Random Writing Friday: Essay about “Wisdom of the Mythtellers” by Sean Kane

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Women Digging for Honey Ants, by Christine Poulson

Today is the last Friday of the month, and that means it’s time for a Random Writing — something I’ve found in my archives of completed works that I’d like to share, that may or may not have anything to do with Finding Dragons.

I’ve chosen an essay I’m particularly proud of from 2012 about a book I was assigned in my Myth class called Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane.  That’s the Goodreads link, and the Amazon link is at the bottom of the post.

This textbook really changed how I started to look at the novel that would eventually be shaped (and is continually being shaped, for that matter) into Finding Dragons.  Rereading this essay, I realize that, almost three years later, there are pieces I’ve kept and pieces I’ve changed or rejected, but the overall premise — that this was a very influential book, and I learned many valuable things from Kane’s writing — is still sound.

I hope you enjoy it, and I even hope it inspires you to pick up the book yourself!  As usual, more information about the artwork above and used throughout can be found at the bottom of the post.

And one last note:  I’ve decided to change up my posting schedule just a tiny bit, as you can see from my revamped About the Author page.  I’m going to save these Random Writing posts for just the final Friday of every month, instead of every other Friday like I had originally planned, so I can continue to focus on actually writing Finding Dragons for the rest of the year.  I’m woefully behind in my “chapter every two weeks” idea, but I’m not giving up, I promise!  Enjoy, and stay creative!


Wisdom of the Mythtellers Book Cover

How Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane Helped to Shape My Novel

Written by Jamie Lyn Weigt, June 2013

In October 2012, I discovered something called National Novel Writing Month, a month-long writing exercise that takes place each November.  Writers from all over the world try to complete their own 50,000 word first draft of a novel in just thirty days, and keep track of their progress and support each other in the online community.  With very little planning, that November I sat down at my computer to try my hand at finally penning the story I’ve wanted to tell since I was in high school.  I had discarded the partially complete and vaguely medieval version of the story that consisted of thinly veiled versions of myself and all of my high school friends, and instead started with a more interesting concept – beginning in a hunter-gatherer society with new characters and seeing where the writing would take me.  

The point of NaNoWriMo is just to write, not research, so I relied on my basic knowledge of early human societies and worked out a decent societal structure and a hook for my protagonist – while her nomadic tribe still relied exclusively on hunting and gathering, she had been busy with sticks and reeds, creating a rudimentary fence around a section of wild berries to see if keeping other predators away would make her work easier and let more berries grow for her collecting.  I thought of it as “proto-farming” and knew this was actually the way early cultures transitioned from hunter/gatherer to agricultural living.

I only managed to write about 10,000 words of my first draft that November, but I did things like introduce the magical aspect of the story and get my band of protagonists “on the road,” as it were (although I had no destination in sight).  I was taking a Creative Writing class that semester, but once the semester was over, my motivation to keep writing dwindled and I lost focus.  The next semester, I signed up for one ancient history class (the focus of my Major) and this class, about Myth, hoping it would continue to inspire me.  

I was shocked at how much the assigned reading of Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane – a book many people in the class had written off as “hard to read” and “confusing” – motivated me to chart out the entire course of not only this first novel, but possibly the rest of the trilogy I hope to create.

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Kane writes early in the book that “Adventures involve the crossing of boundaries — in this case, the boundaries that separate us from the mythtellers, and that separate the mythtellers from each other” (Kane 15).  I knew that I wanted my protagonist to travel from her Paleolithic hunter-gatherer society and move forward not only through the world but somehow through time, encountering gradually more advanced societies as she went and crossing these boundaries, but I wasn’t sure how to accomplish that yet.  

Mythtellers contains a wealth of information about early societies and, new to me and probably more helpful, how these societies saw the world around them.  Using Native Australian culture as his Paleolithic model, Kane explains that they used “chipped stone tools, hunting and collecting their food, and making camps as they traveled” (Kane 16).  This is exactly the culture I wanted my protagonist to come from.  

Then, in explaining the transition from Paleolithic to Mesolithic, he talks about the change to polished stone tools and the shift “from hunting the great creatures of the steppes and tundra to exploit instead the variety of smaller forest-dwellers, like deer and wild boar, and … they began to fish” (Kane 16).  I had pictured my protagonist’s group as hunting forest game, but I realized I would need to adjust that and move her out to a steppes area, where her people would migrate with the big game instead.  This immediately creates a boundary between her group and the next group she will encounter, and that small change alone snowballed into the rest of my outline.

Kane writes that non-agricultural people “greeted all forms of life on earth as intelligent kin and, as far as we can tell, saw themselves as just another species sharing a habitat”  (Kane 19).  I liked this idea and thought it would bring a new dimension to my protagonist and her people, and made a note to incorporate it into their character.  He goes on to say of their myths that “Many of the stories warn that it is disrespectful to the spirit-keepers of the animals to try to hoard food or manipulate it into being” (Kane 19).  I read that sentence two or three times over in shock, and then looked again at the “hook” I’d written in for my protagonist, and knew her proto-farming of the berries had to go.  Instead of that being her idea now, I plan to make that someone else’s idea in her band, a breaking of a taboo that will have consequences for them all and possibly lead to her leaving the band on her journey.  

