Choice and Families

Choice and Families – Pentecost #155-158

Pentecost 155 – Choices

Today is All Hallow’s Eve, a holiday which has its roots in Celtic mythology.  While In America the custom of children wearing costumes and going door to door to receive treats only dates back about one hundred years, those customs and the holiday dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Great Britain and Ireland.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania loves to brag (and rightly so!) about its Mummer’s Day Parade.  Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana have their costumes and joyful Mardi Gras festivities.  Rio de Janeiro draws the world with its glorious Carnival.  Clearly mankind loves a party!  Halloween, the more common name for All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain or Calan Gaeaf were all much more than simply excuses to dress up for a party.  Ancient Celts believed in Aos Si, the spirits of the dead who could, at this liminal time, return to earth.   These spirits were presented food or drink left as an offering and it was believed that dressing up as these spirits would protect one from harm.

In the ninth century A.C.E., the Christian church made November 1st a church holiday.  November 1st was named All Saints Day (originally All Hallows Day, “hallow being a synonym for saintly’).  In the fifteenth century the custom of sharing “soul cakes” was instituted. This custom was even incorporated by William Shakespeare into the action of his play “The Two Gentleman from Verona”.

Many use Halloween as a chance to step out of their everyday persona.  The term “trick or treat” is only about seventy years old, although the concept was evident in Wales in the seventeenth century.  AS a child I remember towns and municipalities offering an extra school holiday if the youth of the area restrained themselves from trickery or malfeasance.  It really boils down to a matter of choices, doesn’t it?

In Nigeria, there is a culture known as the Yoruba.  The Yoruba believe that a person’s success in life is based solely upon the choices made – not in life but in heaven before one is born.  The Yoruba word for choice is “ayanmo” and the road to achieving one’s choice is thought by the Yoruba to be ….patience.  The Yoruba name for their supreme deity for this matter is “Ori” which translates as “head” or “mind”.  Everyone has a choice.  Those who choose a wise head will have success and a life of relative ease.  Those who make foolish choices will not find success.

The Yoruba believe that even their gods need Ori to help guide them through life.  Thus Ori is both a personal and a collective concept.  Holidays are also both personal and collective.  Hopefully, if you celebrate today, you will do so by making wide choices.  And I also hope your choices in living will help you be a better person.  We all need to make better choices and the world can always use another person who is trying to be better.

Pentecost #156 – And Then ….

The Yoruba also believe that each of us is really a part of a trinity.  They believe in the “emi”.  The word translates as “breath” but refers to the spirit of each of us.  The emi lives in one’s heart and lungs and is fed by air breathed in through our nostrils.  The emi is the very core of a person, that which is responsible for our very living, our actions, our thoughts, our loving.

This wonderful culture also has a myth of the second part of a person, the “ojiji”.  The ojiji follows a person and is the shadow or shade of a person.  When we die, the Yoruba believe our ojiji will wait in heaven for our return.  [I confess I found this such a lovely thought.  We are never truly alone; we always have our shadow, even when we cannot see it.]

The Nigerian tribe of the Yoruba gave the third spirit of the trinity the name “eleda”, although some call it “ori”.  These names are translated as “guardian soul”.  It is believed that those who have died will return to the tribe as infants.

One never really escapes one’s past in these myths yet there is a chance for retribution and confession.  We all have made choices that left us wondering “What was I thinking?” and left others if we were thinking at all.  The nice thing is that there is usually always a chance for “and then…”.  All we have to do is find the strength to start again.  It is not easy but life is always worth it.  So, by the way, are you.

Pentecost 157 – Liongo

We talked about the Kamba culture of Kenya earlier this week.  Like most African countries, Kenya is a land rich in diversity and many cultures.  The Swahili and Pokomo people live in eastern Kenya and one of their mythical heroes is the poet Liongo.  There are seven cities which claim to be the birthplace of Liongo; no one known which claim is true.  He was described as being as tall as a giant and very, very strong.  Legend tells that Liongo could not be wounded by any weapon but, like Achilles in the Greek myths, Liongo did have his vulnerable spot.  We, like Liongo, all have our weak areas.  Not everyone can be an expert or authority is all matters.  We all make mistakes; hopefully, we learn something from them.

Liongo is not really remembered just for his might or the fact the he was the king of Ozi and Ungwana in the Tana Delta and of the Shanga on Faze or Pate Island.  There are a great many songs and gungu dances whose lyrics are poems attributed to Liongo and written in Swahili.  This is fitting because, with the introduction of Islam and the change in succession from mother to father, Liongo found himself arrested.  He escaped his shackles during a loud and celebratory song sung by a nearby crowd outside the prison.  The myths of Liongo open chapter of his tale with a song.

