From Myths of Ife, Yoruba Creation Myth

Yoruba Creation Myth

From Myths of Ife (1921)

by John Wyndham

from Internet Archives.

 

PERSONS

Arámfé [Olorun]:                                                           God of Thunder and Father of the Gods.

Orisha [Obatala]:                                                           Creator of men. Son of Arámfé [Olorun].

Odúwa or]

Odudúwa J                                                                     King of men. Son of Arámfé [Olorun],

Ógun                                                                               God of Iron. Son of Oduwa.

Ordányan                                                                       The warrior son of Ógun.

Ládi                                                                                 Smith of Ógun.

Obálufon                                                                        A worker in brass.

Morimi                                                                           Wife of Obálufon

Ifa                                                                                    The Messenger of the Gods, principally known by reason of divination.

Olokun                                                                            Goddess of the Sea.

Olóssa                                                                             Goddess of the Lagoons.

Oshun                                                                             A Goddess who transformed and became the River Oshun.

Édi                                                                                   The Perverter. A God of Evil who led men astray.

Éshu                                                                                Now regarded as the Devil, but originally as the Undoer of the favours of the Gods.

Peregiin ‘Gbo                                                                 A Forest God who caused the Forest to bring forth wild animals and watched                                                                                           over the birth of Orunmila.

Orunmila                                                                         A God who watches over the birth of children.

Offun Kánran                                                                 A messenger of Ifa.

Orni Odúm’la                                                                 The ancestor of the Ornis of Ife.

Ojúmu                                                                              A priest.

Osányi                                                                             A priest and maker of charms.

The Sun, Moon, Night, Day, Dawn and Evening were also Gods and Goddesses sent by Arámfé [Olorun], who is often spoken of as God, But a higher and very distant Being is mentioned by some of the Priests.

Oibo means White Man.

Okpéllé is a charm used in the divination of Ifa.

The final N is as in bon, and French pronunciation is nearly correct in all the above names.

 

A white man visits Ife, the sacred city of the Yórubas and asks to hear the history of the place.

The Orni, the religious head of Yórubaland, begins, and directs the Babalawo Araba, the chief-priest of Ifa, to continue.

 

MYTHS OF IFE

  1. THE BEGINNING.

The Orni of Ife speaks :

Oibo, you have asked to hear our lore,

The legends of the World’s young hours — and where

Could truth in greater surety have its home

Than in the precincts of the shrines of Those

Who made the World, and in the mouths of priests

To whom their doings have been handed down

From sire to son?

 

Before this World was made

There reigned Arámfé [Olorun] in the realm of Heaven

Amidst his sons. Old were the hills around him;

The Sun had shone upon his vines and cornfields

Since time past reckoning. Old was Arámfé [Olorun],

The father of the Gods : his youth had been

The youth of Heaven. . . Once when the King reclined

Upon the dais, and his sons lay prostrate

In veneration at his feet, he spoke

Of the great things he purposed :

“My sons, you know

But fair things which I made for you, before

I called your spirits from the Dusk : for always

Your eyes have watched the shadows and the wind

On waving corn, and I have given you

The dances and the chorus of the night —

An age of mirth and sunrise (the wine of Heaven)

Is your existence. You have not even heard

Of the grey hour when my young eyes first opened

To gaze upon a herbless Mass, unshaped

And unadorned. But I knew well the heart

Of Him-Who-Speaks-Not, the far-felt Purpose that gave

Me birth ; I laboured and the grim years passed :

Streams flowed along their sunny beds ; I set

The stars above me, and the hills about ;

I fostered budding trees, and taught the birds

Their song — the unshapely I had formed to beauty,

And as the ages came I loved to make

The beautiful more fair. . . All went not well :

A noble animal my mind conceived

Emerged in loathsome form to prey upon

My gentle creatures ; a river, born to bask

In sunlit channels and mirror the steep hills,

Tore down its banks and ravaged field and plain ;

While cataract and jagged precipice.

Now grand with years, remind me of dread days

When Heaven tottered, and wide rifts sundered my young

Fair hills, and all seemed lost. Yet — I prevailed.

Think, now, if the accomplished whole be Heaven,

How wonderful the anxious years of slow

And hazardous achievement — a destiny

For Gods. But yours it has not been to lead

Creation by the cliff’s-edge way from Mass

To Paradise.’’ He paused on the remembrance.

