A REVIEW OF GRAY WOLF STORIES BY BERNARD SEXTON
Gray Wolf Stories: Indian Mystery Tales of Coyote, Animals and Men by Bernard Sexton and with illustrations by Gwenyth Waugh was published by Macmillan in New York in 1921. In later editions, the author used the pen name “Peter Gray Wolf”.
An Odd Trojan Horse
by Lev ben Shmuel, 24 January 2023
Seemingly innocuous and intended for children, Gray Wolf Stories: Indian Mystery Tales of Coyote, Animals and Men carries heavily charged cargo. The work is pervaded by a warmth of spirit, an expected youthful exuberance and lightness considering the intended audience, but a profound undercurrent makes itself quite palpable to those who know. Even the preface somewhat betrays an atavistic longing, a message of rejuvenation that, necessarily, cannot quite appeal to those still blessed with the fullness of youth, but can only speak to sentimental sorts whose vision of Spring remains crowned and set on high altars in their hearts, the aeterna primavera so enshrined.
Supposedly transmitting faithful renderings of traditional Native American materials, sourced from a variety of tribes, we may yet detect a certain literary license. How much has been altered or added cannot at this moment be precisely determined, little more than convenient transitions and interjections if my suspicions are correct, but we must trust the author's claim of scholarly fidelity and place some stock in the reliability of the publisher’s name to vouch for him. The author himself, Bernard Sexton a.k.a Peter Gray Wolf, remains virtually unknown with slight traces of his other childrens’ writings and contributions to a few political journals scattered about. If anyone were knowledgeable concerning either the validity of the lore in the book or regarding the author himself, then please do share your information.
To begin the examination of this talked-up discovered treasure, our efforts will be most rewarded if we focus carefully upon certain details in the first chapter of the first section, “Owl Man Takes Boy to Mystery Valley”. My theory is that the story taken from the Salish tribe has certain ritualistic affinities with the Hellenic, especially Doric, practice of paiderastia, and we may thus have before us an authentic testament to this practice embodied in the canons of the Natives themselves. There are three main points which support this conclusion:
1). ‘Boy’ or ‘Acorn’ would seem to undergo a ritualized bridal kidnapping, one which his parents are notified of. Although the structure of the story places this parental notification after the kidnapping, there is a strange similarity to the Doric custom of paiderastia in which the father of the youth or beloved would be notified of the lover’s intentions beforehand. Examining the text, there is not even the slightest suggestion of real protest or surprise on the parents’ side. The duration of this ‘marriage’ would last until the boy had been transformed into a kouros, a young man, much as it is said plainly in the text. It may be that eight, the age given for Acorn, was the original age prescribed for entry upon such a relationship. If we remember that the pages (possibly deriving from pais) of Mediaeval Europe were sent off to be received in a ritualized foster parentage at the age of seven, serving the lord of the manor and in return receiving training in the cultural practices of elite society, being eligible by the age of fourteen to become a squire (a ceremonial shield-bearer) and at twenty-one to become a knight, then we might find the septennial cycles so revered by Solon (as recorded by Philo) were indeed primeval, deeply ingrained senses of development - the first accomplished cycle allowed the high-born youths to enlist for the ‘program’ which would last through the second and perhaps most of the third cycles.
2). There is a definite purpose or intention to socialize or educate/initiate the beloved boy (Acorn) through the period spent with the lover (Owl Man), much as Hellenic paiderastia served as the medium through which paideia was effectively transmitted. Appearing very prominently would seem to be the ceremonial gifts of a, “complete hunter's suit, with a new bow and seven arrows,” and, along with this making-of-the-hunter (see Sergent, Homosexuality in Greek Myth, for the hunter and gift symbolism), the prime purpose or central focus around which the curriculum was structured in the Greek counterpart, so too is the youth, throughout the other stories, to be initiated into the ‘mysteries’ or sacred histories or mythologies of the various tribes. Here we may briefly remark that the mytho-bardic tradition, necessarily containing the musical and singing/reciting components, those appraisals of worthy delivery which would further develop into the art of rhetoric, as well as gymnastics (in the martial dances) along with medicine as we know it (as the warriors must forage and constantly find better medicines and treatments for their wounds in their enforced exile and exposure to constant combat in the wild), all of which constituted the core of Hellenic education (paideia), gain their impulse in the Koryos groups living on the outskirts of the village whose rite-of-passage and method-of-instruction was itself paiderastia. Moreover, this is the promise which seems to comfort the parents, that their child shall be made into a great man, a Shaman or Hero, a Virtuous man who shall benefit his community. We may even posit here that, just as the eromenos in the Doric practice was called ‘kleo’, the famous, and it was considered a shame for Doric youths to not have an erastes, this was a highly selective custom which only the few were allowed to participate in and 'receive', to be imbued with, the transmitted arete or Excellence, to hear the inspiring words or imbibe something more naturally vital. In other words, it was an honor to be chosen to receive an injection of Honor, that most abstract and yet dynamically potent concept. As a further side note, this would explain why many myths died out, for the sole reason that they were indeed selectively entrusted only to quasi-princelings outside of the common bounds of society.