Liongo eventually was killed by his son who knew that a needle driven into his navel would prove deadly.  There is an old adage about choosing one’s confidants wisely and Liongo’s death testifies to this adage.  Of greater importance is making sure we not only are aware of our weaknesses but respectful of them and those of others.  On this day when so many are celebrating, we need to remember to be good stewards of our fun.  The real thing to fear is ignoring the wisdom in living a healthy and safe life.

#158 – The Family Tree

Trees in Africa are tantamount to life.  It is understandable that many tribes and clans have given themselves names that include trees.  Without trees, man would not have wood for fire and food would quickly spoil without the ability to cook it.  In areas where grass is hard to find, goats climb trees to eat the green leaves.  Other animals use trees as perches before capturing their meal.  Trees are where bees make their hives in Africa and those hives provide honey.

African mythology tells that each tree has a spirit and some have more than a few.  It has been a long-ensuing debate as to whether trees are spirits or are just inhabited by them.  Regardless of where you stand on that topic, the spirit is recognized and all seek to hear its voice.

Together, trees create a family.  Forests are just large tree families and continue to be revered and respected.  Drums in Africa are made from wood and the carver works very carefully to preserve the voice of the spirit of the tree.  The boat-maker also works to keep the spirit of the wood happy.  Otherwise it is believed that an unhappy spirit will sink a boat.

Namibia has a tree that is said to open its branches and swallow people whole.  In Zaire there is a myth about the man who married a tree.  His children, born of the tree, were said to have learned the secrets of the forest spirits and grew up to become respected herbalists.

We may not instantly think of a tree when we think of the word family and yet, an illustrated genealogy is called a “family tree”. Interesting, huh?  The popular song from the 1970’s “We Are Family” is singing through my mind right now.  I live near a wooded area and, given that we are in the middle of a light rain which is the precursor to a promised storm due later today, the trees and their spirits seem to be singing.

We are a long way away from Arbor Day, six months for those of us in the United States of America.  Yet, every day is a day to respect the trees.  Every day is also a good day to respect family – yours, mine, and the family of mankind.  After all, we really are family.

The Elephant and the Witch

The Elephant and the Witch

Pentecost 154

Imagine you have lived with animals the sixe of house cats.  Now imagine walking down a path, making a turn and suddenly seeing an animal thirteen feet tall that weighs fifteen thousand pounds.  The mammal in question is the elephant, the largest and off terrestrial or land animals.

There are many African myths as to how the elephant became so large and intelligent.  The Kamba people of Kenya have a myth about a very poor man who wanted to be rich.  He traveled a great distance to visit Ivonya-Ngia, a man whose name translates as “He that Feeds the Poor”.  The poor man refused all offers of charity and instead asked for the secret of being rich.  Ivonya-Ngia gave him an ointment that he told the man should be applied to his wife’s canine teeth.  He told the poor man that they teeth would grow and then he could sell them.  The man did as told and soon was able to purchase a flock of goats.  However, his wife would not go through the tooth extraction a second time.  Her teeth continued to grow and eventually became tusks.  Her skin also changed and became grey.  In fact, her entire body grew very large and she retreated to the forests to live.  The Kamba believe her children were elephants, thus beginning this noble species on earth.

Southern Africa also has a myth about a girl who grew so tall and large that she could not find a mate.  Everyone in her village thought she was a witch and she was exiled into the wilderness.  Once in the wild, the cast-off girl encountered an elephant who spoke to her in the Zulu dialect.  The girl becomes the wife of the elephant and gives birth to four sons who are said to be the first of the Indhlovu tribe of chieftains.

In almost all of the mythologies of Africa, the elephant is portrayed as kind, intelligent, and noble.  The Wachaga myth from Tanzania believed the elephant was once a man cheated out of both legs and one arm, the remaining arm becoming the trunk of the elephant.  The Ashanti of Ghana believe an elephant had ben a former chief of the tribe.  Whenever they encounter a deceased elephant in the wild, they stop and give it a royal burial.

The respect these myths give the largest and perhaps the most gentle of all land animals is heart-warming.  The mass killing of elephants because many believe there is spiritual power in their tusks is tragic.  Elephants are killed or almost killed and left to die a cruel death at alarming rates that have made them endangered and vulnerable.  We need to realize that we can respect and value creation without destroying it.  How we live does not just affect us but results in consequences for all of creation.  The same analogy can be drawn in how we treat one another.  The beauty of creation is that it exists, it was created.  The value of life is that it exists.  When how we live destroys the living, then we need to ask ourselves what we are doing.  People not only destroy species of animals to the brink of extinction, mankind is also very good at killing itself.  We need to remember that the value of an elephant is in its life.  The same is truth for all living things.

