnings cluster around other ancient peoples, but in almost every case sugar figures as an originary agency with the power to create history and set cultural flows in motion." (Theorizing a Colonial Caribbean-Atlantic Imaginary: Sugar and Obeah, 37.  See also Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World's Mythologies, 307
  • According to D.C. Gajdusek, the Simbari-Anga of Papua New Guinea "have a creation myth in which the progenitress of their people planted sugar cane from which sprang males who proved to be unsatisfactory consorts for her; these were all kwalatmala.  She then planted a red variety of sugar cane from which sprang real men with large penises." ("Urgent opportunistic observations,"89).   The kwalatmala in their contemporary society are pseudohermaphroditic males.
  • The Hindu god Kāmadeva has a bow made of sugarcane and flower arrows, which sounds tastier and prettier than Isaiah's vision of turning weapons into farming implements. (Catherine Benton, God of Desire: Tales of Kāmadeva in Sanskrit Story Literature, 16, 24, and 128).
The prominence of sugarcane in some of these myths calls to mind the importance of maize in Maya myth.  Just an interesting reminder of the ways in which myths reflect the cultures that birth them, including that culture's most important crops.

A question I would like to ask a Christian missionary: if you went to a group with some of these myths, would you change the Ash Wednesday liturgy to include "Remember you are sugar, and to sugar you will return"? (That's actually a serious question)  

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