Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Villages of the Sun

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Modern Greek, which Madison Leake learned in the Cyprus War, was not a common language in pre-Columbian America, and by "not common" I mean "unheard of." Hearing it spoken by a southeastern Indian almost certainly shocked Mr. Leake. The speaker, who introduces himself as Took-His-Time (a reference to his mother's difficult labor), tells Madison that he learned Greek from a group called the Traders. Waldrop leaves their identity a mystery for the time being. Took notes, with no signs of modesty, that he and his countrymen are fairly sure Madison isn't either a Trader or a local Indian because his “dong isn't whacked,” and circumcision is the norm for both groups. Took's fellow townspeople, meanwhile, are less interested in the newcomer than in his horse, and are delighted when the gelding takes a nibble from an edible plant.

Having assured himself that Madison isn't dangerous, just lost, Took brings the visitor home for dinner. His pregnant wife Sunflower is preparing a corn-and-meat stew, using heated clay balls to boil the water. This is a nice touch; I know of no other authors who give much thought to the difficulty of cooking with ceramics. The house is full of intricately carved tobacco pipes, and when Madison asks if his host made them, Took replies bashfully “They say I do.” Another nice touch: boasting had its place in Native American societies, but self-deprecating modesty was more common.

Walking around the town before dinner, Took-His-Time introduces Madison and the readers to the local human landscape. The town has a plaza and a temple mound, where Sun Man (the principal chief) lives. Took mentions that social rules prevent Sun Man from passing his title to his lineal successors, an observation Waldrop probably took from the eighteenth-century French colonist Antoine Le Page du Pratz. Pratz was describing the culture of the Natchez Indians, whom we long assumed were the last Mississippian chiefdom, but whom we now suspect were a post-colonial Indian society in Mississippian drag. Since, however, we don't know how inheritance rules worked among medieval Mississippians, Pratz is as good a source as any.

During the tour Took tells Madison that the local villages all worship the Sun and the Woodpecker, whose image adorns their temples. They form a loose confederation which alternately trades and fights with the “Huastecas” west of the Mississippi River. In this continuum the Huastecas (the Aztecs, I presume) apparently expanded earlier and farther north than they did in our own time. All of these Native peoples trade locally-made “gewgaws and doodads” with the Traders, receiving textiles and metal wares in exchange. Took calls the latter “things we're too lazy to make for ourselves,” preserving his people's collective ego by side-stepping their lack of weaving or metallurgical skills.

One of the locals, whom Took calls Hamboon Bokulla, has a heavily tattooed face and hands. He is the leader of the Buzzard Cult, a group of death worshipers who have recently appeared in the Sun Villages. Robert Silverberg, in his writings on the Mound Builders – which I suspect were Waldrop's source for much of the book – notes that there is archaeological evidence for the emergence of such a cult late in the Mississippian era. Silverberg also provided the name “Bokulla,” a primitive hero from a nineteenth-century fantasy novel about the Mound-Builders. (“Hamboon” probably comes from “Hambone,” as I suspect Waldrop liked the idea of a southeastern Indian leader with a folksy Southern name.) Took observes that the Buzzard Cultist do not worship the sun-deity or the Woodpecker. Madison asks his host what he believes in. “I believe supper's ready.”

There may be more historically accurate Native American characters in fiction, but I don't think there are any more agreeable ones.

Coming next: Bessie, Kincaid, and the mysterious mounds.

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