___________________________________________________ Religious Mythology in African Traditional Thought Systems ____________________________________________________
Fr. Victor Chendekemen Yakubu 1 ** Abstract:
What explanation can we give for the seeming struggle between good and evil? Why does the chameleon change its colour and walk as it does? The answers are naturally clothed in stories which serve as necessary tools for preservation and subsequent handover from one generation to the next. Hence the collection of myths, stories, images and legends symbolizes the mythological aspect of religion because it is through them that the supersensible world is represented. The African has the important role of utilizing any modern means available, to preserve and transmit these rich cultural traits to generations yet unborn. African myths deal with organization of the universe in relation to man’s existence, life and destiny. This article is an attempt to present the African traditional thought systems as reservoirs for understanding African human reality as a whole and our connection with the Supreme Being.
Preliminary Remarks: The task of philosophy is not to overlook the views held by the common man on the grounds that such views might be unreflective. Philosophical investigations and reflections are supposed to discover and unveil the inherent difficulties in the common sense view, redefine, refine and
Fr. Victor C. Yakubu is priest of the Catholic Diocese of Zaria, Nigeria. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first presented as a Presidential Paper 1993/1994 to the members of the Philosophical Society of St. Augustine’s Major Seminary Jos, Plateau State – Nigeria. Special thanks to late Sr. Sharon Dei, SSND [Baltimore] who edited the paper and made some useful suggestions. May her soul rest in peace, amen! The paper is published in the internet by the author for wider use. It can be cited in any work provided the source is acknowledged.
Mythology in Africa
remodel these thoughts. 2 When the Ashanti says, “No man’s path crosses another’s”, the philosopher should understand this as saying that everyone has a direct path to the Supreme Being. When he says, “No one shows a child the sky”, he means that the sky above is the abode of the Supreme Being so much so that a child needs no one to inform him. 3 In the light of these, the philosopher is concerned with thoughts and ideas which enlarge the scope of his own thinking. The world is what it is today because ideas developed in various philosophies and cultures. Therefore, it is a sine qua non for the philosopher to discover new material about African thought systems within the capability of his philosophical reasoning.
Recent study by African scholars has unearthed new materials about African thought systems initially misconceived by European travellers and sit-at-home scholars. This alone is a development and the philosopher, am sure, will learn more from African thought patterns because “a people’s religion or worldview should better be interpreted as the people themselves would explain or interpret it.” 4 African scholars inadvertently have a most challenging task of undertaking a prolonged research in areas of religious beliefs, cosmological theories, moral ideas, social organization, social values and philosophy. What do we mean by African thought systems? We mean the process of thinking and the content of that thinking as expressed in ideas, beliefs or body of knowledge. Bourdieu reminds us that, “every individual unconsciously brings to bear general tendencies. .. and patterns of thought which organize reality by directing and organizing thinking about reality and make what he thinks thinkable for him as such and the particular form in which it is thought.” 5
In order words, these thought patterns are culturally oriented and directed. Professor John S. Mbiti has summarized the religious zeal of the African when he said that for the African, “it is religion, more than anything which colours their understanding of the universe and their empirical participation in that universe.” 6 This is quite true of the African behavioural patterns
Ola Adeyinka, “A Critique of the Empiricists’ and Rationalists’ Theories of Knowledge”, [M. A. Thesis University of Lagos, 1918, p. 58.] 3 Daryll Forde, [ed.] African Worlds. [London: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 192. 4 E. A. Ade Adegbola, “History of Thought” in John B. Taylor, ed., Primal World Views, [Ibadan: Daystar Press, 1096], p. 68. 5 Otonti Nduka, “African Traditional Systems of Thoughts and Their Implications for Nigeria’s Education”, Social Order, 3[January 1974]1, p. 96. 6 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. [London: Heinemann, 1969], p. 262.
Mythology in Africa
as confirmed by Professor E. Bolaji Idowu. He said that to remove religion from the African would be like disembowelling him. 7 The Ashanti believe that “the universe is full of spirits,” 8 while the Yoruba society has nearly two thousand divinities [orisa]. 9
Robin Horton has also provided useful works on further understanding of African thought systems. According to him there is a need for Western philosophical dialogue with African thoughts. He argues that philosophical concepts can deepen our understanding of African cosmogonies if we accept them as systems of “explanations, prediction and control” based on “theoretical models.” A major factor of Horton is his insistence that there is a similarity between African cosmology and science such that “African religious systems can be seen as the outcome of a model-making process which is found alike in the thought of science and in that of prescience.” 10 This work therefore is a philosophical reflection on African traditional though systems. It will focus mainly on mythology. The whole point to be understood is that African traditional thought incorporates both implicitly and explicitly comparable ideas just as philosophy links events on logical implications of ideas for appropriate usage.
