Yoruba Creation Myth
From Myths of Ife (1921)
by John Wyndham
from Internet Archives.
Arámfé [Olorun]: God of Thunder and Father of the Gods.
Orisha [Obatala]: Creator of men. Son of Arámfé [Olorun].
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
- 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].
- THE DESCENT
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
Beneath, through all the ages of the World
A voiceless lore and arts which found no teacher
Have lain in bondage.