So, humans are primarily driven by their physical instincts of survival and procreation, by some aggression, and by the mental sense of community, and morality. But there is more to human life than that, again a human feature that by far surpasses what we find in any animal regarding its intelligence, cognition and consciousness: The metaphysical sense of spirituality.
Beyond the plant and animal life of the environment, Homo sapiens observed the movements, the vibrations, and the flow of the world around him: The infinite ether of the universe with the interchange of the sun and the moon and the stars. Recently, my wife and I spent a few days at the renowned ‘Mount Kenya Safari Club’ on the western slopes of Mount Kenya. I have never denied the privileges of retirement in Kenya. On the way to our bungalow after a steak and a bottle of wine for dinner, the nightly firmament above the skyline of the Mountain overwhelmed me. I had to stay outside and look and look and ponder. I wanted to reach for the stars and, had I not vaguely remembered something along the lines of Galileo Galilei, Newton’s famous falling apple and gravity, light and energy, Einstein’s relativity, matter, space and time, quantum physics and the Big Bang, I would not have escaped the spell of that nightly sky.
I know that the Big Bang is not an event but only a theory based on the laws of physics and some empirical evidence. And complicated as it is, the Big Bang Theory is not only challenged by physicists and philosophers, but also by a geeky, goofy television show. One of the weak points of the theory is that, as soon as you ask what was there before the Big Bang, you are referred to metaphysics. Metaphysics is what there is over and beyond physics.
With growing cognition and consciousness, Homo sapiens started asking the question of where the world came from. There were neither physics nor television shows to give possible cues. Spontaneously, he created myths. A myth is basically a story or a tale, in modern English, a ‘symbolic narrative’. And whether the story is based on physics, facts and true events or is a product of imagination and belief does not really matter, because it is the meaning that counts. Myth brings meaning and truth to cognition and is, as such, the path to spirituality, the mental realm beyond the known and observable. Short, the advantage of myth over physics is that it includes the metaphysical part. And just to close the spiritual circle back to physics: A ‘black hole’ in the universe is defined as a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that matter, space, and time come to an end and the known laws of physics are suspended. When the scientists finally captured a black hole on a photo, they gave it a name from Hawaiian mythology meaning something like ‘profound dark source of unending creation’.
Homo erectus had used his brain to optimally adapt his behavior to nature for his best survival and procreation. But with his consciousness and brainpower, Homo sapiens began adapting his environment to his needs and desires. He reversed the power of nature over humans to the power of humans over nature. And this marks the beginning of the fundamental questions of human nature and the human condition, philosophy. Homo sapiens observed, tried to understand, and expressed his findings and questions about the world and his place in it. In the beginning, his knowledge, his mental data base, was modest, and much about nature and himself remained unknown. Yet, he experienced himself as part of this mysterious cosmos and, despite mastering some physical aspects of life, he felt connected to it with a sense of wonderment and awe. And this ‘otherworld’ of the unknown and its order was the sphere of feelings and beliefs, the sacred realm of gods and spirits. The gods and spirits were Homo sapiens’ default solution for all the questions about nature and himself to which he had no answer. This is how he discovered spirituality and found his soul. And he formulated this spiritual resolution of existential human questions in stories, legends, and myths. As we still do today.
Homo sapiens observed the cycles of day and night, of the seasons, and of life and death. He made attempts to understand how life had come to himself, to the animals and to the forest he lived in. He saw that all life was exposed to the sometimes threatening and sometimes peaceable forces of water, earth, wind and fire. He saw chaos and order. For his survival, he had domesticated fire and learned to use it to his advantage but uncontrolled, it remained a threatening force. He lived in caves and had built temporary shelters, but he was still exposed to the weather with the wind, thunder and lightning, and the rain. There were floods and there were droughts and he had understood that water gives life to the fauna and flora that surround him. The forest was dark and impenetrable, and the fruit of some plants were poisonous, and some wild animals, like the crocodiles, were after him. Thanks to cognition and consciousness for the first time in human evolution, Homo sapiens mused about this world, its origin and fundamental order, the forces at play, and his own role in it. The natural phenomena he observed were mysterious, spirited, and divine. Locked in a sacred trinity of humans, nature, and spirits, everything humans saw in and under the sky was animate beings like themselves who were all agents of a distinct spiritual reality. Animism is ad hoc, unstructured, and unorganized, but it is, in fact, the world’s oldest religion.
I first learned of the fanciful and fantastic African stories of humans, animals, nature, and spirits in the vast and sprawling jungle of the Congo, when I was in Kinshasa in the early eighties. These were stories of chaos and order, and of the origin of the world and of man. They represent an invaluable heritage of African mythology and one of the deepest creation myths I know, is Congolese: In the beginning, a spider was hanging on its thread between the sky and the water. It told the primeval god above that they were alone and that they must create earth. God agreed and with some of his hair, some substance from his brain, a pebble and water, he formed an egg. He gave the egg to the spider who lowered it to the water. When the egg became hot, god put sperm on it and when the egg cracked, three gods were in it; the leading good god, the sister of god and the brother of god, a creator of evil. The primeval god and the spider left the three gods alone in their egg. Beyond their egg, the three saw only water and some raffia fiber floating on it. The good god wove the raffia into a cross. He then took some of his hair and some substance from his brain and rolled them into a ball. He blew over the ball and thus created termites and worms which he dispersed in all four directions of the cross. Their droppings created the earth which grew out of the water. At first the earth was soft and when it hardened, the three gods left the eggshell and stepped on it. The good god then planted the raffia cross, out of which grew the raffia tree, and then he created man.