The Concept of Myth: Perhaps we may begin with ordinary usage of the word ‘myth’. In common English conversation, to say that something is a myth would probably mean that something is false. But when the term ‘myth’ is applied to the religious situation, it is quite neural as to the truth or falsity of a story enshrined in a myth. Originally, however, a myth meant a story. But calling a myth a story does not justify it as true or condemn it as false. It is necessary not to use myth merely in relation to stories about the Supreme Being, about lesser gods, spirits, etc. but about the whole historical events of a religious significance in a given tradition. For example, the Passover ritual in Judaism serves as historical event and also functions as a myth. 11 In writing about myths, Robert Tikpor has supplied us with some insights on what myth is all about. According to him, a myth is simply a prehistorically cultural attempt at answering the
E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition. [London: Heinemann, 1973], pp.76 – 78. Daryll Forde, Op. cit., p. 191. 9 E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. [London: Longmans, 1962], pp. 67 – 68. 10 Robin Horton, “Ritual Man in Africa,” Africa 34, no. 299 and “African Traditional Thought and Western Science.” Africa 37 nos 1 & 2. 11 Samuel H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology [England: Penguin Books, 1963], p. 11.
Mythology in Africa
most perplexing questions posed by the supernatural and natural in creation. How did the world come about? How do we explain man’s unique position in the world? Who is responsible for creation? Why do we have day and night alternating and attracting the attention of man? What explanation can we give for the seeming struggle between good and evil? Why does the chameleon change its colour and walk as it does? 12 The answer to these questions is what Idowu sees as being embodied in myths. According to him, myths are the necessary vehicles for conveying certain facts or basic truths about man’s experiences in his encounter with the created order and with regard to man’s relation to the supersensible world. A myth endeavours to probe and answer such questions about origins and meanings and purposes. The answers are naturally clothed in stories which serve as a necessary tool for preservation and subseqquent handover from one generation to the next. 13 Hence the collection of myths, stories, images and legends symbolizes the mythological aspect of religion because it is through them that the supersensible world is represented. According to Susanne Langer, a myth whether literally believed or not has religious seriousness, either as historical fact or as a “mystic” truth. The personages in a myth tend to fuse into stable personalities of supernatural character. Two divinities of somewhat similar strength, heroically defeated and slain become identified. 14 Langer’s point is further supported by that of Alasdair MacIntyre. “A myth is living or dead, not true or false. You cannot refute a myth because as soon as you treat it as refutable, you do not treat it as a myth but as a hypothesis or history. Myths which could not easily coexist if they were hypothesis or histories, as for example rival accounts of creation, can comfortably belong to the same body of mythology.” 15
Mircea Eliade describes a myth as “a true history of what came to pass at the beginning of time, and one which provides a pattern of human behaviour.” 16 For Eliade a myth contains a lot of significance. In a myth, the writer finds a thought expressing the absolute truth because it narrates a sacred history, a trans-human revelation which looks at the dawn of great time. Like Eliade, Nicholas adds that a myth is a representation of reality which though fantastic, claims to
Robert Tikpor, “Myths” in E. A. Adegbola ed. Traditional Religion in West Africa. [Ibadan: Daystar Press, 1985], p. 367. 13 E. Bolaji, 1973, p. 84. 14 J. B. Pritchard ed., The Ancient ear East, vols 1 & 2 [New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975], p. 6ff. 15 Alasdair Macintyre, “Myth” in P. Edwards ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy [New York: Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1972 edition], p. 435. 16 Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, p. 23.
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be accurate. It has a symbolism which contains certain aspects of reality, the deepest aspects of which defy any other means of knowledge. 17
Unfortunately, Hooke describes a myth differently. He defines a myth as a product of human imagination arising out of a definite situation and intended to do something. 18 For Hooke, the distinction between myth on one hand and legend, saga, folk story on the other, is often based upon literary criteria. But even so, Langer prefers the distinction in the respective usage of material. In other words, myth is primitive philosophy. Legend is primitive history naively constructed in terms of love and hate. But a myth has the simplest presentational form of thought, a series of attempts to know the world and explain the mystery of life and death, fate and nature, gods, rivals and cults. 19
Hermann Baumann who had studies about two thousand five hundred African myths says that, “a myth is the clear presentation of the outlook of a people living in communities. It is their objective and permanent philosophy of life.” 20 Studies have shown that most of African myths evolved during the pre-scientific age. Geoffrey Parrinder’s African Mythology is a beautiful collection of numerous myths within Africa. However, myths are found the world over, depending on the type of culture and civilization. There is one underlying fact about all myths. Most of the forces are personified as a form of formalization of belief in religious ritual. In addition, most of the myths begin naturally with creation of the world before other aspects of the world. This is logical because there could be no myths about animals or people if there was no world to live in.
