Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Tattooed Face (Atayal)

Long ago, over by what is now called Dabajian Mountain (straddling Hsin-chu and Miao-li Counties) there once was a huge boulder.

One day, with an earsplitting report, this boulder split into two halves. Out from the two halves came a very young man and a very young lady--a brother and a sister.

They were the only humans around; there was no one else. So they made a home for themselves and lived together harmoniously. They both had attributes that complemented their relationship. The young man was strong and hardworking, while the young woman was quick-witted and lively.

Then they reached the age when couples would later marry.

The sister was sad, knowing something was lacking in her life. She thought, I want to be with someone just as the beasts of the woods and of the skies, in the same way, find themselves together. I want to have babies of my own as they do, but what can I do? My brother is the only one of his kind around. 

She knew her brother would refuse to be in a couple's relationship with her in this manner, so she thought and thought and finally came up with a plan. When she saw him, she said, "Brother, you know you ought to find yourself someone with whom you can be a couple."

"Don't I know it!" he said sighing. "Tell me where I can find such a person."

"I'll tell you exactly where. There's a person with bodily details like mine who lives inside the hollow of the boulder at the foot of the mountain!"

"What? Is that possible? Well, take me to see her, then! Let's not waste any time!"

The sister smiled. "There's no need to hurry. I've already spoken to her and set it up for you so that she can be with you together. Tomorrow you can go to her yourself. Now, let me tell you what she looks like . . ."

The next day the young man went to the boulder at the foot of the mountain. Sure enough, there was a young lady living in a very large crevice. She greeted the young man with a big smile and a warm welcome. This young woman had black designs on her face, lines and geometric shapes that ran across her cheeks.

The young man didn't care about the black lines on her face; he fell in love with her and became what would later be called her "husband." In time, they had many babies together.

Of course, the young man's bride was none other than his own sister who had burnt sticks and applied the charcoal to her face as a disguise. That is why from that day on Atayal women, before marrying, would always have their cheeks actually tattooed.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 2; pp. 26-28. See the bibliographic citation for 7/14/17.

The Atayal myth presupposes that the brother, at least consciously, didn't know that his own sister was underneath those black geometric designs. Like many myths involving the incestuous origins of humankind, this story deals in a very sober and prosaic manner with just what needed to be done to populate the world. 

Myths of brother-sister incest that result in the spawning of the human species are a worldwide phenomenon (see A.W. Johnson & D. Price-Williams; Oedipus Ubiquitous: The Family Complex in World Literature; Stanford University Press, 1996; 62). In some myths, the relationship is mother-son, with the mother's application of charcoal upon her face for her disguise (M. S. Day; The Many Meanings of Myth; University Press of America, 1984; 225). Myths from throughout Asia and the Pacific follow a similar pattern of the first couple, sometimes a brother and a sister, emanating from bamboo joints, a gourd, a rock, separate eggs, or from an egg (the man) and from a rock (the woman). From Taiwan alone come twenty-eight versions of the primal pair leaving a rock  to live as husband and wife and, later, to spread humanity (Ho Ting-jui; A Comparative Study of Myths and Legends of Formosan Aborigines; 2 vols.; Diss. Indiana University, 1967; 56-59; 62; 65; 69). 

Perhaps the motif of the rock spawning the first pair is a legacy of animist rock worship in which prominent boulders with suggestive shapes were believed to be endowed with procreative powers. More than one location in Southeastern China, for example, is known as "Waiting/Longing for the Husband Rock [望夫石], where local customs hold that a rock formation that resembles a woman holding a baby is actually a woman and an infant who were transformed into stone while waiting on a bluff overlooking the river for the first glimpse of a man who was destined never to return. Such spots, for instance, one in Guangdong Province and one nearby in Hong Kong's New Territories, are believed by some to be ancient centers of this rock-worshipping cult. The prevalence of such rock-worshipping sites on the Chinese mainland as well as in the Pacific suggests that Taiwan is in the middle of what was once a single cultural region (B. Riftin; 74; 82 [See the notes in the posting for 5/20/10]).

Motifs: A1273.1, "Incestuous first parents"; A1465.1, "Origing of tattooing"; A1595, "Origin of tattooing"; K1377, "Incestuous marriage arranged by trick"; T415, "Brother-sister incest"; cT415.5, "Brother-sister marriage."

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