Origin myths are testaments to the human desire to explain complex events, such as how things came to be. In traditional societies, these mostly take the form of religious narratives which recognise a supreme being powerful enough to create nature.
By Chimezie Chika
I once heard the tale of a farmer who owned a farm near a big forest, where he planted crops of corn with his sons. The farmer’s biggest problem was the monkeys that came from the forest to eat his corn, so he and his sons waited for the monkeys and killed them. But the monkeys kept coming back the more the farmer killed them. One day, a wise old man who came to see the farmer asked him to stop killing the monkeys, for the monkeys were not mere animals. “Allow them to feed on your crops. Who knows? They may even bless you.” But the farmer did not listen and continued killing the monkeys.
Around this time, the farmer’s wife became pregnant. The monkeys already knew and, in their anger for what the farmer had done to them, decided to send her not one but two monkeys who would be born as human children. To make sure that the farmer and his wife would suffer, they decided that the children would be abiku (children who die shortly after they’re born, only to be born again, repeating the cycle). The wife gave birth to two babies. At the time, giving birth to two babies at once was unheard of, so people came to see the miracle. Some people said it was good fortune, others said it was a bad omen because only monkeys had two babies at once. Shortly after, the babies died and the farmer’s wife got pregnant again and had two babies again who then promptly died in infancy and the cycle continued.
Desperate now, the farmer went to a fortune teller to find out why this misfortune had befallen his family. The fortune teller told him what the wise man had said: stop killing the monkey on your farm, they are punishing you for it. The farmer took the advice this time and stopped. When his wife gave birth again, the babies lived. The fortune teller advised the farmer to treat them with care and give them whatever they wanted, for ibejis — twins — were special children protected by the orisha ibeji, and they brought good fortune. It was then decreed that anyone who had twins subsequently must treat them the same way if they wanted to avoid misfortune and welcome good luck.
This story comes from the Yoruba folktale about the origin of twins in the world. In Yoruba culture, as in other African cultures, folktales are important aspects of cultural heritage and ethnic identity. Folktales are part of the folklore of a people passed down orally from generation to generation. In folklore, there are myths, legends, proverbs, folktales, folk songs, and idioms — all of which reveal a people’s culture and cosmology. The real identity of a people can be found in the recesses of their folklore. For instance, the Igbo have a saying that the world is a market. This is integral to the Igbo metaphysical belief that no one can have it all, hence the need to exchange and achieve balance with the ones who have what one does not have.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of folklore is its existence as details of the memorabilia of a people’s existence. Thus, there are ancient creation myths, stories about the formation of towns, legends about gods or important figures in the past, and so on. Through generations, the stories undergo alterations and embellishments according to what is relevant in that age, with each iteration slightly different from the original, but retaining its focal message. The lessons from these stories go on to enrich the culture through their appearance in idioms and proverbs. To explore the rich heritage of African folklore is to discover that most of it revolves around tales of tribal origins or religious provenance, or moralistic stories that extol virtues of courage, love, and obedience.
Origin stories are myths about how a tribe or town came to exist. Most origin myths are overtly religious, involving gods or a founding father with superhuman abilities; most are also rooted in nature or involve natural properties in some way. One of the most curious origin stories is that of the Bambara people of Mali. The legend has it that in the beginning, there was nothing but void and emptiness. Then the universe began with a single sound — Yo. Yo created the heavens, the earth, and the living and nonliving things. Yo caused Faro, Teliko, and Pemba — the three gods of creation — to come into being. Faro, the water god, created the seven heavens (or, in one variation of the myth, the seven seas of the earth) and fertilised them with rain. Teliko, the air spirit, created a set of twins who were the ancestors of the first humans. Pemba, the supreme god, created the earth. He mixed his saliva with earth to create a woman, Musokoroni, who became his wife. Together, they created all the animals and plants. One day, Pemba and Musokoroni quarrelled because of his growing power. She caused him to be stuck in the ground and then travelled all over the world causing chaos, disorder, disease, and unhappiness. Before her death, she taught humans agriculture.
