West African Cosmogony
Origin Myths of Mande, Yoruba, and Cameroon

The creation myths of Africans are as varied as the many cultures which inhabit the continent. Cosmogony mythologies play an important role in West African societies; they set up the framework of the social, political, and even economic structure of society.

I. Mande Creation Myth

The creation myth of Mande-speaking people of southern Mali is an example of what is called a "cosmic egg myth." As reflected in their culture, the creation myth has elements of an imperfect creation as a result of incest. Here, we present one of many versions of the creation myth as told to us by Professor Bastain in our AFS/ANT267 class.

In the beginning, there was only Mangala. Mangala is a singular, powerful being who is perceived to be a round, energetic presence. Within Mangala existed four divisions, which were symbolic of, among many things, the four days of the week (time), the four elements (matter), and the four directions (space). Mangala also contained two sets of dual gendered twins. Mangala was tired of keeping all of this matter inside, so the god removed it and compiled it into a seed. The seed was his creation of the world. The seed however did not hold together well and blew up. Mangala was disappointed with this and destroyed the world he created.

Mangala did not loose hope; the creator began again, this time with two sets of twin seeds. Mangala planted the seeds in an egg shaped womb where they gestated. Mangala continued to put more sets of twin seeds in the womb until he had 8 sets of seeds. In the womb, the gestating seeds transformed themselves into fish. The fish is considered a symbol of fertility in the Mande world. This time, Mangala's creation was successful. This is important, because it illustrates the idea of dual gendered twinship, an idea that permeates Mande culture.

Mangala tried to maintain this perfect creation, but chaos crept in; one of the male twins became ambitious and tried to escape from the egg. This chaotic character is called Pemba. He is a t trickster figure who symbolizes the mischievousness of humans. Pemba's first trick was to steal the a piece of the womb's placenta and throw it down. This action made the the earth. Pemba then tried to refertilize what was left of the womb, committing incest against his mother, the womb.

Mangala decided to sacrifice Pemba's brother Farro to save what was left of his creation. He castrated him and then killed in order to raise him from the dead. Mangala took what was left of the placenta and transformed it into the sun, thus associating Pemba with darkness and the night. Farro was transformed into a human being and was taught the language of creation by Mangala. Farro's knowledge of words is very powerful and the tool he used to defeat Pemba's mischief. Farro and his newly created twins came to Earth and got married (not to each other) and became the horonw. This is the basis for the foundation of exogamy in Mande.

Next, an unknown being named Sourakata arrived from the sky with the first sacred drum, hammer, and the sacrificed skull of Farro. Sourakata began to play on the drum and sung for the first rain to come. Sourakata is a magical being who can

control nature, and he taught Farro and his followers. He is the origin of the nyamakalaw.

As one can see from the origin myth, the horonw are the people of the earth. They were destined to become farmers and well-bred aristocracy. The nyamakalaw, on the other hand, were destined to be primal and mysterious. They understand nature and are able to use it to their benefit. These roles are exactly what we see in the horonw and nyamakalaw relations in Mande society today.

II. Yoruba Creation Myth

This is just one example of how a cultures origin myths are embedded in the social framework. The Yoruba of what is now Nigeria also conduct their practices in accordance with their cosmogony.

The Yoruba creator is called Olurun or Olodumare and is often assisted by the lesser god, Obatala. In the beginning, there was only water and chaos. The supreme being sent Obatala or Orishanla down from the sky to create some land out of the

chaos. He descended on a long chain (umbilical cord) and brought with him a rooster, some iron, and a palm kernel. First, he put the metal on the earth and the rooster on top of that. The rooster scratched the metal and spread it out to create land. Then he planted the palm seed and from it grew the earth's vegetation. Olurun named earth "Ife" and the first city "Ile-Ife." Orshilana created humans out of the earth and got Olurun to blow life into them.