Hello, hello, Mythsters! And welcome to our first regular episode of 2O21, in which the plan is to discuss those dragons found in the northern half of the Africa. That turned out a bit ambitious, but more dragons will be discussed in next week’s blog, of course.
Links mentioned: Just one this week and that’s the anthology in which Koji’s award-longlisted story Soulshine was published, and which is available with a set-your-own-price deal. Click here to check it out!
Now, grab your Mythstermap and let’s get this dragon on the road!
Dragons of Africa, Part I Transcript
Jaz: Hello, hello, Mythsters, and welcome to episode… Anike, what number are we at, again?
Anike: We’re on episode 15! Can you believe it?
Jaz: Uhm, I guess I have to. Oh, god, how time flies. So, before we start this week’s episode, I have one quick service announcement and that is that our very own Koji has been longlisted for the BSFA award for short fiction with her story Soulshine.
Anike: That is so awesome, I’m so proud, but I’m not surprised. That story is pretty cool.
Jaz: Honestly, does Koji have any stories that are not pretty cool? And we sort of get to bask in the reflected glory of that, and I mean, how awesome is this? And I’m so so so proud of Koji. Koji, whenever ou listen to this, a big big big congratulations from us and from every other Mythster out there. We are all super super proud of you, honey. So, let’s get to work and let’s start with our usual disclaimer because you know we’re going to mutilate some words. Anike, am I correct in believing that you have a bit of an advantage on me today?
Anike: Yeah, I have a slight advantage. I’m pretty sure I’ll butcher still, but I have a basic grip on how some words are pronounced, as far as Bantu language goes. I’m not sure about North Africa, or the Northern half of Africans’ accents or languages, but hopefully it’s not too bad.
Jaz: So, honesty compels me to admit that we may have bitten off a wee bit more than we could chew when we decided to squeeze all of Africa into two episodes. Because, spoiler: There’s a lot.
Anike: Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. So, now we’re not exactly diving things by country, as we’ve seen elsewhere that mythology and folkloric traditions couldn’t really care less about those borders.
Jaz: But we can at least use them to sort of navigate across the continent in terms we’ll all recognise or be able to look up on Google Maps. So, rather than pinning ourselves down with “let’s squish that, that, this, and that into the episode”, why don’t we start off in the North West, and use Nigeria as a geographical marker on the map and then we go from there?
Anike: That is probably about as good a plan as any can get, I guess.
Jaz: So, we know where we are in terms of geography but that is just a dot on the map. Let’s get to know these dragons. The first one Koji’s notes mention hails from what is currently known as Benin. Before the French colonised the region and incorporated it into their colonial empire, a kingdom existed within its borders, from about 1600 to 1904, when it got annexed by the aforementioned French empire.
Anike: Well, now, despite the fairly recent dates on the existence of the kingdom in its organised form, the actual culture outdates the kingdom by a good bit. The Fon, also known as Agadja or Dahomey, are a major African ethnic and linguistic group. The largest is in Benin, actually, especially in its Southern regions, but we also encounter them in Nigeria and Togo. They speak Fon, one of the Gbe languages.
Jaz: They have a common ancestry with the Aja people as well. The Fon knew a very strong tradition of oral storytelling, and they held to an extensive polytheistic religious belief. Not exactly dragon-related but definitely worth noting: Early 19th century European traders were surprised by their practice of N’Nonmiton, which allowed women to serve in the armed forces. Decades later, these women–referred to as Dahomey Amazons by the Europeans though their own people knew them as Mino or Minon, meaning Our Mothers–would fight against the French in 1890.
Anike: That is awesome. Women kicking the patriarchy’s shins. Love it. Very cool sidequest. But let’s get back on track.
Jaz: Right, right. So, the traditional Fon religion is called Vodoun, Vodzu or Vodu.
Anike: So this is where voodoo comes from, I believe?
Jaz: Yep, and as one might suspect, there is quite a bit more to it than sticking pins in simulacra of people that pissed you off. For starters, we again, like in so many other places, have serpents appearing in creation mythology. The Fon believe in a supreme feminine deity called Nana Buluku, who gave birth to Mawu and Lisa, the sun and the moon, which are often interconnected and referred to as one dualistic entity, Mawu-Lisa.
Anike: But Nana Buluku created more than those two. She created loa, divine spirits, to serve her. Ayida Weddo or Aido Hwedo is one of those loa. Ayida Weddo is also–gasp–referred to as the rainbow serpent.