The different definitions of myths leave us with some common interwoven facts; [a] The universal recognition of the Supreme Being, no matter which name He is addressed in any culture of the world. [b]
The Creator-creature relationship in general, and to man in a special way. 21
Nicolas Corte, The Origin of Man. [New York: Harthorn Books, 1961], pp. 11, 12. Samuel H. Hooke, op. cit., 11. 19 Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a ew Key. [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard university Press, 1975], p. 177, 177n] 20 Quoted by Smith, E.W. ed., African Ideas of God. [London: Edinburgh House Press, 1966 edition], p. 6. 21 Robert Tikpor, art. cit., pp. 368 -9.
Mythology in Africa
Myth and History: Myth is supposed to contain past events which are held to be real. That is why most African myths are captured on oral tradition and non-oral traditional forms such as symbols or rituals. Some anthropologists have held that myth was developed later on to explain ritual. 22 Myths explain a great of the human conditions and life as people see it. Thus they have evolved from a past full of events. African myths therefore would contain “history”. Myths and history generally overlap and shape each other.
The blending of myths with history brings cosmic and archetypal events to bear upon the local situations. Benjamin C. Ray says that, “It is important to see how African myth-history as a whole gives meaning to the world, how the sacred and true events of the past serve to represent and explain the world as it ultimately is, and how these same events may serve as ritual archetypes for the renewal of the natural and human order.” 23
The myth-maker uses ideological implications to give credibility to his account using abstract structures of social importance which the present audience is aware of. In fact, Isichie summarized this by saying that, “much of his account may contain many elements that are true representations of past happenings but is not primary purpose. In a sense, myth reverses the procedures of history. History fixes a meaning to the present and is obliged to take a view of the past that is compatible with it. 24 A myth by Isichie’s standard determines the fact of history which the present ought to reflect. Ray adds that mythical symbols and rituals are instrumental in the African past, because they say what reality is and shape the world to conform to this reality. In this regard, religion plays an enormous role in African societies. 25
History could be divided into two stages, what Professor Mbiti has classified as Zamani and Sasa. The Zamani is the forgotten period, the non-remembered, the non-recorded, but a period of history nonetheless. The second stage Sasa is the living oral or written period. We can identify
Ian G. Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigm. [London: SCM Press, 1974], p.22. Benjamin B. Ray, African Religions. [Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976], p. 28. 24 P. A. C. Isichie, “Two Perspectives of the Past: History and Myth.” Second Order, 4[July 1975]2, p. 13. 25 Benjamin C. Ray, op. cit., p. 17.
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Zamani with the mythical period, the story going back to man’s primitive age when man walked about uncovered in paradise with unadorned beauty. The period when man stayed unmolested with animals and conversed with them. Man can recall that story because it is his story, and can turn the story in Sasa form that is from father to son from mother to daughter, colouring it into song or poetry to facilitate oral transmission. 26 No wonder, Eliade stressed that when listening to a myth, one visualizes the sacred time which has no duration. Man has to forget his profane condition and think of his historical situation as we are prone to address it today, and image it in pre-historic civilization in order to enjoy myth. 27
The ature of African Myths: The myths of Africa answer questions about the origin of the world, for it is not reasonable to suppose that life that man came from nothing. African myths also deal with organization of the universe in relation to man’s existence, life and destiny. According to Baumann, there is a centrality to African myths which in most cases is identified with the High God and the first man formed by his creative power. 28
In his analysis of African myths, John V. Taylor in his book The Primal Vision demonstrated that there are certain recurrent patterns in the numerous myths of culturally independent African people. An important form of myth, according to Taylor, is that which seeks to explain why God is so remote. There is a widespread conviction that though the Supreme Being exists, he no longer concerns himself with human affairs. However, many African scholars do not share the same view with him among who are Joseph B. Danquah and E. Bolaji Idowu. These two African scholars of African Traditional Religion, attack European view of the Supreme God as a deus incertus or deus remotus. Danquah in his book The Akan Doctrine of God argues that the Akan religion knew only one God, and that the African Supreme beings were not “remote” or “abstract” as Europeans thought they were. Like Danquah, Idowu argues that the concept of supreme deity is the “one essential factor by which the life and belief of the Yoruba religion cohere and have sustenance. . since He is so urgently real.” 29 Idowu upholds that Yoruba
John S. Mbiti, 1969, pp. 39 – 43. Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols. [London: Harwill Press, 1961], pp. 57-58. 28 Robert Tikpor, art. cit., p. 369. 29 E. Bolaji, 1962, p. 202.
