Separating Mythology From History
On December 1, 2003 and January 7, 2004, I wrote a two-part article entitled: “Putting the Matilda Newport Myth to Rest”; both articles were published by The Perspective. This article is in response to similar reception received by Dr. Jean Martin when she discussed her research regarding Matilda Newport with, I presumed a colleague. Her colleague referred to it as “a futile exercise in scholarship, serving no useful purpose except to exhume attitudes and words better left buried with the past”. A typical Liberian behavior of “let sleeping dog lie” because the Matilda Newport Day celebration was abolished or downplayed by the William R. Tolbert administration. Our response to such attitude is - it is irrelevant who puts stop to the celebration of Matilda Newport Day, be it Tolbert or Doe; since those history books that contained the Matilda Newport myth have not been revised to accommodate the new facts about Matilda Spencer-Newport. Instead, those same “old books” are still being taught to our youths with the old Matilda Newport fairy tale. Furthermore, the ending of the celebration did not put to rest the issue - by separating myth from history. Therefore, it is our honest belief that it is our approach or discourse that is capable of putting to rest once and for all, the Matilda Newport myth. Having said that, let’s move onto the reason why we must separate myth from history.
From time in memory, people have always tried to understand why certain things happen. For example, they wanted to know why the sun rises and sets and what causes lightning. Also, they wanted to know how the earth was created and how and where humanity first appeared. These are issues that human beings have been attempting to explain from the beginning of time.
But thank God, today science has provided some answers and theories for many of these questions about the world and the universe. However, in earlier times, and even today, in some parts of the world people still lacked the knowledge to provide scientific answers. Therefore, they explained natural events in terms of stories about gods, goddesses, and heroes. For example, the Greeks had a story to explain the existence of evil and trouble. At one time, they believed that the world's evils and troubles were trapped in a box. And that both evils and troubles escaped when the first woman on earth, whose name was Pandora opened the box. Such stories are known as myths, and the study of myths is called mythology.
In early times, every society developed its own myths, which played an important part in the society's religious life. This religious significance has always separated myths from similar stories, such as folk tales and legends. The people of a society may tell folk tales and legends for amusement, without believing them. But they usually consider their myths sacred and completely true.
For example in the book titled, “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes,” edited by Edith Hamilton, it is stated:
“Greek and Roman mythology is quite generally supposed to show us the way the human race thought and felt untold ages ago. Through it, according to this view, we can retrace the path from civilized man who lives far from nature, to man who lived in close companionship with nature; and the real interest of myths is that they lead us back to a time when the world was young and people had a connection with the earth, with trees and seas and flowers and hills, unlike anything we ourselves can feel. When the stories were being shaped, we are given to understand, little distinction had as yet been made between the real and the unreal. The imagination was vividly alive and not checked by the reason (highlighted by me), so that anyone in the woods might see through the trees a fleeing nymph, or bending over a clear pool to drink, behold in the depths a naiad’s face.
“Based on the prospect of traveling back to this delightful state of things or the way things were perceived, writers that wrote what is considered classical mythology today, wrote in a style as described by Herodotus I: 60:
“Of old the Hellenic race was marked off from the barbarian as more keen witted and more free from nonsense”.
These types of writings were than used by one race to claim to be superior over other race of people. For example, the first written record of Greece is the Iliad. Greek mythology started with Homer, generally believed to be not earlier than a thousand years before Christ. The Iliad is, or contains, the oldest Greek literature; and it is written in a rich an subtle and beautiful language, and during this time men were striving to express themselves with clarity and beauty, an indisputable proof of civilization. The Greeks went on to make their gods in their own image, something that had not entered the mind of man before. According to them, the universe created the gods. Before there were gods heaven and earth had been formed. They were first parents (the Greeks). The Titans were their children, and the gods were their grandchildren. The Greeks gave us Zeus (Jupiter), god of the heavens and justice, Poseidon (Neptune), god of the seas, Hades (Pluto), god of the dead or the underworld, Aphrodite (Venus), god of love; in the same way the Americo-Liberians gave us Matilda Newport.
