Dæmon in the Wood; Appendix

A Tortoise, et alii

The purpose of this appendix is further to substantiate (without attempting to exhaust) the thesis that the Two Trees are a worldwide pattern in oral fable, and in so doing also to remark those aspects of fable from many places and various ages that urge certain methodological preferences in criticism of oral traditions wherever they occur.

The Awalamba and Bene-Mukuni (Lenje), whose reflexes of the Two Trees’ story are discussed in the early chapters of this book, had no monopoly of that story in Africa. It and its cosmotactic hero were known quite generally among Bantu. The Ovimbundu, for example, a people of Angola in West Africa, knew many different tales about cosmotactic characters whose names were the names of animals. The events in such tales belonged to a legendary time when men and beasts lived together in society, before the present laws governing the organization of the world (and the separation of men and animals) entered into force. Those tales told how various animals discovered natural rules of relationship and behaviour, and either obeyed those rules, or if they would not obey, were in some way compelled to withdraw from the broader society and to accept isolation as a distinct animal species. Through their superior intelligence and more nearly human adaptability, some animals were particularly instrumental in expelling others from the fabulous mixed society of men and beasts. The superior animals or tricksters could discern the limits of their own and other creatures’ ability and usefulness better than other animals could, and consequently went about the primordial world both inducing other creatures to overstep natural limits and punishing them when they did so.

As elsewhere in Africa, the Hare and the Tortoise were particularly prominent in Umbundu trickster-tales. Although they had no part in creating it, the tricksters of Bantu fable helped to organize and arrange the world as it now is by their discovery and enforcement of natural law. In this way the animal tricksters of Umbundu tales were cosmotactic heroes no different from tricksters in indigenous European, Australian, or native American fable. The Umbundu trickster Hare and arch-trickster Tortoise figure in the same long cycle of cosmotactic adventures that characterizes trickster stories in oral fable on other continents, and as elsewhere, cosmotactic adventures in Umbundu story-telling entailed the pattern of the Two Trees.

One day Hare said to Hornbill, “Come along with me and let us visit my wife’s family.” Hornbill agreed.

After they had walked along the path for some time, Hare said that he needed to retire to the bush. As Hare was coming back to the path, he picked up a round stone about the size of a ball of mush and put it into his food wallet.93

The first concern of cosmotactic narrative everywhere is food and eating, but not simply the conventional acts of food-getting and ingestion. As in the tales of Adam, Moses, Samson, Beowulf, or Mandu, cosmotactic narrative explores especially those sources of food and modes of feeding that lie beyond what is ordinarily possible and permissible. The scatological beginning of this Umbundu tale is a common motif of trickster-story, which often notices the end-products as much as the initial substances of nutrition. Hare returns from his excretory excursion with an unacceptable substitute for food, and then induces the gullible Hornbill to treat real food as though it were a worthless substitute:

Then when they came to a river, Hare said to Hornbill, “My mother warned me that to cross a bridge with a ball of mush in your wallet is unlucky. She said you must throw it into the stream.” When Hare had said this, he took the stone out of his wallet and threw it into the river. Hornbill took from his wallet the ball of mush he carried to eat on the road, and threw it into the stream.

Hare is still the trickster and Hornbill his dupe when they later stop to rest under a green fruit-tree in the wilderness. It is a place of unreciprocal feeding and lawless acquisition. Hare pretends to be acting in unison with Hornbill, but actually he seizes every opportunity to magnify the discrepancy between his own and Hornbill’s intelligence and well-being. He does this by concealing the identity of what it is that he has in his food-pouch:

Farther on they came to a tree bearing an edible fruit. They sat down under the tree to rest. As they sat resting, Hare opened his wallet, took out his ball of mush, and began to eat it. Hornbill saw this. He spoke up and said, “What is this! You said, ‘Let us throw our balls of mush into the river!”

Hare said, “Yes, that is so. But since then this ball of mush just cooked itself inside my wallet.”

When Hare had finished eating, he called Hornbill’s attention to the wild fruit and said, “Let us gather some of these wild plums. But in gathering them, let us gather only the green ones. My mother warned me not to gather red ones, for they bring bad luck.” Then they began to gather some of the fruit. Hare moved around to the back of the tree, where he picked the ripe, red plums. Hornbill, as he had been advised by Hare, gathered only green fruit. When they had filled their wallets, they went on once more.

