All of the elements attributed to classical drama are present in traditional Yoruba folktales: setting, mood, a colorful cast of characters, some intervening dilemma or an ethical contrast between good and bad, honor and disgrace, or, in these three tales, truth and deception through the prism of craftsmanship and creation. In each, things are not always as they seem!
Tale 1: The Head
There is a certain country where the inhabitants have heads but no bodies. The Heads move about by jumping along the ground, but they never go very far.
One of the Heads desired to see the world, so he set out one morning secretly. When he had gone some distance, he saw an old woman looking out of the door of a hut, and he asked her if she would kindly lend him a body. The old woman willingly lent him the body of her slave, and the Head thanked her and went on his way.
Later he came upon a young man sleeping under a tree, and asked him if he would kindly lend him a pair of arms, as he did not appear to be using them. The young man agreed, and the Head thanked him and went on his way.
Later still he reached a river-bank where fishermen sat singing and mending their cone-shaped net. The Head asked if any one of them would lend him a pair of legs, as they were all sitting and not walking. One of the fishermen agreed, and the Head thanked him and went on his way.
But now he had legs, arms, and a body, and so appeared like any other man.
In the evening he reached a town and saw maidens dancing while the onlookers threw coins to those they favoured. The Head threw all his coins to one of the dancers, and she so much admired his handsome form that she consented to marry him and go to live with him in his own country.
Next day they set out, but when they came to the river-bank, the stranger took off his legs and gave them back to the fisherman. Later they reached the young man, who still lay sleeping under the tree, and to him the Head gave back his arms. Finally they came to the cottage, where the old woman stood watching, and here the stranger gave up his body.
When the bride saw that her husband was merely a Head, she was filled with horror, and ran away as fast as she could go.
Now that the Head had neither body, arms, nor legs, he could not overtake her, and so lost her for ever.1
Tale 2: Oluronbi
In a certain village no children had been born for many years, and the people were greatly distressed.
At last all the women of the village went together into the forest, to the magic tree, the Iroko, and implored the spirit of the tree to help them.
The Iroko-man asked what gifts they would bring if he consented to help them, and the women eagerly promised him corn, yams, fruit, goats, and sheep; but Oluronbi, the young wife of a wood-carver, promised to bring her first child.
In due course children came to the village, and the most beautiful of all the children was the one born to Oluronbi. She and her husband so greatly loved their child that they could not consent to give it up to the Iroko-man.
The other women took their promised gifts of corn, yams, fruit, goats, and sheep; but Oluronbi took nothing to propitiate the tree.
Alas! one day as Oluronbi passed through the forest, the Iroko-man seized her and changed her into a small brown bird, which sat on the branches of the tree and plaintively sang:
“One promised a sheep,
One promised a goat,
One promised fruit,
But Oluronbi promised her child.”
When the wood-carver heard the bird’s song, he realized what had happened, and tried to find some means of regaining his wife.
After thinking for many days, he began to carve a large wooden doll, like a real child in size and appearance, and with a small gold chain round its neck. Covering it with a beautiful native cloth, he laid it at the foot of the tree. The Iroko-man thought that this was Oluronbi’s child, so he transformed the little bird once more into a woman and snatched up the child into the branches.
Oluronbi joyfully returned home, and was careful never to stray into the forest again.1
Tale 3: The Ten Goldsmiths
A goldsmith in a small village had ten sons, to all of whom he taught his trade. In time they became skilful craftsmen, and when the old man was dying he called the ten around him and addressed them thus:
“My sons, in this small village there is certainly not enough work for ten goldsmiths. I have therefore decided that the most skilful of you shall remain here in my place, while the rest must go out into the world and seek their fortunes elsewhere.”
At this all the sons exclaimed that the plan was good, but who was to say which of them was the most skilful? The old man smiled and answered:
“I have thought of this also. I shall allow you all a month in which to make some article of gold, and at the end of that time I will judge which has been most skilfully executed.”
The ten sons immediately set to work to fashion some article, and all displayed great industry during the allotted space of time. At the end of the month they came to their father, as he lay dying on the ground, and placed before him the articles they had made.
One had made a chain of fine gold, every link of which was the perfect shape of an elephant; another had made a knife, beautifully ornamented; another a little casket; another a ring representing serpents twisted together, with shining scales; another a water-pot of pleasing shape; and so on.
The old man smiled with pleasure to see what the industry of his sons had accomplished, but when he counted the articles before him, he found there were only nine. When he found that one of his sons had produced nothing, he was angered, especially when this proved to be the eldest son, whom he had secretly thought to be more skilful than his brothers. After bitterly reproaching this son, whose name was Ayo, for his laziness, the father prepared to give his decision on the work of the other brothers; but Ayo suddenly stepped forward and begged him to wait for another hour before making his choice.
“Meanwhile, Father,” said he, “let us sit round the fire all together for the last time, parching corn and telling stories.”
This was how the family spent their time in the rainy season, and all gladly consented.
As they seated themselves upon the ground, the father took up a full ripe ear of corn which lay near him. What was his astonishment when he tried to pick the grains to discover that it was made of gold!
For this was what Ayo had made, and he had prepared a little trick to test the perfection of his work. So skilfully was it executed that all had been deceived, thinking it a real ear of corn, and on this account the father and nine brothers all agreed that Ayo’s work was certainly the best.
Thus Ayo took his father’s place, and the rest set out in different directions to seek their fortune.1
Source and Further Reading
- 1.Ogumefu MI. Yoruba Legends. London, UK: Sheldon Press; 1929. http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/yl/index.htm. Accessed June 3, 2019.