The oldest myths can be traced to three main sources: Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, circa 800 b.c.e.; and by the time they were written down, these works had survived 400 years of additions, subtractions and mutations to finally become the versions we now call “authentic”. The Greek Myths serve as our window into the distant past, a view of a world that existed not only in the mind of the Greek poets but in the hearts of the humble and long suffering natives of ancient Greece.
In short, myths are not the exclusive exercise of the Greeks; every human society has its myth – to explain their existence in this world, and other numerous myths explaining about every living and non-living thing.
Find below a myth held by the Klao (Kru) ethnic group
Sno-Nyesoa (Heavenly Father God)
The creator god sent his four sons into the world. He wished them to return, but they wanted to stay, and Earth, too, tried to keep them. Sno-Nyesoa then used his powers and took his sons back to heaven. In the morning, when they did not wake up, he said to the Earth: "I have called them home. I leave their bodies with you." Since that time, he has used his power to take man away from the world. The way back is also blocked because of the Earth's attempt to keep the divine children.
Before the quarrel, however, mankind did not know sickness, suffering and death, and they were uncertain what to do. The solution they thought of was to send a cat to the medicine-man to obtain a remedy that could cure the sick and awake the dead. The cat successfully obtained the medicine but upon her return she came across a river. Putting the medicine on a tree stump, she took a bath, and subsequently forgot all about her errand. The humans sent the cat to look for the medicine but she was unable to find it. The cat then went back to the medicine-man again. The medicine-man was angry with the cat and said that 'thereafter, though a tree be cut, if the stump remain, the tree will grow again; but when men die, it will be the end”.
The explanation about Sno-Nyesoa is a myth; therefore,
it is not part of the history of the Klao ethnic group. It is placed
in a category called “Myth of the Klao People of Liberia”.
Why then, should we accept similar myth as part of our history?
Today, the human race is living in a different time and age. Gone are those days when we were told to "leave the people's thing alone" or to “mind your business!" As far as I am concern, Liberia is my business. Had we not mind our business, we might not have gotten in the MESS, we find ourselves today.
Those who continue to tell us to “let sleeping dog lie” or to forget the past for the sake of peace and reconciliation without the wrong doer first admitting his/her wrong is to ignore the facts of history. This approach has never worked in the past, and I don't think it is going to work for Liberians today; because history as recorder of past and present events has to address the past, without which the future cannot be planned or predicted. Moreover, “Every generation must out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it”. In this regard, we are fulfilling our mission.
In closing, let me leave you with you the poem entitled: “Home, Sweet Home”:
Home, Sweet Home
There was once a land called home
And sweet land of liberty.
A land in which everybody was referred to as
“My Good Friend,” and men referred to
as “Jack” or even “Joe Blow”.
A land for which we developed
A special handshake.
A handshake that is referred to as
The “Liberian Handshake”.
This handshake, My Good Friend,
Is like no other in the whole wide world.
But something went wrong, somewhere
With this sweet home of ours
For it to have become so bitter
To the point where we could not
Honestly talk about it.
Perhaps, we were too afraid
Or took too much for granted.
Because when things were going wrong,
We said they were not our business.
So we went about minding our business;
Advising our children
To leave the “people’s Thing Alone”.
So, what got sweet in Billy Goat’s mouth
Started to run its belly.
Our sweet home began to fall apart
And everybody else was going
About their own business;
Hoping that somebody will fix it for us.
So, the home that was once sweet,
Became too bitter to talk about.
Now, there is no more Good Friend!
Everyone has become a suspect.
The only free persons are
The sidewalk Preachers,
And people we called Craky.
They are the only people in town
With the nerve to speak the truth;
Yet, nobody listens;
Because they are still considered
Craky and Crazy people.
Therefore, our home, sweet home
Has become too bitter to talk about.
Everyone is too busy minding their business
And leaving the “People’s Thing Alone”.
So, the land that was sweet,
Has become too bitter to talk about;
Everyone, including Country and Congo people
Have ended up in the same boat.
*”Leave the People’s Thing” is a phrase used in Liberia to make reference to politics or the discussion of “vexed or pregnant issues”. Parents usually advice their children not to get involve in “The People’s Thing” - in order to keep them from getting in trouble with Liberian government authorities. Poem written by the author.