The trickster and his victim go straight on from the green wood to the hewn, but Hornbill lacks the sagacity promptly to lay hold of the hewn wood and use it against his ogreish host when the opportunity presents itself:

As they drew near the village of Hare’s wife’s family, they sat down under a tree to rest. Hare noticed that there were chips and shavings at the place where they sat down. They started to eat some of their fruit. Hornbill saw Hare eating ripe, red plums and said to him, “Didn’t you tell me that we should not pick red ones?”

“Oh yes,” said Hare, “I did say that, but these plums ripened in my wallet.”

After they had eaten their fruit, Hare said to Hornbill: “At the village ahead, where we are going, they do not have any spoons. When you see them bringing us food, you must come back here to get some of these chips, so that we can eat with them. You will do this instead of my doing it, since we shall need the chips quickly and you have wings which enable you to travel faster than I.”

Hornbill agreed to this and said, “That is all right.”

Hornbill wants both the ordinary human cunning to save himself inconvenience by picking up the chips of wood when he first sees them, and the traditional knowledge that hewn wood is the first resort in dealing with a food-trickster. Lacking both those human resources of mind—cleverness and traditional knowledge—Hornbill is destined by his own nature to early separation from primordial society. Eventually Hare feeds him (as the ogre in these tales routinely must), but the cost to Hornbill of accepting the trickster’s hospitality is appalling (as is usual in this story-pattern):

When they came into the village the people rejoiced to see them and received them in fine style. They were taken to the men’s clubhouse, given chairs, and beer was brought for them to drink. Next they were greeted with a formal speech of welcome. Later in the day they were taken to the guesthouse. Near sundown, the hosts were seen bringing them mush and fried chicken.

When Hare saw the food coming, he spoke to Hornbill and said, “Hornbill, remember what I spoke to you about. Now go and get them.” While Hornbill was away, Hare ate the mush and the fried fowl that was served with it. When Hornbill returned, Hare gave him some mush served with beans, which had been brought along with the other, saying, “Brother, take this and eat it. I, for my part, shall eat nothing more in this village, for it is an insult to be served food of this sort, of such low quality. I had thought that the mush would be served with meat, but it is not so.” Hornbill took the food and ate it, for he was painfully hungry.

Hare’s deeds thus far have been tricky, but not yet preternaturally so. Now that element in his character emerges; he is a preternaturally prodigious eater, and he sets about feeding himself as a witch would. Hornbill gets the blame, and the punishment due a witch:

Hare went out in the night, stole a goat, and ate it. He cut a hole in the stomach of the goat, and slipped it over the head of Hornbill. The contents of the stomach were warm and brought a deep sleep over Hornbill. In the morning the owners of the goat came looking for it. They found Hornbill sleeping with the stomach of the goat over his head. They said, “We are looking for a goat. What have you guests to say?”

Hare replied to them: “The old men have said, ‘The bull of the herd does not gore his own, for he is their guardian.’” Then the owners of the goat took Hornbill away and killed him.

Hare returned to their village alone. He stayed there for some time.

The arch-trickster who can vanquish an ogre like Hare must adopt the ogre’s own techniques of injury. The trickster Hare next invites Tortoise to go with him on a visit to his wife’s family’s village. But now it is Hare who is undone by stupid, inflexible obedience to a prescribed routine—the same routine that earlier undid Hornbill. Hare puts Tortoise through the same series of deceptions about food which he inflicted on Hornbill; but unlike Hornbill, Tortoise is not deceived. Where Hornbill had acted differently or separately from Hare, Tortoise imitates and even anticipates Hare’s every move. On the pretext of relieving himself, Tortoise leaves Hare on the path and picks up a stone the size of a ball of mush. He rejoins Hare, who then does the same thing. Hare again urges throwing their provisions of mush into a river, and both he and Tortoise throw in their stones. When Hare begins to eat mush under the wild fruit-tree, Tortoise questions him and gets the same answers as had Hornbill in that situation. To the astonishment of Hare, Tortoise then begins to eat his own mush. Hare asks how he came by it, and Tortoise gives Hare his own reply—that the ball of mush had cooked itself in his wallet while they walked.

