Mythology of the Mississippi

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Mythology of the Mississippi

Alice Bryson

All semester, I've been interested in applying mythology to the books we've been reading--I wrote my Scarlet Letter paper on the different mythological (and moral) ways to read the story of Dimmesdale and Hester, and ultimately came to the decision that stories don't start with a mythology. There's a skeleton underneath, the "what actually happened", to which you apply moral standards, allegory, archetypes, or mythological themes. Sometimes the author applies the mythology for the readers (as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where the Christian mythological interpretation is almost stronger than the actual events at times). And sometimes there isn't a clear mythology that the reader is brought into; for instance, The Turn Of The Screw. It's got ghosts as a 'mythological' underpinning--but more than mythological, the ghosts are a shared idea across myths and stories; they appear in myth, but aren't from a certain specific myth. The Turn Of The Screw may have some roots in various myths--like Cassandra, prophetess doomed never to be believed, might be a figure for the Governess (provided she sees ghosts and isn't insane). It's possible to reference a different mythology, to re-present the skeleton of the story in a different muscular shell. (Or to take a story without full covering by myth and throw a new myth over it.) That's much of what I did in my Scarlet Letter paper, refigure the story in terms of the myth of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. And yes, it did stretch and change the story somewhat; by giving it a new moral backdrop (and a new central action; instead of focusing on the adultery and its repercussions, the Isis-as-Hester version focused on Chillingworth/Set's revenge. In fact, in my version, Isis-Hester and Osiris-Dimmesdale were rightfully married, and the only problem in their union was that Osiris was dead). But by stretching and changing, it took me a lot closer towards understanding the skeleton of Scarlet Letter; without the moral dressing that it had already been given (and being able to strip away with more efficiency the moral dressing that I had given it), I was able to get a closer look at the story. But I'm not as interested in finding the skeleton of the story (which has been hunted after in most big books since they became "big") as I am in finding different ways to dress that skeleton in mythology. But to dress the story in a new myth, I do need first to discover the old one.

The mythological underpinnings of Huckleberry Finn are a little harder to get at; it's a more complex work than Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Scarlet Letter, for instance. (Having more than one central moral point or conflict, more than one 'message', as well as characters who are to my mind infinitely more complex and lifelike.) The son chased away by a hostile (often homicidal, as in Huck's case) father appears in many myths, especially Greek myths; Oedipus, for instance, was expelled by his father. Huck wasn't kicked out by his dangerous father; instead, he left to save his own life. (It's also a prevalent theme in fairy tales, which are just another form of myths; the son must leave the father and go on a quest.) The traveler arriving in disguise--Huck and Tom coming to Aunt Sally's with the wrong identities--and then waiting for the right moment to reveal himself is also a common theme. Huck, while young, can be held up against the tricksters of mythology, like Loki, Anansi, Eris, or Puck. But the major action of the book is an archetypical journey; Huck and Jim travel down the river, and the journey takes them through different situations but never leaves them in one place. Mythology and fairy tale thrives on the journey; the Odyssey, the Argonauts, or more modern interpretations like Lord of the Rings.

If I had to pick a mythological journey that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is most like, it wouldn't be a contest; it's The Odyssey. Huck, the trickster and liar, observer of the places he visits, is a childlike Odysseus. He uses his wits to get out of trouble (faking his own death to escape his dangerous father (Twain Huck 45-47), for instance); in different situations, he plays different roles and shifts into them almost instantly, like Odysseus the "ingenious hero" (Homer Book I). And it's true that Huck seems to have a genre of role that he consistently plays (the unfortunate, bereaved child; someone is always dying, dead, or injured in his stories. It is where he comes from and what he's used to, but it also usually seems to work to his advantage. So Huck's sticking to one kind of story may be equal parts lack of imagination and practicality. Unfortunate child works well for him.) Sometimes navigating under their own power, and sometimes carried unwillingly by greater forces, the crew of Huck's raft (Jim, himself, and the Dauphin and the Duke at later points) deal with the natives of strange lands--the area gripped by the rivalry between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, the town where Sherburn kills Boggs, the town where the Duke and the Dauphin carry out their Royal Nonesuch--but move on towards their ultimate goal (getting Jim to freedom, instead of bringing Odysseus home). When Huck returns to civilization he comes in disguise (as Tom Sawyer, but coming not like Odysseus a beggar into abuse but a nephew into kind treatment). Instead of revealing himself at the right time and punishing those who are behaving childishly or badly, Huck gets sucked into Tom's play and is ultimately revealed by someone else (Twain Huck 292) instead of appearing as a triumphant hero. (After all, Huck is a childlike Odysseus--he hasn't reached a level of maturity sufficient to behave as he should in that situation.)

Odysseus's journey was controlled, ultimately, by the Gods; either that he'd angered them, and they hurt him, or he'd pleased them, so they helped him. No matter his own personal agency, Odysseus was at the mercy of greater forces. Huck and Jim are too, but their greater force is, instead of Olympian Gods, the Mississippi River. As T. S. Eliot writes, "it is the River that controls the voyage of Huck and Jim" (Eliot 352). The River is the reason Jim doesn't escape to freedom at Cairo (352); the River propels the journey forward. Without the River, Eliot argues, "the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending" (351).