Dissimilarly Similar – Pentecost #151-153

Dissimilarly Similar: Pentecost 151-153

Pentecost #151 – One and Many

It is time again to answer some questions and comments.  Thank for you all of them!  First, this Pentecost has been a time to explore the mythologies of the world, the various spirits mankind has believed in since the beginning.  I elected to do this journey into these stories because Pentecost, in the Christian religious tradition, is a season dedicated to the Holy Spirit.  Just as we deliberated the religions of the world last Advent, this exploration is not about converting but about educating and acquainting.  Secondly, to those who have enjoyed reading about these stories, I give a most heartfelt “thank you”.  Thirdly, someone mentioned that one would have to be crazy to believe in these deities, in any deity.  That is certainly your right to consider and hold that attitude.  I remember once, as a teenager in school, we had a marching band practice at the end of the day.  Suddenly the skies opened up and we were instantly drenched.  We had been going over the formations of a new program so no one had their instruments.  Since we were out there without the need to scurry to take the musical instruments to safety, we simply began to frolic in the rain.  A passer-by saw fifty or sixty kids in a field by the school running around and called the local law enforcement, describing our play as “crazy”.  Sometimes what some consider being full of joy appears as insanity to others.  It is all about context and perspective.

Along those same lines is the African Nilotic word “Jok”.  For the ancient cultures of Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan, Jok embraced their concept of the divine spirit.  Like anything that has been around since antiquity, Jok has other variations such as Jwok, Juok, Joagh, Joghi, and Joogi.  Jok has also been defined in different ways, again depending on the time period, perspective, and context of the one developing the dictionary or translation.

Throughout time, the many words used as synonyms for God (Who remembers which discussed all of these?) have been widespread and varied.  For some Jok implied the one deity of the Abrahamic faiths, the one we call God or Allah.  For others, Jok means spirits, gods, or even devils.  Mankind has a plethora of contradictory ideas regarding spiritual beings.

For the people whose language was Nilotic, Jok was the word that means the unified spirit of God and the lesser gods.  Jok was personal and interpersonal, local and omnipresent.  Interestingly enough, the same might be said of mankind.  After all, there are people right next door to me and people on the other side of the world, all over the world in fact.  There are people I know intimately and people I do not know.  What is important is to remember that, in spite of our differences, we really are one people, many races but all the family of mankind.

Pentecost #152 – Equal and Different

The Kikuyu tribe has their own word for God – Ngai.  A Kikuyu is a fig tree which is a fertility symbol in both Africa and Asia.  The Kikuyu tribe lives on the slopes of Mount Kenya, a culture that goes back several centuries at least.

The Kikuyu believe that everyone has a spirit which is called ngoma.  The ngoma is said to become a ghost after death, a spirit that can become quite persistent in avenging any wrongs suffered during life.  Burial rituals differ for village elders and lesser members of the clan.  Their myths tells of certain trees which are said to be favored by these spirits and food offerings are often placed at the based of the trunks to appease.

The Kikuyu believe that Ngai will punish those who fail to keep the faith.  Similar to the Roman god Jupiter, they believe Ngai strikes down the unfaithful with lightning.  Many Kikuyu also believe in predestination, which is to say that a person’s live is preordained before their birth.

The god Ngai has a name from the Bantu language which translates as “the Apportioner”.  Their myths tell them that part of creation was the dispersal or apportioning of Ngai’s gifts to all the different nations on earth.  The Kikuyu people received the skill and implements needed for successful agriculture and they are a farming community.  There are today approximately six million Kikuyu in Kenya which makes them the largest ethnic group in the country.  They call themselves Agikuyu, a variation of the native pronunciation “Gikuyu”.  Gikuyu translates as sycamore tree and “agikuyu” means children of the huge sycamore.

The Kikuyu have adapted throughout time.  In the 1800’s their music became influenced by European composers.  More recently cinema and food production have gained prominence in this culture.  The Kikuyu believed that Ngai equally distributed gifts of life to all people.  These gifts were equal yet different.  Many might see a tribe living on a mountainside and think “What could they know?”  To me, this culture has had things and life figured out lone before most of us did or do.  They continue to believe in their myths while moving forward to the future.  Whether you are on a mountain slope or living in the middle of a bustling city, it is not a bad way to life.

#153 – True Riches

While early missionaries to the African continent seemed to catalogue hundreds of “heathen gods”, the cultures of Africa have been mostly monotheistic.  What they also have, though, is a deep reverence for and belief in ancestral spirits.   African mythology is reflected not only in the masks of various cultures but in other artwork and their music.  The masks often reflected supposed faces of various spirits.  Even the fabrics were dyed to reflect mythologies and beliefs.

What is especially nice is that many of these myths have survived and are given life today.  They are reflected in the smiles of Africa’s children and tribal hospitality.   All too often we overlook the joy in religion and spirituality.  The true riches of the world’s mythologies are in the joyous living they encourage.

It may seem that as a native of Louisiana, adopted as an infant, who grew up to become an internationally acclaimed make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin would have nothing in common with African mythology.  However, Aucoin’s philosophy of life really illustrates a recurring theme found in African mythology.  “Today I choose life.  Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain…To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.”

