The Trickster as Teacher

I received mail from a reader who was unable to post a message following my comment last week about ‘Myth as Metaphor’ (see The Fool Unmasked). He asked whether I knew any myths which were more relevant to his African culture. Well yes I do….but not a myth as such, more of a folktale. But all myths are relevant to every culture. 

Archetypes are generally referred to as "the gods". It is generally claimed that Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and a founding father of depth psychology, brought knowledge of these innate patterns of human behaviour to the attention of Western psychology. Certainly all my training text books made the point.

Obatala - Father of Humankind
Divinity of Light
I guess he did do that but long before Jung, West African Orishas were known as multi-dimensional beings representing, not only the forces of nature but certain human attributes. Their characteristics and legend were similar to those used to describe the ancient Greek and Roman gods.

However, the Orishas were not seen as remote divinities but took an active part in everyday life, and could be called upon to assist with day-to-day problems. In fact ceremonies invoking the bounty and protection of the Orisha ‘gods’ were brought to the Americas by West African slaves. Orisha lineage may also be found in parts of Asia and Europe.

Eshu is bredrin to Mercury and Hermes of Roman and Greek mythology respectively.  All are winged messengers between the Divine and human worlds. In West African culture Eshu is the Trickster Orisha, undergod of duality, crossroads and beginnings. His folklore presents a typical tale of the Trickster’s intervention in everyday life.

One day Eshu left his dwelling place situated at the intersection of four roads. He was dressed in his new and especially tailored robes, designed to teach the villagers a lesson. Eshu’s attire made of exquisite cloth was red on one side and green on the other. A popular fellow in the village, Eshu was hailed from both sides as he sauntered down the middle of the road, with his customary bamboo walking stick and golden top hat.  

As Eshu passed, the villagers commented on his appearance and what a fine figure of a fellow he cut in his new robes. 

“How splendid Eshu looks in his red robes and top hat!” declared one person; “no, no” responded another, from the other side of the road, “are you blind, or have you eyes like button holes? Did you not see that his robes were green?” 

Soon a full-scale fracas was underway as others joined in the melee and punches began to fly.  At this point Eshu turned, and as the crowd parted to let him pass, those on one side of the road who originally saw the red side of his robes, now saw the green, and vice versa for those on the opposite side of the road.

That day the villagers learned to respect one another's truth. They learnt that their truth is not the whole truth, just an aspect of it. They learnt that perspective creates perception.  Like our disparate views on many things in life (religion, politics, climate change) not only had the villagers seen just an aspect of the whole, they had made judgements about the nature of the whole from their different perspectives, and were prepared to fight over their differences.

Actually, that very same tale is retold in a delightful illustrated book for children called Old Turtle and the Broken Truth by Douglas Wood.
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  1. Love that you have maintained the Griot traditions...

    1. Who remembers that poem???

      It was a poem rite:) ????

    2. Well you remember the soldier who returned after the lst World War and found only ghosts, don't you..."The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare....

      "Tell them I came, and no one answered,
      That I kept my word," he said.
      Never the least stir made the listeners,
      Though every word he spake fell echoing
      through the shadowiness of the still house
      from the one man left awake..."


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