Along with many other storytellers I am particularly drawn to mythologies, the sets of stories featuring the deities that shaped the world. The similarities and differences between our most fundamental perceptions of the universe we live in are fascinating.
Africa is a big continent. It’s bigger than Europe, India the United States and China put together. Across this vast area of deserts, mountains, jungles, plains, deltas and downlands (any of which make England look like Rutland), a great variety of peoples and cultures have developed, dwindled, fought, traded and flourished. Earlier this year I was given “A treasury of African Folklore” by Harold Courtlander, despite being over 600 pages and the size of a brick this tome barely offers a peek through a gap in the door to the treasure house of tales that the various African nations tell, but what a peek it is! Although only on page 193 I am already onto my third creation. This one comes from the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria.
A long time ago earth did not exist. There was sky above and water below. Oloron was the chief “orisha” (spirit, or god. As with the Japanese “Kami” it would appear to be a word that covers both without directly translating as either). Other orisha included Oloron’s children, Eshu, the god of unpredictability; Orunmila, the spirit of divination and the unrelated Obatala, King of the White Cloth (The Yoruban pantheon is conspicuously male, in stark contrast to their neighbours, the Fon people, who’s deities are predominantly couples and androgynes). All these orisha lived in the sky and paid no attention to the only female orisha, Olokun, who ruled over the waters and marshes below… until Obatala looked down and decided it would be a good idea to make some land for things to live on.
First he checked with Oloron who agreed it was a fine plan (notably, nobody bothers to consult Olokun which leads to trouble further down the line), then he called on Orunmila who divined what he would need. After a long process of gathering all the gold in heaven from a variety of unspecified orishas the goldsmith eventually makes a chain and Obatala climbs down, pours a snail shell full of sand into the sea, drops a hen on it who spreads it around in an uneven fashion thus creating hills and the like, plants a palm nut and settles down with a black cat. It’s all a bit dark so Obatala requests some light and Oloron, the sky god, makes the sun.
Eventually Obatala starts to feel lonely and begins to make people out of clay. The work is tiring and Obatala decides to take a break for some refreshment. He taps the palm trees for their sap, ferments it and quenches his thirst. Now that the world is a little softer Obatala returns to his labour but with drunken fingers he makes a number of misshapen figures, some with short arms, some with too few fingers, some bent or humped and because of his befuddled state he does not notice his mistakes. When they are all done he calls upon Oloron again to breathe life in to them and so the human race came to be. When Obatala sobered up and saw his handiwork he was filled with sorrow. He promised never to touch palm wine again and to take especial care of all those who are lame, formed imperfectly, blind or with no pigment in their skin.
It fascinates me how each different culture finds some specific question to answer, like why men and women are different or why death is irreversible, frequently leaving the generation of essential features like the sun with a brief, almost casual, passing reference. I am also struck repeatedly by the acceptance of imperfect gods and how their imperfections explain the world we experience, often far better than if they were all powerful and all knowing.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.