16 March 2008

Don't close your eyes, and don't try to hide

There is a creature that lurks high in the Himalayan Mountains, a creature that has seldom been seen, but is the foundation of terrifying tales, a creature that feasts on herded animals and makes off with female villagers, a creature with a proclivity for the dramatic. The abominable snowman, or yeti.

The yeti has never been zoologically classified. This is not surprising since one has never been studied, and since most conversations about the yeti dissolve into a dissection on various myths. But today, I think we are going to march into the snowy caves of the Matterhorn and boldly cross beyond the Temple of the Forbidden Mountain, and drag this creature’s snowy behind, myths and all, into the daylight.

Abominable Bumble

Right away let us deal with the westernized version of the yeti, the abominable snowman. Peeling back the layers of this myth reveals a 1920s British reporter who mistranslated the word migyu, the Tibetan word for yeti, as “abominable snowman.” The term migyu is more accurately translated as “wild man” or “wild person.”

The coat of the abominable snowman is almost consistently seen as white, this is a logical adaptation for a creature that is considered to live high in the snowy terrain of the Himalayans. Upon further inspection however, most local legends discuss that the yeti, or abominable snowman, has fur in varying shades of brown. Also common in the stories available is that this creature, the yeti, lives below the snowline in forests. They only cross the snowline the in order to traverse the glaciers that link one mountain valley to the next, and they only do so in the summer season. Though snow could become matted in the fur during these crossings, it is unlikely that any creature who remained south of the snowline for so long during the course of a year could be conceived has having only white hair.

So, the abominable snowman is just that, an abomination. From head to toe this creature is a myth of, mostly, western thinking. If there is to be any further investigation of the creature known as the yeti, it must be done so with the stories and descriptions of the abominable snowman placed firmly on the shelf, alongside other great works of fiction.

History of the Myth

The yeti has been a much sought after creature dating back to the times of Alexander the Great, who coveted a yeti during his conquest of the Indus Valley. Unfortunately, as he was told at the time, yetis could not breathe at the low altitudes at which Alexander’s forces were traveling, and so Alexander had to go without. Westerners began telling tales of the yeti as a “wild hairy man” in the fifteenth century and, as mentioned above, these tales should only be consumed with a healthy dose skepticism.

Yet, even native information can be just as susceptible to criticism. Like any highly devout people, the Tibetans, including the Sherpas, find it very difficult to separate their reality from their religion. On religious scrolls and in artwork, the yeti is pictured as the divide between man and animals. In Tibetan if one is “playing yeti,” it can be construed as either a negative (“to rob”) or a positive (“to protect”). The yeti is all at once a damned monster and a sentry, which only adds to the debate and confusion. With these thoughts in mind, it is best to stick to common facts among all yeti tales.

Bear versus Ape versus Man

Since even experts argue over what is considered true fact and what is considered fiction (most likely due to the fact that they are selecting only criteria that meet with their perception of the yeti), we can only combine the details of various sightings and the stories of the local inhabitants to reach an amalgamation of the yeti. After all of this sorting, we are left with a creature that has the characteristics of an apelike bear. This may be a rather bizarre combination to conjure up, even to the most imaginative of us, but let’s take a look at some characteristics attributed to the yeti.

¤The word yeti possesses enormous powers, it powers the imagination and it powers emotions. So, to put the yeti into a more tangible form, let’s look at the origin of the word itself. One possible, and the most likely, translation of the Tibetan word yeti is “snow bear.”
¤The yeti, we are told, can move, and attack, upright on two legs. Though, when paired with its size, it is not inconceivable that it would have to move on all fours at times.
¤In the region the yetis said to inhabit, the local indigenous people eat things such as berries, barley, vegetables, fruits, roots, and meat. This is also the preferred diet of the yeti.
¤The head of this creature is domed, creating support for the large jaw muscles needed to support a jaw with large fangs. This is similar to the Gigantopithecus, a large extinct ape, and a chemo, a type of Himalayan bear, which is also rarely seen.
¤The approximate size of a yeti, when standing on two feet, is a little over seven feet.

In the end there can never be a clear picture of what a yeti is, only what it isn’t. There may be a true creature which these legends revolve around. After all, as much as we have cannibalized the lands of the earth, there is still much in the wildernesses that we do not know. But whatever this creature is, it is not the yeti. The yeti is not one creature or one idea, it is a story. And, as Reinhold Messner wrote “…I knew that it meant that the tale of the yeti – in some form – would exist forever.

Storytellers die; their stories live on.”

For further reading on the yeti, both of theme park origin and Himalayan descent, I recommend:

The Disney Mountain: Imagineering at Its Peak by Jason Surrell
My Quest for the Yeti by Reinhold Messner

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