Jaz: Oh wow.
Anike: Yeah. She held up the heavens. But hang on here a bit. Every source that was found refers to her with feminine pronouns, however there was found mention of a dualistic nature in her as well. You see, the red part of the rainbow is male and the blue part is female. She is often portrayed as a narrow green snake, and lives in the sky as well as in the trees, springs, pools and rivers.
Jaz: I found an excerpt from a book on Wikipedia, of all places, called the Book of Vodou, by Leah Gordon that discusses Ayida Wedo, and it portrays her in a much more primordial role than merely as a creation of Nana Buluku.
In the beginning, there was a vast serpent, whose body formed seven thousand coils beneath the earth, protecting it from descent into the abysmal sea. Then the titanic snake began to move and heave its massive form from the earth to envelop the sky. It scattered stars in the firmament and wound its taut flesh down the mountains to create riverbeds. It shot thunderbolts to the earth to create thunderstones. From its deepest core it released the sacred waters to fill the earth with life. As the first rains fell, a rainbow encompassed the sky and Danbala took her, Ayida Wedo, as his wife. The spiritual nectar they created reproduces through all men and women as milk and semen. The serpent and the rainbow taught humankind the link between blood and life, between menstruation and birth, and the ultimate Vodou sacrament of blood sacrifice.
Anike: And in the same Wikipedia page, it mentions that Ayida Weddo was syncretized with the catholic figure of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception. This refers, I suspect, to the practice found in African diaspora religions, which we will get into a bit later on.
Jaz: But if you ask me, it makes total sense to merge these two, as there is definite room for the interpretation that the serpent gave birth to the world, and filled the rivers with her birth waters. This is further reinforced by the fact that Danwala didn’t actually marry her until after creation was finished and the rains began to fall.
Anike: Now, another serpent we found, that is connected with the Kingdom of Dahomey and also referred to as a rainbow serpent, is Danh. But mentions of Danh are much harder to track down, and some of the terms are contradictory. Danh is also referred to with male pronouns, unlike Ayida Wedo. But remember the latter’s dualistic nature and masculine aspects?
Jaz: Yeah. It is plausible that Danh would be the name to refer to the serpent in its masculine incarnation, and Ayida Wedo as the female version.
Anike: But, wait a minute, isn’t her husband called Danwalla, too?
Jaz: Oh shit. The plot thickens, Mythsters!
Anike: Indeed it does. But I kind of think like this alone could fill an episode, should we let ourselves tumble any further down the rabbit hole.
Jaz: Hmm. You may be right. In any case, I’m already seeing a lot of similarities I did not see coming. I do understand now how anthropologists studying indigenous tribes in Australia could have hit on the name Rainbow Serpent for the mythological serpents and reptiles they found there, since there are so many similarities between the two.
Anike: And then there is also the fact that Ayida Wedo holds up the sky, and supports the earth from collapsing back into the primordial chaos as well. We saw elements of that in Jewish and Islamic mythology, as well as Indian Naga mythology.
Jaz: Right? And get this: Ayida Wedo carries the earth, but Koji and I both found mentions of the serpent actually causing a sort of cataclysmic event in which the firmament and earth will collapse. You see, the heat generated by her efforts of holding the world caused her a lot of pain, so Mawu-Lisa crafted the seas and oceans to keep Aido Hwedo cool. She remained submerged in the waters to keep comfortable. Sometimes, even the oceans can’t keep her cool and she writhes in pain. These stirrings cause violent earthquakes from time to time. Also, since Aido Hwedo, coiled under the earth, she could no longer acquire new food sources. She is so enormous that she needs to consume vast amounts of iron to sustain herself. When the iron runs out, she will start devouring her own tail.
Anike: No. You’re joking.
Jaz: I am so not, I swear. When Ayida Wedo finishes devouring herself, there will be nothing left to support the skies or the earth, and the world will fall back into chaos. OK so, I found two versions of the story. One in which the Rainbow Serpent has already run out of iron and has begun munching on her tail, and another in which that hasn’t happened yet, but it will at some point.
Anike: So, not only do we have the motifs of carrying the world and the sky, but this Serpent encircles all of creation as well? Like the other world serpents that we’ve found?
