Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Race in Myth

A while back I read Myths and Legends of the Congo by Jan Knappert. African myths have strange narrative pacing and structures compared to Europe and Asia (most American myths probably would seem just as different but most of them were substantially influenced by Europeans before written down).

One of the strangest things about the myths of the Congo was their take on racial issues. Many myths address race, from Noah's sons to the chariot of the sun burning Africans black, but all the ones I've seen (European, Mid-Eastern, and Asian) make subtle or not-so-subtle claims that "other races are tolerable but we're the best." The Congo is very different.

The first racial story comes from the Alur tribe who believed that one of their ancestors was traveling one day and found the Son of God dead near the road (many African mythologies are midway between monotheistic and polytheistic with one GOD and many minor gods). The Alur walked on without doing anything. Next the ancestor of white men came by. He stopped buried the body and covered it with sweet-smelling leaves. When it came time for God to give men weapons, he gave black men bow and arrows but gave guns to the whites, granting them an unbeatable advantage in war.

It would make sense if an American tribe had a similar myth, but I've never heard of anything like this. Most religions hold tough to the "We're the Chosen Few," not "God likes you best."

Another racial myth comes from the Nkundo tribe who live in the middle of the Congo basin (sometimes unflatteringly described as the "armpit" of the Congo River). They call their land Ngimôkili ("Middle Land" or "Middle Earth"). Many of their legends concern Lianja (somewhat equivalent of King Arthur) and Bongenge (somewhat equivalent of Merlin).

Yendembe, one of Lianja's unmarried daughters, was obviously pregnant but swore she was a virgin. Bongenge soothed the situation by divining that the father was a god and Yendembe would give birth to twins. These twins were freaks with white skin who at the ages of 15 chose to live apart from the rest of humanity. Away by themselves, they invented pens to write with, learned to forge iron, and even built an iron boat. Lianja and his people were astounded but the king kept on friendly terms with his grandchildren and regarded them as family.

Compared to the story of Noah's son Ham or the racial myths told by the Nation of Islam, the Nkundo's story is inspirational. Considering the state of nations along the Congo, I wonder if such goodwill is still flowing, but it is nice to see a religion based on a degree of brotherhood and tolerance (of course, they were brutalized by cultures with religions built on less noble themes).

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