Each sunrise brings each of us a new day, a new chance to embrace life and live.  Whether a farmer on the slope of a mountain in Kenya or a worker on a tomb in the Sahara, African myths not only tell the story of the cradle of civilization, they tell of the riches of life.

What is, Duality, and the Mother

What Is, Duality, and the Mother

Pentecost 148-150

#148 – And It Came to Pass

Not everyone cares about the beginning of time and the earth.  For the ancient cultures that lied on the banks of the Nile, the Niger, and the Congo Rivers, their myths were more concerned with social institutions, families, and the relationships of mankind.  However, other cultures like those of the Dogon, Yoruba, and Bambara developed lengthy and complex myths about creation.

Some African myths originated from different cultures yet share some very interesting commonalities.  The Dogon believed twin creator spirits known as “Nummo” were hatched from a cosmic egg.  The egg is a common starting point for many myths of various cultures.  Another common element in African mythology is the snake.  Cultures in both northern and southern Africa believe the world was formed from the body of a giant snake which, at times, is said to cover the sky in the form of a rainbow.

Africa also has a variety of myths about how death became a part of the world.  Most of these begin with a supreme deity or spirits who intended for mankind to be immortal.  The reasons for death being a reality are many and varied.  Some blame it on simply a mistake.  Others are much more imaginative.  In one myth, a chameleon is sent to earth to give the good news of life everlasting.  Unfortunately the chameleon travels slowly and cautiously and is outrun by a quick-moving lizard that carries the message of death.  The Mende culture found in Sierra Leone has a similar tale.  The Mende version has a fast-moving toad bearing the message “Death has come” overtaking a dog.  The dog stopped to eat and so his message of “Life has come” arrived too late.

We have all had those instances where we almost won the lottery or almost got that job or perhaps saw the person ahead of us purchase the last pie of pie.  What we need to remember is that it is the present that is important.  The best chance for a lasting legacy and immortality is a life lived in kindness with generosity.  Those are the people who live on forever in the hearts of all.

#149 – Two Better than One

Growing up I knew several sets of twins. They were nice but after that first moment of “Oh!”, I have to admit we treated them just like any other kids.  In many African cultures, twins were regarded as sacred beings.  Some cultures of the Niger and Congo regions view twins of opposite sexes as being representative of the duality of life.

Many believe life is a duality of many things, many opposites – good versus evil, hot versus cold, male versus female.  This list could go on and on but you get the idea, I am sure.  Technically, duality simply means “two”.  Could life really be an existence of two states?  Are we both good and evil?  Can something be both tangible and intangible at the same time?

Many of the world’s myths continue to be retold because, in spite of their fictitious beginnings, they also contain elements of fact.  While the Fon myth of Mawu having a rainbow serpent may sound ridiculous, one cannot deny that an ice-cold ocean does exist at the bottom of the world.   The Norse legend of the god Thor creating thunder with his hammer striking the air sounds incredulous and yet, it is the coming together of supper-charged particles of heat against colder ones that creates the noise we call thunder.

Anthon St. Maarten once explained our need for such duality in our lives.  “If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day.  Nothing stimulates our appetite for the simple joys of life more than the starvation caused by sadness or desperation.  In order to complete our amazing life journey successfully, it is vital that we turn each and every dark tear into a pearl of wisdom, and find the blessing in every cause.”  [I love this quote and would be happy for you to comment on favorite quotes of yours.]

Most of us are not all one thing or another.  We are complex beings living in a complex cosmology called life.  What is simple is that we can leave the darkness and grief and move forward, one step at a time, creating light in our lives and for others.

Pentecost #150 – Mother of All

A mother is more than just a female being.  A mother gives life and the term is synonymous with helping someone grow in life. As varied as the world’s cultures are, the words for mother are surprisingly similar.  Mom, mum, mam, mata, mama, and ma are all terms used worldwide for one’s mother.  Of greater interest to me is the fact that all children, regardless of culture or location, have their first word or two be “mmma”.  IT’s as if they realize their mother gives them life and each new experience comes from that initial one.

The earth is considered by many African cultures to be a mother-goddess since it is the earth that gives and sustains all life. Without the natural elements which emanate from the earth, there would be no life.

Many cultures on the African continent believe their deities are a part of the earth and all that it within on the earth.  There is a myth from the Zulu people that tells of a lake of milk beneath the topsoil on which we walk.  Cows, sheep, and goats, like all cattle, eat the grass and then, within their bodies, somehow the milk is produced.  The ancient cultures assumed the grass grew from roots deep within the soil, roots that they felt were nourished by this deep milk lake.

Even in our modern times, it is believed there are four basic elements – water, air, fire, and wind.  Ancient African cultures believed the sky with water and air were parts of the earth.  They saw the wind coming from caves in the earth and the earth’s mountains.  Fire lived in the earth (think volcanoes) but also in wood (think trees).  Thus, all four of these basic elements came from the earth to help them live.