3). This rite-of-passage has the dual chthonic and wild aspects which run parallel to the Greek counterpart. Boy is conducted through a tunnel into ‘Mystery Valley’, a subterranean location, thus at once becoming associated with the environment of the ‘black hunter’ on the periphery of society and also becoming intimate with Death. Concerning Owl Man in this respect, the Natives most clearly identified the owl as having a death attribute, and this may correspond with the hint in the Greek myth of Admetus and Apollo, in the sense that the former’s name, ‘the untameable’, is a euphemism for Death, and Apollo, the archetypal youth, is thus ‘married’ to Death (as the lover assumes the identity of Death itself in a hierophantic sense) or placed in his service. The boy, still considered a female-thing or mother’s-object, mimetically ‘dies’ and is ‘reborn’ into the men’s society, a male-birth noticeably delivered outside of the village. There are even tales of the ever chthonic Wuotan coming at night to give gifts, charis being the equivalent to Grace or Virtue or the abstract Wish, to lads, taking them under his gray cloak. Death itself seems both the prime force and major theme in such youthful war-bands, constituting the abstract figure to which they are really consecrated to (this figure’s ties to the archetypal abduction-marriage of Persephone should not be forgotten); moreover, Death or the Underworld, thought to be rich with hoards of treasure (as Ops or Pluto), whether they were deposits of gems or the less glamorous grand storage house of all vegetation, is the dispenser of ‘gifts’ or ‘Graces’, as much as Hermes brings forth the Graces from a cave. There may even be a curious survival of this practice in Apache lore, one which may corroborate the idea of a men's society of Owl Men and their initiation procedure. There, the Big Owl kidnaps ‘naughty boys’ and seems to take them as indentured servants who help him fetch meals. As Sergent noted, it may have been expected that, in return for the hunting-training, the youth would repay the lover with the fruits of the hunt itself; perhaps he paid his dowry in instalments (see the seventh century B.C. Cretan image which Sergent noticed above, a passive youth possibly returning from the hunt with spoils to give his teacher). If we stretch it, we may even find an example in this book. In the chapter entitled “Coyote Transforms A Monster”, just before Owl Man would tell Boy a story, that which we have seen to constitute a major part of the education or training, he says, “Before I begin, you had better give Wolf a piece of meat.” It reads as a rather strange interjection and would make more sense if we understood this to be a necessary exchange of goods for a lesson. To return to the notion of the dreaded boy-nabbing owl, we may wonder whether this represents a ‘warped’ survival in which the custom of paiderastia has itself been forgotten and is but dimly remembered for its ritualized kidnapping, being reduced with enough time to something of bogeyman-lore. On the other hand, we may find that nothing at all has been ‘warped’ and that this more awful perspective of the event, outliving the actual source of trauma, belongs to the mothers, those kourotrophoi whose ‘possessions’ had been violently ripped from their arms and taken away for simulated destruction.
