Guyana Legends—Folk Tales of the Indigenous Amerindians
By Odeen Ishmael
uyana Legends—Folk Tales of the Indigenous Amerindians is a collection of fifty folk tales of the first people to inhabit Guyana and the contiguous regions of the north coast of the South American continent.
Very little is known of Amerindian history in Guyana before the arrival of European settlers in the early seventeenth century and, actually, no written form of their languages existed until about seventy years ago. Indeed, much of the history of the Amerindians people is based on oral traditions which are not quite clear because the periods when important events occurred are difficult to place. Still, native oral traditions are very rich in folk stories of the ancestral heroes and heroines of these indigenous people.
Some of these folk stories have varying versions among the nine different language groups—or tribes— that comprise the Amerindian population of Guyana. Such a difference is illustrated in this book which presents two different tales of how fire was acquired and various versions of the legend of two immortal folk heroes, the bothers Makonaima and Pia.
This present collection of Amerindian legends was compiled over a lengthy period of many years during which I listened to and collected versions of these tales from elderly Amerindians in various regions of Guyana, and more recently from Amerindian residents of the Delta Amacuro region of Venezuela, on the frontier with Guyana.
Significantly, most of these legends were also summarised since the late nineteenth century by a succession of writers, including Everard F. im Thurn, W.H. Brett, Walter Roth and Leonard Lambert. But it is significant to note that those versions—by no means original—which were related by those writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have undergone some changes with the passing years, and new characters have been added to them.
Since Amerindians of the North West District of Guyana are ethnologically and culturally related to those in the eastern regions of Venezuela, particularly the Delta Amacuro region, it is noteworthy that the myths and legends of those Venezuelan Amerindians bear close similarities to those of their Guyanese counterparts. Interestingly, the Guajiro people—Amerindians of Arawak background living in north-west Venezuela near to Lake Maracaibo—also have some folk-tales that closely resemble those of their “relatives” living in the North-West District of Guyana and the Delta Amacuro region of Venezuela. For further information, the writings of Venezuelan researchers, Cesaréo de Armellada, Maria Manuela de Cora and Michel Perrin are recommended.
It is essential to note too that an important character in Amerindian legend is “Tiger”. While there are a number of tigers in the stories—and generally they are all villains—these animals, however, are not part of the fauna in Guyana or the entire American continent. What is generally referred to as a “tiger” is the large spotted jaguar. And the “black tiger”, mentioned in one of the stories in this book, is the large South American puma.
Twenty of the folk tales included in this collection appear in my earlier book, Amerindian Legends of Guyana, published in 1995. However, they have now been revised and, in some cases, retitled. Among the thirty other stories are those of two clever tricksters in Amerindian folklore, the lazy but sly Konehu and the wily rabbit, Koneso.
Readers will find these legends of the original inhabitants of Guyana informative in the anthropological sense, in addition to being interesting and entertaining at the same time.