And Great Orisha [Obatala] cried: Can we do naught?

What use in godhead without deeds to do?

Where yearns a helpless region for a hand

To guide it? ” And Old Arámfé [Olorun] answered him:

“My son, your day approaches. Far-off, the haze

Rests always on the outer waste which skirts

Our realm ; beyond, a nerveless Mass lies cold

‘Neath floods which some malign unreason heaves.

Odiiwa, first-born of my sons, to you I give

The five-clawed Bird, the sand of power. Go now.

Call a despairing land to smiling life

Above the jealous sea, and found sure homesteads

For a new race whose destiny is not

The eternal life of Gods. You are their judge ;

Yours is the kingship, and to you all Gods

And men are subject. Wisest of my sons,

Orisha [Obatala], yours is the grateful task to loose

Vague spirits waiting for the Dawn — to make

The race that shall be ; and to you I give

This bag of Wisdom’s guarded lore and arts

For Man’s well-being and advancement. And you,

My younger sons, the chorus and the dance,

The voice of worship and the crafts are yours

To teach — that the new thankful race may know

The mirth of Heaven and the joys of labour.”

Then Oduwa said: “Happy our life has been,

And I would gladly roam these hills for ever.

Your son and servant. But to your command

I yield ; and in my kingship pride o’ersteps

Sorrow and heaviness. Yet, Lord Arámfé [Olorun],

I am your first-born: wherefore do you give

The arts and wisdom to Orisha [Obatala]? I,

The King, will be obeyed; the hearts of men

Will turn in wonder to the God who spells

Strange benefits.” But Arámfé [Olorun] said Enough;

To each is fitting task is given. Farewell.”

 

Here the Beginning was: from Arámfé [Olorun]’s vales

Through the desert regions the exiled Gods approached

The edge of Heaven, and into blackness plunged —

A sunless void o’er godless water Ipng-— [Olokun?]

To seize an empire from the Dark, and win

Amidst ungoverned waves a sovereignty.

 

But by the roadside while Orisha [Obatala] slept

Oduwa came by stealth and bore away

The bag Arámfé [Olorun] gave. Thus was the will

Of God undone : for thus with the charmed sand

Cast wide on the unmastered sea, his sons

Called forth a World of envy and of war.

 

Of Man’s Creation, and of the restraint

Olokun placed upon the chafing sea.

Of the unconscious years which passed in darkness

Till dazzling sunshine touched the unused eyes

Of men, of War and magic-~my priest shall tell you,

And all the Great Ones did before the day

They vanished to return to the calm hills

Of Old Arámfé [Olorun]’s realm . . . They went away;

But still with us their altars and their priests

Remain, and from their shrines the hidden Gods

Peer forth with joy to watch the dance they taught,

And hear each night their chorus with the drum :

For changeless here the early World endures

In this first stronghold of humanity,

And, constant as the buhets of the waves

Of Queen Olokun on the shore, the song.

The dance of those old Gods abide, the mirth.

The life … I, too, am born of the Beginning :

For, when from the sight of men the Great Gods passed,

They left on Earth Orni Odum’la charged

To be a father to a mourning people.

To tend the shrines and utter solemn words

Inspired by Those invisible. And when

Odum’la’s time had come to yield the crown.

 

To wait upon the River’s brink, and cross

To Old Arámfé [Olorun] — Ifa in his wisdom,

Proclaimed that son with whom Odiimla’s soul

Abode. Thus has it ever been ; and now

With me that Being is — about, within —

And on our sacred days these lips pronounce

The words of Odudúwa and Orisha [Obatala].

 

 

  1. THE DESCENT

Ardha speaks:

I am the voice of Ifa, messenger

Of all the Gods : to me the histories

Are known, and I will tell you of the days

Of the Descent. How Old Arámfé [Olorun] sent

The Gods from Heaven, and Odudúwa stole

The bag — my king has told you. . . For many a day

Across unwatered plains the Great Ones journeyed.

And sandy deserts — for such is the stern bar

Set by Arámfé [Olorun] ‘twixt his smiling vales

And the stark cliff’s edge which his sons approached

Tremblingly, till from the sandy brink they peered

Down the sheer precipice. Behind them lay

The parched, forbidding leagues ; but yet the Sun

Was there, and breezes soft, and yet the mountains —

A faded line beyond the shimmering waste —

Called back to mind their ancient home. Beneath

Hung chaos — dank blackness and the threatening roar

Of untamed waters. Then Odudúwa spoke:

”Orisha [Obatala], what did we? And what fault was ours?