Taking notice of the textual sensuality, we may quote several lovely passages. First, in the prelude to the abduction, as Owl Man observes Acorn at play, “the more he watched the better he liked the little boy…”. After the initial making-away with Acorn, Owl Man, having assumed the shape of a “fine tall young man”, takes the boy on a tour of his cavernous realm and, when it is time to retire it is said that, “Acorn spent the night at Owl Man’s camp and slept close by him on the same blankets.” In the most blatant and endearing line, where Owl Man is trying to persuade Acorn to give up on any attempts at leaving his kingdom, he pleads, “You are lost. But I love you. Stay with me and be my boy.” Acorn weeps at the thought of never seeing his family again, but “...there was nothing for him to do but stay. He had learned to love Owl Man." Upon winning the affection of the little boy, seemingly the inverted precondition of having asked and won the hand for the alerting of the parents, Owl Man “...gave him great love and taught him many wonderful things.” The sensitivity which pangs a bit deeper than simple largeness of spirit speaks for itself, a suggestiveness which announces its presence like a white flame, purity speaking more enchantingly than all the witty devilishness in the world, surging in an overwhelming rush of light and fading in the next moment into a pleasant afterglow. It is the adoration and gentle cherishing of boyhood, along with the joy of teaching, which colors the work throughout.
Confirmation of the moral instillation or educative intentions may be found in a more obviously authentic passage recorded in the chapter, “Shaggy Dog Dance. The Bull’s Medicine”. After coming upon an abandoned child mewling and wriggling about, a group of “bulls” (Natives, of course, having had firm totemistic identities):
...decided that the baby was not very interesting the way he was. “We will give him some of our medicine to make him grow,” said the first bull.
The bulls now danced around the child and sang their very powerful and mysterious medicine songs. And as they sang the child began to grow and kept on growing until he was a young man.
Is this not extremely reminiscent of the practices of the Salii and their Korybantic or Kouretic equivalents? Their circular dance and chants quicken the “young man” to emerge from the child much as they lunged about and used their lungs to animate the vegetative growth from seeds sown in fields. As the Kouretes were ‘young men’ by their very name, so they made the child alike unto themselves. In a sense, they rescued the ‘true self’, the young man or bloom, from the infant or shell. For, if their dancing, in its martial essence, was warding and or purgative, then it was as if they were removing a blockage in the seed/child which had been impeding the development of the young man; the shell-prison, the child itself, had to be destroyed, had to be cracked open, to release the true, inner man. A few steps further and we may not be shocked to find the later outgrowth of the theory of a locked away soul or ‘real self’ condemned to a matter-cell or bone-cage. We may notice that the original state would be the assumed condition of the “young man”, as much as early Man thought of pollution or decay to be a later infraction upon his natural immortality, and so the status of impotent childhood is thus, in the truly pagan mindset, a condemnation, a Fall to be reversed - the “young man”, the bearer of untainted virility, is restored to his proper reality from the temporary lapse into the child-state.
Their ‘education’, then, could be seen as primitive conversion or salvation, in which some efficacious power was applied to the child and with which he was transformed. In the Native vocabulary, the name of this power is “medicine,” that designation which reeks of animistic mana and which we must associate with the Grecian arete or Roman virtu - verily, it is the communicated quality of virility itself. And it would seem that the medicine was contained within and conveyed through the rites, the songs and dances mentioned throughout the collected tales, those nomoi or Laws or Customs or Ways or Modes of the tribes. Plainly, it was the socialization or initiation into the Themisean practices of the tribe which healed the child, which actually made it human, and it is this root-curriculum we mentioned earlier, these songs and dances, which constituted the initial course of paideia or its Latin equivalent humanitas. These are the first ‘liberal arts’, and it is within them that the nearly indefinable, perhaps only charismatically appreciable, quality of Superiority resides. Moreover, these belong to or are more prominently localized in the class of young men; they precisely are not the more openly known folkways of the entire community (much like how the bull-roarer was hidden from the womenfolk in certain aboriginal tribes of Australia).
In the same story, the young man ventures about to different tribes and learns their particular medicines which were kept as guildic secrets, constituting a rather early version of the Renaissance Man, learning the primitive magico-sciences of diverse peoples. It may be said here that the Koryos groups, in their habitual wanderings, engender the first World or Universal Citizens, transcending any parochial limitations. The ceremonies contained instructions for the special approaches, thought to be divinely granted institutions, that each people took to agriculture or warfare, etc., and so they were carefully guarded and kept in the class of Shamans or wise men. An unpermitted disclosure of these strategies would therefore constitute a violation of something holy, or at least a treasonous leaking of state secrets, and would necessitate retributive death as recorded in the chapter “Adventures in Buffalo Cave”. These carefully guarded Gifts or Graces belonged only to the elect who would constitute the equivalent of the kleonoi in the Greek tradition, the upper-echelon of the aristocracy. If this at all seems a bit strange, it would be worthwhile to remember that prominent families across all societies were entrusted with certain sacred performances, ceremonial enactments which no other clan could lay claim to or encroach upon. And from them alone could subservient houses be initiated into their secrets and rigidly practice their specific skills alone. In other words, the division of labor begins deep in our sacred prehistory, and whatever professions we are familiar with are merely their secular outgrowths (consider, in a most extreme sense, the aura of mysticism which clung long about the stonemasons - nothing begins in advanced esoteric theories, but all does begin with a sense of the divine, and it is the former which tries to, albeit over-affectedly, recover the latter once the holy rite, conveying the technique, devolves into a career).
