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On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 3

In “On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1″ and “On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 2” Moyra has been talking about the universal meaning of some traditional African legends. This time she explores the meaning of the story of The Young Man, The Lion, and the Yellow-flowered Zwart-Storm Tree…

In this story a lion finds a young man sleeping by a water hole. He takes hold of him and lifts him up onto the branches of a yellow-flowered zwart-storm tree. There he wedges him in between the branches while he goes back to the waterhole to drink. The young man wakes and tries to move but finds that he is held fast. The lion returns and pushes his head more firmly between the braches. Noticing that there are tears running down the cheeks of his prey, the lion licks them away and then returns to the water hole for a drink, for he is very thirsty.

While he is drinking the young man manages to escape and ran away. He makes sure not to run directly to his home but disguises his spoor by running this way, then that. When he reaches his home he tells everyone what has happened to him, and the whole village works to disguise his scent by wrapping him around with hartebeest skins, for they know it is in the nature of the lion not to let its prey go.

The lion appears near the village. The people shoot at him again and again, but he will not die. They throw children at him, but he ignores them and will not eat. They throw women at him, but again he ignores them. Arrows and spears leave him unhurt. He keeps sniffing for the young man. The lion wants the young man, for it had licked his tears. It wants no one else but that young man.

The lion attacks the houses and knocks them down. The people plead with the young man’s mother to give him her son. At last she agrees, if the lion will die too. “Let the lion die and lie upon my son,” she says. So the people gave the young man to the lion, and the lion kills him. Now when the people shot at the lion, the lion says, “Now I am ready to die. For I have the young man that I put in the yellow-flowered zwart-storm tree, the young man whose tears I licked, the young man that I have all this time been seeking. Now I have hold of him; for I am his.” And so the lion dies and the people laid his body on the body of the young man.

What are we to make of this story? The young man is sleeping by the water hole. That is, he is in a state of non-awareness right beside a life-giving source of spiritual nourishment. The lion (his spiritual guide, his god, his destiny) sees him and puts him in the tree (the cosmic tree of life). He is off the ground (the mundane world) and is waiting for his entrance into the higher world – the world of the higher consciousness.

The lion delays, knowing that the young man cannot be rushed but must go through certain phases. The lion sees the first stirrings of awareness in the man. The young man’s first reaction to his awakening in the tree is despair, sorrow, fear. He weeps. The lion licks away his tears. He tries to comfort him and goes away again, giving him more time to come to terms with his situation. The man does not want the fearful agony of awakening to the higher self. He runs back to his old ways, cunning enough to do everything in his power to avoid pursuit. But he cannot escape his destiny. The lion will not take a substitute. It is that particular young man who is marked, and only he will the lion take.

In the lion’s final words we find the key to the whole story. The lion and the young man are one. The flight and the chase are within the one soul. Have we not all feared the awakening in the yellow-flowered zwart-storm tree, knowing that our lives will never be the same again, and there is no way out except complete death to the world?

Some years ago I wrote a poem about the fearsomeness of the spiritual call that has helped me to understand this story.

The Christ

He will not come
As you expect,
Swinging incense
And a Bible…
He will come
Like a tiger from a field of daisies…
Suddenly leaping
From the familiar
To the divine.

Incidentally, I’m not at all sure what a yellow-flowered zwart-storm tree looks like, or even whether it exists in Africa, but the name works very well symbolically in this story. The yellow flowers suggest the golden brilliance of light – the fertile flowering of spiritual experience. “Zwart” is the Dutch word for “black”, and “zwart-storm” conjures for me images of those fearsome black storms that terrified me when I was a child in Africa. Those storms cleared the air after days and weeks, sometimes months, of sultry brooding weather that made it hard to breathe and dried the veld so thoroughly that it appeared parched and dead, only to spring alive again as soon as the storm broke.

This tree is a combination of light and dark – of gentle flowers and fierce and driving storm. The tree is life.

More soon…

On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 2
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 3
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 4
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 5
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 6

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