Outcasts to-day; to-morrow we must seek

Our destiny in dungeons, and beneath

That yawning blackness we must found a city

For unborn men Better a homeless life

In desert places: dare we turn and flee

To some lost valley of the hills? Orisha [Obatala],

What think you? Then spoke Orisha [Obatala] whom men call

The Great: Is this Odiiwa that I hear —

My mother’s son who stole Arámfé [Olorun]’s gift,

And thought to filch away the hearts of men

With blessings which were mine to give? For me.

The arts I know I long to use, and yearn

To see the first of toiling, living men

That I shall make. Forbidding is our task.

You say — but think, ere we return to peace

And Heaven’s calm, how boundless is the fate

You flinch from! Besides, is Godhead blind? You think

Arámfé [Olorun] would not know? Has Might no bodes

With eyes and ears? . . Dumb spirits hungering

For life await us: let us go.” So spoke

Orisha [Obatala] ; and Odúwa hung a chain

Over the cliff to the dark water’s face,

And sent Ojumu, the wise priest, to pour

The magic sand upon the sea and loose

The five-clawed Bird to scatter far and wide

Triumphant land. But, as Earth’s ramparts grew,

Ever in the darkness came the waves and sucked

Away the crumbling shore, while foot by foot

Lagoons crept up, and turned to reedy swamps

The soil of hope. So Odudúwa called

Olokun and Oldssa to the cliff

And thus he spoke: “Beneath, the waters wrestle

With the new-rising World, and would destroy

Our kingdom and undo Arámfé [Olorun]’s will.

Go to the fields of men to be, the homes

That they shall make. Olokun! to the sea!

For there your rule and your dominion shall be:

To curb the hungry waves upon the coastlands

For ever. And thus, in our first queen of cities

And secret sanctuaries on lonely shores

Through every eon as the season comes,

Shall men bring gifts in homage to Olokun.

And you, Olóssa, where your ripple laps

The fruitful bank, shall see continually

The offerings of thankful men.”

 

The months

Of Heaven passed by, while in the moonless night

Beneath the Bird toiled on until the bounds,

The corners of the World were steadfast. And then

Odúwa called Orisha [Obatala] and the Gods

To the cliff’s edge, and spoke these words of sorrow:

“We go to our sad kingdom. Such is the will

Of Old Arámfé [Olorun]: so let it be. But ere

The hour the wilderness which gapes for us

Engulf us utterly, ere the lingering sight

Of those loved hills can gladden us no more —

May we not dream awhile of smiling days

Gone by? . . Fair was drenched morning in the Sun

When dark the hill-tops rose o’er misty hollows ;

Fair were the leafy trees of night beneath

The silvering Moon, and beautiful the wind

Upon the grasslands. Good-bye, ye plains we roamed.

Good-bye to sunlight and the shifting shadows

Cast on the crags of Heaven’s blue hills. Ah! wine

Of Heaven, farewell ”… So came the Gods to Ife.

Then of an age of passing months untold

By wanings of the Moon our lore repeats

The dirge of wasting hopes and the lament

Of a people in a strange World shuddering

Beneath the thunder of the unseen waves

On crumbling shores around. Always the marsh

Pressed eagerly on Ife ; but ever the Bird

Returned with the unconquerable sand

Ojumu poured from his enchanted shell,

And the marsh yielded. Then young Ógun bade

The Forest grow her whispering trees — but she

Budded the pallid shoots of hopeless night,

And all was sorrow round the sodden town

Where Odudúwa reigned. Yet for live men

Orisha [Obatala], the Creator, yearned, and called

To him the longing shades from other glooms;

He threw their images into the wombs

Of Night, Olokun and Oldssa, and all

The wives of the great Gods bore babes with eyes

Of those born blind — unknowing of their want —

And limbs to feel the heartless wind which blew

From outer nowhere to the murk beyond. . .

But as the unconscious years wore by, Orisha [Obatala],

The Creator, watched the unlit Dawn of Man

Wistfully — as one who follows the set flight

Of a lone sea-bird when the sunset fades

Beyond a marshy wilderness — and spoke

To Odudúwa: Our day is endless night,

And deep, wan woods enclose our weeping children.