Recently Pope Francis, himself an acclaimed and highly educated scientist, chastised the world’s industry and governments for refusing to believe in climate change and global warming.  He stopped short of advocating we worship the earth as a god but he strongly encouraged we respect the earth.  Whether you believe the African myths or believe in any spirituality or religion at all, one cannot deny the mothering the earth gives us all.  We should show her some respect but being better stewards of the earth and life.

Two Fon Myths

Two Fon Mythologies

Pentecost 146-147

#146 – He Face/She Face

One of the greatest debates in al times has been whether or not the supreme deity known as God has a male persona or a female person.  The Fon culture of Dahomey, Benin, resolved that problem with their mythologies, especially the legend of the Rainbow Serpent.

Benin, once known as Dahomey, is a country in West Africa.  It is a present-day democracy with a healthy society from civic perspectives.  However, economically the area is underdeveloped with a great deal of corruption.  Historically Benin was part of Africa’s Slave Coast.  Natives were taken captive and transported to foreign lands.  They lost their freedom and most if not all lost the most basic of all human rights and dignities but they managed to retain their myths and early religions, the most notable being voodoo.

The Fon believed in a creator god named Mawu-Lisa, a spirit with two faces.  Mawu was a female deity whose eyes were thought to be the moon.  The other face belonged to Lisa, a male entity whose eyes were the sun.  Not surprisingly, Mawu was the ruler of the night while Lisa ruled the day.  Mawu had a serpent named Aido-Hwedo who assisted her in creating the world.  The serpent was described as a rainbow serpent and was also a female-male being.  The myths told that one-half of Aido-Hwedo lived in the sky while the other half lived in the sea and provided defense for the world.  The Fon culture attributed the curves of the earth and various topographical features to the movements of the Rainbow Serpent as it traversed the world with Mawu in its mouth creating more things.

Once the creation of the world was complete, legend tells that Mawu realized she had created too much.  The earth could not sustain the world of everything.  Mawu’s answer was to have Aido-Hwedo coil up and provide a base for the planet and give it support.  In keeping with the scientific fact that snakes are cold-blooded creatures, Mawu created an ice-cold sea at the bottom of the world as a home for her Rainbow Serpent.  The Fon believed that earthquakes were simply Aido-Hwedo getting comfortable.

Perhaps such a colorful and fanciful myth seems a bit too far-fetched for you but if you give it a chance, there really is a great deal to which we could relate.  Every human being shares some traits that are considered either typically male and/or female.  I can certainly relate to Mawu realizing at the end of the day that she had too much stuff.

Maybe we really should acknowledge that we all also have at least two faces.  Another thing common in the thousand or so cultures found on the African continent is the use of masks.  Many are colorful and most are exquisitely carved intricate works of art.  In truth we all wear masks every day.  I think one of the things I like best about African mythology is the exploration it offers one into self-exploration.  I doubt I ever get myself a pet snake, even a stuffed rainbow-colored toy snake.  However, after rereading this story I will hopefully be more aware that the mask I wear, the face I present to the world is one of truth and authenticity.

#147 – The Monkey’s Pride

Today someone forwarded me a video about a monkey petting a puppy.  The love between the species was adorable and certainly a lesson for us all.  It reminded me of the Fon myth from Benin about the monkey that wanted to be a man…and almost made it.

The female-male creator god Mawu-Lisa gave birth to seven children who became among other things, the gods of earth, thunder, sea, iron and war.  Mawu then created people and later, animals.  Once created, the animals would knead the clay so she could create more animals.

The monkey’s five fingers made him especially suited for the task of preparing the clay and he quickly earned Mawu’s favor.  She promised him he could work among the men rather than the animals and walk erect once creation was complete.  The monkey became so excited that he walked around all the other animals boasting instead of working.  This earned him Mawu’s anger and so he remained an animal forever.

I don’t need to remind you that we all have sometimes let our ego get in our way.  The lesson of this myth is also found in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 16, verse 19: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

A Story of Strength

A Story of Strength

Pentecost 145

Before we jump into the gloriously rich stories of African mythology, I need to say one more thing about Anansi the spider who convinced the Creator to release the stories of mankind.  AS the stories we’ve already discussed were retold through the ages, some changes occurred.  Anansi’s name became Anancy and the hare became Brer Rabbit or Brother Rabbit.  In case, these names sound familiar, they should.  In the late 1800’s an American from Georgia, using stories told by the African slaves on the Tutwold Plantation, published in an 1879 issue of the Atlantic Constitution “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus”.

