We were recently privileged to speak at the 2017 Pop Culture Conference in San Diego, Ca. Sand Diego is city that is proud of its art, something that is evident even in its airport. Among a number of exhibits, permanent and temporary, my wife and I were both taken aback by the beauty of the large, woven, mythically themed Huichol murals that adorned the Gateways to the Americas exhibit.
The Huichol are native Mexicans. They live in the upper regions of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, in the Western states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango:
Unlike many other tribes, they have actively refused to assimilate Christianity, be it Catholic or Protestant. Known for their beautiful artwork with textiles, they have diligently preserved their traditions against the onslaught of modernity (this includes their continued practice of Shamanism, as well as the sacramental consumption of the entheogenic cactus, peyote).
Many scholars/researchers favor a diffusion/dispersion approach to the spread of myths; few would question the relationship between the Mesopotamian flood accounts and those found in Genesis (for more on diffusion/dispersion vs. universalism/archetypes, check out this older post: The Collective Unconscious Vs. Dispersion).
However, the Huichol are a New World away from Mesopotamia and Canaan, and as already stated, have steadfastly kept their culture uncompromised. So the fact that they have their own flood tale seems to hint that something else might be at play. Here’s the story, in a nutshell:
Once, there was a First World, filled with animal people.
Watákame was the only animal person who worked hard, and paid honor to the Gods (in one variant, he is a deity himself). He, along with his little black dog, were busy felling trees so he could plant corn. He cut down the trees, and retired to his abode.
The next day he came back to plant the seeds, but to his amazement, the trees had grown back. He cut them down again, but this time hid in wait, to see what strange magic was at work.
An old crone, supported by a cane, came to the clearing. She pointed to the four sacred sites (one of which, Wirikuta, sacred for the gathering of peyote), using her cane almost like a wand, and then raised it skyward. Watákame looked on as all of the trees reassembled themselves.
Angrily, he demanded to know her identity.
“Takutuzi Nakawé, Goddess of Living Things.” replied the aged woman.
She brought out a mirror, and gazed into it.
After a while, she looked at him gravely. “You work too hard, considering the First World is about to end.”
Watákame was stunned by her statement. She obviously had power; he decided to heed her words.
“In five days, the Gods will destroy the First World in a deluge; the rains will drown the animal people. Listen to me, and you alone will survive.”
The little black dog yipped.
“And your little dog, too.”
She instructed him to carve a canoe, with a covering, from the largest tree he could find, and it drag it the top of a nearby mountain. She also instructed him to gather five different colors of seed: corn seed, squash seed, and the seeds of all the trees.
Watákame went to work, and as the fifth day approached, he carried his vessel to the mountains summit. As soon as he placed the boat down, the rains started. Safe with his little black dog, he hunkered down as the old crone, the Goddess Nakawé, clambered aboard. Once settled, she used her magic cane to invoke the four sacred sites, and the angry skies above. As she did, the canoe started rising with the waters.
For five years, they floated on the primordial ocean. On this journey, Watákame was befriended by the God Tatewarí and his deer spirit guide, Kauyumári. Tatewarí, as the God of Flames, ensured that Watákame would have access to fire when flood finally abated.
Eventually, when the flood subsided and the New World emerged, Watákame set about becoming a Shaman, while the Old Woman went around creating animals. In time, Watákame’s little black dog was magically transformed into a woman, Yokawima. The two married and had children; and so it was that Watákame became the progenitor of the Huichol people, as well as their first Shaman.
(this telling is a combination of versions presented by Thomas John Erdhart and by the team of Hallie N. Love and Bonnie Larson (their version can be found in Watakame’s Journey: The Story of the Great Flood and the New World)). I’ve taken some creative liberties in joining the two sources; any misrepresentations of the oral source tradition are mine).
So, from the standpoint of mythological theory, we have a few options:
Dispersion/Diffusion: the Huichol encountered a flood myth in their travels, or were introduced to it by outsiders who joined their group.
Archetypal/Collective Unconscious/Universalist: something in the human psyche, be it a psychological or evolutionary/biological archetype, finds its way into the collective, tribal consciousness of people everywhere, regardless of culture.
Historical: There was, at one time a Great Flood, or at least enough historic floods at different times and places to find a place in most culture’s mythologies.
Pre-Natal Memory: the act of being born, the breaching of the amniotic sac (“breaking water”), is a deep seated memory in most people’s lives, barring a c-section. This is an argument that runs parallel to Carl Sagan’s theory of NDEs (Near Death Experiences); he suggested that the feeling of weightlessness (i.e. ascending) and moving towards the light could be a memory of passing through the birth canal.
I’m not here to sell theories; I can find convincing points in all of the four approaches I’ve mentioned, and there are many, many more. At the end of the day, I’m more interested in the stories themselves over how they came to be, or even what is they “represent”. Still, with a group as self-isolated as the Huichol, who have historically lived on the higher elevations of the Sierra Madre Occidental range, the dispersion/diffusion theory and the historical theory seem (to me) less likely. Psycho/Bio Archetypes, or Prenatal Memories? They might even be one and the same.
No mater how it came to be, we love the story, and we love the art. We hope you enjoyed it as well.