It has several times been asserted that death enters into the world as a punishment because men have sinned against God, have been unwise or neglectful. In certain quarters, however, one meets with a totally different thought. Thus L. Frobenius adduces from the Kasai peoples Bena Lulua and Baqua Kabundu Kalambas a myth of the creation in which it is said that Fidi Mukullu created man in such a way that death belonged to his nature ever since the creation. It is then stated in the myth that “Without magic, diseases, knives, lances, war, and death, life would be just eating, drinking, sleeping, digestion. Without death, it is not good.” That death is as a matter of fact actually a good and useful factor in human existence is reflected in some myths concerning the origin of death which are here brought together under the heading “Man desires death…”
…An instance from the Hausa in Tunisia may perhaps not be reckoned as a myth concerning the origin of death in the strict sense of the term, since the myth tells us in the first place why human life is so short. It is so closely akin, at all events, to the myths concerning the origin of death, that it should be given a place in this section. According to the tradition, it was ‘Azrā’īl who “brought early death into the world.” The first people lived for hundreds of years. Thus one virgin had lived for five hundred years before she died. Moses one day found her anklets, which had been taken off before her death, and prayed to Allah that he might be allowed to see the owner. Allah made the woman rise up from the grave, but in the course of her conversation with Moses she bewailed the fact that she had been brought back to life. She had already lived for far too long and had become tired of life. Moses then prayed that Allah might let people die earlier, more especially as they had begun to become too numerous, “so Allah decreed that they should die after some sixty or seventy years, and told Azrael to see to this…”
Among the Dogon, there are…two categories of ancestors: those who lived before death had made its entry into the world of men, and who therefore were and are immortal, and those who lived after the entrance of death, and who were therefore mortal. From the Dogon S. Dieterlen and S. De Ganay communicate, inter alia, the following. When the Dogon lived in the land of Mandé, their ancestor grew so old and infirm that he could not even move when he needed to relieve his bowels or bladder. “Angry [honteux] over his condition, he begged the god Amma to make him die, and this was granted.” People did not know at that time what death was. When thitherto anyone had become old, he had been changed into a snake, and thereupon to the kind of spirit-being that is called Yéban. They believed that the old man was sleeping, and tried to wake him up, but were unsuccessful. When the body began to decompose, they placed it in a hole that they had dug in the earth. The name of the dead man was Lébé. When the Dogon afterwards left Mandé to move to Bandiagara, they resolved to take Lébé’s bones with them. When they opened the grave, they found a snake instead of his remains. The snake followed them on their journey, and was none other than their ancestor Lébé, who had been brought back to life in the form he would have assumed if death had not overthrown the world of men. From the grave they also took with them some earth, of which they made an altar, “which is the beginning of the cult of Lébé, an ancestor who was under a temporary death.” Every tribal group afterwards received a part of this altar, and created a new one in the region chosen by them. “In the course of time, the deaths multiplied, and men paid the souls of their ancestors the deeds which they demanded.”
Also among the Joruba we meet with the notion that men had at one time desired death. A very long time ago people did not die. Instead, they grew to an immense size; but when they became older they shrank, and became as little as children. They were then transformed into stones. “There were not so many old folk crawling around that people the people asked Olorun to free them from life. Olorun agreed, and so the very elderly died.”
According to a tradition among the Bamum, God had created men healthy and strong. He could therefore not understand that many of them suddenly became cold and stiff. One day he met Death, and asked him if it was he who caused this. Death declared that he would show God that the people themselves summoned him. God concealed himself behind a banana-hedge, and Death sat down by the wayside. First came an old, racked slave, who bewailed his lot and said: “Oh, the dead are well off! If only I had never been born!” He immediately fell down dead. The next to come that way was an old woman. She, too, complained about the troubles of life and fell lifeless to the ground. Death then said to God: “Do you see now that she has called for me?” God then went away grieved, since his creatures called upon Death.
Also among the Ngala, men wish to die out of weariness with life’s difficulties. Formerly, there were human beings in heaven. They did not die, nor do they die now. There were also people on earth, and they did not die either. But one day God asked the people on earth: “Would you like to live forever, or live well for awhile and then die?” And the people on earth answered: “We want to die because there are too many bad things in the world!” Since then, men are subject to death.
Among the Korongo, a Nuba tribe, we find over-population as the cause of man’s desire that death should come into the world. At one time, it is said, the country was thickly populated, and the number of inhabitants became constantly greater, for there was neither sickness nor death. “In high spirits, the people began to perform sham funerals, carrying a tree trunk in the funeral procession and burying it with full ceremonial.” But when God saw this, he became angry, and sent sickness and death to men as a punishment for their mockery. Many died. The others grew terrified and fled away to other places.
…the Nuer have a myth according to which God spoke with men and asked them whether they wanted to live for ever or die. The people said to God that the earth was growing full of people, and that it would be better that some should die and make room for those who came after them. And God answered: “Oh! All right!” In the continuation of the myth we are told that on the same day the dog had come to see to the cattle, and had then asked the people in the village whether God had spoken with them, and what he had said. They related what had taken place, and that God had thrown a stone into the river. When the dog was told where this had happened, it dived into the river and came up again with a little stone. “People are always restored by it.”
The Nyamwezi say that originally two people lived on the earth: a man, Kassangiro, and a woman, Mbaela. They got seven children, who intermarried and in their turn had children of their own. The man now wanted to prepare a medicine, so that all might live. But the woman was of another opinion, and said: “…it would be better if people died, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to find wood or room in their fields. So then these two oldest people died.” The same notion of the origin of death occurs also in the “Zambezi region.” The information is given by R. Maugham, who describes the Ravi, Yao, Teve, Nyungwe, Nyanja, Lolo, Makua, Rgwe and Sena. It is therefore possible to refer his myth to the area around the lower Zambezi. Here people say that a long time ago death occurred only as a consequence of war, murder or attacks by wild animals. Human life was otherwise unlimited. Children grew up to become men and women and lived on without becoming either old or infirm. The consequence of this was such a rapid increase of the population that far-sighted persons in the community began to become uneasy at the prospect of a time when the resources of the earth could not possibly suffice for the needs of all. They therefore held a meeting, and decided that a change must be brought about that would set a limit to the length of human life. “To compass this, the only possible method was to petition the world of spirits so to order the destinies of mankind that, after a reasonable period of life on earth, the sons of men might qualify for admission to the celestial circle by the processes of bodily decay.”
[#1] “African Origin Myths: Man Desires Death,” from Hans Abrahamsson, The Origin of Death. Studies in African Mythology. Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia III. Uppsala, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri, 1951, pp. 73-77. German and French translated from the original