Dæmon in the Wood; Hide and Seek

Clusters of Motifs
Are the Basis of Parallelism

But as often happens when oral narratives have something in common, that one point of likeness is not the only similarity which the two stories share. Despite its preoccupation with extraordinary and marvelous things, oral fable (as distinct from plain narrative) has long been so much the same everywhere that small items of likeness between any two tales rarely stand alone, no matter how great the passage of time or the geographical distance that separate the moments when the tales were recorded. So in the present examples the small detail of the bees is part of an entire network of other similarities that are all the more striking because the two stories were collected nearly three millenia and some three thousand miles apart in distinctly different cultures that have no known historical links with each other.

“What a Little Thing Did” and the legend of Samson both narrate a contest between affinally related males of different generations. The immediate purpose of the contest is to acquire basic valuables, food or clothing. An exogamous marriage precipitates the contest in both cases, and in both cases one of the disputants uses a disloyal bride as a weapon against his opponent, who finds an impossible hive of bees and eats their honey.

When the Lamba father-in-law has finished eating the honey discovered in the grass-stalk, the two men continue their hunt. The elder man finds another hive, but this time in a Wanga tree, “...a tree of such hard wood, that natives seldom attempt to cut out a nest of bees located in it.”8 The son-in-law tries to equal his elder’s prowess by cutting the honey from its difficult location. Not only is the wood hard, but the hive is high in the tree and he risks falling. Although the work is heroically arduous, still it is not strictly impossible, and therefore not equivalent to the older man’s downright magical act. When the son-in-law has lowered the honey to the ground, the older man again offers him some of it, but he again refuses, just as he earlier refused to eat the honey from the grass-stalk. When the father-in-law also will eat none of it, they carry it to their village.

The next day the two go hunting a second time; the father-in-law again finds bees in both a grass-stalk and a Wanga tree. The son-in-law behaves as on the previous day, but feels increasingly threatened by his elder’s trickery (the grass-stalk) and dangerous demands (to cut honey-comb from hard, slippery wood at a great height). On this day, neither man eats any of the honey and their village gets all of it.

On the third day, the father-in-law once more finds honey in both grass-stalk and Wanga tree. But now his younger companion begins to work magic of his own. Awalamba used sections of tree-bark as containers for portage of foodstuffs, children, and other small objects, and made strings and cords from bark fibres. The son-in-law decides on the third day of hunting with his tricky elder not to use an ordinary bark-plate gotten from a tree-trunk in the bush. Instead, he breaks off a section of bark from his own leg, puts the honey-comb from the crown of the Wanga tree in it, and lowers it to his father-in-law at the foot of the tree by a length of bark-string which he also obtains from his own body. The two men then return to their village with their contest in the magical procurement of wild honey at a draw.

The next events in the tale intensify the rivalry between the men. On this, the fourth day of their contest, they leave hunting honey to seek bigger game. They meet a herd of bush-buffalo, animals that were in reality quite dangerous to the native hunter. The father-in-law quickly kills five-at-a-blow: And he took one arrow, and set it in the bow-string, and shot the arrow, and it went into an animal, and went through this one, and went through that one and it died, and it went through that one and it died, and it went through that one and it died; and the last one also it entered, and he who shot the arrow also entered the animals.

The son-in-law goes in bewilderment from one dead buffalo to an other, calling his elder until at last he emerges from the fifth carcass. While the young man contemplates his elder’s latest trick, the villagers carry off the rich provision of meat.

Thus a prodigious slaying of dangerous wild animals alternates with the discovery of impossible honey in both “What a Little Thing Did” and the legend of Samson:

What a Little Thing Did The Legend of Samson
Discovery of Honey Slaying of Lion
Slaying of Bush Buffalo Discovery of Honey

The man who habitually finds honey in the Lamba story emerges from the carcass of a dangerous beast, while the honey comes directly from the carcass in the Biblical legend.

