How did the universe, or earth, or, for that matter, man himself come into being? The African peoples have their own visions and versions of the creation. Frequently the ancestral knowledge is couched in a quaint story; in some cases, however, it has been preserved in such purity and detail that an entire cosmological system can be discerned within the husk. The interpreter must tread warily, for myths, like gems, through long usage lose the sharp edges of their cut. Cosmic forces, personified as gods, tend to become anthropomorphized and eventually materialized. The apotheosis of kings and heroes blurs the division line between cosmogonic occurrence and deeds of deified mortals. Again, in some eras a particular divinity may be worshipped as the sole creator, while in later times a cult is built around a different god or goddess as the originator. Out of a fullness of African traditions we can, of course, deal here with the myths of just a few nations.
The Yoruba of Southern Nigeria have the most extensive pantheon in all of Africa — according to some 401 or 2001 in number, figures which naturally are not to be taken literally. The head of this heavenly host is Olodumare, also called Olorun (Lord of the Sky), a godhood too high for human communication or worship, too sacred to be portrayed in graven image. There are indications, however, that he is not THAT, for "Olodumare is the child of Ere, the eternal python (ouroboros) who brought the world-egg into existence." (Judith Gleason, with Awutunde Aworinde and John Olaniyi Ogundipe, A Recitation of lfa, Oracle of the Yoruba, p. 39.) One interpretation of his name is "owner of Odu the egg," containing the principles of life. As "owner" Olodumare may be said to be that world-egg himself. The "eternal python" who produced him is eternal motion that is in both manifestation and pralaya or rest period — the only knowable attribute of the Unknowable. Olorun or Olodumare may therefore be thought of as the Manifest One, the "Ancient of Days" of the Qabbalah.
The actual handiwork of creation he delegates to Obatala (in some regions also called Orisha-Nla), the Lord of the White Cloth, usually designated as Olodumare's son. Earth already exists and is a dark place of wild marshes and water, the realm of goddess Olokun, but it is Obatala's task to establish order there. Before descending, he consults Orunmilla, Olodumare's firstborn son and god of divination, somewhat comparable in function and quality to the Egyptian Thoth or Divine Wisdom. According to Orunmilla's divination, the journey must take place along a golden chain. Since much of the precious metal is needed, the assembled gods donate their treasured trinkets for the purpose — as all divinity contributes to the formation of the universe. Despite their generosity the chain is still a little short, leaving Obatala dangling above the damp wastes. Fortunately, Orunmilla had told him to carry along a snailshell filled with earth (or iron in some versions) and a five-toed hen, and so Obatala solves his predicament when he remembers these items and throws the soil down below where it lies in little hills. The hen sets to work scattering it about with its toes, whereupon it turns into solid ground. The whole episode can be seen as that stage of creation when primordial matter by the workings of spiritual force is converted into differentiated matter. It is obviously a long process for twice does Olodumare send his messenger, the chameleon, to inquire whether the land is wide enough and dry enough, and only the second time is the answer affirmative. This accomplished, Obatala builds a house on the mixture of matter and spirit, and plants a palmnut (also included in his luggage) which grows into a tree with the miraculous speed of all world trees.
But all is not well with creation yet, for Olokun is vastly angered by the invasion of her territory and shakes herself so violently that the damage has to be repaired before matters can proceed much further. There are parallels to this event in myths from all four corners of the world, for the wars in heaven, battles between gods and powers of the deep, slayers and dragons, the "wolf who comes out of darkness," as the Edda has it — in its own symbolism each tells the story of matter rebelling against the formative influence of spirit. With this universally acknowledged fact of nature the Yoruba were evidently well familiar.
Olodumare, Orunmilla and Obatala can be compared to the three Logoi, Obatala as the third Logos bringing about the actual creation. Olodumare, the "distant" god, is single but with his offspring duality sets in, for we read of Orunmilla as having a wife, and Obatala, the god of the sky is aided in his efforts by Jemuhu or "earth," thus effecting a partnership of heaven and earth, or spirit and matter.
