Friday, August 4, 2017

The God Who Loved a Girl (Taiwan; Amis)

The god Yileke was a carefree deity that roamed the Ninth Heaven.

One day during a jaunt across the sky, his foot dispersed a wispy cloud, revealing to him the land below. And what did he see? He beheld the people in rags as they stood by the dry riverbeds and parched fields of wilted stalks of grain. There the people stood, earnestly bowing under heaven, making offerings so that the earth could become fertile and alive again.

He heard their prayers:

Cloudless skies, 
No rain coming forth . . .
Let's all rise
To make our efforts have some worth!
Up the mountain path we wend
So the rains may finally return
And this time of need can once and for all finally end!

This entreating touched Yileke's heart, for he was a compassionate god. He decided to help the people. He transformed himself into a handsome youth and descended into the world of people.

Yileke brought a huge wooden top. He spun it once, and the farm fields were leveled and furrowed. He spun it twice, and crystal pure water flowed from the earth, irrigating the farm fields. In almost the twinkling of an eye, he had transformed the Amis people's landscape into a welcoming, fertile garden.

That very autumn, the Amis gathered a huge harvest. All men and women, young and old, now had beautiful multi-colored clothes to wear. All celebrated their harvest by dancing around the many bonfires that had been lit in each community.

It was at one of these bonfire dances that Yileke first saw the girl who would later kidnap his very heart. She was dancing around the fire with flowers in her hair, wearing a skirt of many colors. She dazzled his eyes. He decided to introduce himself, so, following the Amis custom, he plucked a fresh betel nut from a tree and tossed it into the basket she was carrying on her back. The maiden saw this. She ambled over to a plantain tree and beneath its branches sang:

The harvest grains have been moved into the granary, 
But the fruit of love is also ready to be collected. 
Oh, Silver Moon, 
Be my matchmaker!

Yileke walked over to her, this mortal girl who had enchanted him so, took her hand, and danced with her, around and around. The villagers laughed and applauded. They wished Yileke and the maiden happy, long lives together . . . 

They became husband and wife.

They were now together night and day, but gods and mortals cannot be together for very long.

So there came the day when Yileke had to return to the Ninth Heaven alone, for his mortal wife could not rise into the sky and beyond the clouds with him. How her heart was broken!

"I shall do this," said Yileke. "I'll turn myself into a heavenly ladder. Once you climb to the top, we can be together again. Once you are up there with me, you shall be able to stay. No one will be able to separate us, and we can live up there forever! What do you say?"

"I say, 'Yes!'' was her reply.

"Now, there's one very important thing, " he added. "Please listen carefully."

"What is that?"

"If you should make an audible sound while climbing the ladder," said Yileke, "the whole ladder will dissolve into nothingness. Don't make the slightest sound, not even a sigh. Do you understand that you have to keep totally silent?" She nodded. "Do you still wish to climb up the ladder to be with me?"

"Create that ladder and I shall come up!" she said.

So, Yileke, the good, dutiful son-in-law he was, said farewell to his father-in-law and the elders of the village. He then ascended into the heavens on a cloud and out of sight. Once he was back in his realm, however, he turned himself into a gleaming ladder of white jade that stretched down from the sky.

Wearing the dress that she had worn when Yileke first laid eyes upon her, the young wife packed some fragrant glutinous rice cakes wrapped in plantain leaves--a little taste of home--and started climbing up the ladder for her journey into the sky, towards the stars, and, ultimately, into the arms of her lover, Yileke.

So up and up she climbed, every second thinking about being reunited with her husband and lover. But how high the heavens are! The climbing became a little rough, and she chewed her lips to control any sound that might escape from them.

Higher and higher she went, passing birds and clouds alike. She started to believe she could see Yileke above her, beckoning to her. She looked below; her sisters and other family members continued to wave farewell. She felt her heart being pulled in two different directions. She now couldn't bear to part with her father and sisters, yet she couldn't stand the idea of not having Yileke in her life. Her heart and mind were churning together, each wanting something different.

And then it happened . . . She did something so naturally human--she let go a gentle sigh.

The white jade ladder instantly disappeared like smoke in the air.

"Yileke . . . !" she screamed once as she plummeted all the way back down to earth.

Yileke hastily and desperately recomposed himself to rescue his wife, but it was too late.

The god was inconsolable; his very spirit was crushed. He blamed himself for what had happened to his wife. He crouched down over the spot where his wife had fallen and cried an entire river, which emptied into a bottomless pool. This pool then became the resting spot for his wife's remains.

The god Yileke turned into a rainbow. Since that day long ago, he still sits silently halfway up in the sky, with one of his rainbow legs on the land, hoping that his young wife might still somehow climb up from her resting place to be with him.

from 
Cai Tiemin, pp. 16-19. (See 7/3/17 for full citation.)

The Ninth Heaven is regarded in ancient Han Chinese mythology as the highest realm of the gods. The same term was used in this story, suggesting an Amis' borrowing of a Han term to describe or express a local concept, perhaps suggestive of syncretism. The motif of a ladder to heaven is relatively rare in indigenous Taiwanese mythology (see Boris Riftin, p. 127, in 從神話到鬼話, or From Myths to Ghost Stories). More common, however, is the motif of the male culture hero the bringer of grains often a god, marrying a mortal girl whom he has to leave behind to return to the world above (Ho Tingjui, 111-112; see 7/6/12 for full citation). We know from many worldwide examples of mortal-immortal marriage stories that such marriages are doomed. In this present story, the inevitable violation of the taboo safeguards the normal order by ending the supernatural marriage. This reminds us yet again that some things are never meant to be and that there will always be some built-in "fly in the ointment," or safeguards to stop them. 

The story mentions the betel nut (or areca nut; in Mandarin, binlang [檳榔]; Taiwanese/Minnan, pin-nng), a seed, not an actual nut, that is chewed throughout much of Southeast Asia for its property as a stimulant. Many Han Taiwanese truck drivers or cab drivers claim chewing betel nut keeps them warm during the frequent damp, cold winter, though it is certainly chewed during the rest of the year as well. The practice of chewing betel nut spread from the indigenous population to the Han Taiwanese and is widespread on the island. Jan Knappert relates how the Indonesian word for "betel nut," pinang, is synonymous with the term "marriage proposal" and how in much of Southeast Asia betel nuts have come to be identified with courtship and matchmaking. (See Knappert's Pacific Mythology: An Encylopedia of Myth and Legend; London: Diamond Books, 1995; "Betel," p. 30.) That Penang, Malaysia is apparently named after the areca nut attests to the seed's prominence in the area. 

Motifs: A651.1.1.6, "Nine heavens"; A666, "Ladder to heaven"; C715.2, "Taboo: making noise (sigh) on way to other world"; C920, "Death for breaking taboo"; F52, "Ladder to upper world"; F152.1.1, "Rainbow as bridge to other world"; T91.3.3, "God enamored of mortal"; T111.1, "Marriage of mortal and god"; V59, "Prayers answered." 




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