Thursday, July 8, 2021

When animals were people


Michael - Thursday

San stories in Naro and English is a delightful booklet published by the Kuru D’Kar Trust in Ghanzi, Botswana. The Trust does wonderful work preserving the Naro language (one of many San dialects and languages in danger of dying out) and also promoting marvellous modern San art. The stories in the book are illustrated by some beautiful San drawings by the local artists. I’ve included a couple of them here.

San hunters

The San are great storytellers. The story comes alive with different voices for different characters and body movements that persuade you that the narrator has become an ostrich or whatever character is speaking. Another intriguing book is When Animals were People by Bert Woodhouse where he makes it clear how the animals of legendary San times really were, to all intents and purposes, people.

Unquestionably, the ability to make fire for warmth, protection, and cooking was a huge boon to early peoples. All ancient cultures seem to have fire myths explaining  where it came from. The San (Bushman) cultures, probably among the most ancient, have wonderful stories about it. One is retold in the Naro language (with an English translation) in the Trust collection.

A copy of a remarkable San rock painting of an ostrich
 housed at the National Museum of Natural History
 in South Africa

It seems that before man had fire Ostrich had it, but he was too stingy to share. In fact, he kept it secretly hidden under his wing. Meanwhile, a San hero named Piscoaghu, who features in several of the stories, discovered that Ostrich had fire and developed a clever plan to steal it. He boasts to his wives who are very unhappy about being cold at night and eating raw desert melons that hurt their mouths. Here is an extract form the tale:

“Wait!” Piscoaghu said. “I have met an ostrich that has fire! I saw the ashes with my own eyes and I smelled the cooked wild melons that he had eaten. I am planning to get hold of that fire and bring it here, so that we can cook our melons as well.” But the wives shouted: “Go away! You are a liar!”

Piscoaghu steals fire from Ostrich
Illustration from the Trust collection

Not quite the reaction a hero like Prometheus would expect, but then his exploit with fire didn’t turn out so well for him…

Of course, Piscoaghu succeeds. The tale has an interesting moral at the end. As a San always would, he shares the fire:

“Fire! Spray yourself out and enter the stones and the trees, so that we will all have fire!” As he shouted, the fire from the bag split apart and entered all the trees, the stones and the ground, and so fire came to the world. People could now cut fire sticks to make fire, but they all knew that the first fire came from Ostrich.

One can imagine the story teller being Ostrich as he discovers his fire is gone, hopping around the camp fire and peering about for his fire to the delight of the children.

Hippo and elephant San rock art
From: When Animals were People

Although the stories were obviously great entertainment, they usually had moral messages for the kids also. Often the message was that size and strength are not the answer. The answer is cunning. That message would stand the San in good stead as they prized a living from the inhospitable Kalahari.

Cover of the Trust collection illustrating the hare, hippo, and elephant

Here's an example, the cover story. A hare is trying to make friends with an elephant and a hippo, but they both snub him saying that he is far too small and insignificant for them.

Elephant shook his enormous head and said, “Oh no, young man, I can not be the friend of such a tiny thing like you. Can’t you see how big I am?”

The hare challenges each one separately to a tug of war, the object being to pull the other into a pond. He gives one end to the hippo and the other to the elephant. Both are mightily impressed by how strong he is, believing they are tugging against him, and soon he has two friends. Once again, the story has a happy ending based on the hare’s cleverness rather than strength or size.

If you come across a copy of the book, snap it up!

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  1. As I child I remember having a copy of Aesop's Fables that I loved. I think I'm going to get copies of San Stories for my grandchildren. Thanks for the introduction, Michael.

  2. How super that this has been done! I need a cooy for my family too. In some ways, the cover art reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's own illustrations in his Just So Stories.