Hare again counsels picking only green fruit from the tree, but Tortoise disobeys and imitates Hare, who picks only ripe fruit. The same exchange of questions and answers about the fruit takes place at the site of the hewn wood as earlier transpired about the mush at the fruit-tree. When Hare tells Tortoise to be prepared to return for a chip of wood when their hosts serve them food in the village, Tortoise surreptitiously picks up a chip and carries it with him, sensibly anticipating a future need. Eventually they are served, to Hare’s consternation Tortoise produces the chip, and then takes the food directly from the hands of their host rather than from the thieving intermediary Hare. They thus share the meal of mush and fried chicken equally.

Hare steals another goat that night, but Tortoise places white cowry-shells over his eyes before going to sleep in order to make Hare think that he is awake. Hare sits waiting in the dark for Tortoise to close his eyes so that he may put the goat’s stomach over Tortoise’s head and so incriminate him, as he had done previously to Hornbill. But like Hornbill Hare himself finally falls asleep holding the stomach. Next morning the villagers find him in this incriminating posture and kill him.

Tortoise understands what Hornbill did not, that to overcome an ogre, one must lay firm hold on hewn wood at the first opportunity, and mete out to the ogre the same offenses which it commits against others. Tortoise triumphs by uniting himself inseparably with Hare in all Hare’s strategems. By acting in absolute unison with Hare, he avoids Hornbill’s fate—the separation of himself from society—and achieves instead the segregation of the ogre, Hare.

The green fruit-tree in the wilderness and the hewn chips at the periphery of the village are related to one another in two ways in this Umbundu tale. First, they are logical opposites of each other, the one green and the other dead, the one a resource and the other a social instrument for the Hare and his travelling companions. But the two kinds of wood are also causally related; the one is a remedy for what happens at the other. The chip which Tortoise picks up to use as a spoon is a remedy for the social lawlessness which Hare begins to manifest at the wild fruit-tree. Of these two relationships, the first is generically significant—it helps to define the two generic motifs of trees—but the second, causal relationship is only nominally significant—it pertains only to the Umbundu interpretation of the international story-pattern and does not necessarily have any acceptance or validity whatever among other peoples who know the generic story of the two trees equally well in other multiforms.

The injured personae in the Two Trees’ story as others tell it do not necessarily as in Bantu fable hurry out the instant they have been hurt to embrace some piece of hewn wood for its prophylactic and remedial help against the ogre at the green tree. Indeed some perfectly respectable oral traditional story-tellers in other cultures go so far in reinterpreting the causal relationship between the two trees as to make unreciprocal giving or taking of food or other property at the green wood in the wilderness a remedy for the harsh justice of absolute reciprocity at the sign of the hewn wood. Such a local change in the motivation or reason for a particular sequence of motifs has no effect upon the composition of the generic motival cluster, which is not a fixed sequence but rather a freely variable constellation of motifs. The fixing of motival sequences and assignment of motivations for them are just another form of local, idiosyncratic interpretation of inherited motival material, more elusive perhaps and more a matter of personal or ethnically defined opinions than are the interpretations of fabulous motifs incorporated in a community of religious beliefs. But as generic motifs neither of the two trees necessarily causes the appearance of the other in any given tale, any more than two atoms of hydrogen necessarily cause the appearance of an atom of oxygen in conjunction with them to constitute a molecule of water. Even the order of the two trees’ precedence one before the other in a tale is freely variable. The only invariable fact about their relationship is that they both belong to the same cluster of narrative motifs.

Albert Lord has called the force that keeps such motifs together in tradition the tension of essences.94 This conservative, cohesive ‘tension’ among the motifs in a given cluster or pattern is partly a matter of inherent logical properties (the two trees are memorable as logical opposites of one another), and partly customary: an oral traditional story-teller narrates them together because that is the way he has habitually heard them told, and therefore the only right way for him to tell them. But the rationality of causation is not a conservative force comparable to either tradition or the inherent logical properties of the motifs. Great oral traditional narrators (like Homer) may owe much of their reputations to their ability as philosophers—elaborating, inventing, and introducing into their tales various seemly reasons for the traditional courses of events which they narrate. But while such moralism and rationalism is certainly a part of narrative art, it belongs to hermeneutic not strictly narrative tradition, and it must be distinguished from the ‘tension of essences,’ no matter how appealing or durable a particular story-teller’s maxims or causative ordering of events (like Homer’s) may be to his own people or to anyone else.

