05 March, 2012

The Creation Myth of Shade: The Goddess Ker

Disclaimer: This is not real Wolof or Senegalese myth. The Gods described are NOT in any religious texts or traditions. This is fictional albeit based on a very non-fictional experience I had when my skirt caught on fire while I tried to kill a scorpion during an in-hut dinner party I was having. I was (basically) not injured so it’s alright to laugh at my misfortune if you must. I’ve been obsessed with reading Nordic Mythology on my down time so that’s why I decided to tell the story like this….

A long time ago, before mortal man stripped the power from the ancient Gods through their disbelief, a Farmer Girl inadvertently created shade (Ker). At that time the earth was baked by the sun(Naac) constantly and trees nor roofs could provide shelter from its rays; only Night (Guddie) could give creatures on Earth (Adduna) respite from the sun. This made it impossible for humans to sow successful crops, for even the little shade given by a corn stalk protects its neighbor. The women of the village Diouly gathered the fruit and nuts of the forest as well as hunted the animals within. With this they fed their husbands, children, and elders: but the forest could not always provide enough for all and the women wanted to be able to create food for themselves. The Gods would rarely bother with the problems of mortals but decided to help the women of Diouly because they were hardworking and kind.

The Queen of the Gods visited her holy seamstress (Neaw) and asked her to create a skirt, which gave its wearer the ability to bring life to dead soils and produce abundant and healthy crops. With the Skirt completed she gave it to the Wood Nymphs of Kaffrine, the earthly realm in which Diouly lay. The nymphs; Senne, Mam Jarra, and Arame, were to choose one mortal who would be the wearer of the Skirt, and whom could be trusted to be in charge of its magical properties. They chose the Farmer Girl, who was not from the village but there only to learn and educate, she was someone they knew had no reason to be selfish with divine power. As the benevolent Goddess had instructed they warned the Farmer Girl that once she put on the Skirt, and therefore acceptedits power, she must not take it off. If she took it off, the blessing it put on the land would be wiped away and crops would dry up and die.

The Farmer Girl graciously accepted the Skirt and gave the women of Diouly the ability to work their land. Their husbands were so excited to have an abundance of food; they too worked in the fields. The Farmer Girl herself had a garden, into which she sowed seeds for many delicious vegetables and quickly thereafter tiny tomato plants emerged from the soil. The people of Douly knew she was favored by the Gods and were elated by her presence in their lives. All was pleasant and calm.

One day the Farmer Girl and the Wood Nymphs decided to take a walk through the stone structures created by the ancient priests to honor the Gods. The structures were beautiful and lay within an enchanted forest where it was a lovely place to pass the afternoon. The Gods had created the Scorpion (Jeet) to protect these consecrated lands from outsiders and those hoping to steal the powers of the Gods, since these sites are a gateway between the mortal earth and the infinite heaven. The Gods did not release their minion to attack the Farmer Girl since she was accompanied by the Nymphs who were members of a higher realm. The Farmer Girl had also proven that she was a trustworthy person (Sawar) by using the Skirt only for the benefit of others.

That night The Scorpion lay sleeping under a mat of leaves and sticks to stay warm when he was awakened by laughter and story-telling. He saw the warm glow of candles and smelled dinner being cooked in the hut of the Farmer Girl. It was Senne’s birthday and they had gathered for a party in celebration of her 230th year. His stomach growled and he decided he would ask for some dinner and a place to sit inside. They would be happy to see him since he had allowed them to explore the beautiful stones today unbothered. He was startled andupset when his greeting was met with yelps, cowering and general hysteria. He did not realize that the day previous Arame the Wood Nymph had been attacked by one of his brothers. An ugly Goddess who was jealous of Arame’s beauty and grace, for Arame was an especially beautiful creature, had sent a Scorpion to sting her while she worked in her garden.

The Farmer Girl jumped up and began trying to step on the scorpion tentatively, for fear of its vicious stinger. She then grabbed a pan and began to try to smash the scorpion, but to no avail because of his sturdy armor. The Gods became aware of this attack on their sentinel and were instantly enraged. The lowly mortal Farmer Girl had the powers of the Gods bestowed on her and how does she repay them? She lounged in their sacred lands as if they were hers to enjoy, she prodded their magic orchids out of ignorance of their faerie inhabitants, and now she attacks their creation, unprovoked!

Faerie Orchid

At that moment the Gods’ flared the flame on a nearby candle and it licked the flowing hem of the Skirt as the Farmer Girl fussed around trying to destroy the Scorpion. The magic cloth burned hot as the flames moved up the length of the skirt. The Farmer Girl screamed and pulled the skirt to the ground, jumping barefoot on it to smother the flames. The Nypmhs and the Farmer Girl laughed loudly and nervously between shouts as she ran out the door in nothing but her under clothes to escape the gaze of her villagers and family. The noise had attracted the people of her household and she was now shamed as they saw both her cowardess and hubris, since all the villagers knew the Gods would not have punished her as such if she hadn't wronged them.

The Farmer Girl had removed the Skirt and, as the benevolent Goddess premised, the land on which the Girl worked began to dry up and her plants started to wither. The magic skirt lay in he dirt, scorched and limp and all magic and happiness had gone from the village. There was no dancing or music or feasts. The farmer girl was ashamed.

One day, as she gazed upon her wilting tomato plants, which were once her prize crop, she decided to see if the Skirt had some use in it yet. She put eight sticks in the ground around her precious plants and lay what was left of the clothe over them, in the vain hopes that the Skirt would protect them from the harsh sun just one last time.

The next day she saw her tomatoes stood up straight and strong. The Pure Intentions under which the Skirt was created and the true need for sustenance and life in the village had combined to create a new entity; the Goddess of Shade (Ker). Ker was able to bring life to the land all over the world and not just in the village of Diouly. She protects young plants, which feed the world, as well as is the patron God of security, comfort, and family. The Wolof word ‘ker’ refers to the shade, the home, and the family since home and family provide protection and comfort from the harsh world just as the shade does from the harsh sun.

Although this was just a nerdy way of telling a personal story, I did try to make it a pertinent to my Peace Corps experience with a lesson to be learned. The skirt itself is an allegory for the ability I, or any other aid or development worker has to truly improve the lives of those in poverty. The Farmer Girl, while wearing the skirt, could only herself ‘hand out’ viable land which is a bit like just handing people fertilizer which can grow a lot of food quickly but the results will never last without proper usage and understanding. Governments or aid organizations can hand out free food or medicines a few times, but just like when the Girl takes the skirt off, when the free food stops coming in, everything will go back to as it was before with no sustainable growth. As in the story, though, the miraculous day will hopefully come when the resources, knowledge and good intention (the Skirt) brought by a Peace Corps volunteer (the Farmer Girl) combined with the local knowledge, drive, and need of the villagers (represented by the resiliency of the tomato plants) will create a powerful and lasting network of knowledge sharing, institutional growth, and economic stability and health for a village, a country, and the world. Something like what the role of the personification of shade, the Goddess Ker, played in the world; something which is all purveying and can provide protection, security, and growth everywhere and for a long time.

I would also like to mention that that Becca Herring (Arame) did really get stung by a scorpion the day before Sarah’s (Senne) birthday hut dinner. She was in a lot of pain but the scorpions here aren’t deadly (for the most part) so she did not have to hospitalized. I also did run screaming and laughing into my back yard in just my underwear after the skirt fire, but I’m almost certain my host family did not see me despite being gathered at my door way. That would have been embarrassing; knees and legs are covered here by men and women as they are a mostly Muslim society.