Eliot also argues the River as a god, as Twain's personal and native god (353). And this really isn't much of a surprise, or a stretch. Rivers have always been revered as gods and sacred entities (count the appearances of river spirits in Greek Mythology, they're always arriving to protect their daughters from marauding gods like Apollo and Pan; sacred rivers like the Nile and the Ganges are intertwined in their national religious traditions; goddesses like Anuket ("Anuket" 1) and Sequana ("Sequana" 1), of the Nile and the Seine respectively, or rivers with names like the Brazos, Los Brazos de Dios, the Arms of God). It's a natural compulsion, perhaps, to regard rivers as more than normal, more than mundane; they control the cycles of agriculture and thus of life around them (and sometimes control more; fatal flooding has historically been part of life around most major rivers). Rivers are revered for their power, but also for their constant changeability; "they represent the ever-present stream of who and what we essentially are: not a static being, but a dynamic ever-becoming flow of godlike radiance" (Thackara 3). In Huck Finn the river is attributed with a great sacredness--it's a place where race and racial issues between Huck and Jim can be transcended, it's an otherworldly space in that way. It's separate from society, a place where society's rules don't apply. The sacredness of the river may go back to its composition; water is considered one of the four basic elements, the element of emotion and feeling; in many modern religions it's granted powers of purification ("Water" 44). The river acts as purifier for Huck and Jim, certainly; not only does it start to wash away the ill effects of society and other people on Huck, but it brings forgiveness for his transgressions while on the raft. (Because, even in a sacred place, one can do wrong, and Huck does--the trash incident is one of his transgressions on the raft that Jim forgives him for.)

Various sacred rivers come to mind in the context of the "Big River" of Huckleberry Finn; first of all, there's the River Styx, the river of the dead in Greek mythology. The Styx separates Hades from Earth ("Styx" 1); it (or in some tellings Acheron) is the river across which the dead must be carried. In Huckleberry Finn, Huck uses the Mississippi as his own River of the Dead, to bear him away when he fakes his death (Twain Huck 47); it continues to carry him away from the concerns of life, and keep him hidden from people who are searching for him. (In this, it might also function like the Lethe, river of forgetfulness; it allows Huck to be, if not forgotten, then ignored or not noticed as he makes his way down river.) It's not until he leaves the river that he is rediscovered for who he is; he's left the protection of being "dead" and "forgotten" to return to life. Rivers in Huck Finn can also represent a primordial, pre-lapsarian state, a state moving back towards pre-society, without race ways of existing; it brings to mind the four rivers (Gihon, Pishon, Euphrates and Tigris) that flow out of the Garden of Eden ("Gihon" 4).

But these are all outside allegories, outside mythologies being pasted onto the content of the story and the actual river of the story (the Mississippi, not the Styx or Lethe). Does the Mississippi have its own mythology? Not an ancient mythology, nor necessarily a Native American mythology, although that is useful to consider. (For instance, its name comes from the Ojibwe word for "big river" ("Mississippi River" 1)). But I'm curious about the mythological presence of the Mississippi in modern day American culture. First of all, is there one? I'd like to postulate that there is, and that Mark Twain was instrumental in creating it.

The idea of the Mississippi is certainly present in our culture (if for nothing else than its spelling, which I know I recited ad nauseum as a kid, probably to the point of making my parents want to throw themselves in said river); it's something of the 'American River'. It's not only the largest river in the United States, according to Twain, but the longest in North America when counted together with the Missouri, one of its sources (Twain Life ch. 1). It's no surprise and no wonder that the Mississippi should have some sacredness and mythology attached to it. Huck and Twain are tied to the idea of the Mississippi in our cultural mythology, as well.

Twain builds up his admiration for the river in Life On The Mississippi, writing of "the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun" (Twain Life ch. 4). (His admiration for the river led him not only to write about life on the Mississippi but to send his protagonist, Huck, down the river time and time again.) When Huck and Jim first escape down the river, he paints it as almost a religious experience, writing "[it] was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed, only a llittle kind of low chuckle" (Twain Huck 75); the River, Twain's River God as Eliot describes it (Eliot 353), is not only a mythological, archetypical figure of sacredness in Huck Finn. It doesn't only fulfill the role of the Styx or of Lethe (or, for instance, of the underground river that flows with secrets--the secrecy of Jim and Huck's traveling on the Mississippi lead it to become something of a river of secrets as well) but its own role. It has sacredness in its own right, that Twain points out, both through Life on the Mississippi and through Huck Finn.

Works Cited
"Anuket." Wikipedia.
"Gihon." Wikipedia.
"Mississippi River." Wikipedia.
"Sequana." Wikipedia.
"Styx (mythology)." Wikipedia.
"Water." Wikipedia.
Eliot, T.S. "Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas Cooley. Norton & Company, New York: 1961. Pages 348-354.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. Litrix Reading Room, 1999.
Thackara, W. T. S. "Sacred Rivers."

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Thomas Cooley. Norton & Company, New York: 1961.
Twain, Mark. Life On the Mississippi. Project Gutenberg.


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