It was night, and the menoronu (age class of initiated young men) were sleeping in ngobe (meeting place for the men in the center of the village). One of them did not have a wife. He lay there, looking up at the sky. He looked at a beautiful star and thought: "I want a pretty wife; I wonder if she'll marry me?" He fell asleep.The star came down to earth and took the menoronu by the hand."Who's that?""It's me, I came down from up there. Didn't you call me?"She lay down on the ground with him. She was very beautiful. When the day dawned she went back up. The next day she descended again.Early in the morning he gave her something to eat, and then he hid her in a large gourd so that no one would see her.
The beginning of a story collected by Professor Lux Vidal from the Xikrin Kayapo in Brazil, and given to me when I was her student in Austin, this is the kind of material with which Claude Levi Strauss wrestled. His work stands by itself as a masterful reading of myths and will continue to stand. Professor Levi Strauss, with whom I never had the pleasure of studying, still was the Star in the sky of desire for many young anthropologists and other scholars. His works line our shelves, and we carry them, like a gourd with us, wherever we go.
Even in this small vignette, merely the beginning of a much longer story not meant to be written but told in certain contexts, there is so much one can think of in structuralist terms. There is the opposition of sky:earth, aligned with women:men, night:day, women’s houses in circle: men’s space in center (ngobe), married:unmarried, adult:adolescent.
Quickly, by the star coming to earth, that structure shifts and the boy begins his transition to a man and the star to a wife. Coming to earth and eating food are the mediums of the change, the gourd is a womb and a medium of transport until at the end of the story, the woman returns to the sky and brings crops so people now can have food.
But there can be so many more transitions, such as the graduate student scholar who hopes to become scholar looking with desire on the works of masters taking them off the shelf and taking them home where he reads them and thinks with them, until over time, the master comes and gives the crops of scholarship to a new generation.
Levi Strauss showed us how similar structures of oppositions can align in very different material, seeking similar resolutions. Though he was a relativist, still he sought to comprehend the human mind. Part of what will always draw us together as people is how we think with stories and differences and how, though my world may be in Utah, while his was in Paris, we all share with those who worried about the origins of corn and how people got fire from jaguars.