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On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 2

In the first of this series, “On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1” Moyra concluded that all cultures have myths that speak to other cultures, because they address a universal need: to make sense of life and death. Now she continues…

Take Africa, for example. The African continent is huge and contains many different cultures. (There are 2000 languages and dialects in West Africa alone.) Similarities between them are more apparent when viewed from outside, since inside Africa the cultures appear very different to the inhabitants of each country or tribe. And these traditional cultures are largely oral. Africans, like the ancient Celts, did not have writing, so their stories were passed down by word of mouth for generations and only written down recently by outsiders – mostly Europeans. (Similarly the pagan Celtic stories were written down by medieval monks.) No doubt there is some distortion in this process of translating and recording the stories, but by and large those who did the recording were at least trying to be accurate.

We understand stories from cultures other than our own because we are not so very different. The Africans believe in invisible powers – but so do we. Of course, we give them different names. We talk of guardian angels and dead saints. They talk of spirits and ancestors. They talk of locusts destroying crops. We talk about genetic engineering and poisonous insecticides and weed killers. They talk of the cunning Hare or Spider twisting the truth. We talk of spin doctors, advertisers and politicians.

Whatever the terms of reference may be, myths and legends play a vital role and can stir strong emotions. We ignore or abuse them at our peril.

A long time ago a great medicine man of the Ashanti in Ghana gave the King a wooden stool covered in gold. He said he had brought it down from the sky in a black cloud amid thunder and dust. The King made four bells to hang on each side. He was told that the stool contained the soul of the Ashanti people and must never be sat upon. The Kings, the Queens and the chiefs donated hair and nails to be ground into a paste to be placed on the stool. Three times a year the King would pretend to sit on it. Golden chains and golden masks were added to it when the enemies were overthrown. It became a very sacred object and was carried in processions, protected by an umbrella.

In 1896 the British conquered the Ashanti and tried to sit on the golden stool believing that by doing so, they would stamp their authority on the people. Fighting broke out in protest and many lives were lost. The stool was hidden, and many years later, when the British had realised their mistake, it was found and returned to the palace at Kumasi. In 1922 the Queen Mothers of the Ashanti sent a silver stool to Princess Mary as a wedding present saying: “their love was bound to the stool with silver fetters, just as we are accustomed to bind our own spirits into the base of our stools”.

The simplest and homeliest of African stories are usually about animals representing some human characteristic. These I call fables or folktales. Most common are the Hare stories, illustrating the cunning by which the ordinary man defeats his much stronger rival or enemy. These stories were carried to America by the slaves and appear with the Hare transposed into Brer Rabbit. The part of the American fox is usually played by the hyena in Africa.

Here’s an example. The Hare and the Hyena went hunting. The Hare noticed the hyena kept all the best meat for himself. Eventually he disguised himself as a monster with red clay and feathers and exacted meat from the Hyena as payment for passing him safely and continuing on the road.

Another time the Hare owed a lot to the Elephant and Hippopotamus. He couldn’t pay and they were getting very angry. He told each of them that he had buried a vast treasure and gave each of them one end of a long rope. He told them if they just pulled on the rope the treasure would be drawn up to the surface, and went away laughing as the great heavy animals engaged in a tug of war.

And of course there are many stories from all over the continent about how Death came to the world. In one Zulu story God sent a message to mankind via the Chameleon that they would live for ever. The Chameleon set off slowly, stopping to eat on the way. Meanwhile God sent a Lizard with another message for mankind, that they would all eventually die. Lizard got there first, and when Chameleon arrived his message was invalid – the Word of God once received could not be challenged. The Mende of Sierra Leone tell a similar story involving a Dog and a Toad. Another tribe speak of the gift of being able to replace one’s skin, and thus live forever – a gift intercepted by a Snake on the road between God and Man. In Zambia there is a story that God gave mankind the choice of two bags. They chose the one that shone, but it contained death. God gave them a second chance, if they could refrain from eating for three days, but they failed.

We don’t like to think of Death as inexorable, inevitable. We want it to be contingent and avoidable. If Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, if Chameleon had hurried, if the right bag had been chosen, there might be no death. We were given a chance but someone blew it. Free will means that decisions have consequences.

Other stories are similar. Not only death, but all the various ills of the world come upon us because of our own fault. I think of these as the Pandora’s Box stories. So, for example, according to the Komo people of Sierra Leone, at first all was light. God gave the bat a basket full of darkness to carry to the moon. But the bat put down the basket and went to look for food. Some animals found it, opened it, and darkness escaped. So now the bat flies at night looking for the dark to put it back into the basket. But once we have done something bad it cannot be undone.

In another African story, a king falls in love with a star. A star princess comes to him and they are happily married, but she wants to go home to deliver her first child. The king sends her to the top of a mountain with warriors to guard her. The mist forms into the shape of a great lake and a boat comes across it to fetch them to the stars. They arrive at the palace of her father and there is no one to greet them. She leaves them in a chamber with three sealed jars. As time goes by their curiosity and hunger get the better of them. One by one they open the jars: out come mosquitoes, locusts, and flies. When they return to earth these pests go with them.

Perhaps the meaning we take from the story is that the king was reaching for his highest self. By grace he is given it, but his lower self lets him down – curiosity opens the jars and releases all manner of ills.

A Nigerian story described how a forest spirit called Musa once spoke to a man, a hunter looking for food for his family. In the great forest full of trees, the spirit singled out twelve types of tree and told the man that if he crushed some of the bark of these trees into powder and then mixed the powder with water, he would have a paste to spread on himself that would make him invisible to the animals of the forest. (People have always longed to be invisible – the hunter more than most, and the journalist with a camera no less than the killer with arrow or gun.)

The occurrence of the number twelve in this story comes as little surprise. Twelve has symbolic power in every culture. There are twelve signs of the zodiac and twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the day and night, twelve fruits of the cosmic tree, twelve members of the council of the Dalai Lama, twelve disciples of Christ, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve labours of Heracles, twelve knights of the round table, twelve gates and foundations of the holy city of the New Jerusalem, twelve in a modern jury – the list goes on and on. One tree alone would not confer invisibility; twelve types are needed. By the time the hunter has sought out the twelve types of tree he must know a lot about the forest. By the time he has gathered the bark and ground it and made the paste he has become so knowledgeable about nature and so in tune with its ways that he no longer stands out as an alien in the forest. In a sense he has become the forest.

More soon…

On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1

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