Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria, West Africa | Annotated Tale

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MANY years ago a book on the Folk-Tales of the Eskimo was published, and the editor of The Academy (Dr. Appleton) told one of his minions to send it to me for revision. By mischance it was sent to an eminent expert in Political Economy, who, never suspecting any error, took the book for the text of an interesting essay on the economics of "the blameless Hyperboreans."

                Mr. Dayrell's "Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria" appeal to the anthropologist within me, no less than to the lover of what children and older people call "Fairy Tales." The stories are full of mentions of strange institutions, as well as of rare adventures. I may be permitted to offer some running notes and comments on this mass of African curiosities from the crowded lumber-room of the native mind.

                I. The Tortoise with a Pretty Daughter.--The story, like the tales of the dark native tribes of Australia, rises from that state of fancy by which man draws (at least for purposes of fiction) no line between himself and the lower animals. Why should not the fair heroine, Adet, daughter of the tortoise, be the daughter of human parents? The tale would be none the less interesting, and a good deal more credible to the mature intelligence. But the ancient fashion of animal parentage is presented. It may have originated, like the stories of the Australians, at a time when men were totemists, when every person had a bestial or vegetable "family-name," and when, to account for these hereditary names, stories of descent from a supernatural, bestial, primeval race were invented. In the fables of the world, speaking animals, human in all but outward aspect, are the characters. The fashion is universal among savages; it descends to the Buddha's jataka, or parables, to Æsop and La Fontaine. There could be no such fashion if fables had originated among civilised human beings.

                The polity of the people who tell this story seems to be despotic. The king makes a law that any girl prettier than the prince's fifty wives shall be put to death, with her parents. Who is to be the Paris, and give the fatal apple to the most fair? Obviously the prince is the Paris. He falls in love with Miss Tortoise, guided to her as he is by the bird who is "entranced with her beauty." In this tribe, as in Homer's time, the lover offers a bride-price to the father of the girl. In Homer cattle are the current medium; in Nigeria pieces of cloth and brass rods are (or were) the currency. Observe the queen's interest in an affair of true love. Though she knows that her son's life is endangered by his honourable passion, she adds to the bride-price out of her privy purse. It is "a long courting"; four years pass, while pretty Adet is "ower young to marry yet." The king is very angry when the news of this breach of the royal marriage Act first comes to his ears. He summons the whole of his subjects, his throne, a stone, is set out in the market-place, and Adet is brought before him. He sees and is conquered.

"It is no wonder," said the king,     
"This tortoise-girl might be a queen."

                Though a despot, his Majesty, before cancelling his law, has to consult the eight Egbos, or heads of secret societies, whose magical powers give the sacred sanction to legislation. The Egbo (see p. 4, note) is a mumbo-jumbo man. He answers to the bogey who presides over the rites of initiation in the Australian tribes.

                When the Egbo is about, women must hide and keep out of the way. The king proclaims the cancelling of the law. The Egbos might resist, for they have all the knives and poisons of the secret societies behind them. But the king, a master of the human heart, acts like Sir Robert Walpole. He buys the Egbo votes "with palm-wine and money," and gives a feast to the women at the marriage dances. But why does the king give half his kingdom to the tortoise? When an adventurer in fairy tales wins the hand of the king's heiress, he usually gets half the kingdom. The tortoise is said to have been "the wisest of all men and animals." Why? He merely did not kill his daughter. But there is no temptation to kill daughters in a country where they are valuable assets, and command high bride-prices. In the Australian tribes, the bride-price is simply another girl. A man swops his sister to another man for the other man's sister, or for any girl of whose hand the other man has the disposal.

                II. The second story is a very ingenious commercial parable, "Never lend money, you only make a dangerous enemy." The story also explains why bush cats eat poultry.

                III. The Woman with Two Skins is a peculiar version of the story of the courteous Sir Gawain with his bride, hideous by day, and a pearl of loveliness by night. The Ju Ju man answers to the witch in our fairy tales and to the mother-in-law of the prince, who, by a magical potion, makes him forget his own true love. She, however, is always victorious, and the prince

"Prepares another marriage,     
Their hearts so full of love and glee,"

                and ousts the false bride, like Lord Bateman in the ballad, when Sophia came home. In this case of Lord Bateman, the scholiast (Thackeray, probably) suggests that his Lordship secured the consent of the Church as the king in the tortoise story won that of the Egbos. Our tale then wanders into the fairy tale of the king who is deceived into drowning his children, in European folk-lore, because he is informed that they are puppies. The Water Ju Ju, however, saves these black princes, and brings forward the rightful heir very dramatically at a wrestling match, where the lad overthrows more than he thought, like Orlando in As You Like It, and conquers the heart of the jealous queen as well as his athletic opponents.