Jaz: Yup. I’ll do you one better. Ayida Wedo revolves around it, and that is what propels the movement of heavenly bodies across the sky.
Anike: Holy shit. That is so awesome. But, uh, you do realise we’ve spent more than half the time we usually allow ourselves for an episode, on this one serpent alone?
Jaz: I know, I know. Well, what do you say we move on to a different culture?
Anike: How about one with roots very similar to the Fon, and that is the Yoruba tribe. Let’s go back to our map. The homeland of this culture lies in what we currently know as Southwest Nigeria, parts of Benin and Togo. Their religion, also referred to as Yoruba, together with the Fon traditions, lie at the roots of many diasporan religious traditions which syncretise elements of traditional beliefs with Catholicism. Among these religions are Santeria, Candomblé, Haitian Vodou, Umbanda, and Trinidad Orisha. By overlaying their own deities, loa, and other helpful spirits, with a Catholic veneer, people were often able to carry at least some of their traditions and beliefs with them through colonisation and slavery.
Jaz: These religions usually also involve the worship of spirits, called orixás or orishas. And I’m afraid delving deeper into these would carry us very very far, so I suggest we do maybe a Patreon blog to give like an overview of the different diasporan regions. And we also, of course, will have more time to delve into each of these traditions as we encounter them in other parts of the world, like North America, Brazil, and where ever African people were abducted to.
Anike: I think that’s a brilliant plan.
Jaz: So, getting back to Yoruba, this is where we encounter another rainbow serpent, called Oshumare.
Anike: Now, like Ayida Wedo, Oshumare has a dualistic nature and is both male and female. He, like many forces of nature, is not a static creature but he exists in a constant state of movement and activity. One of his tasks is gathering rainfall and carrying it back up into the clouds, a first sign of his cyclical nature. As such, he symbolises continuity and permanence, and is sometimes represented as a serpent that twists back on itself and bites its own tail.
Jaz: Surprise surprise. He wraps himself around the earth and holds it together. If he loses his strength, that will mean the end of the world.
Anike: Well, considering how closely the Fon and Yoruba lived together, it sort of makes sense that they would have had a good bit of cultural cross pollination going, of course.
Jaz: However, one thing Ayida Wedo and Oshumare did not have in common, was Oshumare’s status as a self-made serpent. He did not begin his life with all the prosperity and luck one would hope for. In fact, his peers pretty much looked down their noses at him because of his apparent mediocrity.
Anike: In one legend, Oshumare served Olofin, the king of Ife, by performing divination for him every four days. But you could say that Olofin was a bit of a shark. He had Oshumare working for minimum wage.
Anike: Right? However, his luck did turn, when Olokun, the queen of a neighbouring kingdom, called on him for help. Her son was gravely ill and no one had succeeded in curing him as yet. Oshumare, however, did just that, and returned home with many gifts from the grateful queen. This kind of shamed Olofin into treating someone with skills as valuable as Oshumare’s just a wee bit better.
Jaz: Oshumare ended up rich, respectable, and respected. Now, if it were me, all the arseholes who disrespected him before could get in line to kiss my arse if it took wealth for them to treat me decently, but yeah. To each his own, I guess.
Anike: Precisely. Now, his healing of the prince gave him a bit of a reputation. And when Olodumare, the supreme deity, caught word of Oshumare’s prowess as a healer, he called on him for help with his own failing vision. After our friend Oshumare did his thing, Olodumare was so impressed, Oshumare stayed in the sky, close to him at all times.
Jaz: When the god did permit Oshumare to go downstairs and stretch his legs for a bit, this brought prosperity and happiness to the people.
Anike: Now, there’s loads more to discuss on Oshumare and his function within the diaspora. Maybe we can dip our toes into that when we get to Brazil and encounter Candomblé. And then we can squeeze in one more serpent from an entirely different region before we sign off here?
Jaz: How about the Soninke people?
Anike: Go for it.
Jaz: Right. So, This will take us a wee bit further West, and to the North of the Dahomey Kingdom, to what used to be known as The Ghana Empire. Geographically, this has little to do with the modern day nation of Ghana, which was named after it. The Ghana we know is Togo’s Western neighbour, while the Ghana Empire, also known as Wagadou, did not even have a coastline as opposed to modern day Ghana. The term Ghana Empire was actually an imprecise one as Ghana was the title used to refer to the ruler of Wagadou.
