Gods and Ancestor: Mythic Tales of Nigeria is the fourth offering in the Treasury of Nigeria Tales series edited by Dr. Bukar Usman, the others being A Treasury of Nigerian Tales, A Selection of Nigerian Folktales: Themes and Settings, and People, Animals, Spirits and Objects: 1000 Folk Stories of Nigeria.
The series fulfils a yawning gap in recorded archives of myths and legends from the length and breadth of Nigeria. This particular collection is a departure from the previous publications in the series, for the 213 stories featured here are non-fiction attempting to explain our existence and peculiarities through oral tradition handed from generation to generation.
Before now, colonialists, missionaries and anthropologists derived tremendous benefits in understanding communities from the study of folktales. This is part of the reasons the Bukar Usman Foundation has continued to dig into our past to unearth our folklore for documentation and the reading delight of both the young and old.
Without pretending to be an encyclopedia of myths in Nigeria, the author explains in his introductory remarks that the mythic tales included in this collection are limited to those gathered by field researchers engaged by the Bukar Usman Foundation. The essence is to stimulate interest and further research in this area. Yet the tales here capture, in no small measure, the dominant mythological and legendary figures of Nigeria, from Ede to Gbagyi.
The book isn’t just a collection of Nigeria myths. Typical of Usman, he offers the reader a drink from his intellectual brew with a background knowledge of the subject. Definition, functions and features of myth form part of the opening chapters that include the nexus between myth and history, as well as the composition and delivery of mythic tales.
Mythic tales, in this collection, are classified as creation and cosmic myths, group origin myths and chronicles, oracular myths and chronicles, legendary heroes and heroines, and various communal chronicles.
Of the myths features in this book, group origin myths and chronicles recorded the highest entries (58), while oracular myths and chronicles come second with 50 tales. These figures, however, do not suggest a preponderance of certain myths over others but a reflection of what the field researchers came up with.
Creation myths featured in this book vary from area to area. For instance, a popular Yoruba myth in the book has it that, when Eledumare wanted to create the earth, he called together all his servants, led by Obatala, which made Oduduwa and Ogun unhappy, leading to a conspiracy against Obatala. According to this myth, Ile-Ife was the first place created as a result of the cocoa leaf and sand mixed by by Obatala.
If you aren’t aware of how the elders named the months of the year, the sixth story in this collection will delight you. Forget the Gregorian calendar! The Tortoise played a big role here. You will also be interested in the myth surrounding the birth of seasons, how day and night started, etcetera, in the first section.
The section on Group Origin Myths begins with the history of the Oyo and Oro celebrations. The reason why salt-less food is eaten in the compound of the Ooni is explained in one of the myths. You will also be educated by the myth of the Blackman from heaven, how the albino became dark, how mermaids became half-fish, half-humans, to mention a few.
“A long time ago, there was a kingdom called Ogaza. The Ogazia people were very short and thin, but they all had big heads. Their king also was of the same stature. Because of their stature, the other kingdoms never regarded them as anything,” thus begins one of the myths in the third section of the collection entitled “Oracular Myths and Chronicles”. From “The Sorcerer of Amagbor Kingdom” to “Misoma’s Misadventure”, you have tales that are quite fascinating and revelatory.
Similarly, the “Legendary Heroes and Heroines” section establish the importance of men and women of accomplishments. “The Legend of Ojaadili” the wrestler is one of the alluring tales, needless to say, the “Slayer of Mudodo Monster”, who had no ribbon on his head like others in the Mudodo community but did the impossible.
If you think Jesus was the only man who came back to life, read “Laoye Farikorun, the First World War Hero” from Ilora. Laoye killed many during the war and was killed, too, but came back to life. Again, he was beheaded; but his head was not taken away. He took the head that was cut and placed it back on his neck!
In some of the legends, the powerful juju priests, the fearless fisherman, the plantation champ, the brave warrior, the great hunter, the lame hero, among others, are lionised.
In this collection, you will also find interesting communal chronicles, like how the frog evolved from the human race, the supremacy of the hunter over the deer, the revered rainmaker who fell from grace to grass due to his arrogance, the hunting escapades of the Gbagyi people, etcetera.
It can’t be gainsaid that the oral tales in Gods and Ancestors are much closer to reality than folktales. There are also legends, great compounds and family gods recorded in this collection that are familiar. The connection between history and myth is, thus, driven home in these tales edited by the restless public intellectual, Bukar Usman.