Thursday, 21 April 2011

Sea | Fiction | Tohu Wa-Bohu

After Olorun had brought forth the many orisha, they lived together in heaven. Below them was only the sea...after some time, Obatala grew weary of looking down over the grey waters; he found them monotonous and depressing.

In this creation myth of South-West Nigeria, Obatala is told by Orunmila to gather together a gold chain, a snail's shell filled with sand, a palm nut, a chicken and a cat. With MacGyver-esque ingenuity, Obatala climbs down from heaven on the gold chain, scattering the sand about from the snail's shell to create land, then releases the chicken to scrape about in the sand and form contours. Finally, he plants the palm nut, turning it into a tree, and lives bneath the tree with the cat (who was apparently only ever included in Orunmila's list as a future companion for Obatala). In another, gloomier version of the tale, Odudwa steals the land-creating materials from a drunken Obatala and does it all himself, dooming the earth to stewardship under a thief and usurper. If Obatala had only stayed sober, the myth specifies, our world would have been formed by him and there would have been no wars or catastrophes.

Release the chicken! ...What, that meme isn't funny again yet?

The people of Dahomey, from near Benin, buck the logical trend of putting the sea at the very beginning of creation, perhaps appropriately for a kingdom of fishermen; Mawu the female creator actually invented the sea to help keep her constant friend, Aido-Hwedo, an enormous serpent, cool as they formed the world.

Mawu and Aido-Hwedo, fantastic as they are, are going to have to be ignored for our purposes today, because they go against the basic (and probably truistic) theory I'd like to explore; the notion of the sea as eternal, primordial, an element of chaos, and in some way maternal* - as if our myths and legends can, on occasion, echo the idea that we may have risen up out of the sea - that the ocean itself, in spite of the horrifying monsters, storms and endless depths, may be our true home.

It's a symbol that finds its purest anthropomorphic expression in the figure of Tiamat, the Babylonian ocean mother-goddess (who, however, gets sold short by the myth, which lets her act as the creative force but gives 'firsts' to Apsu, a male freshwater god - the little-documented Sumerian version of Tiamat, Nammu, is allowed to be both the primordial deity and the creative one). Tiamat, frequently portrayed as a monstrous serpent or dragon, is nevertheless mother of all, the chaos which is not in opposition to order but actively and purposefully creating it. This being a pretty standard creation myth, Tiamat is of course brutally murdered by a masculine god by the name of Anu, then dismembered, the various pieces being used in the classic resurrectional sense to create land and sky.

She actually looks a little like a chicken. Have we underestimated the chicken's place in psycho-mythology?

Typical of Hemingway, then, that he should write of the man heroically (and ineffectually) attempting to tame the feminine sea in The Old Man And The Sea. And typical of Lovecraft, that it should be Father Dagon (originally a fertility god and nothing to do with the sea whatsoever) who dominates affairs and not, far more appropriately, a feminine creature. His The Shadow Over Innsmouth, however, created partly as a reaction against inter-racial relationships, does also include a Mother Hydra who was presumably influenced by Tiamat; it also deals, fascinatingly, with the notion of our watery heritage, its protagonist being at first repelled by the amphibian Deep Ones and later coming to realise that...drum roll...he carries Deep One ancestry himself.

With the racial content of the piece, I think we can probably do a little better than simply see the twist as a plot device that gazes back on man's dark past, in the manner of The Rats In The Walls. There is a serious racial neurosis and confusion running deep through Shadow - whereas other works like At The Mountains Of Madness use two different alien species to attempt to draw a distinction between the 'master race' Old Ones and the 'slave race' Shoggoth, Shadow seems to accept the fact that all of life, including that which Lovecraft finds repulsive, comes from a common aquatic source and so no distinction can be made. "Mother Hydra an' Father Dagon, what we all come from onct." The marriage of these two gods is itself an inter-racial sexual act, as that phrasing makes explicitly clear - Absu the freshwater god and Tiamat the saltwater goddess, who meet in a "mixing of the waters." Lovecraft seems to see this as an unnatural pollution - the Babylonian myth, far more intriguingly, suggests that the mingling of different elements is the catalyst for creation...itself as pure an alchemical concept as, I don't know, order being formed out of primordial chaos.

The protagonist of The Shadow Over Innsmouth comes to the understanding that he and the Deep Ones (and, therefore all creatures) are kin, equal children of the marriage of Dagon and Hydra. Lovecraft presents this as a nightmare, but the fact that he acknowledges it at all is significant. No matter how horrific he finds the concept, he does at least come to see man's collective true, chaotic home as cyclopean and many-columned Y'ha-nthlei.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

*As elsewhere across the world, symbolic mothers don't often fare too well in African myths. Another story has the creator god raping the earth (tearing away her clitoris in the form of a termite mound). The offspring, a white fox trickster figure, then rapes her as well, bringing spirits and magic into the world. Finally, two watery brothers have sex with her to soothe her pain. Charming.

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