Some aspects of the Bambara myth correspond with religious texts such as the Bible. This is also demonstrably evident in the origin story of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which has strong similarities to the Biblical origin story of Adam and Eve. In fact, from hearing many origin myths across many African cultures, one finds that, more often than not, there are always areas of similarities and convergences. In the Kikuyu myth, the supreme god, Ngai, created the first man (Gikuyu) and the first woman (Mumbi) and put them on earth near Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). Gikuyu set up a homestead at Mukure wa Nyagathanga, near present-day Murang’a, which is considered a sacred location by the Agikuyu (the Kikuyu tribe). The couple had nine daughters but no sons. When the time came for the daughters to marry, they asked their father, who then offered sacrifices to Ngai under a mugumo tree (strangler fig). The next day they found nine men under the tree, who then married the nine Gikuyu daughters. Today the daughters are seen as the ancestors of the nine Kikuyu clans. This story also explains why the Kikuyu are matrilineal.
Certain tribes like the Mandinka of West Africa have very complicated origin myths according to oral traditions, even though this is no longer prominent as a result of the tribe’s long history of conversion to Islam. In the original myth, the supreme god Mangala created the world from four eleusine seeds, which became the four elements and pillars upon which the world was created. The origin story of the Shona people of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa is another myth involving nature and natural phenomena with religious overtones. In the story, Mwari, the supreme god, created the first man, Mwedzi, deep inside the water. Mwedzi became lonely and yearned to live on land, so Mwari put him on land. But when Mwedzi got there, he became lonely, for he saw that even the land was empty. So he begged Mwari to give him a companion. Mwari sent him Hweva (Morning Star), with the caveat that she was to return to the sky after two years. Mwedzi and Hweva then gave birth to all the vegetation on the earth. After two years, Hweva left and Mwedzi became lonely again. He cried to Mwari for help. This time Mwari sent him Venekatsvimborume (Evening Star), and together they gave birth to humans, herbivores, wild animals, and reptiles. All lived in harmony until the couple committed the great sin of mating with a snake. The snake bit Mwedzi and he fell ill, and his illness was the beginning of all human suffering.
Origin myths are testaments to the human desire to explain complex events, such as how things came to be. In traditional societies, these mostly take the form of religious narratives which recognise a supreme being powerful enough to create nature. From ancient times to modern times, this same atavistic human desire is at the heart of scientific discoveries and solutions.
Many African folktales are morality tales set in the animal kingdom. Each animal is given an archetypal attribute or virtue which varies from culture to culture. In Igbo folklore, the tortoise is the wisest and most cunning animal. Among the Akan people of Ghana, the animal that represents this trickery and cunning is Anansi, the spider. In cultures like the Bambara, it is the antelope. In Mandinka, it is the hyena. And so on. In most African cultures, animals like the lion usually take the role of the king of animals. The eagle is the epitome of strength and agility. The major attribute of these trickster tales is that they illustrate some form of dilemma or impasse which the animals usually find a clever way to wriggle out of.
One day, in an old Akan folktale, Anansi was preparing to eat a hearty meal when Turtle came in on a visit. Though he was annoyed and did not want to share the food with anyone, he invited Turtle to eat with him. “But first,” he said, “you must wash your hands.” The turtle rushed to the lake to wash his hands, and when he came back, Anansi had already started eating. “Turtle, my friend,” Anansi said to him, his mouth filled with meat, “but your hands are still dirty.” Turtle agreed and went back to the lake and on his way back this time, he tried not to touch the ground with his hands. When he finally arrived, Anansi had finished the meal.
Turtle decided to return the favour. He invited Anansi to his home, which was located beneath the lake. Anansi arrived at the lake and tried to go down to Turtle’s home, but he was too light and he stayed afloat. He looked down and saw Turtle eating a hearty meal. Motivated, he stuffed his pockets with stones so he could sink down. When he arrived, he immediately wanted to join Turtle in the meal but Turtle told him that he must remove his jacket first because it was the custom of underwater dwellers to remove outer clothing before eating. Once Anansi removed his jacket, he floated back to the top of the water, from where he looked on in dismay.
