Which Myth, and Where?

When you live in the Southern Hemisphere and you are thinking about the Western Canon, you can feel very far away from all those Northern traditions. Of course we have interesting traditions of our own, not least the indigenous traditions and myths that are so important for our regions.

By our regions, I’m thinking here about New Zealand (where I’m from) and Australia (where I live). Our indigenous mythical traditions are meaningful, powerful and beautiful. They often don’t get a look-in, when we talk about myth in European contexts. But they’re here, in origin myths, in the Dreamtime myths, in the adventures of the trickster Maui, and many more. They’re here in the names of the places of the land.

New Zealand’s longest placename, Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu, which in English is, ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one,’ is perhaps the best example of many. The more you know about placenames, the more you may learn about the mythic past and the folklore of a place. Blueskin Bay, near my home town of Dunedin, was named after Te Hikatu and his nephew Kahutin, who had many traditional Moko.

echidnaArmidale, in New South Wales, where I live, is the home of the Anaiwan people, whose totem is the Echidna. Echidnas can be seen around the place. They are monotremes, like the more famous duck-billed platypus, i.e. warm-blooded animals who lay their young in small leathery eggs. According to Dreamtime myth, Echidna got her spines from a battle with Turtle. The name Echidna is from ancient Greek. Echidna was the mother of all the monsters of Greek myth. I have learned by following the movement to revive the Anaiwan language, that the Anaiwan word for echidna is ‘iwata.’

Echidna – Greek Myth. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy. Photo by Gabriele Delhey [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Interweaving indigenous and classical is a daunting task, and as a New Zealand ex-pat with British roots, I’m aware of my many limitations in doing so. But I can’t help but note these curious intertwinings of classical and indigenous. Scientists use Latin and Greek as ‘neutral’ languages, and apply them around the world, symbolising the neutral, objective, ‘truth-telling’ qualities of science. Yet this ‘objectivity’ comes from a set of cultural assumptions that long displaced or dismissed indigenous knowledge. Researchers are gradually coming to understand the power of indigenous knowledge, not only its authenticity, but its points of overlap with Western culture. See for instance this fascinating article on the overlap between Aboriginal and Classical astronomy.

Children’s writers and illustrators are particularly alive to these overlaps and make productive use of them. Australian Matt Ottley’s outback picture book Requiem for a Beast, for instance, intertwines the story of the Stolen Generation with imagery of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur. The easy classicism of New Zealander Margaret Mahy’s young adult novels, merges with ideas about Maori myth, lore, and knowledge in Kaitangata Twitch and Memory.

On this Antipodean Odyssey, I fully hope and expect to find many more overlaps. Myth is global, is universal. It’s unexpected and it’s productive and powerful. It appears in children’s culture all over the place. The purity and power of classical and indigenous myth have much to say to one another.

Australian 5 cent coin
Australian 5 cent coin. Images by Jeff [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.
– Liz Hale


Margaret Mahy: Memory London: JM Dent, 1987
Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005
Matt Ottley: Requiem for a Beast Sydney: Hachette, 2007

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