The Ocean menaces, chill winds moan through

Our mouldering homes. Our guardian Night, who spoke

To us with her strange sounds in the still hours

Of Heaven is here; yet she can but bewail

Her restless task. And where is Evening? Oh! where

Is Dawn?” He ceased, and Odudúwa sent

Ifa, the Messenger, to his old sire

To crave the Sun and the warm flame that lit

The torch of Heaven’s Evening and the dance. . .

A deep compassion moved thundrous Arámfé [Olorun],

The Father of the Gods, and he sent down

The vulture with red fire upon his head

For men; and, by the Gods’ command, the bird

Still wears no plumage where those embers burned him —

A mark of honour for remembrance. Again

The Father spoke the word, and the pale Moon

Sought out the precincts of cairn Night’s retreat

To share her watch on Darkness; and Day took wings,

And flew to the broad spaces of the sky —

To roam benignant from the floating mists

Which cling to hillsides of the Dawn — to Eve

Who calls the happy toilers home.

 

And all

Was changed: for when the terror of bright Day

Had lifted from the unused eyes of men,

Sparks flew from Ladi’s anvil, while Ógun taught

The use of iron, and wise Obalufon

Made brazen vessels and showed how wine streams out

From the slim palms. And in the night the Gods

Set torches in their thronging courts to light

The dance, and Heaven’s music touched the drum

Once more as in its ancient home. And mirth

With Odudúwa reigned.

 

 

III. THE WAR OF THE GODS.

 

Afdha continues:

Oibo, I will tell and chronicle

A second chapter from the histories

Bequeathed from other times. . . A tale is told

How God in the Beginning sent three sons

Into the World—Earth, Water and the Forest—

With one and twenty gifts for Earth and men

That are the sons of Earth; and all save one

The Forest and the Rivers stole; and how

God promised to his first-born, Earth, that men

Should win the twenty gifts again by virtue

Of that last one, Good Humour. And this is true:

For in those years when Ógun and the Gods

Made known their handicrafts men learned to seek

Thatch, food and wine in Forest and in River

Patiently. So Man prevailed; but in those days

Came strife and turmoil to the Gods—for still

For jealousy and pride Oduwa held

The bag Arámfé [Olorun] gave to Great Orisha [Obatala].

Often Orisha [Obatala] made entreaty; oft

A suppliant came before his brother—in vain;

Till once when Odudúwa sat with Ógun

In that same palace where the Orni reigns,

The sound of drums was heard and Great Orisha [Obatala]

Approached with skilled Obalufon, and said:

“The time has come to teach Arámfé [Olorun]’s arts

To men. Give back the bag (for it is mine!)

That I may do our Father’s bidding. Else,

Have a care, is it not told how caution slept

In the still woods when the proud leopard fell,

Lured on by silence, ‘neath the monster’s foot?

Then was Oduwa angered exceedingly:

“Am I not king? Did not Arámfé [Olorun] make

Me lord of Gods and men? Begone! Who speaks

Unseemly words before the king has packed

His load.”

 

Orisha [Obatala] and Oduwa called

To arms their followings of Gods and men,

And on that day the first of wars began

In Ife and the Forest. Such was the fall

Of the Gods from paths divine, and such for men

The woe that Odudúwa’s theft prepared;

But little the Gods recked of their deep guilt

Till darkness fell and all was quiet — for then

Returned the memory of Calm, their heritage,

Of Heaven born and destined for the World;

Gloom, too, with the still night came down: a sense

Of impious wrong, ungodly sin, weighed down

Warriors aweary, and all was changed. Around,

Dead, dead the Forest seemed, its boughs unstirred;

Dead too, amidst its strangling, knotted growth

The stifled air — while on that hush, the storm’s

Mute herald, came the distant thundrous voice

Of Old Arámfé [Olorun] as he mused: “In vain

Into the Waste beneath I sent my sons —

The children of my happy vales — to make

A World of mirth: for desolation holds

The homes of tik, and women with their babes

Are outcast in the naked woods.” But when

The whirling clouds were wheeling in the sky

And the great trees were smitten by the wind,

Thundrous Arámfé [Olorun] in his ire rebuked

His erring sons: “At my command you came

To darkness, where the Evil of the Void —

Insentient Violence-had made its home,

To shape in the Abyss a World of joy

And lead Creation in the ways of Heaven.