A Mandinka folktale, in the classic griot tradition of storytelling, shows that sheer guile can alienate a person from their community. In one, the hyena’s mother died and he alone washed the body, buried her, and announced the news to the village. When the people gathered on the day of charity, he killed a cow. He cut the cow into three large portions and announced: “This one is for the person who washed the corpse. This one is for the one who reported the news. And this one is for the person who touched the meat first,” all of which the hyena solely did. And so everyone else went home empty-handed, vowing never to show up for the hyena again.
In many instances, trickster characters end up in disgrace, but there are also cases where their trickery shows immense comic wisdom or truth about life. In one funny Igbo folktale, the tortoise had been avoiding the elephant to whom he owed a great debt. But one day, while going through a shortcut, he saw the elephant coming from the opposite direction. Laughing, the tortoise put his hands up and said. “I know, I know you’ve finally caught me but allow me to do something before you kill me.” Then the tortoise began to uproot grasses from the ground, ruffling the earth in several places and breaking twigs from the surrounding trees. “What are you doing?” the elephant asked, perplexed. “After I am gone, I want passersby to see clearly that a man and his equal struggled here,” the tortoise replied.
Among the Venda people of South Africa, there is a folktale that illustrates the power of unity and the evil of greed. The lion once saw three waterbucks eating. “Ah, the waterbucks make such good meals,” he said to himself. But the lion could find no way to get to them. The lion observed them every day but they always stuck together, and the lion grew frustrated. One day, the waterbucks quarrelled over a small issue and went their separate ways. “Aha,” the lion said and went after the first waterbuck.
In many African folktales, courage is not always about bravery, chivalry, or heroism; sometimes these singular virtues are used to teach the dangers of overweening ambition. There are instances in human life when courage becomes an excuse to cause mayhem or to display autocratic highhandedness. The Igbo tale of Ojadili is one cautionary tale that illustrates this. In the folktale, Ojadili goes about the world, waging and winning wars. When he had defeated all humankind, his people advised him to rest and enjoy the fruit of his victories, but Ojadili refused. He decided to wage war against the spirits. All warnings that he was going too far fell on deaf ears. In the spirit world, Ojadili engaged in fierce battles and defeated all their strong and mighty warriors.
The spirits had a quick consultation and decided to set him up with his chi (his personal spirit). On seeing a tiny spirit in the battle arena, Ojadili began to laugh. “Is this the best you can do?” he asked them derisively, not knowing that his nondescript opponent was his chi. Before the battle had even properly started, the tiny spirit lifted him up with ease and threw him hard on the ground. Disgraced, Ojadili lay there too stunned and weak to find his way back to life. This tale illustrates the Igbo belief that one cannot fight one’s personal spirit; any such attempt is bound to fail unceremoniously, for it will be like fighting oneself. Tales like this, which are used to show the dangers of taking a laudable virtue or attribute to the extreme, abound in other cultures across Africa.
As shown in many African folktales, courage could mean taking a peaceful path rather than a warlike one. Among the Tuaregs of West and Northern Africa, there is one such tale. Many years ago, a young Tuareg visited a blacksmith and requested the casting of a mighty sword which he planned to kill with, so that he could gain respect. The blacksmith went instead to the bush, cut down an acacia tree and made a beautiful food bowl with it. When the young Tuareg came to take delivery of his sword, the blacksmith gave him the bowl instead and told him that if respect was what he sought, then he would gain greater respect if he cooked a large meal with the bowl and called his people to feast with him. The young Tuareg was very annoyed at first but he decided to try out the blacksmith’s recommendation. Over the years, he became a respected man and was widely regarded as great and wise.
For centuries, the rich folkloric heritage of Africa has persisted through word of mouth, playing integral roles in early cultural education and socialisation through the virtues and lessons they teach about life. The intricate moral fabric within which these tales, myths, and legends operate underlines their importance today in a world where information has become easily accessible. For anyone seeking a reckoning with cultural identity, folktales possess the wealth of knowledge for a complete immersion into the idiomatic wisdom, cosmology, and a people’s general understanding of the world.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1