On a fifth day the two rivals again hunt game. They find a herd of Eland (a species of large antelope) and now it is the younger man’s turn to show his skill. He shoots an arrow together with himself through each of four animals. But instead of lodging in a fifth beast as his father-in-law did before him, he and his arrow fly on beyond the last of the antelope:

...and when it came to the last one, the arrow went right through, and entered a wild orange. The wild orange fell into the water, and a crocodile swallowed the orange. And in its turn a hippopotamus swallowed the crocodile. The father-in-law went to the animals, and said, “Son-in-law come out!” He did not come out. And he reached another, and said, “Son-in-law come out!” He did not come out. And yet another, but he did not come out. And the last one, but he did not come out. Then he said, “But where has my son-in-law gone? I have finished asking all the animals!” And the father-in-law went off alone to the village.

On the next day (the sixth) the father-in-law digs a pitfall. The hippopotamus with the crocodile and wild orange inside falls into the pit, dies, and the father-in-law has it cut up for meat:

And they pierced that hippopotamus, and took out a crocodile from the stomach of the hippopotamus. Then he said, “But where is my son-in-law?” He said, “Now men, pierce this crocodile.” And they pierced the crocodile, and took out a wild orange. Then he said, “My son-in-law, come out!” Then it was that he came out of the wild orange with his bow in his hand...and the people carried that meat.

Like the previous series of hunts for honey, the hunts for big game also end in a stalemate between the hunters. The young man is no equal to his elder in locating food, although he keeps pace with him in the actual acquisition of it. Yet the son-in-law has to take increasingly greater risks in order to match his opponent’s displays of magical power. First he handled the ominous honey from the grass-stalks, then risked falling from the Wanga trees, and on one occasion used pieces of his own body to supply the utensils for moving the honey. Finally he chances being lost permanently in the wild, for whereas his father-in-law’s buffalo and his own antelope were certain to be cut up for meat and carried to their village by their fellow villagers, the wild orange, crocodile, and hippopotamus were a place of concealment under no human control. The father-in-law could expect that he would be found and summoned out of his slain buffalo, but the son-in-law chose a far more hazardous hiding-place in this strange game of hide-and-seek.

On the seventh and last day of their competition in hunting, the two men again go in search of honey. With this reversion in the object of the hunt, the father-in-law also now reverts to a plain character and remains so to the end of the story despite his earlier fabulous deeds. But the son-in-law undertakes still greater feats and personal risk, as though in inverse proportion to his elder’s waning fabulosity:*

And he went out with his son-in-law to cut out honey; and again located bees in a very tall Wanga tree. And he said, “Son-in-law, cut out these bees in the Wanga tree.” And the son-in-law came, and climbed that Wanga tree, and the son-in-law cut out the honey. And he said, “Father-in-law, take this honey that I have cut out!” Ah, and he received the honey; and then the son-in-law fell hurtling down, and broke and smashed to pieces, and not even a little bit of him was seen; and he entirely crumbled up, and turned into dust. His father-in-law became afraid, and said, “Today my son-in-law is dead, he has broken to pieces.” And off he went to the village, and reached the village and said, “My son-in-law is dead, I don’t see him.”

With the men’s return to hunting honey, the Lamba tale duplicates the sequence as well as the kind of events found in the legend of Samson:

What a Little Thing Did The Legend of Samson
Finding Honey (six times) ...................
Slaying Dangerous Beast Slaying Dangerous Beast
Finding Honey (once) Finding Honey (once)

