As their union with nature and the gods and spirits was broken, humans continued roaming the forests and plains, hunting and gathering. But something essential, a sacred dimension of their life and the world around them, was missing: That spiritual sense of being part something bigger than just the here and now. Humans felt that the spirits were still there, they were powerful and beyond the humans’ known and observable world, they were running the universe. Homo sapiens had to find a way to reconnect with the gods and the spirits. This was in their interest because there were good spirits and there were bad spirits. They could help humans or harm them. So, humans started turning their minds on the metaphysical space in which the gods and the spirits reside. It was distinct from their own world, but by performing chants and rituals, prayers, and sacrifice, they found a way of communicating with them. And in this spiritual realm, humans once again found their place in the cosmos, were part of a bigger order and could reconcile themselves with the gods and spirits, and themselves.

As communities organized and defined different social functions, some people specialized in performing magic, enchantments, spells, and curses. These intermediaries could open for communities and for individuals the door to the spiritual world and communicate with the gods and spirits. Today we call them witches, sorcerers, or priests. They knew how to read the signs of the spirits and influence their deeds in the real world. Today we call it witchcraft. Or religion. For this same purpose, they would also hallow for their clients certain objects. Homo sapiens was also ‘habilis’ and had already invented tools that gave him a comparative advantage in the business of survival. They now created mojos, amulets, talismans, statuettes – fetishes – to assist people in their appeal to the gods and spirits, be it for protection or for favor. Archaeological finds of such artifacts along the paths of humans’ migrations and at sites of their settlements throughout Africa assert this.

The belief in spirits and witchcraft, and supernatural events or myths, reaches all the way into our present, post-modern times: The spider we met in the Congolese creation myth as a lesser deity is found throughout Africa. In Ghana, the spider is called Anansi and can be the creation deity itself, a lesser deity who interacts with the supreme being and other gods and spirits or just a trickster upon whom temporary supernatural powers are bestowed. As a trickster, Anansi has secret knowledge and this allows it to outwit anyone, play tricks, disobey rules, and engage in transgressions of normal behavior. The spider Anansi from Ghana is the best-known trickster of African mythology. With the slaves from West Africa, Anansi travelled to the Caribbean and to America. Anansi showed the slaves how to resist and prevail in their predicament, it gave them a sense of continuity with their African origin and helped them transform and assert their identity. To this day, children in Ghana are brought up on spider tales. And the spider adorns the ‘matatu’, the minibus-share-taxis of Nairobi. The driver and the conductor of the matatu are tricksters. Flouting the driving laws on the road and the rules of mannered behavior in the matatu, they create a conspired community and assert the passengers that they can outwit and overcome the adversities of modern urban life. On the matatus, instead of the spider sometimes Spiderman is depicted. Same story: Spiderman is an urban American version of the mythical trickster; out of the comic books of the sixties, he is today a superhero in the movies.

In politics and sports: In the Kenyan elections of 2017, a candidate for a seat in a County Assembly hired a sorcerer to perform a ‘juju’ for him to win the election. Like Voodoo, a ‘juju’ is a West African enchantment using bewitched objects and actions for a positive effect. The renowned sorcerer, who had inherited the witchcraft from his father, had the candidate smear himself with the blood of a monkey and dance in the garden with only the skin of the monkey around his waist. The candidate won the election. But his losing opponent went to court, accusing him of having used witchcraft to win. The sorcerer appeared in court as a witness for the opponent because his winning client had not paid the agreed price for his services. On his smartphone, he had video evidence of the charm he had performed. In the judgement of the court, however, any influence of witchcraft on the election results was formally ruled out. But due to manipulations at the voting station, as the court found, the bewitched candidate still lost, and the contested seat went to by-elections.

Around the same time, in Latvia in the far North of Europe, the prestigious Ice Hockey Club Dinamo Riga was stuck in a lasting losing streak. The management was under pressure and had to find a reason or someone to blame. They found it in their mascot. This was an unknown fan disguised and masked as the popular witch ‘Ragana’ with the trident of Poseidon, who attended every home game in the stands. In the eyes of the club management, Ragana had lost her ‘juju’ and was harming the team rather than helping it. She was banned from the stadium. The fans were in uproar and protested but the management stood firm. Without Ragana, Dinamo Riga continued losing and finished the 2017/2018 season 13th of the league. Spirits are still in the mix of everyday life, in Africa and all around the world.

In high school in 1967, I was one of the first to have the debut album ‘Fresh Cream’ by the new super group of Eric Clapton, ‘Cream’. I carried it to school repeatedly, just to make sure that everybody saw that I had it and to make my statement of belonging to those progressive students who believed that this music – blues-based psychedelic rock – was changing the world and making life as it was meant to be. I had known and admired Eric Clapton while he was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he played the lead guitar. Through John Mayall – and the Rolling Stones –, I had discovered the blues; the city blues of Chicago, the blues of the Mississippi Delta and behind it all, the Rhythm’n’Blues and Jazz of New Orleans. Like rituals, this music opened to me a spiritual space beyond the material world. And now with Cream, Eric Clapton had transcended that. He had not only captured my own imagination. In London, one of his fans had also understood. In a graffiti he sprayed on a wall, “Clapton is God”.

