Monday, August 12, 2019

Tricksters and more tricksters (Following folktales around the world 117. - Togo)

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!

Tales told in Togoland
A. W. Cardinall
Oxford University Press, 1970.

This book contains folktales and legends from Togo, collected by the author in the first half of the 20th century from hunters and farmers. Cardinall admits that he is not an anthropologist, he merely wanted to record the stories in fear that a trained collector might not get to Togo in time before they disappeared. There is a detailed introduction about the country's geography, cultures, and history. The stories themselves are grouped into thematic chapters, in which they follow each other without sub-titles, connected by information on customs, beliefs, and folklore. The last chapter is taken up by the oral history of the country from the times before colonization. The book is a very enjoyable read, and while the text is occasionally dated (referring to some things as "primitive"), it contains a whole lot of really great stories.


I found the first cool story right in the Introduction. According to local beliefs, animals could only be killed with bullets specifically crafted for that species. A man went to the blacksmith for buffalo bullets, and when he returned to pick them up, a hunter followed him into the bush - and saw the man turn into a buffalo. He shot at the animal, but the bullets bounced off, since the buffalo used the magic of the buffalo bullets to protect himself from harm. How cool is that?
Since there were many, many trickster tales in the book, I also found some new favorites. I loved the one where a chief had a competition with a boy about who can trick the other - and when the chief lost, he turned into a spider in his shame. It was an Anansi origin story! I also liked another story that explained why Anansi hides in shame - in that one, he tried to trick Chameleon, but ended up being tricked himself (with the help of a cloak made of living flies). In yet another story it was Nyame who punished the spider for his pride, burning his house down; Anansi only managed to save his pillow, which is why even today you can find small, white pillow-like nests in spiderwebs. I also enjoyed the tale in which a kind-hearted hunter found food with the help of a chichiriga, a forest spirit, but when Anansi tried to copy the trick, he did not treat the spirit well enough, and thus received nothing.
Last but not least, there was a fun story explaining the origin of wasps. A girl called her mother a witch, and the furious mom started chasing her to punish her. Various animals tried to help the girl, but they were all intimidated by the mother, until the wasp swallowed her whole. The wasp tied a rope around its waist so that the old woman could not come out (hence the tiny waists) - and since she went in face first, her sharp tongue became the wasp's stinger.


Since we are deep into West Africa here, many stories were familiar not just from other African countries, but also from the Caribbean and the USA. I have already heard the creation story in which the sky was raised as a punishment for people annoying the Sky God. Dilemma stories continue to be popular, similar to other African countries - there was the one about the three wives who saved their husband together and argued over who did the most (the husband declared they were all equally important), and another about four men saving a child from a snake, and then arguing about who deserved the snake's skin the most. In fact, dilemma tales had half a chapter to themselves.
After Mali I once again encountered a story about animals trying to take revenge on a hunter. He revealed almost all his secrets to his animal-wife, except for one, which helped him get away when she lured him unarmed into the bush (honestly, I was rooting for the animals). Another man had a similarly lucky escape from a crocodile, when he helped the animal and it wanted to devour him instead of a thank you. The man was helped by the clever little red-flanked duiker, a distant relative of the famous Southeast Asian trickster Mouse Deer. A third daring escape featured a man about to be devoured by a hyena that was about to be devoured by a leopard that was about to be devoured by a lion, and then all of them scared off by a rat that claimed he was about to devour them all (I knew this story from another African collection, with a muskrat as the hero). And while we are on the topic of hunting, I found a variant of the tale about the hunter's son from Ghana, in which a lion tried to take revenge on the boy when it saw the trophies of his kin.
There was a story similar to tales I know from Brazil, in which a hunter wounded an antelope and chased it into the village of the kulparga (little people, "fairies"), where he discovered that all animals are kulparga in disguise, and he had to watch the young antelope-man die. These little creatures, by the way, were similar to European fairies in that they also hated iron, and played the main role in the story where a hunter joined their celebration and sang the days of the week with them ("gift of the fairies" tale type). In this case, their gift was a large amount of cowrie shells.
Kép innen
The two main local tricksters were Anansi the Spider and Soamba the Hare (both of them traveled to the Americas from here). Next to such classics as the tar baby story there were also some familiar from Ghana, such as Anansi and Wisdom, or Anansi trading things up until he got a hundred slaves for one ear of corn. I was also already familiar with the "bring me something" tale, in which Anansi spied on Nyame in the disguise of a bird to find out what the deity wanted him to bring; as well as the one where Anansi killed the chief's sheep and tried to blame another spider for it, but then in his greed gave himself away.
I noticed some European parallels in the story of the Golden Twins (here Nyame's five wives competed in doing the best for their husband; the youngest gave birth to a silver and a gold child who were stolen by the others, but wise Anansi figured out the truth) and the Twin Princes (who were two friends that looked alike, and ended up saving each other). There was even a Bible parallel in the Ashanti myth in which Tano, younger son of Nyame, tricked his father into giving him the blessed lands he intended for his eldest son.

Where to next?

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