Monday, August 26, 2019

Spirits and tortoises (Following folktales around the world 119. - Nigeria)

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!

Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria 
Elphinstone Dayrell
Longmans, Green & Co., 1910.

This is a fairly old book from British colonial times. It contains forty folktales from Southern Nigeria, collected by a colonial officer. The introduction was written by Andrew Lang himself, who also made notes for some of the stories, comparing them to European fairy tales. Many of the tales come with footnotes explaining certain cultural and historical elements, and sometimes they even come with an expressed moral at the end - although the moral is not always what one would expect from the story.


Among the more mythical tales my favorite was the one that explained why Sun and Moon live in the sky. According to the story, they invited their friend the Sea over as a guest, but when the Sea appeared with all of his volume and residents, Sun and Moon had to flee to the roof first, and then to the sky, where they have been ever since.

The long and elaborate story of The king and the ju ju tree was especially great. In it, a king tried to cut down a magic tree to clear space around his favorite bathing place, but a splinter got into his eye, causing horrible pain. A man appeared to cure him, but asked for his daughter in exchange - of course the man was a spirit, planning on eating the girl. The princess, however, managed to get away from him with the help of a talking skull, and after many adventures found her way out of the spirit world and back home.
As for the animal tales, the one that stuck with me the most was the ominous story that explained why worms live underground. It was the story of a great battle between the worms and the terrifying driver ants, obviously won by the latter.
The story of the fat woman who melted in the sun, despite the strange title, was a story of beauty. Women were traditionally fattened up before marriage, and this one big beautiful lady was very popular - but also made of oil, so she was forbidden from going out in the sun. A jealous co-wife, however, tricked her into going to the fields, and the lady melted, down to her big toe. Luckily, she managed to pull herself together after a while.
The story of the king and the 'nsiat (weaver) bird, on the other hand, was a tale of breaking with traditions. The king married the beautiful daughter of the bird, despite the warning that women in her family give birth to twins - and offense traditionally punished by death. When the twins were born, however, the king loved his family so much that they ended up moving to the wilderness together to live with the bird family - and they have been living as weaver birds ever since.


I was reminded of the Cajun story of Marie Jolie by the tale of the disobedient girl who married a skull. The skull came from the spirit world, borrowing body parts from other spirits to form the perfect man, and the girl was helped by a friendly old woman in her escape back home before the spirits would have devoured her.
The pretty stranger who killed the king carried the internationally popular motif of a beautiful new wife (in this case, an old witch in disguise) beheading a king while he was asleep, thus bringing down the entire kingdom.
This Nigerian tortoise is more than
 300 years old!
The local trickster is, once again, Tortoise. He had many adventures, such as finding out the hippo's secret name (and thus exiling him into the waters), or playing tug-o-war with Elephant and Hippo. The latter story had a nice twist in the end: both animals decided they wanted Tortoise to be their friend. Tortoise moved to the water with Hippo, and sent his son to live with Elephant - that's why we have turtles and tortoises now. Tortoise also played the leading role in the story of the king's magic drum that created food out of nowhere. The trickster managed to get the drum from the king, but broke the taboo associated with it, so instead of food the drum now summoned people who beat everybody up. Using this new ability, Tortoise managed to get a second deal, and acquire a tree that grew foo-foo... until his sons broke that taboo as well, and the entire family had to move to the prickly bushes out of shame.

Where to next?

No comments:

Post a Comment