 

How, then, this brawling? Did the Void’s black soul

Outmatch you, or possess your hearts to come

Again into its own? For Man’s misfortune

I grieve; but you have borne them on the tide

Of your wrong-doing, and your punishment

Is theirs to share. For now my thunderbolts

I hurl, with deluges upon the land —

To fill the marshes and lagoons, and stay

For aye your impious war.”

 

Dawn came; the storm

Was gone, and Old Arámfé [Olorun] in his grief

Departed on black clouds. But still the wrath.

But still the anger of his sons endured.

And in the dripping forests and the marshes

The rebel Gods fought on — while in the clouds

Afar Arámfé [Olorun] reasoned with himself:

“I spoke in thunders, and my deluge filled

The marshes that Ojumu dried; — but still

They fight. Punish, I may — but what can I

Achieve? In Heaven omnipotent: but here —?

What means it? I cannot tell. . . In the Unknown,

Beyond the sky where I have set the Sun,

Is He-Who-Speaks-Not: He knows all. Can this

Be Truth: Amidst the unnatural strife of brothers

The World was weaned: by strife must it endure—?”

Oibo, how the first of wars began.

 

And Old Arámfé [Olorun] sought to stay the flow

Of blood— your pen has written; but of the days.

The weary days of all that war, what tongue

Can tell?  Tis said the anger of the Gods

Endured two hundred years: we know the priest

Osanyi made strange amulets for all

The mortal soldiers of the Gods— one charm

Could turn a spear aside, a second robbed

The wounding sword of all its sting, another

Made one so terrible that a full score

Must flee— but not one word of the great deeds.

Of hopes and fears, of imminent defeat

Or victory snatched away is handed down:

No legend has defied, no voice called through

The dimness and the baffling years.

 

But when

An end was come to the ill days foreknown

To Him-Who-Speaks-Not, remembrance of the calm

Of Heaven stole upon the sleepless Gods—

For while the Moon lay soft with all her spell

On tie of the many battles; while

With sorrowful reproach the wise trees stood

And gazed upon the Gods who made the soil —

The voices of the Forest crooned their dreams

Of peace: “Sleep, sleep” all weary Nature craved,

And “Sleep” the slumbrous reed-folk urged, and ‘twixt

The shadow and the silver’d leaf, for sleep

The drowsing breezes yearned. . . . And with the dawn

Ógun, the warrior, with his comrades stood

Before the king, and thus he spoke: ”Oduwa,

We weary of the battle, and its agony

Weighs heavy on our people. Have you forgot

The careless hours of Old Arámfé [Olorun]’s realm?

What means this war, this empty war between

One mother’s sons? Orisha [Obatala] willed it so,

You say. . . ’Twas said of old ‘Who has no house

Will buy no broom’. Why then did Great Orisha [Obatala]

Bring plagues on those he made in love?

In Heaven

Afar Arámfé [Olorun] gave to you the empire,

And to Orisha [Obatala] knowledge of the ways

Of mysteries and hidden things. The bag

You seized; but not its clue—the skill, the wisdom

Of Great Orisha [Obatala] which alone could wake

The sleeping lore. . . The nations of the World

Are yours: give back the bag, and Great Orisha [Obatala]

Will trouble us no more.’ But neither Ógun

Nor the soft voices of the night could loose

Oduwa from the thrall of envy: the rule

Of men and empire were of no account

When the hot thought of Old Arámfé [Olorun]’s lore

Roused his black ire anew. The bag he held;

But all the faithless years had not revealed

Its promised treasures. Bitterly he answered:

“These many years my brother has made war

Upon his king; while for the crown, its power

And greatness, I have wrought unceasing. To-day

My son — hope of my cause, my cause itself —

Wearies of war, and joins my enemies.

Weak son, the sceptre you were born to hold

And hand down strengthened to a line of kings

Could not uphold your will and be your spur

Until the end. Is it not said, Shall one

Priest bury, and anon his mate dig up

The corpse?” No day’s brief work have you undone,

But all my heart has longed for through a life

Of labour. So let it be: God of Soft Iron!

Upon your royal brow descends this day

The crown of a diminished chieftaincy,

With the sweet honours of a king in name —

For I go back to Old Arámfé [Olorun]’s hills

And the calm realm you prate of.” Then Odudúwa

Transformed to stone and sank beneath the soil.

Bearing away the fateful bag.

 

And thus.

Beneath, through all the ages of the World

A voiceless lore and arts which found no teacher

Have lain in bondage.

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