Kanu the Creator

Two thousand miles away to the northwest of Umbundu lands in Angola, the Limba people of Sierra Leone, who are not Bantu, knew the story of the Two Trees as well as any people in Central Africa. It was an indigenous part of Limba culture in just as great a profusion of indigenous multiforms as could be found for any other pattern in Limba fable. On the fifteenth of October, 1961, a man named Niaka Dema95 dictated to a British collector, Ruth Finnegan, a concise cosmotactic tale of disunity and union formed on the pattern of the Two Trees’ story. Its personae were a curiously disunited group of palm-wine tappers and a great Limba preternatural and trickster named Kanu, who was among other things god of the sky and the supreme deity of the Limba. The tale began with the green food- tree: Several young men set out to clear undergrowth and tap oil-palms (Elaeis guineensis) for palm-wine. While they are aloft in their several trees, Kanu goes from one to another begging the gift of some wine to drink. The young male tappers are disjointed (or as yet unjoined) parts of the future human body: hands, hips, neck, head, back, and stomach. All the tappers refuse to give Kanu nourishment except the last, stomach, who entertains him hospitably. Through Stomach Kanu appoints a time for a meeting of all the tappers, and he himself comes to the meeting bearing products of hewn wood wherewith to subdue his ogres—the persons (i.e., parts of the body) who withheld wine from him at their green palm-trees. Using resin, palm-cotton, and ashes, he joins all the previously independent parts of the body together and designates Stomach to be chief and rule them.96

A raffia-cutter

The same Limba story-teller, Niaka Dema, told Ruth Finnegan another multiform of the Two Trees’ story in which the hewn wood came before the green. It too was a tale of hunger and of cosmotactic deeds to benefit the hungry: A spirit owns a palm-wine tree. While cutting ribs from the fronds of raffia-palms, a man discovers the spirit’s tapped oil-palm and steals the wine from it. After he has done this several times, the spirit catches him at it, and generously offers to teach the man, who has not previously known palm-wine, how to clear and tap his own trees. Both the man and the spirit being solitary persons without any families, they become bosom friends. Finally, after the host spirit has taught the man all his art, he demands that his human guest pay him a human child for the teaching. The man protests, but the story-teller omitted to say whether the spirit got his victim or not.97

Niaka Dema left the ugly incident of the preternatural’s sudden outrageous demand unresolved, but the conclusion is obvious from the beginning of the tale. The man was already equipped with hewn wood before he met the spirit, who first benevolently promoted and then inexplicably violated human interests at the green food-tree.

A banana-thief

The hewn wood came before the green again in a story told by another Limba man, Dauda Konteh, on the thirteenth of December, 1961: A pregnant girl longs to eat a banana. The chief of the place owns a banana-tree, but has warned that he will kill any man who takes its fruit unlawfully. The girl’s husband nevertheless violates the tree, and the chief does indeed kill him.

The young widow moves away to her own family’s village, where she bears and raises her child, a daughter. When the girl is grown, she returns to her father’s village and induces the chief who slew her father to marry her. Left alone with him on the bridal night, she kills him and makes off with all his wealth.

Next morning twelve men and boys pursue her on horseback, and one boy overtakes her in the wilderness. When he is about to kill her, she tells him that before she can die he must pick a leaf from the topmost twig of a “huge, tall” kuwunu-tree. He strips and climbs the tree, but the girl mounts his horse and rides away, saying to him that he is a dead man “perched up there on the top twig.”98

The banana tree is the hewn wood of this tale, because the hungry girl’s husband not only takes its fruit but also cuts down the whole tree in the process. It is the chief’s domestic stock, and he exacts the price of reciprocity that regularly attends the hewn wood in this story-pattern: the chief kills the man just as the man has killed his tree. But the husband, the lawless violator of the piece, has a tricky, ogreish offspring; like Grendel’s dam returning to Heorot to avenge Grendel, his daughter returns to the scene of her father’s death, where she first entertains and then kills and robs her satiated ‘guest,’ who has made the mistake of accepting her entertainment on their wedding-night. Then, under the green wood in the wild, she again tricks another victim to death, and thus offsets the dead chief’s harsh, unifying rule of strict reciprocity in his village with her own compensatory lawless appropriation of his life and property and the life of his subject at the green kuwunu-tree in the wild. Finally, Dauda Konteh gave his tale a cosmotactic coda in the form of an ætion: the events in the story are, said he, the reason why the Limba now have female ‘chiefs’ (a characteristically Limba social institution).


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