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religion is a kind of “diffused monotheism,” having lesser gods as attributes and functionaries of the supreme God. 30 However, emphasis in African mythology is centred on this question of God’s remote existence and his creation of the universe. Other myths focus on war, institution and values, the advent of death, heroes and leaders, kings and chiefs, animate and inanimate things. Ian Barbour proposes that there are models which are embodied in myths. Models like metaphors are used only momentarily while symbols and parables have only a limited scope. Models are systematically developed and pervade a religious tradition. One model may be common to many myths.31 Since there are many African myths, we cannot exhaust them here. Again there is limited space for comparative study; however we shall take few common myths to illustrate our main concern.
1. Mythology of Creation: Most African myths are content that God made the world. In a Yoruba creation mythology, Olorun, owner of the sky, lived in heaven with other divinities. There was nothing below only a marsh where divinities sometimes come down to play. But one day God called a divine agent, Orinshala or Great God, and gave him a snail shell filled with soil, a pigeon and a hen and sent him below. When Orinshala reached below, he poured the soil on the marsh. He then scattered it until the earth was formed. The original place was called Ife, which means “wide land”. This is the origin of the Yoruba town Ile-Ife, the house of Ife. This myth of the primal creation, regards Ife town the centre of the universe. 32
Origin of Man:
Some African myths say the first beings were created in the sky or in heaven and then lowered down to the earth. They were both husband and wife from whose children the earth populated. But the Ashanti say that on Monday night, a worm made a hole on the ground and out it emerged seven men, some seven women, a leopard and a dog. The people were afraid at the sight of the earth, but their leader calmed them down on Tuesday. Unfortunately on Wednesday, a falling tree killed him when they were building huts. Then the dog went out to look for fire which they
Loc. Cit. Ian Barbour, op. cit., p. 27. 32 Geoffrey Parrinder, Africa’s Three Religions. [London: Sheldon Press, 1969], p. 30.
Mythology in Africa
used to cook their food. The Ashanti celebrate an annual feast to commemorate these first people. 33
The Advent of Death:
Most African myths see death as a result of the broken relationship between God and man. Many of the African myths say that death was not there from the beginning. But it came later as a result of sin. The common myth on death in most African cultures says that God sent a dog with the message of immortality and a toad with the message of death. On the way, the dog stopped to eat, and the toad arrived first and delivered its message. The dog with full stomach arrived too late and no one listened to him. Other versions say the message of immortality was given to the chameleon and the message of death to the lizard [some prefer hare to bird]. Since the lizard was fast, the message of death was delivered and since then people in the world have been dying. An Urundi myth says Imana [God] chased death away with dogs, until one day death was forced into a narrow space and would have been destroyed. Fortunately, death found a woman whom he promised to spare her life should she agree to hide death. The woman agreed and she opened her mouth and death jumped inside. When Imana came with his hunting gods, He knew what happened because He is All-knowing. Imana told the woman that since she was hiding death, in future, death would destroy her and all her children. From that moment, death spread all over the world. 34
Withdrawal of God:
Most African myths say that God lived so near that people could touch him. But because men disobeyed him, he withdrew far above the skies. According to an Ashanti myth, Onyankopon [that is the Great One] lived long ago near men. There was an old woman who constantly pounded fufu [local food of mashed yam or plantain]. As she continued pounding the fufu the pestle knocked against God. One day Onyankopon said, “because of what you have been doing to me, I am taking myself away far up in the sky where men cannot reach me.” So onyankopon left and no one could approach him. But the old woman insisted and told her children to collect mortars and pile them one on top of another. They succeeded in piling these mortars but only one
Ibid., p. 34. Mbiti, African Traditional Religion. [London: Heinemann, 1975], pp. 77 -8.
