“The Yoruba live in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin and are responsible for one of Africa’s oldest and most dynamic artistic traditions. Its origins are traced to the ancient city-state of Ile-Ife, famous for exquisitely refined and naturalistic sculptural forms in terracotta and stone created before A.D. 1100.” Articles on oriki (praise poetry), a Yoruba creation story; excerpts from the film Efe/Gelede Ceremonies among the Western Yoruba, by Henry John Drewal; Map. [KF] http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/YORUBA/HTM/main_fs.htm
In the beginning of time the earth was a desolate marsh, a watery waste. The gods who lived in the sky sometimes came down to play in the marshy waste by descending spider webs that draped from the sky like lacy bridges. But there were no people, because there was no hard ground on which they could put their feet.
One day, Olorun, the Owner of the Sky and the Supreme Being, called the chief of the divinities, the Great God Orisha Nla, to come to him. Handing Orisha Nla a snail shell, Olorun said, “Take this shell and create firm ground on the earth below us.” Orisha Nla looked in the snail shell and saw some loose dirt, a pigeon, and a hen with five toes.
The Great God slid down to the marshy waste on one of the spider-web bridges. He tossed the dirt from the shell onto a small section of the watery earth. Then he set the pigeon and the hen down on top of the dirt, where they began to scratch and scratch. Soon they had spread the dirt over a large portion of the marsh and had created solid ground.
“I have done as you commanded, Olorun,” Orisha Nla reported to the Supreme Being. “I have created solid ground on the marshy waste.”
Olorun sent Chameleon to inspect the earth and see if it was really solid and true. Slowly and carefully, Chameleon descended the silky spider-web bridge. Then he slowly walked over the solid ground and rolled his eyes around, taking in everything. His color slowly changed from blue like the sky to the brown of the land. Then he reported to Olorun, “The earth is wide, but it is not dry enough.”
“Go down again,” Olorun said, “and see if the land is both wide and dry.”
Slowly Chameleon descended the spider-web bridge and walked over the land a second time. This time he reported that the land was both wide and dry.
Olorun named the land Ifé, which means “wide” and later added the word Ilé, which means “house.” This would be the house from which all other houses would originate. The city of Ilé-Ifé, the sacred city of the Yoruba, still stands today.
It took four days to create the earth, and on the fifth day the Great God was to be worshiped as its creator. But Olorun was not finished. Calling Orisha Nla, the Great God, to him again, Olorun said, “Plant trees for the humans I will create, to nourish them and to give them wealth.” He gave the Great God a palm nut that would provide the humans with oil and juice for drinking, and seeds for three other trees. When the Great God was finished planting, rain fell and the trees flourished.
“Now I want you to mold figures from the earth and bring them to me so that I may give them life,” Olorun told Orisha Nla. The Great God did as he was told, but he was jealous of the life-giving powers that Olorun alone could bestow on the mud figures.
“Tonight I will hide behind the figures and discover how Olorun brings them to life,” Orisha Nla thought to himself. But Olorun knew everything. He knew what Orisha Nla was thinking and what he had planned, and he sent him into a deep sleep. When the Great God finally awoke from his slumber, Olorun had already given life to the humans, and he had missed it.
To this day, Orisha Nla, the Great God, still makes only the bodies and heads of humans. But he cannot give them life, and he sometimes leaves marks on their bodies to show how unhappy he is.