These stories varied greatly from fairy tales that were popular at that time in America.  Joel Chandler Harris would eventually publish nine books containing his Uncle Remus stories, three of which were published posthumously.  They brought him attention and some wealth but also many fans, two of whom were noted authors themselves – Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

The most notable thing about Harris’ retelling of the African myths was his use phonetically to illustrate the dialect of the slaves from whom he heard these myths.  To people outside of the southern United States, the dialects of the slaves were a new language.

Joel Chandler Harris did much more than simply present African mythologies to a new audience.  He published articles in the Saturday Evening Post that discussed racism.  He and his son later published a successful magazine who purpose was “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.”

Scholars, writers, and other learned “experts” still debate the legacy of Uncle Remus.  Many point to the dialects, the differences in the myths, and the use of the South as proof of the stories’ illiteracy and nonvalue.  Many others, though, use those same points to emphasize their value and strengths.  The same could be said of mankind.  Some of our weaknesses are the door to our greatest strengths.  Likewise, each of us, as we write our own story, can turn that which hinders us into that which enables us.

Forgotten yet Living Tales

Forgotten yet Living Tales

Pentecost 144

“Myths symbolize human experience and embody the spiritual values of a culture.  Every society preserves its myths because the beliefs and world-view found within them are crucial to the survival of that culture.”  This is the introduction to anthology on myths entitles “World Mythology”, written by Donna Rosenberg.  This is a great book with one caveat – it references no African myths except those of Egypt.  In my research for this series (Yes, I do research!) I discovered many books leave out the rich volume of stories that comprise African mythology.  In my humble opinion, this is a grave error.  Let’s postulate what might motivate such omissions.

As we’ve discussed before, many people think of Africa as a country.  It is not.  It is a very large and geographically diverse continent.  The cultures and languages of Africa are equally diverse with an estimated fifteen hundred to over two thousand languages.  Some of these languages have been broken down into what linguistics call language families.  For example, Afro-asiatic has spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and some regions of the Sahel.  Africa also has a wide variety of sign languages.  Then there are the hundred-plus languages used for inter-ethnic communication.  These languages alone are spoken by tens of millions of people.  The country of Nigeria has over five hundred languages spoken within its borders.

Each of these languages represents a specific culture with its own identifying history and yes, mythology.  We could spend ten years of daily posting on this blog (365 x 10 = 3650) and still only cover a mere drop in the stories of Africa.  It is a daunting task and many simply do not attempt it.

So, with the technical problems of this past week and all the delays this month, will I just avoid African mythology as well?  Of course not.  It has reduced the length to which we can go delve into them, sadly, and it will require multiple postings to be done each day this week.  Nonetheless, African mythology is definitely worth our time.

Usually mythological tales are about an ancient culture, stories from a time long ago about people who lived in antiquity.  African myths differ.  They are a bridge from the past to the present as the people who believe prepare for the future.  They myths of Africa are as real today as the first time they were told.  They breathe with life and help form the rich heritage of a wonderfully diverse land mass, representative of the entire planet. Like a travel brochure hints at the joys of a foreign country, I hope these brief glimpses entice and encourage you to study African mythology further.

We all have heard the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover.”  Neither the people of the African continent nor the mythologies are worthy of being categorized as one great big sameness.  Organizing mankind by ethnicity may or may not have been a good idea when it first started.  It does lead to some incorrect assumptions.  While people of European ancestry are considered to be Caucasian, the name comes from the Caucus Mountain range which was once home to the ethnic group known as American Indians, a culture which does not have its origins in the American continents.  It would be wise to remember, as we study African mythology, that each of these cultures is a separate entity – delightful and mysterious in its own fashion – much like mankind itself.

The Moon and Death

The Moon and Death

Pentecost 143

In case you are wondering, time has not stood still.  My last post concluded with “tomorrow we will discuss….”.  I am aware that that “tomorrow” became almost an entire week and I do apologize.  Computer updates, Internet service provider equipment updates, utility company outages… It seems as though the fates and the universe conspired to to give me some peace and quiet!  While it is frustrating when technology is abruptly and unexpectedly turned off, it does serve to illustrate our dependency on such technology.  It is also a time to reflect, to regain some “personal time” and to reinforce human connections.

Our last conversation was about the San Bushmen of the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. Pentecost is a season of the Holy Spirit for those who observe it, an arm of the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.  The Holy Spirit, known for centuries as the Holy Ghost, is said to embody the love and strength of the monotheistic deity Christians call God.

While this blog is more universal than one specific religion or spirituality, I do freely admit/profess to be a member of the Episcopal Church.  Because organization leads to freedom (paraphrasing American Statesman Benjamin Franklin), I opted to use the church calendar as my filing system.  Thus, blog posts have a theme and are numbered according to the day they appear during a particular “season”.  However, those posts are loosely based on that church season…very loosely.  For instance, during Epiphany this year, we explored unusual yet common inventions we all use every day.  These “epiphanies” of their inventors have greatly impacted our lives today.

