Mythology – the foundation of history
‘Gods and heroes’ Book 1 of the ‘Itan – legends of the golden age’ series was deliberately written to place the myths and legends of the Yoruba people on a pedestal that can be viewed alongside the notable stories of Greek heroes, Hebrew patriarchs and Norse gods that the world has become so familiar with. “Why can’t we Yorubas,” I asked myself, “have a written epic of our own that would be compared to the epics of Europe such as Mallory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ which gave us the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
But since the very object of my book was to instill knowledge and pride in the ancient history of the Yoruba people, someone might ask, “What is the relevance or relationship between myth and actual history.”
History, as we all know, is the record of past events, or at least the remembrance of actual events. It does not matter if these records or remembrances are not always accurate. Myths on the other hand, are products of the imagination. In the crudest sense, they are made-up stories to explain things we see around us to our children. They are the devices by which every race or tribe that ever existed on the face of the earth, account for events and natural forces in their lives, such as the seasons, the action of the gods, and important philosophical and religious concepts as where their ancestors came from and the nature of the after-life. For most people, early in their existence, myths are told to give a sense of identity to members of a tribe, to give them pride in their unique past and a hope that those who had gone before – and their deities - would continue to guide them.
In this regard, the Yoruba creation story of Olorun sending Obatala down a very long rope from the Sky to create the Earth is no different from other myths of Creation from around the world. Certainly, it is no more fantastic or unrealistic than the Hebrew story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. What is important is that the imagination and inventiveness of our ancestors have created an ambience of continuity and exclusivity that made Yorubas through the ages to have a sense of a common descent through Oduduwa and a special place in a world in which they are told that their ancestral homeland of Ile-Ife was the first place on earth created by the gods for the habitation of Mankind.
Why is this important? From this early mythology of the creation of Earth from Ile-Ife, and the migration of Oduduwa from a distant land to the east, the subsequent history of our heroes and heroines – Oranmiyan, Moremi and Sango -, the wars of conquest and the formation of the city states of Yorubaland, Ile-Ife, Oyo, Owu, Sabe and Ketu, had more meaning and relevance in the lives of later inhabitants of those places. In this, the Yorubas are following the example of other nations of antiquity. The first recorded history of the Greek and Hellenic people was written almost 3 thousand years ago by Herodotus, who for his efforts, has been called ‘the father of history” As in the story of the Yorubas, the earliest parts of his narrative are based on the mythological origins of the gods and heroes of the Greek people.
Thus, mythology gives meaning to history. We cannot under the history of the Yorubas without exploring their mythology. This what ‘Gods and heroes’ has done with its blend of myth, history and fiction.
"When gods walked the earth" oil on canvas by Chinedu, based on Dipo Alao's chapter illustration in book 'Gods and heroes.'