Anike: Ah. So if Ghana isn’t the place we’re looking for, what is?
Jaz: On a contemporary map, you’d be looking for the Southeast of Mauritania, and the West of Mali.
Anike: Interesting. So, where do snakes fit into the Soninke folklore and myths?
Jaz: Well, when the first king, Dingha Cisse, died, he left two sons who couldn’t agree on who would be the heir to the empire.
Anike: Where have we heard that before? Let me guess. They fought over it?
Jaz: How did you know?
Anike: Oh, just intuition. And something called human nature?
Jaz: It would be funny if it weren’t so true. *sigh* Anyway, one of the two princes, Khine, eventually won. His brother Dyabe, however, was a sore loser, I’m afraid.
Anike: Again, zero surprise here.
Jaz: He made a deal with a black snake called Bida, with seven heads. Can you say recurring motif? So, the deal was that every year, Dyabe would sacrifice a virgin to Bida, and in return, the serpent would help him defeat his brother.
Anike: Bit of a douchebag move, if you ask me. But this story sort of embodies the wealth of the region to the Soninke, who believed there were rains of gold, in gratitude for the virgin sacrifices.
Jaz: Yeah, I mean, of course the gold mines located in Kumbi Saleh, the capital of the empire, of course had nothing to do with that.
Anike: Oh, no, not at all. So, as most empires do, Wagadou went into a decline at some point, of course. While there were various geopolitical and economical factors at play, to the Soninke, the downfall was clearly a consequence of the empire failing to uphold its pact with Bida.
Jaz: They even have a story for it don’t they? And it’s my favourite kind too. A love story.
Anike: *sigh* Not again.
Jaz: One year, the people in charge of weighty decisions such as virgin sacrifices, chose Siya Yatabare as Bida’s next victim. She was the most beautiful and the cleanest of that year.
Anike: Can I gag yet? Now, Siya was in luck though, wasn’t she? Because, well, she had a fiancé.
Jaz: Yup. His name was Maadi. And he had one very special personality trait, which is when he made a promise, he always always followed through.
Anike: And when he heard about Siya’s fate, he said “Hell, no.” In fact, he promised Siya that he wouldn’t let her die in the well of Wagadou.
Jaz: Siya, dutiful naive sweet summer child that she was, tried to dissuade him from his plans. She claimed it was her destiny, and it would be for the good of their people. Maadi however, didn’t buy into the whole sacrifice thing at all.
Anike: On the day of event, he set out with his freshly sharpened sabre and secretly followed Siya–bejewelled down to her toenails and with her hair plaited with gold–to the well. When she laid eyes on him, they fell into each other’s arms and cried. Still, she had one more go at changing her lover’s mind, but it was no use. Even if Wagadou would receive no more rains after Bida’s death, and it destroyed the empire forever, Maadi would not let her be sacrificed.
Jaz: He hid close by, and awaited the arrival of the serpent. When it appeared, he jumped from his hiding place and chopped off the first head right away, but since there were 7, he had his work cut out for him. Before he could sever the seventh neck, Bida cursed the empire of Wagadou to experience 7 years, 7 months, and 7 days in which there would be no rain, and no gold.
Anike: As a result, Wagadu turned from a fertile place to a desert, and the Soninke were forced to migrate and leave their home land behind. There is even some archeological evidence that supports the story. Until the 12th century, sheep, cows and goats were quite prevalent. After that, the livestock people owned consisted mostly of tougher goats better equipped to deal with droughts.
Jaz: This story might also correlate with a cultural shift for the Soninke culture, namely, an adoption of Islamic religion in favour of their ancestral traditions. So we’re looking at a case of correlation, rather than causality. Because, I mean, it just sounds so much more plausible to just have a case of poor timing, I guess, rather than having an actual serpent cursing an entire empire.
Anike: That does make sense. But, Jaz, I need to unfortunately break the news.
Jaz: I know, I know.
Anike: We’re out of time.
Jaz: So, instead of North Africa, we only made it through the west of Northern Africa?
Anike: It’s pretty long.
Jaz: Yeah, there’s just so so much. I’m pretty sure Koji plans to discuss more serpents from North Africa on the blog
Jaz: So stay tuned for that next week and we will see you all again, Mythsters, in a fortnight when we travel south for Dragons of Africa part II, which I am super super excited about
.Anike: Ditto, ditto. Especially, you know, home-land and all.
Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License