During Pentecost we have chatted about the spirits of mankind through the stories of mankind – mythologies of the world.  We began as all things do – with beginnings, the creation myths of each culture.  Thus, our explorations of the world’s myths and legends have begun with the retelling of their creation myths. It was the creation myth of the San Bushmen that we examined in our last discussion.  The San Bushmen are a wonderful culture of the Kadahari Desert that has been over thirty thousand years in the making.  Even today, the power of the eland, the deer-like creature created from a portion of a shoe placed in water, is still respected.

The creator deity of the San Bushmen was /Kaggen and according to legend, he threw one of his shoes into the air and that shoe became the moon.  Our last story, Pentecost 142, told of the rebirth of the moon which explained the scientific phases of the moon.  When we last were together, we learned that the myth told of /Kaggen’s hope for all to experience the same rebirth the moon does every twenty-eight days.

Because of a rabbit, however, the San Bushmen do not believe in reincarnation.  The goodwill of the /Kaggen was evident in the moon wanting mankind to experience the same rebirth it achieved.  Unfortunately, as with any religion, the key was that one believed and in this story, someone does not.  The San believe their spiritual leaders, the shamans, could cross from the world of the natural being or reality into a supernatural world, the place of beliefs.  They believe this is done through a dream-like state, a state in which some believe the shaman dies.  Then, legend maintains, the heart of the shaman becomes a star in the night sky.

The myth of death for this culture tells of a human who could change into a rabbit.  As a rabbit, he grieved for his mother who had died.  In agony over never seeing her again, he refused to hear the comfort of moon which promised her rebirth.  The rabbit preferred his grief and misery and argued with the moon, denouncing all it proclaimed.  In anger, the moon is said to have lashed out, scarring the rabbit’s mouth.  “As for men, now they shall die and never return.”

Whether one believes in reincarnation and how one defines it is a personal belief.  We can and should relate to this myth, regardless of our beliefs.  You see, we can be our own worst enemies.  We need to believe in the power of our beliefs.  And then we need to live them.  After all, the whole point of faith is to provide direction and strength. Remember, a compass is only able to help us find our way if we use it.

The Shoe in the Sky

The Shoe in the Sky
Pentecost 143

In a land of over one thousand languages, Diversity is the norm for Africa, not the exception. The mythologies of Africa also reflect this diversity. However, just as some themes are timeless, similar themes are found throughout African mythologies. Much of what modern man knows about Egyptian mythology starts with the pyramids that seem to rise out the terrain. Egyptians were not focused on death but on life. Their extensive rituals of death which included mummification and elaborate burials were to provide for a new life after death. As one ancient Egyptian song explains in its lyrics – “Earthly life is just a fleeting dream. When you reach the land of the dead, you are welcomed safely home.

The San Bushmen have a similar opinion in the myths about /Kaggen. The native people of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa are descended from a culture that dates back over 30,000 years. The San have a “click” phonetic sound in their language represented by the “/” or forward slash symbol. We may think of this character of the forward slash as a modern-day technical symbol but it really signifies one of mankind’s earliest human vocalizations.

The San mythological figure “/Kaggen” has a prominent role in many myths. In one, /Kaggen finds a piece of a shoe of his son-in-law, Kwammang-a, who is also called the Rainbow. Legend has /Kaggen finding this piece of shoe and then soaking it in water. The portion of the shoe turned into an eland, an animal we would call an antelope or a type of deer. /Kaggen made the eland a pet and fed it honey. According to the legend, Kwammang-a, along with his son /Ni-opwa the Ichneumon find the eland and kill it, beginning to butcher it when/Kaggen arrives upon the scene. In great misery, /Kaggen pierces the gallbladder of the eland. Darkness pours out of the gallbladder and covers the world. /Kaggen tosses one of his own shoes into the sky and the shoe becomes the moon.

San mythology tells of the moon walking across the sky at night. As the moon becomes full, the story tells of the sun piercing it. The moon decays from this blow but, following a promise of the creator /Kaggen, is slowly reborn. The San believed their Creator deity /Kaggen wanted rebirth for all mankind. As the moon, he represented a return to life, a wish the San felt /Kaggen wanted them to also have. [Soiler alert for tomorrow: This is not the end of the story!]

I have always been enthralled by often these ancient mythologies touch on what are actually very basic facts. The moon does rise throughout its phases to full glory only to become nothing again and then grow once more. While I doubt it is the shoe of /Kaggen, it is a wonderful analogy for hope.

We each experience types of death, not just with loved ones or friends but personally in our daily lives. We have the rise of hopes which are then trampled on or perhaps even crushed. We spend time working on a project only to have it canceled or ignored. Maybe you plan a lovely dinner and then no one can make it. Recently I invited someone to attend a conference with me. Three weeks have passed since the conference was over and I still have no response to my initial invitation to this person, a very capable and professional individual.