                In the conclusion the jealous woman is handed over to the ecclesiastical arm of the Egbos; she is flogged, and, as in the case of Jeanne d'Arc, is burned alive, "and her ashes were thrown into the river." Human nature is much the same everywhere.

                IV. The King's Magic Drum.--The drum is the mystic cauldron of ancient Welsh romance, which "always provides plenty of good food and drink." But the drum has its drawback, the food "goes bad" if its owner steps over a stick in the road or a fallen tree, a tabu like the geisas of ancient Irish legends. The tortoise, in this tale, has the geisas power; he can make the king give him anything he chooses to ask. This very queer constraint occurs constantly in the Cuchullain cycle of Irish romances, and in The Black Thief. (You can buy it for a penny in Dublin, or read it in Thackeray's Little Tour in Ireland.) The King is constrained to part with the drum, but does not tell the tortoise about the tabu and the drawback. The tortoise, though disappointed, at least pays his score off in public, and then the tale wanders into the Hop o' my Thumb formula, and the trail of ashes. Finally the story, like most stories, explains the origin of an animal peculiarity, why tortoises live under prickly tie-tie palms. That explanation was clearly in the author's mind from the first, but to reach his point he adopted the formula of the mystic object, drum or cauldron, which provides endless supplies, and has a counteracting charm attached to it, a tabu.

                V. Ituen and the King's Wife.--Some of these tales have this peculiarity, that the characters possess names, as Ituen, Offiong, and Attem. They are thus what people call sagas, not mere Märchen. All the pseudo-historic legends of the Greek states, of Thebes, Athens, Mycenæ, Pylos, and so on, are folk-tales converted into saga, and adapted and accepted as historical. Some of these Nigerian fairy-tales are in the same cast. The story of Athamas of Iolcos and the sacrifice of any of his descendants who went into the town hall, exactly corresponds to the fate of the family of Ituen (p. 32). [1] The whole Athamas story, in Greece, is a tissue of popular tales found in every part of the world. This Ituen story, as usual, explains the habits of animals, vultures, and dogs, and illustrates the awful cruelties of Egbo law.

                VI. The Pretty Stranger is a native variant of Judith and Holofernes.

                VII. A "Just So Story," a myth to explain the ways of animals. The cauldron of Medea, which destroyed the wrong old person, and did not rejuvenate him, is introduced. "All the stories have been told," all the world over.

                VIII. The Disobedient Daughter who Married a Skull.--This is most original; though all our ballads and tales about the pretty girl who is carried to the land of the dead by her lover's ghost (Bürger's Lenore) have the same fundamental idea. Then comes in the common moral, the Reward of Courtesy, as in Perrault's Les Fées. But the machinery of the Nigerian romance leads up to the Return of Proserpine from the Dead in a truly fanciful way.

                IX. The King who Married the Cock's Daughter is Æsop's man who married the woman that had been a cat. As Adia unen pecks at the corn, the other lady caught and ate a mouse.

                X. The Woman, the Ape, and the Child.--This tale illustrates Egbo juridicature very powerfully, and is told to account for Nigerian marriage law.

                XI. The Fish and the Leopard's Wife.--Another "Just So Story."

                XII. The Bat.--Another explanation of the nocturnal habits of the bat. The tortoise appears as the wisest of things, like the hare in North America, Brer Rabbit, the Bushman Mantis insect, and so on.

                XIII., XIV., XV. All of these are explanatory "Just So Stories."

                XVI. Why the Sun and Moon live in the Sky.--Sun and Moon, in savage myth, lived on earth at first, but the Nigerian explanation of their retreat to the sky is, as far as I know, without parallel elsewhere.

                XVII., XVIII. "Just So Stories."

                XIX. Quite an original myth of Thunder and Lightning: much below the divine dignity of such myths elsewhere. Thunder is not the Voice of Zeus or of Baiame the Father (Australian), but of an old sheep! The gods have not made the Nigerians poetical.

                XX. Another "Just So Story."

                XXI. The Cock who caused a Fight illustrates private war and justice among the natives, and shows the Egbos refusing to admit the principle of a fine in atonement for an offence.

                XXII. The Affair of the Hippopotamus and of the Tortoise.--A very curious variant of the Whuppitie Stoorie, or Tom-Tit-Tot story, depending on the power conferred by learning the secret name of an opponent. These secret names are conferred at Australian ceremonies. Any amount of the learning about secret names is easily accessible.

