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‘At the Font of the Marvelous,’ by Anthony Wonderley

Reviewing “At the Font of the Marvelous: Exploring Oral Narrative and Mythic Imagery of the Iroquois and Their Neighbors,” by Anthony Wonderley was an arduous task. I expected colorful and gripping folk tales, legends and myths that explain creation, explore the human relationship with nature and are full of supernatural creatures. I was looking forward to being enthralled by the “marvelous.”

Alas, I was sorely disappointed. This book, published by Syracuse University Press, was not written to entertain or to inform the general reader. Or, if it was, it has missed the mark by a considerable margin. This book will only be of interest to a small group of experts: Anthropologists and related academics. It seems that Wonderley’s objective was to impress this elite group with his knowledge and erudition; the text is full of complex language that is difficult to understand. Trying to untangle the text from the numerous and lengthy references is a chore. Many pages carry lengthy footnotes. Reading this book is like wading through a quagmire.

The first chapter examines Iroquois star stories most of which are about the Pleiades and the Big Dipper. According to the legends, seven young males were singing and dancing in a circle. When they were refused food, they ascended into the sky and become the Pleiades.

In another version, seven young women descend from the sky in a corn basket and dance naked upon the surface of a lake. Wonderley describes several variations of these stories and explores their relevance to food and the timing of harvests using the location of the Pleiades in the sky.

Other chapters describe a war between the Senecas and the Kahkwa in the Niagara region, a giant lizard, the Sky Holder (the great god of the Iroquois), a cannibal giant and images found on some Iroquois pipes and combs.

Instead of bringing out the “marvelous,” Wonderley devotes his efforts to mapping out the similarities and differences between various Iroquois legends. He describes these comparisons in such excruciating detail and in such stilted language that it kept inducing a deep slumber upon this frustrated reviewer.

In summary, this book will be of primary interest to academic specialists.