Although the notion of the shape-shifting ‘Owl Man’ might be a bit jarring at first, the idea of half-man half-animal culture heroes or teachers or instructors, oftentimes the Genii or Angels of the Nations, the very Body Politics or Great Souls in which every particular soul shall return, as Erichthonius was for the Athenians, should not be so distant to our minds. Cheiron, the wise centaur, was the pedagogue, and probable erastes, to an entire class of Heroes, and his program constituted just what we have noted, early medicine or herbal knowledge, hunting, physical training, musical lessons and so forth. The monstrous beast seems also to be the mystical tutor across many cultures (oftentimes belonging not as the ancestor of the whole race, but only to the hieratic families, in early times not distinctly divorced from the royal line and who, as we have seen above, would transmit the traditional techniques), and, more than anything else, this figure seems to be the molder of character.
Contained within these pages is a vision which constitutes a pure or organic Classicism, a well-rounded cultivation of the ability to plunge the depths of every experience, the fostering of a broad taste for and enjoyment of the Beautiful. It is a nobly simple paideia, a beautifully clear and untrammeled vigorous humanitas borne in temperaments. The living education of the Boy or Young Man, whose every naively sensitive experience finds immediate abstract or ideal expression, as the Hellenes whose sense of pneuma (Spirit) and physis (Nature) were quite unified so found (this heritage would be carried into Orthodox Christianity; the downside to this was a recurrent hypochondriacal streak, as, if we follow the logical implication, every little tremor would be felt as a spiritual crisis, an intimate and intense trauma of disharmony), cannot be surpassed by learned disquisitions alone. His Culture is vibrant, and his religion resides and resounds in his flesh as the raw Olympianism of the Iliad or Eddas which fueled those youthful, Heroic races. So Mr. Sexton would seem to try and allow us to see, in this imagined reconstruction of a Native program, that they, too, though without any elaborate articulation, certainly held the same fundamental life-feeling.
Regarding the actual sexual content surmisable from this record, our reading of the structural symbolism is the key to the implicit sexual component, the existence of which there is no doubt in my mind. The shared sleeping quarters in the first story, especially when taken with all the other heavily suggestive elements, correspond with the Hellenic custom and other societies’ practices. Whether beneath the sheets or robes or cloaks there were exchanged only kisses or actual pedication occurred is, of course, far beyond what I can read from the text; but, there is no reason to dismiss the latter option. We know most clearly, from the Japanese and Melanesian practices anyways, that anal intercourse was not thought to inhibit the masculine development of the beloved; the warrior-in-training suffered no curbing of his martial spirit from such relations. We know, in fact, that the transference of the warrior-spirit was often accomplished in exactly such acts. The Amerindian sentiment probably varied little from these, placid as they were with their customs.
As a final recommendation to the reading value of this book, we have the privilege to take in the sight of a loving companionship sweeter than the lips of Bagoas and less dramatic than the passionate friendship of Achilles and Patroclus. It is something homely and yet noble, something of the hearth which yet loses none of its valor and dignity, resplendent with charm and inherent heartiness, absolutely majestic and yet cheerfully modest in nearly filial comradeship (as the term ‘brother’ is used in The Satyricon for Giton, so ‘uncle’ is used for Owl Man, though without any of the overhanging decadence) - such is the understated romance of Acorn and Owl Man. Eros still breathes scorching quivers of a sacred impulse in their humble story.
I would highly recommend anyone to read these tales with a willingness to be enchanted and soulfully enriched. The handful of gorgeous illustrations by Gwenyth Waugh adds a great deal of enjoyment to the already delightful experience. Their thousandfold words seem to offer silent hymns in worshipful aesthetic praise of knabenliebe, mute lips caressing the image of free and proud boyishness.
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