Cream did not last for more than two years, but the guitar hero’s life journey had begun. For years, Eric Clapton hid from his fame in bands with inconspicuous names like ‘Delaney & Bonnie’ or ‘Derek and the Dominos’. The unrequited love of his life to the wife of his friend, George Harrison of the Beatles, devastated him. He slipped into heroin addiction and later, alcohol. He had barely cleaned up his act and reemerged in the late eighties, as his five-year-old son fell from a window of a New York high-rise apartment building. After success and fame, the journey took Clapton through unknown solitude and loss, he encountered the dark forces of life, went through the abyss, and transformed. This is the mythical figure of the dying and resurrecting hero. In his return he was still the guitar hero but now also a singer and composer. This was his victory, and his atonement was his music, the healing power of the blues. Along the way, he had composed and recorded the ballad ‘Layla’ to overcome his impossible love and the song ‘Tears in Heaven’ to redress the loss of his son. And to this day, he continues to bestow the boon of his music on any listener ready to venture into that magical space of spiritual understanding of existence and human life. If not God, then Eric Clapton is certainly a legend of the blues guitar.

In general, our times are a dire era for legends and myths because we don’t tell stories anymore. We write. Hardly anymore. Letters have long been replaced by fleeting emails. And worse, normally, we only text or tweet on our smartphones. But make no mistake, myths and legends are still alive and kicking. They have been around Homo sapiens for thousands of years and, when it comes to survival, they have learned a thing or two from us. As their natural habitat of stories-telling died away, they moved into comic books and from there into the world of motion pictures.

My wife and I have a disagreement. On Sunday evenings, we have a decades-old regular program of ‘run at six, dinner at eight, movie at ten’. There are exceptions to this program, like when Liverpool gets to play the late afternoon game, which, due to the time difference, is on in the evening in Nairobi. The run is for me only, or I should say was, because for the last few years I can’t run anymore. Nowadays, I walk the dog and do yoga and some exercise. For dinner we normally go out and for the movie we watch a DVD. I know that we could stream films from the internet but then, what would I do with my DVD collection. Yes, there is a number of King Kong and Tarzan films in it. But there is also the complete set of the James Bond movies. And this is where we disagree: Bilha sees Roger Moore as the best actor to play James Bond. For me, it’s Sean Connery, Sean Connery IS James Bond. But I do attest that there is one scene in which Roger Moore is worthy of James Bond: In ‘Live and Let Die’ he is left on a small island in a crocodile infested pond, to be fed by the crocodiles. As they close in on him, his crocodile brain tells him to flee, and his cortex tells him to use the crocodile’s backs as steppingstones for his escape route until he reaches the bank of the pond. Now, this is a decent stunt, but the question is, do things like that make James Bond god-like enough for him to become a mythical figure? Or is he just a prodigious, suave, and witty problem solver? Whatever.

Superman, on the other hand, is a perfect mythical character: His being sent to earth as a baby from the faraway planet of Krypton; his adoption and upbringing as an ordinary human in rural America; the contrast of his god-like might and his vulnerability to Kryptonite, an element of his home planet which exploded; his supernatural powers and the resolve to use them to fight evil on Earth; his ordinary life as Clark Kent and his job as an undistinguished journalist in the city of Metropolis; his secret transformation from Clark Kent into Superman before he goes into action; his romance as Kent Clark with Lois Lane, who – at first – does not know that he is Superman; and his eternal struggle against Lex Luthor, the genius master of all evil in the universe. Superman’s stories have run in comic books, since 1938. On television, Superman started in the fifties, the first half of the series still being in black-and-white. In four big screen films in the seventies and eighties, Superman launched his career as a movie star. And today he is the main hero of the ‘Justice League’, where he teams up with other mythic characters such as Aquaman, Batman, The Flash, Cyborg – all men with their own specialty of supernatural powers – and Wonder Woman. Going from the comic books to television to film and, of last, to video games, Superman’s stories of his eternal fight against evil on Earth have made of him a modern myth – and one of the most lucrative superhero franchises of the entertainment industry.

Myths and legends are very much older than the movement of feminism and, overall, powerful male gods clearly outnumber the goddesses. Yet, there are many amazing women, heroines and goddesses in mythology who wield authority and power over natural forces and human destiny. Their sensuality and reproductive powers allow them to control death and birth or even rebirth, fertility, and immortality. Human men, aware of their own limitations in this field, are intimidated by them and revere them with utmost esteem. But as much as male mythical characters have thrived in the entertainment industry of our present times, female characters struggle.

This brings me to Wonder Woman. She has been featured in her own comics almost continuously, since 1942. Her home is a mysterious island at the edge of the known world, where amongst the Amazons who live there, she is Princess Diana. Her alias in our world is that name turned around, Diana Prince. She is a strong and beautiful woman and, although she shows some affection for an army pilot friend of hers, she is asexual. Some say that in her relations with her girlfriends, there were lesbian undertones. In the ‘Justice League’ Wonder Woman easily mans up with her male peers and in her own film of 2017 she supersedes, with a touch of irony, all the men on the side of whom she fights the evil of the world. However, denying her femininity, the attractive Wonder Woman remains just another superhuman fighter. Already the follow-up film, ‘Wonder Woman 1984’, flopped. Should the producers envisage another sequel, I advise them to take a cue from the goddesses and female legends of the past who hold and use those intimidating female powers. – And while we’re at it, I also suggest that before they are published, the findings of gender studies be checked against the deeper truths of mythology.

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