Usman dredges up Nigeria’s ‘mythic tales’ in Gods and Ancestors

Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria

Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria (Klamidas Communications Ltd, Abuja; 2018) is the fourth in the series of Dr. Bukar Usman’s ‘Treasury of Nigerian Tales’ (TNT 004).

With the tradition of moonlight tales usually told to young ones in the evening gone extinct, Usman’s TNT is indeed a treasury worth all the efforts put into making it a reality.

Through his Bukar Usman Foundation, the president of Nigeria Folklore Society (NFS) has gifted Nigerians and the world a rare glimpse, in one collection, into some of the finest tales to come out of the country’s diverse societies from which these tales were collected.

Usman makes the case, quite poignantly, that the loss of oral tradition does not necessarily mean the loss of some of Africa’s greatest folktales. And as African, nay Nigerian, societies have been transformed into the scribal art, its old ways need not vanish entirely.

Africa’s oral narratives or folktales, imbued with the greatest educational, socialization and entertainment values, need not altogether be dead because the continent did not have the scribal art to record when they were in currency.

In the scribal age, society has become too complex for anyone to have enough retentive memory to hold all its oral narratives. And so putting them in print is at once historic as it is preservative a measure for now and ages to come.

This is where Usman’s heroic effort in researching, recording, and documenting these tales in written volumes marks a significant shift in oral scholarship.

Of course, he is not the first to research and collect folktales, but there is a sense in which his effort is groundbreaking.

TNT spans four volumes of oral narratives collected from across the length and breadth of the country.

All ethnic nationalities are represented, which is a departure from what has been done before now.

The wide-ranging depth and breadth of the volumes is a commendable effort of what is arguably a nationalistic and patriotic project.

Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria is in two parts. There is Part A on ‘Aspects of Nigerian Myths, Legends and Chronicles,’ which has six subsections namely ‘introduction,’ ‘Definition, Functions and Features of Myths,’ ‘Myth and History,’ ‘Special Audience and Narrators,’ Classification of Mythic Tales,’ and ‘Conclusion.’

However, Part B ‘A Collection of Mythic Tales of Nigeria’ is more extensive as it has five subcategories namely ‘Creation and Cosmic Myths,’ ‘Group Origin Myths and Chronicles,’ ‘Oracular Myths and Chronicles,’ ‘Legendary Heroes and Heroines,’ and ‘Communal Chronicles’. These five subcategories contain 213 folktales in all.

In setting out the volume, Usman defines and delimits the scope of the work as being different from the others in the Treasury of Nigerian Tales (TNT).

As he notes, “…it is a collection of historical or non-fictional tales… No myth of any known group, region or race is altogether history or non-fictional. Fantasy, delimited by a given cultural context, has always been an aspect of myth…”

The editor further says the tales in this volume are not necessarily the historical account of the communities from which they emanate.

Creation myths generally are meant to explain some of the gaps that may be found in the origin account of a group. They may give anchorage, but they do not necessarily explain the entire story of the founding of such a group.

Also, the editor does not claim absoluteness in the tales, saying other versions of them may be found in the society or community from which they were collected: “…bear in mind that for any narrative published here, another version or versions of it exist in their tale-bearing communities. It may be added that most variants only differ on matters of detail.”

‘Myth,” Usman furtehr explains, “is a traditional narrative, set in the distant past, which tells a given group of people about supernatural events and personages by which they make sense of their existence and environment or offer explanations for various natural and supernatural occurrences.

As such, many mythic tales are about the origin or history of great ancestors, patriarchs, matriarchs, legends, and ancient event, and about why and how some cosmic or natural state of affairs came to be the way they are today.

“…To understand a myth, therefore, one would need to understand the originating culture, for a myth is often the ethnographic root of the associated socio-cultural beliefs and practices. In many rural and semi-urban communities in Nigeria, taboos and many social acts are validated in myth…”

Myths also explain rituals and religious practices of a given society as Usman notes, “In the realm of ritual and traditional religious practices, mythic symbolism resolves entirely around a given ethno-religious culture.”

Usman, however, does a fine job of separating myth from history, as there may be an overlap between the two, which may confuse historians.

He notes that the “historian anthropologist, and literary analyst cannot avoid the ‘twilight zone between folklore and history.’

Myth thrives within this twilight zone; yet, it cannot be ignored because of the importance of roles… it plays in enriching art and stablising society”.

Usman talks about the special nature of myths and historical tales, as against the common folktale for children.

He notes that “Some mythic tales are for the ears of the menfolk or professional groups while others must only be narrated by diviners or griots commissioned by the king… The relevance of historical tales does not necessarily lie on the morals of the tale, but rather on their historical data, ritualistic value, philosophy, special knowledge or social enquiry.”

Usman’s Gods and Ancestors: Mythic Tales of Nigeria is a worthy compendium deserving of praise for its preservative and documentary values.

It recommends itself highly to scholars and the general readers alike in its wide-ranging depth of coverage of a special African traditional offering of enduring value.

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