Since there was considerable interchange between the Yoruba and their neighbors, the Fon of Dahomey — although not always of a peaceful nature — there are of course many similarities in their respective pantheons and religious concepts. With the Fon, too, creation is more a matter of bringing order in an already existing but chaotic situation than of starting de novo and ex nihilo. Moreover, they do not regard the event as unique, for
. . . the Dahomean reasons that while it is true that the world, as he knows it, was founded by Mawu, some being must have existed before Mawu, a being who had the power of creating Mawu. . . . If pressed to explain the ultimate origin of the Universe, the Dahomean philosopher replies that there are things that men cannot explain. . . but that his own reason tells him, "there may have been many Mawus." — M. J. Herskovits, quoted in P. Mercier, "The Fon of Dahomey," in African Worlds, Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, ed. Daryll Forde, p. 217.
This might be paraphrased as "there have been many Logoi" — something the universal wisdom traditions entirely concur with.
The creative deity of the Fon is the dual entity Lisa-Mawu (corresponding to Obatala-Jemuhu of the Yoruba), Lisa being male and Mawu female, though they are sometimes believed to be androgynous. But to the Fon the female aspect is more prominent and therefore they usually refer to Mawu only, which tacitly includes Lisa. Together they form the rhythm of life, the equilibrium between opposites, Mawu symbolizing fertility, gentleness, night, moon, rest, joy; while Lisa is power, strength, day, sun, labor and all hard things. The latest in a series of creators, obviously they in turn must spring from some source, but mythology is not clear on their origin. Sometimes Mawu is said to have been produced by Se or Segbo, an abstract term for creator, but he is also called Se himself (ibid., p. 218). Most often, however, it is thought that the present Mawu was brought forth by a higher divinity, Nana Buluku, who, having given birth, retired and took no further part in formation. As in the case of Olodumare, Nana Buluku is not publicly worshipped.
Mawu-Lisa are assisted in their efforts by the serpent Da. This remarkable reptile is not a god himself but a force of life, equivalent to the progenitor of Olodumare, though he plays a far more important role in the myth. Da existed before Mawu, even before Se. This is only natural since Da is eternal motion itself. When the creation processes begin, Da in his chief manifestation as Ayido Hwedo, the Rainbow, gives birth to all the other Da. As Ayido Hwedo he also coils himself around inchoate earth, to enable it to be "gathered together," (ibid., p.220) and when the creation of earth is accomplished, he encircles it to keep it firm, the number of coils being 3,500 below the earth and 3,500 above. He likewise keeps the sun moving as well as the sky, the abode of the gods, and a cessation of these labors would mean the end of everything. How much he assisted Mawu is shown by the story in which he carried Mawu in his mouth wherever she went when she was creating the 'world.' Yet in all this, Da did not take the leading part, for as one Dahomean phrased it: "Da is life and Mawu is thought" (ibid., p. 221.) If we are reminded here of the old Tibetan saying "Fohat is the steed and Thought is the rider," it is not surprising, for the mythical force of the Fon is none other than Fohat.
This cosmic energy, in the words of H. P. Blavatsky " . . . Thrilling through the bosom of inert Substance. . . . impels it to activity, and guides its primary differentiations on all the Seven planes of Cosmic Consciousness." (H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:328.) "It is through Fohat that the ideas of the Universal Mind are impressed upon Matter. " (Ibid., I, 85.) Like Da who differentiated into the seven colors of the rainbow, Fohat is divisible into seven principles, and "has seven sons who are his brothers," (ibid., I, 145) and these seven Das or seven sons of Fohat, in turn, are the origin of such energies as electricity, magnetism, cohesion, gravity, etc. For in its myriad aspects this vital force keeps alive the organic whole that is a universe. As for Ayido Hwedo encircling earth, one is reminded of the twins Poqanghoya and Palongawhoya of the American Hopi Indians, fulfilling the same function of keeping our globe spinning, symbolic of energies which enter at the North Pole and go "through the center of the earth, while other parts sweep around or over its surface, but always from north to south." (G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 308.) That the sum of the two units of 3,500 coils results in a figure in which 7 is the main component, suggests that the Fon were acquainted with the ancient wisdom teachings of the septenary nature of the universe.
In the Southern Sudan the Dinka in their description of the beginnings tell how originally sky and earth were very close together. So close were they that people had to be careful lest they hit the sky with their hoes when planting, or with their pestles when pounding their millet — of which they received just one grain a day, yet this was enough for them to live on. But one time a greedy woman planted or pounded more than her allotment, and in her eagerness lifted her tool too high and struck the sky god. Not possessed of divine patience, the deity was most annoyed and retired to his present distance from earth. Then hunger, sickness and death began to plague the people who had lived happily before that. Substantially the same story is found in all parts of Africa. The Akan of the Gold Coast put the blame for this dire event on a great number of individuals, who had developed such rude habits as wiping their dirty hands on the sky, while one woman, whenever she felt hungry, would boldly tear off a piece and eat it.