Tellers of oral fable commonly emphasize important parts of their tales by repetition. Partly for that reason the same tale can have long forms like the Lamba telling of “What a Little Thing Did” and short forms like the legend of Samson. But variations in length because of emphatic repetition do not change the relation of a tale’s components to each other. So in the present tale, the wild honey remains the focus of the men’s contest in deception and concealment no matter how often it is repeated. Samson challenges his wife’s male relatives by concealment of the impossible honey in a riddle, and they triumph over him by finding it out. The Lamba father-in-law first challenges his wife’s male relative by concealing similar honey in a grass-stalk, whence the son-in-law extracts it. At the same time when Samson’s affinal kin put an end to his concealment of the honey, they also estrange his wife from him; the estrangement is part of their victory in the matter of the hidden honey. The motif of wild honey is repeated seven times in the Lamba tale (twice on three days, once on a seventh day) but its last appearance is still the moment of the honey-trickster’s final defeat and estrangement from his wife, just as in the legend of Samson. The son-in-law’s calamitous fall from the last Wanga tree is only a ruse to bring public censure and humiliation on his bothersome father-in-law:

There where he remained, he revived, and joined himself together piece by piece, and changed into a woman. In the morning his father-in-law came saying, “Just let me go to where my son-in-law died.” When he had gone some distance, he met that woman. He said, “Woman, where have you come from?” She said, “I have come from here in this country.” Then he said, “I am going to divorce my old wife, and I shall marry this beautiful one that I have seen.” All the time it was his son-in-law who had turned into a woman.

The father-in-law hastily sets up housekeeping with the girl, then after a single night as his bride the son-in-law resumes his former masculine shape and condemns his elder’s depravity. Outraged by this supreme deception, the father-in-law begins a litigation, but the villagers’ court finds in favor of the youth. Like Samson, the Lamba son-in-law is also finally satisfied with the damage he has brought on his elder social rival by public incrimination.

The tie of consanguinity between Samson’s alien bride and his male foes is the real cause of his undoing. The same must be said of the Lamba honey-trickster; his son-in-law exploits a woman of the most intimate consanguinity with himself, one whom he has created out of himself by transformation of his own person. It is of course an entirely fabulous and impossible transformation, but it does express the idea of consanguinity between the man and his female accomplice more forcefully than any real consanguineous kinship could do.

The contest between the honey-trickster and his bride’s kinsmen is materially profitable for the foreign people among whom he has married. They go better clothed for their trouble in the Biblical version, while the Lamba villagers gain prodigious amounts of food. But whereas the results of the affinal rivalry in both tales are discovery and provision of material benefits to the bride’s relatives, its means are just the opposite: deception and concealment between the rivals. The honey-trickster begins by hiding wild bees (in a riddle or in the conundrum of the grass-stalk) and for three days his opponents are confounded. For three days the Lamba men hunt honey and their contest remains undecided, while in the Book of Judges 14:14, “So he said unto them, ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ And they could not in three days expound the riddle.” But at the end of the third day the Lamba son-in-law counters the trickster’s artifice with a deception of his own. The exogamous bridegroom’s first trick involves only things external to himself—the bees and honey—but the son-in-law invests pieces of his physical self in his wile with the bark-plate, which he strips from the side of his own leg. During the subsequent hunts for big game (on the fourth, fifth, and sixth days) the contest in deception deepens as the two rivals play hide-and-seek in various animal and even vegetable guises (i.e., the wild orange).

Finally on the seventh day the son-in-law defeats the honey-trickster bridegroom by the grandest deception of all, the concealment of himself and his inimical intent from the bridegroom in a human guise, in the very person of a substitute bride. The bridegroom fails to recognize his foe hidden in the bride until the foe has gained enough private information about his secret life to ruin him publicly. Then the trickster cries foul, but it is too late, for the game is already lost.

So too in the Old Testament. Samson’s affinal relatives make no progress for three days in answering his deceptive riddle. Then on the seventh day they suborn his bride. When Samson fails to recognize their design in his wife’s nagging, they learn his secret and use it to humiliate him in public. Like the Lamba son-in-law, they too work a greater deception than the honey-trickster’s by setting themselves and their interests in the place of the honey-trickster’s bride. Samson protests, but must pay his wager nonetheless. Even the numerical cadence of the rivalry is the same in the two tales: three days of indecisive contest, then four more making use of other stratagems, with the decisive intervention of the suborned bride on the seventh day.


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