Why are we still asking the hen-or-the-egg-question? Mythology has long given us the answer. The world egg or, as it is often called, the cosmic egg from which a primordial being hatches and brings life to earth is a motif found in mythology all around the world. Whereas the raffia cross is not the same symbol as the Christian cross which stands for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The raffia cross of the Congolese myth is older and, in many aspects, also universal. It gives the four directions in a binary and circular world, the four stages of human life: The East is the rising of the sun, the beginning, birth and rebirth. The North is the zenith of the sun in the sky, the gods, eternal light, waking consciousness, maturity, and world reality. The North is male. The West is the setting sun, handing on, death and transformation. The South is the otherworld reality, the force of life in the earth and death, the ancestors, and spirits, dreaming consciousness, and the moonlight – reflecting the light of sun. The South is the underworld of Mother Earth, the pool of all unborn life on earth, the womb of life – female. In other African myths, the supreme being that creates the order of the universe does not come out of the cosmic egg, it come out of a hole in the ground, out of a rock or out of a mountain. The raffia tree and any other tree of life has its roots in Mother Earth and its top in the sky where the sun and the gods reside.
The raffia cross shows us the world and human life as always organized in two opposite parts: The sun and the moon, birth and death, waking and dreaming, male and female. And the spiritual circle of life around them connects these opposites and makes both of them part of the whole. The binary opposites in this mythological figure are not in opposition to each other, they are complementary counterparts, one of which does not make sense to human understanding without the other. The system in which they differentiate, interact, and complement each other is the sacred unity of nature, humans, and spirits. As to the humans, mythology attributes different roles in life to the man and to the woman. The Congolese traced the cross and the circle around it into the ground and used it for their initiation rites, introducing young men and young women into the spiritual cycle of life, as adults. From there on, they were expected to contribute to survival and procreation and follow the rules of the community, according to their male or female sex.
In mythology, the grown woman manifests life through her body and sheer being, shown best through her monthly menstruation and her existential capacity of giving birth. Being herself the source of life, she can surrender to the energies of nature that are bestowed on her. The woman may struggle with the gods she comes by, but she will always preserve her natural gift of creation. The grown man has no bodily experience of creation. He will strive to acquire knowledge of it, but it will always remain external to him. That is why the man will be more venturesome, he must struggle for the goddesses he desires.
Heaven and earth, the gods and humans, animals, and plants, particularly the trees, remained close and connected in this sacred unity for a long time. But then, by a quarrel or merely a squabble, by defiance of man, by an error, or by fate, a severance occurs and the connection of the humans to the gods and spirits is broken. The unity, the agreement between heaven and earth, is lost. Death comes to the world and with death, the harsh reality of consciousness sets in.
From the Bantu in Central and the Akan in West Africa to the Egyptians and Berber in North Africa and from the Zulu populations in the South to the Somali people in the Horn of Africa, there are thousands of African population groups brought and held together by their common myths and the languages they are told in. With such diversity, the stories and their contexts will vary, but many motifs appear throughout Africa. And most always the myths’ meanings are the same. In Sudan, in the beginning only animals inhabited the earth. One day, a weaverbird flew into the sky and fixed a rope to it. The humans descended from heaven to earth on that rope. In Nigeria, the Supreme Being sent the first man and his wife, the mother of all people, to earth on a rope. When people got old, they would climb back into heaven by that rope. In Uganda however, the rope was bitten through by a hyena and all human efforts to replace it by a bamboo tower failed. Since then, old people die. In Ghana, the sky used to be so close to the earth that the women would bump it with their pestle while pounding the grain in their mortar. This annoyed the gods so much that they retracted into the sky beyond human reach. In the Congo, a spirit who had close relations with humans, after a quarrel hid in the forest and was never seen again.
And finally, this story: Thunder, an elephant and man descended from the sky to earth. Man was impressed with the elephant and fearful of thunder. And when thunder and the elephant discovered that man could change from lying on one side to the other in his sleep without awaking and having to get on his feet, they began to mistrust him. Thunder decided to go back into the sky and asked the elephant whether he would join him. The elephant declined, arguing that the human was, after all, only a small creature. But then man broke the sacred unity and started hunting the elephant. The elephant stretched its trunk into the sky and asked thunder to allow it back. Thunder replied that it was now too late. Since then, humans have been hunting the elephant and all the other animals on earth. But they are still afraid when thunder rumbles and rolls in the sky.