The myth deals with two aspects, widely apart in time. The 'separation' refers primarily to the earliest stages before even the three Logoi had become active. For at the end of the previous period of manifestation, when the universe had withdrawn within itself, matter and spirit had become one. After long aeons of rest, however, they again had to separate' into two distinct elements, whereby a felicitous condition of unity inevitably came to an end. This is symbolized by the change from happiness and security to distress on the part of those who 'offended' divinity. At the same time the myth alludes to an era when gods and men mingled freely and there was no suffering or death. But when humanity 'fell into matter,' or became self-conscious, the gods retreated, whereupon ills, evils and ailments became the common lot. Nature itself was affected: the climate turned harsh and, as the Bible expresses it, man henceforth had to eat bread in the sweat of his face.
For many African nations this is the entire explanation of primordial events. The Akan doctrines, in addition, tell that the manifested universe (or "the Thing") was the work of Onyame, Onyankopon and Odomankoma, or three Logoi. Onyame is the Supreme Being, "eternal and infinite, self-begotten, self-produced and self-born." (Eva L. R. Meyerowityz, The Sacred State of the Akan, p. 69.) Onyankopon is the "greater" Nyame — greater here indicating that he is more manifest than Onyame. In their mythology and folklore he is personified as Ananse, the Spider, who is always extremely clever and teaches man the arts and sciences. Odomankoma, "The Infinitely Manifold God," (J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, p. 61.) is also called Borebore, the excavator, carver and architect. An Akan song sums up the whole process of creation in a quaint little nutshell, in which Onyame is designated as "Hearing," meaning speech or word (Logos):
Who gave word, Who gave word, Who gave word?
Who gave word to Hearing,
For Hearing to have told Ananse,
For Ananse to have told Odomankoma,
For Odomankoma to have made the Thing? — Ibid., p. 44.
An interesting description of primordial utter darkness and the first stirrings of desire in "the Bosom of IT," as the Stanzas of Dzyan put it, comes from South Africa. Vusamazulu C. Mutwa, a Zulu by birth, in the early 1960s wrote down his knowledge of ancestral lore, learned chiefly from his mother's father, a guardian of the tribe's history and custodian of its relics. The result is a fascinating blend of tradition and history in fiction clothing, starting with the Zulu concept of the creation:
No stars were there — no sun,
Neither moon nor earth —
Nothing existed but darkness itself —
A darkness everywhere.
Nothing existed but nothingness,
A nothingness neither hot nor cold,
Dead nor Alive — . . . .
Nothingness had been floating
For no one knows how long,
Upon the invisible waters of Time —
That mighty River with
Neither source nor mouth, . . .
Then one day —
Or is it right to say 'one day'?
The River Time desired Nothingness
Like a flesh-and-blood male beast
Desires his female partner.
And as a result of this strangest mating
Of Time and Nothingness,
A most tiny nigh invisible spark
Of living Fire was born. . . .
There was nothing for the spark to feed upon and grow
So it fed upon itself
And grew in size until at last its mother Nothingness
Became aware of its unwelcome presence
And decided to destroy it. — Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa,, Indaba, My Children, p. 3.
But light prevailed over darkness and the Living Spark, now equal in size to the Mother, devoured her. Then irate River of Time sends Spirit of Cold and a battle ensues between heat and cold, which will go on until the end of time, although temporarily the Spark won. From the ashes that were its battlewounds, by the wish of the Great Spirit, the Great Mother Ma created herself — another life-giving Isis.
Beyond all beginnings lies the Unknowable, and universal tradition says little more than that It breathes out worlds, solar systems and galaxies and gathers them in again, and nothing that was is any more. Too sublime for mortals' comprehension, the ancients did not deem it appropriate for man to contemplate the nature of THAT. Laurens van der Post relates that when he pressed his Bushman informants to talk about the earliest origins, they seemed to lose their ability to speak, until one night his favorite hunter, upset at his persistence, told him: "But you see, it is very difficult, for always there is a dream dreaming us" (The Heart of the Hunter, p. 139.) His answer, in its simplicity, brings us as close to the truth as we will be for a long time to come.
(From Sunrise magazine, November, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)