Journal of Modern Literature 25.3-4 (2002) 101-113
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"'Queen of the Niggerati' and the Nile:
The Isis-Osiris Myth in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God"1
After years of mistaken critical evaluation, recent changes in methods of literary assessment brought about by feminist criticism, the development of Afrocentric strategies of analysis, and other variables, such as the attention of black women writers, have made possible the critical rediscovery of the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Since the 1970s, a burgeoning critical examination has taken place. 2 Readers have understood Their Eyes Were Watching God as an effective work, its values initially misunderstood by a patriarchal and racist literary culture. I want to affirm critical reception of this novel as a feminist narrative, ordered by a method used by other writers (female and male) during the Modernist period: the use of a mythic subtext that modifies and develops the text itself. We need, however, to differentiate Hurston's method from T.S. Eliot's description of the mythic method with reference to Joyce, by suggesting a new terminology, which I call a "mythic field," created within a psychoanalytically disclosed subtext and inhabited by archetypal and mythic elements." 3 In an insistent and often unrecognized way, the psyche manifests itself in the novel in the ongoing and persistent incorporation, play, or manipulation of mythic archetypes. [End Page 101] The use of the mythic acts as an extra-textual energizing property, as this novel renders into myth intrapsychic and gender-related conflicts.
Zora Neale Hurston pursued a consistent interest in the areas of myth and folklore throughout her life. Her study of folklore was her primary research interest, and her fascination with myth was central to the development of her fiction. She transformed and synthesized autobiographical material and mythic elements through her creative process. In Dust Tracks on the Road, her autobiography, she recounts that, as a schoolchild, her early enthusiasm for myth resulted in the gift of several books by two northern White women, including Grimm's Fairy Tales, Greek and Roman Myths, and Norse Tales:
In a way this early reading gave me great anguish throughout my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots were not the tasks of Thor. 4
In addition to documenting her early interest in myth, Hurston's autobiography reveals two other aspects of her imaginative capacities: her personification of nature and her visionary imagination. As a child, Hurston was "only happy in the woods" (p. 41). Her fascination with trees becomes important when we understand Janie's preoccupation with trees in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston describes how she "made particular friendship with one huge tree and always played about its roots. I named it 'the loving pine,' and my chums came to know it by that name." 5 She told her mother that "a bird" talked to her and that his tail was so long "that while he sat up in the top of the pine tree his tail was dragging the ground" (p. 52). The image of the bird in association with the tree is a central one in Plutarch's version of the Isis-Osiris myth which is invoked in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston rendered her own experience mythic by incorporating and modifying features of Plutarch's myth. By the age of seven, Hurston was also entertaining visions; she was subject to precognitive epiphanies with regard to her own life.
The novelist supplemented her own exploration into the realm of myth and folklore through her studies with the anthropologist Franz Boas at Barnard and later, briefly, at Columbia. She was a student of comparative religion and remarks in her study of voodoo on the need to "do something with Haitian...