Monday, August 19, 2019

Dawn to Dusk (Following folktales around the world 118. - Benin)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Dawn to Dusk
Folk Tales from Benin
Iro Eweka
Routledge, 1998.

This book is not just any folktale collection: It was written by a member of the Edo royal family. Iro Eweka, author, poet, psychologist, belonged to the last generation of the family that had the chance to listen to the traditional storytellers in the original context of court entertainment. While working on his doctorate in the USA, he had the inspiration to write the stories of his childhood down to preserve them. He arranged them in a sort of mythical chronology, from Creation to the fall of the Edo Empire in the 19th century. Each chapter opens with a quote (most often an Edo proverb). At the end of the book there is a whole chapter of Edo wisdom and proverbs, and another one that tells about the origin of Benin's name. The stories themselves are retold in beautiful, poetic language, which made this book a truly amazing read.


The book begins with a creation myth. I especially liked how all animals and plants, once they were created with the strike of a whip, greeted the Creator and introduced themselves by their own name. So did men, women, and children. The mythology around birth was especially fascinating: according to Edo belief, everyone decides what they want their life to be before they are born, and they tell it to the Creator. Then they are sent down to Earth with their invisible twin, live their lives, die, then return to heaven, and make modifications to their life based on their experiences. Then it's the invisible twin's turn to be born, and so on and so forth, for 14 cycles. Prayers made during a lifetime are added to the modifications for the next round. The story also pointed out that this is why parents have to be grateful to their children, because the child chooses them and not the other way around.
The story of creation was followed up by the Great Debate, when arguments first arose between plants, animals, and humans. Ósánóbuá, the Creator was called down from the sky to do justice. The Debate was mostly carried by the wise trickster Tortoise, who listed the problems with the current state of things (especially with how humans behaved). In the end the Creator decided to put more rules in place, and give each creature their own language so they wouldn't understand each other anymore.
I really enjoyed the historical legend of Prince Ogun, who was exiled from his kingdom and lived in the jungle for seven years. He made friends with plants and animals, learned all the healing arts, saved a lion, an antelope, and a tree. When he was told that he would regain his thorne if he sacrificed a tiger, he refused, saying he would rather stay in the jungle than kill an animal. In the end, of course, he fulfilled his destiny and became king (but didn't kill a tiger). He was the one that named Edo after a slave who saved his life. 
Among the folktales I liked the one that explained why leopard has spots. It featured the Mother of all animals, who one day accidentally broke leopard's clay pot, angering the creature. She was defended by Ram, with the help of wise Tortoise (who helped him protect his large testicles in the fight). The wounds that Leopard received in the fight became his spots. Tortoise played similarly important roles in many other stories, as the trickster-advisor to the sacred kings. I especially loved the story where he warned the king to only declare plans with the caveat "barring any obstacles." When the king said no obstacles can ever derail his plans, Tortoise climbed a tree and tossed roasted nuts at the king's workers - who immediately abandoned their job to eat all the delicacies.


Once again there was a myth about the raising of the shy. In this one, people did not have to gather their own food at the beginning of time, because they could just take pieces of the low-hanging sky to eat. One day a frantic mother tore off too much sky, and threw out the leftovers. The sky got so offended that it asked for the Creator's permission to rise higher, out of reach. Humans were lucky that Tortoise already knew how to cultivate crops, and he taught them.
I was reminded of the story of the lion and the mouse by the tale of the spider and the deer. Spider asked Deer to carry him across a river, promising to return the favor one day. He did, by the classic spider trick of weaving webs to conceal Deer's footprints when hunters wanted to trap him, making it look like the prints were from many days earlier.

Where to next?

1 comment: