Of Myths And Legends
One day I was invited to present a paper on a certain Abyssinian king who was almost worshipped by the learned and laymen of the conference participants. It was his centenary.
The opening ceremony, which I didn’t attend for some technical reasons, was very vibrant and highly charged, as the first person to present a paper on the said king nearly burst into tears as he extolled his idol in a manner that would make Egyptian pharaohs groan with envy and Roman emperors sigh in vain.
The next day, I marched towards the podium, a bit shaken, with my paper entitled ”Demythologizing X” to inform and perchance convince my audience that the king in question was nothing but a benevolent bandit at best and a robber baron at worst.
Did I make a mistake to bring along a paper whose very title smelled of provocation? Would my irreverence towards the monarch turn out, somehow, to become the cause for a possible disaster for me and for my future career?
After having finished reading my paper to the mysteriously quiet conference participants, I waited for hue and cry from the floor. I was ready to duck flying rotten eggs and cruising banana peels. Anything for insulting their king. Instead, the participants who had shed warm tears for their beloved king the previous day, didn’t now show any sign of wanting to lynch me on the spot. Could it be that they read me wrong? It was then that I began to believe in miracles, especially the one about Daniel in the lions’ den.
I like demystifying and demythologizing people and events. I like to brush the halos and snip the wings that some people are made to wear; for such bedecking and ornamentation tend to dim the light that naturally comes out from the person in question. An ornamented lamp gives but little light.
And that’s what I did with my paper, demystifying the king. At the end of the conference, a well-known professor of history took me aside and told me that I acted more like the devil’s advocate than anything else. The said professor was an authority on the history of the king.
During the armed struggle for the liberation of Eritrea, a lot of brave deeds and superhuman feats have been made and recorded for posterity. And I am proud as Eritrean that nobody in the whole of Africa fought so fiercely and with so much determination and sacrifice to liberate one’s beloved country as did Eritreans. It was flesh and blood on one side, and sulfur and brimstone on the other. That’s why people nearly worshipped the fighters when they entered Asmara triumphantly.
What followed was that for the span of five or six years after liberation, there appeared a column in Hadas Eritrea dedicated to the freedom fighters who remembered. There, individual fighters recounted their war exploits with total abandon. No one questioned the stories’ authenticity. Some columns even read like film thrillers, and what’s more, the enemy was always either pounded into a pulp, fled like an affrighted rabbit, was captured by the thousands, or annihilated without trace.
So one day, one son-of-a-gun sent a letter to the editor and said: If our intention is to extol our heroes for their real bravery, then our enemies should have been portrayed as equally strong as we were. Or were we simply fighting against spineless cowards who didn’t matter at all? In that case the claim we make for being real heroes loses its force and its validity. Secondly, are we sure that there were no chicken-hearted in our midst, like absconders, malingerers, traitors, betrayers, quislings, etc…? We are after all nothing but human beings.
The editor of the newspaper didn’t like the purport of the letter. He wanted to stick to his myth. A myth that led to the famous attribute, namely Yikaalo, the Almighty, who not only mowed his enemy like green grass, but also moved mountains to make roads, resurrected the dead and snatched the mortally wounded from death’s serrated jaws.
War myths are necessary for propaganda, but more often than not they may cross the red line that divides fact from fancy, distorting reality and leading the people to believe in a mystical power of their own imagination. A too much inflated balloon needs only a light prick to cause it to explode in one’s face.
The first thing that parents should know about their new-born baby is that there is nothing unique about him or her, said the famous British wit, Oscar Wilde. We are all mortals with a preordained measure of virtues and vices and a propensity to sin and fall into the level of animals. Man with all his pomp is just like the beasts of the field, says the Good Book.
We look at the heavens and feel how tiny we are. In our dreams we can fly, but just try it on the ground and Mr. Gravity is there to hurl you down to your doom irrespective of you mental or spiritual station. You may swim like a fish in your dream, but in real life, biological constraints dictate that you die of asphyxiation for not being fitted with gills
Man is a paradox of creation in that he is biologically so helpless but mentally so mighty; physically frail, but spiritually strong. This paradox inherent in him causes him to think big, to try and project a larger-than-life image of himself, to blow himself up out of all proportion, and at times to consider himself as god worthy of worship and adoration.
Failing this, man tries to project his own failed image onto people and events past and present, thereby making superhuman beings out of simple mortals like him.
It is therefore this eternal desire of mortal man to be seen as larger-than-life which is the basis for all our mythologies and fairy tales. Hence, we keep on presenting humans as demi-gods with legendary powers and superhuman feats. When you invent your own God, please make sure that he is at least omnipotent enough to fight for you in your hours of extreme fear and trepidation.