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remained to reach Onyankopon. The old woman instructed her children to remove the one at the bottom and put it on top. On the process of removing the first one, all the mortars fell to the ground killing many people. 35
Functions of Myths in Religious Thought Systems: Myths were applied in pre-scientific cultures as indispensable tools for the preservation and maintenance of tradition. In so-called primitive societies, myths expressed enhanced and modified beliefs. Myths also safeguarded and enforced morality and contained practical guides for the protection of human societies. According to Isichie, “myth is then a vital ingredient of human civilization, it is not an idle tale, but a hard-woven active force, and it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.” 36 African myths existed in both oral and non-oral forms. Most of them vary in length and history as well as in content, yet they serve the purpose of enabling us to dig into the psychology of the African. Barbour has given five functions of myths in human life.
[a] Myths offer ways of ordering experience: We are provided with a worldview, a basic structure of reality in a given society. The present is interpreted in the light of the formative events narrated in the myth. According to Barbaour, a myth is relevant to daily life because it deals with perennial problems and the enduring order of the world in which he lives. For example, the changing seasons throughout the year.
[b] Myths inform man about himself: Man takes self-identity from the past events which he believes have made him what he is now. He links his existence to that of his ancestors, a kind of community in which every year members participate. A myth evokes personal involvement rather between the structures of human existence and cosmic structures, between African man and his ancestors, lesser beings and the Supreme Being.
Daryll Forde, op. cit., p. 192. P. A. C. Isichie, art. cit., p. 14.
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[c] Myths express a saving power in human life: When we examine any myth, we understand its basic goal and ground in life. The actual condition of man’s separated self from the ideal by some distortion or defect, understood as sin, ignorance, attachment, chaos, etc. But the saving power can overcome the defect and establish the ideal as we can see from the Babylonian creation story of Marduk defeating Tiamat, putting order out of chaos. The supreme function of myth here is to “fix” the pragmatic and paradigmatic models for all rites and significant activities. Myths thus portend a power of transforming man’s life, rather than theoretical explanation of it.
[d] Myths provide patterns for human actions: By this Barbour means that myths do not hold an abstract ideal but a prototype for man’s initiation. Often the action of divine beings or mythical ancestors gives examplenary pattern of rituals, moral and practical behaviour. Myths become clear and impressive, inspiring their listeners to emotional response and create action. They encourage particular form of behaviour thereby they sanction the moral norms of a society.
[e] Myths are enacted in rituals: Myths are expressed notably in symbolic acts, dance, gestures, drama and formalized cultural acts or rites. Ray calls them “archetypal symbols” that is sacred images, whether they are gods, ancestors, sacred rites or tings which make up traditional worldview. Such culturally bound systems are found in images, enshrined and communicated in rituals. They give order to experiences by framing the world in terms of sacred figures and patterns. 37 In other words, myth often justifies ritual, while ritual transmits the myth and provides a way of taking part in it. Cultic acts embody the creative power of primordial and historical time and create anew the forms of ordering experience and action. 38 For example, the New Year festival celebrated annually in some African cultures and most especially in ancient Mesopotamia signifies the victory of Marduk over Tiamat, signifying a new beginning and renewal of primordial victory over chaos.
Benjamin C. Ray., op. cit., p. 17. Ian G. Barbour, op. cit., pp. 20 – 21.
Mythology in Africa
In summary, the function of myths could be postulated thus, “Myths promote the integration of society. They are a cohesive force building a community together and contributing to social solidarity, group identity and communal harmony. They encourage cultural stability, for myth is an active force which is ultimately related to almost every aspect of culture’ [Malinowski]. Myth sanctions the existing social order and justifies its status system and power and structure, providing a rationale for social and political institution. . . A common morality is supported by a mythical tradition, which perpetrates both value-attitude and specific behavioural recommendation.” 39 Like Barbour, Hooke sees the function of myth as expressing symbolical terms by means of images what cannot be otherwise put into human speech. The function of myths is not knowledge but action, action essential for the existence of human community. 40
Conclusion: The importance of myths in African traditional society cannot be over-emphasized. Myths help us to understand our rich cultural inheritance. Myths therefore, should never be taken literally, but as primordial attempt of man to explain natural phenomena using a system perceivable to him. The African has the important role of utilizing any modern means available, to preserve and transmit these rich cultural traits to generations yet unborn. The philosopher cannot remain passive to this development. He has to fully comprehend the religious thinking of the African in order to know why the African thinks the way he thinks and behaves the way he behaves. If that is understood, then my task of this presentation is accomplished.
Ibid., p. 23. Daryll Forde, op. cit., p. 192.
Mythology in Africa