Myths and Rituals: A Tribal Perspective

Peter Haokip
Oriens Theological College, Shillong

Today, we use abstract concepts/notions or ideas to speak about our life, its values, purposes, etc. In the tribal world, myths are the vehicles for conveying the same messages. For many ‘myth’ may be synonymous with something that is false, something not good, of no values and should be rooted out. But for tribals, ‘myth is the central pillar of their tribal life, around which all the rest is constructed.’ A myth is much more than a spicy story about ancient times. The content of a myth is not hard and fast. It is constantly being retold in the light of new problems that keep appearing. It could be compared to a ‘tree continually growing from a mysterious, unseen root, always forking out in new branches, as events rain on it and problems fertilize its soil.’

The myth ‘depicts the tribe’s home and preserves it.’ It is the whole range of its stories, is like the web spread across rocks and boughs to serve the spider as its dwelling. Myth is also the ‘invisible fabric the tribe spreads across the territory it occupies and the history it has travelled.’ It speaks of mountain peaks, rivers, trees, animals, etc. – the elements in the territory it inhabits; it also speaks about the elements of history the tribe has lived through like ancestors, battles, migrations, epidemics, etc.

Myth is the ‘key to the tribe’s life.’ It is like a catalyst in the tribe’s life, the key the tribe holds to read and interpret all that exists and all that happens.’ Myth can also be compared to the tribe’s encyclopaedia. Everything is in it: the ‘tribe’s tradition, its rule of life, its law, its medicine, its past, its present and the future.’ Whatever is important for the life of the tribe is found in it. It is the ‘expression of their way of life, nature and the world, the consciousness the tribe has of itself as a tribe.’

Rituals and myths are closely related in tribal life. Rituals can be called the ‘sacraments’ of their myths. Rituals are the re-enactments and actualizations in signs and symbols and festivals of their myths. The Kut festival, for example, of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribes is a ritualization the tribe’s closeness with nature and thanksgiving for the fruitful harvest of natures’s gift, paddy. No festival is purely celebration. In fact, festive celebrations follow upon the ritual performed by the priest. Similarly, Naga tribes ritualize the value of their egalitarianism with the festival of Merit in which a rich person throws a festival sharing his wealth with others so that he too becomes like anybody else.

Unfortunately, tribal myths and rituals are fast disappearing from tribal life in the name of progress and Christianity too. A proper understanding of the myths and rituals will show that there is nothing anti-progress or anti-Christian in them. As mentioned earlier, myths can be or have to be re-told and rituals re-enacted in new ways. This is genuine inculturation. Tribals who have completely given up their myths and rituals are in danger of disappearing as a community because myths and rituals are their identity cards.