|cross-cultural comparisons revisited
||[Jan. 4th, 2008|12:43 pm]
LJ user malwae needs to post more often to her own journal. Her easily overlooked exchange with vakratunda on the long and intricate comment thread of crowleycrow's December 28 post is singularly enlightening with regard to a post I myself was planning to put up tomorrow (but will essay today because I want to hold off on my uncharacteristic Political Comment till I have had a day to read it over and think about how much to restrict it).|
malwae cites Central Asia from personal experience (which already impresses me) in terms of parallel development, diffusionism, and how unhappy one culture is to hear they might have got anything at all from another culture. Her point being that sometimes they haven't, it's just an obvious thing to do and only a limited number of ways in which to do it. (Cf. Ioan Culianu's never fully developed version of a sort of neo- rather than post- structuralism, the articulation of which in The Tree of Gnosis has just been referred to by crowleycrow in a comment to my own journal.)
Joseph Campbell actually started out, once he had gotten The Hero With a Thousand Faces out of his system, as an advocate of diffusionism rather than archetypal parallels, and it is easy to imagine trade routes, much more extensive thousands of years ago than we think of them as being, as having distributed ideas and practices to a degree that invited adaptation and imitation. (I remain astounded, personally, that the Romans were capable of adopting the Greek gods and folding their own local deities so seamlessly into the Greek matrix, except that the Greeks did the same thing, incorporating local divinities into the cult of one or another of the Great Gods. About which, Pausanius' fabled Guide to Greece is a revealing account by a contemporary of the cult sites in question.)
Having thus far responded to malwae, I wanted to express my bewilderment on the diffusion of the practices of Epiphany and why they died out in regions that regarded them as uniquely theirs and are now thought of as so tied to another culture that it is assumed they must have originated there. I refer to the King Cake as it is now known in America, where it had long been marketed as a New Orleans adjunct to Mardi Gras before recent Hispanic immigration returned it to its origins in Epiphany, where it makes much more sense symbolically.
This is the cake that now contains a little plastic figure of a baby that some lucky person finds in the slice that is often not-so-secretly marked by the baker so the buyer of the cake can, so to speak, stack the deck. (Not a pun, I just can't think of a non-metaphoric way of saying it at the moment.)
It makes more sense as an Epiphany cake for Twelfth Night festivities (New Orleans starts—or used to start pre-Katrina—partying afresh from Twelfth Night all the way until Lent). The longstanding practice in England, which really does date back several centuries, was to enclose a bean, or a sixpence, or some other object depending on whether the goal was to bring luck or to determine the ruler of the Twelfth Night revels. (This from my usual source, Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun: The Ritual Year in Britain.)
So now I am interested in finding out how Americans came to lose this custom so completely that it is thought of, if at all, as something people do in New Orleans for Mardi Gras or a custom associated with the Three Kings Day of recent Latino/a immigrants. A glance at the potted history on a New Orleans King Cake website reveals the claim that the custom declined in England after 1860 but persisted in France and elsewhere in Europe. The French apparently originated the substitution of a tiny baby-doll for the other objects, so the transmigration of symbols becomes even more puzzling.
As I indicated recently re Watch Night, the transmission of New Year's Eve worship services to the American South seems to have been multi-layered, since it is highly unlikely that the distinctly isolated Gullah cultures of the coast had much interaction with the Moravian Brethren immigrants upcountry. Just one more mystery that the folklorists surely have dealt with but that I haven't discovered the literature on.
The problem being that the easiest legendary versions of cross-cultural origins are the ones that tend to get repeated on websites; much of Ronald Hutton's research has been devoted to disproving popular assumptions about the pagan origins of customs that were, in the case for example of Scotland's burning tar barrels or the Up Helly Aa celebration, invented whole cloth by Victorian Protestant churchmen as a way of reducing the unrestrained public drunkenness of new year celebrations.
Hi, this is a bit random, but I just came across this post. I don't get to write much of substance anymore (I have a baby who takes my time and attention), but if you wish, I would be happy to friend you. (I have to protect all my posts because of my husband's work.)
I have forgotten the whole context but I know I was impressed by your original comments. I'd like to see what you have posted in the past, for sure.
I've friended you - I enjoy reading your posts also, though I don't have much time to absorb them.
If I remember correctly, somebody had commented that the fact that Native Americans do sweats lent credibility to the Mormon theory that the Americas were populated by the lost tribes of Israel. She didn't quite grasp that the implication is that two continents of advanced cultures couldn't have come up with the idea of a hot bath without help from indo europeans was condescending at best.
It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine, which is why I bothered responding to her in the first place. My husband (and now son) are Cherokee, and so I've been made aware of how vulnerable Native American culture is to romanticization and reinterpretation by outsiders.