Tribal Elders Reveal the Ancient Wisdom of the Earth
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 A lackluster presentation of luminous source material, by an Australian expert in native religions (Letters from a Wild State, 1992). Burnt out by modern life and its ``science-based'' approach to nature, Cowan sets out to discover the ``wild and untrammeled spirit'' of traditional life. His first stop is the Torres Strait Islands, between Australia and New Guinea, where he meets a former pearl-diver, a police inspector, and other carriers of traditional values. Some bewail the loss of their ancient culture; others preserve--and relay to Cowan--fascinating myths and legends about the sea, the lore of totems, the secrets of augury with lizards and ants. Then it's on to Borneo, where Cowan encounters a self-proclaimed pagan named Reminda, who takes him upcountry to the long house of her Iban people. From this former head-hunting tribe, Cowan learns the sacred laws of the region and watches a tuai burong--a man who speaks with birds--manipulate omen sticks. Cowan's third stop is Australia, where he talks to aborigines about the loss of traditional ways and about methods of communing with spirits. On each leg of his odyssey, Cowan gathers indigenous myths, including some material never before made available. The problem is that he approaches his quest with grating naivetÇ, bursting out every so often with a sentiment like, ``I had begun to discern that a myth does not have to be comprehensible at all levels of consciousness''--these days, about as groundbreaking a revelation as declaring that the earth is round. Some of Cowan's analogies are equally maladroit, as when he finds in a legend of the rape of a fisherwoman by an octopus-god echoes of the Annunciation. Cowan cites the late Bruce Chatwin as inspiration, but there's no comparison: Chatwin was a master recorder of native ways, while Cowan comes close to stifling his material in an ill-fitting frame. Impressive on-site research, bungled in delivery. (Three maps)

Pub Date: July 2nd, 1993
ISBN: 0-517-88078-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1993