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I am also planning to create more of what Kane describes as mythic centers, “places of local meaning where mystery is felt — this narrowing in a river, this headwater where the salmon come during the time of the fair-weather clouds” (Kane 61).  Describing the idea of a boundary in more detail, Kane writes:

“This separation of the mysterious and familiar has a practical advantage.  It segregates the world of the mysterious others from the world human beings have some control over.  Without that boundary, the world of mystery does not stand apart from the world of human making; each world contaminates the other” (Kane 102).

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Another aspect of Kane’s book that really inspired ideas for my overall story was his description of the Haida culture of the Pacific Northwest.  I had been looking for a transitional culture between my hunter/gatherer protagonist and the antagonistic agricultural society, and the Haida are a great answer.  According to Kane, they are “a culture of substantial towns, high technology, fine art, some polished stone and virtually no agriculture” (Kane 17).  Instead of expending the energy to hunt big game high and low, the Haida “depended on the scheduling of food resources within a defined territory.  They did not have to chase the food; the food came to them in the form of salmon and halibut and the various animals attracted to the fish run” (Kane 17).  Even without doing much more research into this culture, I am able to spin out of these descriptions a society that is very different from where my protagonist comes from.  

I intend to have my protagonist’s homeland separated from the Haida culture by the first major boundary in the story – a mountain range that will have mystical properties, and some sort of mystical portal as the passageway through.  Then, she will discover the Haida living on the other side of the mountain range and on the edge of the next major boundary, a large body of water, either an enormous lake or small sea that will have its own mystical properties and another mystical portal through it to the other side and the next area.  In both societies and those beyond, these boundaries will have myths and legends associated with them that I would not have fully been able to imagine without Kane’s descriptions.

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I also credit Kane with the portal idea, as I was having difficulty figuring out how my protagonist and her troupe could cross these boundaries when others could not.  He notes that “These supernatural Otherworlds are ascribed to parts of the created world that humans cannot see or reach easily.  The realms are in the sky, across the sea or under it, under a river, at a mountain top, or beneath the earth” (Kane 106).  His notes about how things may be done backwards, or opposite to what the visitor expects are “a dramatic way for the mythteller to mark the Otherness of the spirit world” (Kane 108) and will certainly help my shape the landscape.  I also realized that my protagonists will need a guide through these portals, but Kane explains that there are often “beings of the boundary … who give … advice to travelers between worlds and keep … the energies of the worlds reconciled” (Kane 109).  The last note about these portals I found compelling was this passage, which will make sure I increase the dramatic tension as they cross each successive boundary:

“Partly to differentiate these encroaching worlds further, the mythtellers emphasize a change that happens to whoever crosses the boundary between two realms.  This change is an important and almost universal event in mythtelling.  Since the boundary separates one state of being from another, any passage across a boundary involves a temporary sacrifice of an essential part of the self in the interests of communication.  That change is, at the very least, a physical transformation; at the most, a death in one world and rebirth in the other.”  (Kane 110)

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There are numerous other passages I marked in Mythtellers that I intend to keep in mind when searching for inspiration during the writing process.  Kane writes, “By listening to the subtle changes in echo and pitch as he turns his head from side to side while singing, the Bibayak hunter can gauge his position in the jungle” (Kane 117), and describes “… the hundreds of silver prayer wheels in the mountain temples of Nepal:  one spins the wheels, just as one walks around the circle of wheels, clockwise; otherwise all the prayers that have come before will be unwound” (Kane 107).  

There is the story of the hunter who is given the option of riches but instead chooses the ability to understand the conversations of the birds and animals (Kane 114), and the story of the woman who amazes the gods when she pulls fresh clam shells from her purse to eat with; as the gods do not have access to many shells, this tells us “something about the limited power in the realm of the practical of sea-spirits who are used to getting what they want by dreaming” versus “the inspired practicality of the humans” (Kane 171).  

A final example of the wonderful information Kane shares is the about Kula, an exchange made between people living on the islands off the New Guinea coast.  The custom of exchanging red and white shell bracelets and necklaces, which have no ornamental or commercial value but have a specific social function, marks, “by a gesture of reciprocation[,] a continuing relationship between individuals and societies involved together in a great undulating web of pattern” (Kane 196).  

All of these pieces from Kane’s Wisdom of the Mythtellers will somehow mix with all of my past and future research to help me create my novel, and hopefully someday I will become a published author.  Mythtellers will always remind me of the milestones I passed at this point in my writing process, and will definitely remain a source of inspiration going forward.

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Works Cited
Kane, Sean.  Wisdom of the Mythtellers.  Ontario, Canada:  broadview press, 1998.  Print.

This post is copyright © Jamie Lyn Weigt.  All rights reserved.  Please do not share without credit and a direct link back to this post and my site, writingdragonsblog.com.

From the website “Indigenous Instyle: Beautiful Handpicked [Austrailian] Aboriginal Art” about this work by Christine Poulson:

This painting depicts the story of women digging for honey ants. There are several groups of women (“u” shapes) sitting around the honey ant holes (concentric dotted circles) with their digging sticks and bowls for collecting the ants. The dotted lines connecting several dotted concentric circles in the centre of the painting represent the ants’ tunnels in the ground.

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Image Credits:
Book Cover, Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane (Amazon)
Women Digging for Honey Ants by Christine Poulson


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