Our guest post this week is by Jarita Holbrook, researcher at UCLA and among the first African American women to earn a doctorate in astrophysics in the USA.
A Yoruba lidded bowl representing the separation between the living (earth) and spiritual (sky) realms. National Museum of African Art collection.
The idea of myths and legends possibly containing scientific truths about the sky is not new. Studies trying to tease out astronomy facts from the narrative of myths have been fraught with methodological errors center around the question of ‘what myths are the best candidates for having astronomy content?’ Books have been written in answer to this question that offer guidelines for identifying celestial motifs in myths across cultures.
My 2008 analysis of African creation myths focused on identifying common cosmological themes that appear in more than one ethnic group. For that study, the myths selected were chosen from published sources—which can present problems that should be taken into consideration. For example, oftentimes the person recording the myth has: a) combined several versions of the myth into one version for simplicity, and b) changed the language used in the myth in order for it to read better for academic audiences. It is rare to impossible to find original transcriptions of African creation myths.
A theme that I explored was the origin state of the universe revealed in African creation myths. The broad categories of original states were a seed, water, and a deity:
1) In West Africa the origin myth begins with a seed. The seed is very small, yet it has the intrinsic property of creating the entire universe. This origin myth is spread among a large family of ethnic groups called the Mande people that spread from Mali in the north down throughout West Africa; the astronomically famous ethnic group the Dogon are included.
2) Some origin myths start with the Universe in a watery chaotic state and often the myth goes on to explain how the Earth is created and the sky is separated from the earth such as for the Yoruba (Nigeria) and the Bakuba (Democratic Republic of Congo).
3) A deity exists at the beginning who creates or aids in organizing the universe. Myths that begin with a deity are found in Muslim and Christian communities, as well as ethnic groups from West Africa to the Khoisan in South Africa.
A second theme was the idea that the content of the origin myth laid out the structure and provided a justification for the current societal order, oftentimes including the lineage of the hereditary rulers. Such myths were found in Islamic Africa on both sides of the Sahara and East Africa, and within some non-Muslim ethnic groups in Central Africa. A particular subset of the creation myths that focus on societal order are those in which the original ancestor comes from the sky and marries a human as found among the Banyoro (Uganda), Bemba (Zambia), and the Bugunda (Uganda).
The Creation Myth of the Temne (Schlenker 1861)
Our fathers did not tell us much about the creation of the world, they only told us that when God made the world, he put it on the head of a giant, who was below it. This person carries the world on the head. They told us that all the trees, and all the grass, and all things, which grow on this earth, are the hair of the head of this giant; and all living creatures are the lice of his head. He, on whose head the world was put before, has died, and another man carries this world again on the head. When they put the world on him, he was in a sitting posture, and turned towards the East. They told us that this person turns himself, but that he turns softly, so that people cannot know it; except that time when he turns towards the West, then men know it; because at that time there arises an earthquake, so that houses and trees fall down. At that time when this person falls down, and dies, the whole world is at an end, and every thing in the world will perish. After a long time God will [t]ake this world away, that he may put again a new world. God did not make a world lasting for ever; after a long time he will put a new world again. What the black and the white people say respecting the world, that this world will be at an end some day, is truth.
Many of the myths represent a dynamic or changing Universe, where much has happened since the original state. In particular, two myths projected that the Universe would be ending in the future: the Temne of Sierra Leone (above) and the Amhara of Ethiopia.
These themes and categories were designated to search for perhaps regional differences and similarities, however, the only clear linkages I found were between related groups and neighbors, and those of the same religion such as Islam. It was a fun process of reading dozens of African creation myths to arrive at these categories and conclusions, however, dozens hardly covers the entire African continent.
Dear readers, please contribute the African creation myths you know as well as comment on whether your myths fit into any of these categories.
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