                XXIII. Why Dead People are Buried.--Here we meet the Creator so common in the religious beliefs of Africans as of most barbarous and savage peoples. "The Creator was a big chief." The Euahlayi Baiame is rendered "Big Man" by Mrs. Langloh Parker (see The Euahlayi Tribe). The myth is one of world-wide diffusion, explaining The Origin of Death, usually by the fable of a message, forgotten and misrendered, from the Creator.

                XXIV. The Fat Woman who Melted Away.--The revival of this beautiful creature, from all that was left of her, the toe, is an incident very common in folk-tales, i.e. the Scottish Rashin Coatie. (The word "dowry" is used throughout where "bride-price" would better express the institution. The Homeric  [Greek: ena] is meant.)

                XXV. The Leopard, the Squirrel, and the Tortoise.--A "Just So Story."

                XXVI. Why the Moon Waxes and Wanes.--A lunar myth; not a poetical though a kindly explanation of the habits of the moon.

                XXVII. The Story of the Leopard, the Tortoise, and the Bush Rat.--A "Just So Story."

                XXVIII. The King and the JuJu Tree.--This is a fine example of Ju Ju beliefs, and of an extraordinary sacrifice to a Ju Ju power located in a tree. Goats, chickens, and white men are common offerings, but "seven baskets of flies" might propitiate Beelzebub. The "spirit-man" who can succeed when sacrifice fails, chooses the king's daughter as his reward, as is usual in Märchen. Compare Melampus and Pero in Greece. The skull in spirit-land here plays a friendly part, in advising the princess, like Proserpine, not to eat among the dead. This caution is found everywhere--in the Greek version of Orpheus and Eurydice, in the Kalewala, and in Scott's "Wandering Willie's Tale," in Redgauntlet. Like Orpheus, the girl is not to look back while leaving spirit-land. Her successful escape, by obeying the injunctions of the skull, is unusual.

                XXIX. How the Tortoise overcame the Elephant and the Hippopotamus.--A "Just So Story," with the tortoise as cunning as Brer Rabbit.

                XXX. Of the Pretty Girl and the Seven Jealous Women.--Here the good little bird plays the part of the popinjay who "up and spake" with good effect in the first ballads. The useful Ju Ju man divines by casting lots, a common method among the Zulus. The revenge of the pretty girl's father is certainly adequate.

                XXXI. How the Cannibals drove the People from Insofan Mountain to the Cross River (Ikom).--This professes to be historical, and concerns human sacrifices, "to cool the new yams," and cannibalism.

                XXXII. is unimportant.

                In XXXIII. we find the ordeal poison, which destroys fifty witches.

                XXXIV. The Slave Girl who tried to Kill her Mistress is a form of our common tale of the waiting-maid who usurps the place of her mistress, the Bride. The resurrection of the Bride from the water, at the cry of her little sister, occurs in a remote quarter, among the Samoyeds in Castren's Samoyedische Märchen, but there the opening is in the style of Asterinos and Pulja (Phrixus and Helle) in Van Hahn's Griechische Märchen. The False Bride story is, in an ancient French chanson de geste, part of the legend of the mother of Charlemagne. The story also occurs in Callaway's collection of Zulu fairy tales. In the Nigerian version the manners, customs, and cruelties are all thoroughly West African.

                XXXV. The King and the 'Nsiat Bird accounts, as usual, for the habits of the bird; and also illustrates the widespread custom of killing twins.

                XXXVI. reflects the well-known practices of poison and the ordeal by poison.

                XXXVII. is another "Just So Story."

                XXXVIII. The Drummer and the Alligators.--In this grim tale of one of the abominable secret societies the human alligators appear to be regarded as being capable of taking bestial form, like werewolves or the leopards of another African secret society.

                XXXIX. and XL. are both picturesque "Just So Stories," so common in the folk-lore of all countries.

                The most striking point in the tales is the combination of good humour and good feeling with horrible cruelties, and the reign of terror of the Egbos and lesser societies. European influences can scarcely do much harm, apart from whisky, in Nigeria. As to religion, we do not learn that the Creator receives any sacrifice: in savage and barbaric countries He usually gets none. Only Ju Jus, whether ghosts or fiends in general, are propitiated. The Other is "too high and too far."

                I have briefly indicated the stories which have variants in ancient myth and European Märchen or fairy tales.

                ANDREW LANG.



[1]: See the Platonic dialogue, Minos, 315-6, and Athamas in Roscher's Lexikon.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Introduction
Tale Author/Editor: Lang, Andrew
Book Title: Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria, West Africa
Book Author/Editor: Dayrell, Elphinstone
Publisher: Longmans, Green and Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1910
Country of Origin: Nigeria
Classification: Introduction

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