Our Eritrean legends about Hans Weddi Zemo, N’gusse Elfu, and Wuba Ferede are partly the product of our unfinished dreams. We like to project, as it were, our inner desire for grandeur and immortality onto situations where we have been made to look too small and too insignificant to matter at all. We create the hero and the valiant out of people who lived and died like simple mortals like you and me with their own measure of fear, trepidation, suspicion, inadequacy and hopelessness.
Hans Weddi Zemo was a simple hunter from a remote Eritrean village. He must have been a sharpshooter and very daring in real life. When he went to the woods to kill an elephant, the legend says that he saw a white pachyderm or perhaps the Devil disguised as an elephant. Although Hans knelt down, aimed and shot at the apparition, he didn’t have the chance to witness what followed after, but simply fainted and then passed out. He must have seen the ugly face of the Evil One.
To-day such circumstances surrounding a sudden death are simply diagnosed as caused by intense fright and total shock. But leave this to man’s fertile mind, and a simple village story that ends ignominiously turns in the end into an epic drama.
The secret behind this is that somehow Han’s exploits was able to catch the people’s imagination, and all of a sudden he becomes a superman, killing lions and serpents. Wait a minute; didn’t he have after all a mystical birth? Didn’t he keep on appearing to people after his death…….? Why not?
N’gusse Elfu was a shrewd feudal pretender if ever there was one (was he our Billy the Kid?). But when he died, he was posthumously given a miraculous birth. His spear and his gun became holy relics. Legend went as far as saying that he died for the sins of man, for man’s treacherous nature and man’s aversion of the noble and mighty. Did he kill a lion? Of course! How about a serpent? You bet.
Wuba Ferede was a simple courtesan (that’s euphemism for a prostitute) who solicited money from the rich and the powerful in feudal Eritrea. Of course she was beautiful, but not to the point that, according to legend, God came down from heaven to admire her beauty, which is a bit of a blasphemy and smarts of Greek mythology.
All these legendary figures had one thing in common. They were all beloved by the populace when they were alive and they died by the hand of a traitor, a coward, a scoundrel. When bold and valiant people are killed by a coward (most of the time through treachery), they become instant heroes.
Of course Wuba died a natural death. But beautiful as she was beyond description, her senility must have been taken as a treacherous killer, in its own right, destroying her good looks and giving her a hideous one instead, long before she breathed her last. It has been said that old prostitutes never die but simply fade away.
Harsh realities of life makes man to find a means of escape, leads him to collective drunkenness or trance. The lost paradise where man could do anything he liked was aborted because of a stupid snake.
The reptilian family of the snake must have terrorized mankind so much in the past that every legendary figure worth his salt killed a snake, a python or a dragon. This had to come about and filter down into the collective unconscious of the race which felt so small and weak before colossal mammoths and fearsome leviathans and yearned for a knight in shining armor to save the day.
Thus mankind found its longing desire in the supermen that it fashioned itself and in fairy tales that it imagined. It was a yarn that was spun over and over for millennia until it became difficult to disentangle and to explain.
When some news travels far and wide in space, it gets distorted on the way with the final result that instead of informing, it misinforms. In the same manner, when a person with human shortcomings and simple hopes and fears is very far removed from us in time and space, his humaneness disappears and he assumes a divine or supernatural aspect, and his sins and shortcomings fade away as the mind inflates him out of all proportion by way of projecting its thirst for might and grandeur onto him.
By demythologizing people, however, it is not intended to belittle their achievements or disparage their qualities. The three legendary figures mentioned above had qualities that simple human beings sigh for in vain. These virtues being there, these people should be seen and judged in a sober and restrained manner without undue embellishment and needless ‘additives’.
All people are not the same. While some evince superhuman endurance and steadfastness before trials and woes, some succumb to minor problems and lead themselves and their followers into shame and ignominy.
What makes men noble or ignoble should be their actions in time of crisis, their steadfastness, their equanimity, generosity, self-sacrifice, altruism, etc. in the hope of making the world a better place to live in.
The problem arises as we try to cover these virtuous souls with all kinds of adornments, ornamentation and embellishments. It is then that we fail to see the forest for the trees. We fail to see the man for the embellishments that we surround him with.
In short, we create a superman, a legendary figure who with the passage of time is made to kill a lion, wrestle with a python and in the end is made to wear a halo or grow wings.
In such a circumstances, the mortal shortcomings, weaknesses and faults that are only too human fade away to bring forward a story that never happened or a person that never was.