Sometimes life interferes with our living. Often we take these cancellations or deaths of plans personally, too personally. Certainly the lack of a response to the conference invitation was rude but that should not be interpreted as my failing. Sometimes, though, we do indeed fail. In spite of all our efforts, our work is unsuccessful.

Disappointment and death are facts of life. What we need to remember is that they are not the end. Like the moon, we can restart and move forward. As we move across the terrain of our life, as we put on our shoes each day and walk towards our future, we also can give rebirth to our dreams and create new expectations. Today really is the first day of the rest of your life.

Before the Before

Before the Before

Pentecost 141

It is the continent upon which the cradle of civilization supposedly first rocked and then gave birth to mankind.  It is often spoken of as a country and yet is a continent.  If someone identified themselves as a European, then most would inquire further: “Yes, but from what country are you?”  Most people look at the color of the skin and simply think…”African”.  This does a disservice to both the native and the continent.  It is a gloriously diverse land mass with its north and south being oddly similar while the mid-section is colorful in its sameness.  The best description is that it is different and yet, one.

Regardless of whether you believe in evolution or one of the thousands of creation myths that exist, mankind began to travel out of Africa more than one and a half million years ago.  Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts, stone tools used by “Homo habilis” that date back more than two million years ago.  Saharan rock art illustrates animals that have been extinct since 8500 BCE.  While other rock art dates back more than twenty-six thousand years ago.  Even the popular body art of tattooing dates back more than forty-two thousand years ago in Africa as the earth element ocher was being ground into a fine powder for such use.  The art of burying the dead dates back more than seventy thousand years in Africa.

When speaking of Africa today, distinction is usually made between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.  In ancient times, this distinction was even more noted.  The native populations of North Africa consisted of lighter-skinned Berbers and Maghreb and Egyptians.  Many Arabs settled in North Africa following the Caliphate.  Sub-Saharan populations share the physical trait of very dark skin, although Sub-Saharan Africa contains the most diverse population genetically of anywhere on earth.

The earliest of mankind existed in Africa more than two million years ago in lands known by the more modern names of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.  I will pause here to note that African countries have changed names throughout history and if I speak historically and my countries do not match the most current maps, it is because we are speaking historically and mythologically.  The Nile River served as a boundary and stopped mankind from exploring Sub-Saharan Africa but eventually migrations did occur which led to different pockets of civilization, some nomadic, and others settling in villages all over the continent.  The oldest known evidence of modern man was found in sites in eastern Africa and dates back more than one hundred and thirty thousand years.

African mythology contains some of the most imaginative and beautiful stories, art, and music of any worldwide.  While many think of only jungles when considering the second largest continent, others imagine vast desert regions.  Others may only think of plagues and still more remember it as the beginning of a tortuous journey of slavery for thousands. This does a grave disservice to Africa and its people.  Africa is home to early Christian kingdoms of Kush and Axum and Egypt which is the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical treasure which is said to contain the Ten Commandments while there was a great Islamic center at Timbuktu in Mali.  Mankind itself existed in opposite ends of the spectrum with the Pygmies of the rain forests located near the equator and the towering Masai herdsmen of Kenya and Tanzania.  Africans include the  the San [Bushmen] of the Kalahari Desert, the cowboys of Khoi in southern Africa with their cattle-herding skills, and the proud Zulu who took it upon themselves to challenge the mighty British Empire two centuries ago in South Africa.

Africa has both grown and suffered by the migrations of others to its lands.  The Islamic Arabs in the seventh century and then European Christians in the fifteenth century all but erased the rich legacy of African traditions, mythology, and history.  Unlike the mythologies of Greece, Roma, and the Far East, African legends have never been written.  The mythologies of Africa exist in the truest form of mythology, the oral tradition.  Once considered the Dark Continent, new emphasis on these ancient stories have revealed that Africa is a rich, brilliant land of textures and varieties, myth and magic, music, and muse.

The history of Africa, more so than on any other spot on earth, is woven amongst its people and terrain.  Even its mythologies are said to have been won from the sky god Onyankopon by the mischievous spider Anansi.  As the spider wove a web to ensnare the god’s family and then released them in trade for stories about creation, the cosmology, and even social order, so have African myths been woven into the fabric of mankind.

The traveling myths of Africa went with its people.  Whether by choice or servitude and slavery, Africans took their stories and culture with them, singing their myths to give themselves faith.  We all take the stories of our culture and history with us each and every day.  As we awake, we hear the faint echoes of the voices of our past.  With each step we leave impressions of our present and lay the foundation of the future.  In African mythology we will see the weaving of a world, the beautiful texture and nuances of each of us.  Today you will create a small square that is to be the quilt of your being.  Perhaps you will be asked to trade something of yourself for the story of another.  Just remember to value that which is you and grow a new day, writing a new story, for you, too, are a wonderful myth in the making.