Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Man in the Maze

About 30 years ago, on a photographing trip through the Southwest, I passed through a town called Cameron, a little bend in the road about 75 miles north of Flagstaff in the high desert of Arizona. We stopped to get gas, and a bite to eat, and discovered a native arts and crafts co-operative goods shop called the Cameron Trading Post. I'm no aficionado of jewelry or native crafts, but I was very taken by the silver and pewter diadems and bracelets on display there. One design in particular caught my eye, a motif I saw repeated on several of the pieces. I bought the above pin, or diadem, that day, and carried it home as a present to my wife. It measures a little less than two inches in diameter--a sharply, precisely incised design on a polished, curved (convex) circle. Made of pewter, but it can be polished.

Circular labyrinths are an ages old design from classical times, which occurs all over the world, in different cultures at different times, familiar as the template for the Minotaur myth, in which a mythical beast inhabits a labyrinth. Confrontation with the Minotaur in the labyrinth symbolized a test of bravery, intelligence and skill. In Native American (oral culture) myth, the maze (or labyrinth) design depicts experiences and choices we make in our journey through life--in the middle of the "maze," a person finds their dreams and goals. When one reaches the center, we have one final opportunity (the last turn in the design) to look back upon our choices and path, before the Sun God greets us, blesses us and passes us into the next world. In other words, it's a passage myth into the kingdom of death (or heaven). Native American religious myths are various across the geographical spectrum of the New World.

On the back of our diadem, there is etched the following:


My best guess is that "Tuby" refers to Tuba City, a small indian village about 40-50 miles east by northeast of Cameron. "Honyaktewa" is a Native American family (clan) name. When I Google it, I get several item references for native crafts auctioned on e.Bay. So, presumably, the diadem was made by someone living in or near Tuba City, within the Navajo reservation.

Native American arts and crafts is big business. Authentic craft items may be defined as artifacts which were either made for practical use by indigenous peoples, or made, early in the years following the European or American occupation of the New World, for use in trading and sale with the white peoples. Today, Indian artifacts made for sale as curiosities or to exploit the crafts market may be highly valued, despite the fact that they were not made for practical use. Contemporary, present-day crafts artifacts may also have value, but much less than the older, more "authentic" ones. Of course, artifacts sold as "old" "genuine" may be fakes. But I knew that the diadem was of recent vintage when I bought it--for about $75--circa 1980. I thought it was worth all of that at the time. I may have overpaid, but it didn't matter. I've always thought that people marketing genuine crafts objects to support themselves is a legitimate form of gain, and whatever mark-up they command may be regarded either as a kind of good charity, or as smart business-sense by the maker. Makers too may be exploited. How much time did the man or woman who made this piece of jewelry put into it? How much did they actually get in payment? I have no idea.

But I love the diadem. My wife calls him--the little man on the top--the "corn man" or "corn god." I call him the man in the maze. I think of him as a religious figure, whose spiritual journey is metaphorized by the maze, and it is his duty in life to journey through the difficult pathways--spiritual as well as geographical--and achieve the oneness or wholeness of some kind of fulfillment--what kind, exactly, I'm vague about.

Below is an ancient maze design.

Here is an old maze design in Germany.

Garden mazes are another expression of this theme, on the ground. Mazes on the earth are a direct application of the problems posed by man for his own pleasure or for meditation purposes. A maze as a test of memory, dedication, strength, courage, etc. There are all kinds of mazes. Mathematical. Verbal. Geographical. Astronomical. Puzzle mazes. Artistic (graphic).

People are fascinated by mazes, or labyrinths. It makes some people claustrophobic--being in a confined space where they may feel psychologically trapped or lost. I've always felt a sense of exhilaration when lost, but also frustration. When I'm traveling, I get quickly frustrated when I don't know just where I am, or what route to take. My wife, who can't read maps well, is of no help in these situations, as her sense of direction is several times worse than mine. Some great American cities seem designed to confuse a traveler. Others seem to "make perfect sense" on the ground. Venice, where our internet acquaintance Charles Shere (with his wife Lindsay) is staying these last few weeks, is a kind of maze, where one can easily get turned around and lose one's bearings. In a pedestrian precinct, like Venice, which was not designed for efficiency or easy access, this is regarded as a charming anomaly. Pre-industrial landscapes and city-scapes we find attractive to the degree that they don't adapt well to our modern lust for speed, efficiency, and vicarious regard. Parts of the world thus preserved, become like cultural parks, surrounded and protected, run for tourists and scholars to appreciate and study. But mazes, labyrinths and puzzles answer to a basic human need, to untangle the web of structure in the universe, in whatever exigent (expedient) form it presents itself. The human genetic code is such a labyrinth. The universal laws of physics is another. They may never be completely understood. The ultimate labyrinth is the meaning of life, for which there may never be a true "answer." We make up our own reasons, which become our creation myths, which we may choose to believe in, or regard with characteristic skepticism.



Eddie Watkins said...

Other ones seem to "make perfect sense" on the ground.

"Other ones"? Correct?

Curtis Faville said...


you caught me.

Mea culpa.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.