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Appendix: The Story of the Fall of Man


IN the text I have noted many African stories of the Fall of Man or the Origin of Death.1 Since the chapter containing them was written and in type I have received another version through the kindness of Mr. Frank Worthington, C.B.E., formerly Secretary for Native Affairs for Northern Rhodesia. He tells me that his informant belonged to the Matotela tribe, which inhabits a stretch of country lying between the Njoko and Lui rivers, tributaries of the Zambesi river on the left bank; the Lui river joins the Zambesi near the foot of the Barotse valley. The story was told to Mr. Worthington towards the end of 1911. It runs as follows:

“Cf the many curios which I acquired during my twenty-five years’ residence in Africa, there is one which I value above all others. I bought it a few weeks before I left the country.

“It is a round wooden pot with a lid to it. On the lid is the seated figure of a little old man with his back hunched up, his chin resting in his two hands, his elbows on his knees. There is a mildly amused expression on the rudely carved face; whether this is thereby accident or design, I cannot say.

“On one side of the pot is a snake in relief; on the other a tortoise.

“I bought this pot from a very old native. So old was he, that his scanty knots of hair were quite white and his eyes were very dim. He must have been a fine enough man once, but now his dull, greyish-black skin clung in folds about his gaunt frame.

“I paid the old man the modest price he named, and asked him the meaning of the figures on the lid and sides of the pot.

“The following is his explanation, given in short, jerky sentences, done into English as literally as our language will permit:

“‘Yes, it was a long time ago. So long ago was it that no white man had then come to this country. It was before my Father's day. Before that even of his father. Both died old men. Yes, so long ago was it, that only the old people now speak of those past times. It was when men did not grow old and die. There was no death then; all men lived on, and happily.

“‘One day all this was changed. God became angry—that is God on the lid of the pot. What foolish things men did to make God angry, I cannot say. He must have been very angry.

“‘In His anger, God sent His messenger of death to men. He sent His messenger the snake. Then people began to die—that is the snake on the side of the pot.

“‘So many people died that all became frightened. They though tall would soon be dead. In their fear they cried to God. They said they were sorry for their foolish act—whatever that might have been. They promised they would anger Him no more. They begged Him to recall His messenger the snake.

“‘After a while God agreed. He said He would recall His messenger, the snake. He promised to send another messenger—that is the second messenger on the other side of the pot. God sent the tortoise to recall the snake.’

“‘The old man paused and mused for a little while, and then resumed:

“‘When I was a young man, I thought to myself perhaps the tortoise will overtake the snake: that some day he will deliver God's message. I am an old man now. I do not think the tortoise will ever overtake the snake—at least, not in my time.’

“He said all this without a trace of emotion. He was too much of a philosopher, it seemed, to indulge in anything so profitless as self-pity.

“‘Do you kill snakes when you see them?’ I asked.

“‘No!’ said he. ‘Why should I? But I do kill tortoises. The tortoise is very lazy. He runs with his message so slowly. More-over, a tortoise is good meat.’

“Having told his story and pouched the price of his pot, the old man rose painfully and hobbled away.

“Just outside my compound gate, he paused and made a vicious tab at something in a patch of grass.

“Shouldering his assegai, he passed on his way; a writhing tortoise impaled upon the blade”.2

In the light of the African parallels which I have cited we may conclude that this Matotela version of the Fall of Man or the Origin of Death is a genuine native myth and not a mere distorted echo of the narrative in Genesis. For it conforms to what we may call the stereotyped story of the Two Messengers, a messenger of life and a messenger of death, whom the deity despatched to men, hoping and intending that they should profit by the message of life and so live for ever. But through the fault of one of the messengers the glad tidings of immortality miscarried, and man remained or became mortal and subject to death. The two messengers are always animals. In the Matotela version they are a snake and a tortoise, the snake acting as the messenger of death, and the tortoise acting as the messenger of life, and it is through the slowness of the tortoise in carrying his message that man has been deprived of the boon of immortality. Now the tortoise acts the same fatal part in a story told by the Tati Bushmen to explain the origin of human mortality. They say that in the olden time the Moon wished to send a message to men, to tell them that as she died and came to life again, so they would die, and dying come to life again. So the Moon called the tortoise and said to him, “Go over to those men there, and give them this message from me. Tell them that as I dying live, so they dying will live again.” Now the tortoise was very slow, and he kept repeating the message to himself, so as not to forget it. The Moon was very vexed with his slowness and with his forgetfulness; so she called the hare and said to her, “You are a swift runner. Take this message to the men over yonder: ‘As I dying live again, so you dying will live again’.” So off the hare started, but in her great haste she forgot the message, and as she did not wish to show the Moon that she had forgotten, she delivered the message to men in this way, “As I dying live again, so you dying will die for ever” Such was the message delivered by the hare. In the meantime the tortoise had remembered the message, and he started off a second time. “This time”, said he to himself, “I won't forget.” He came to the place where the men were, and he delivered his message. When the men heard it they were very angry with the hare, who was sitting at some distance. She was nibbling the grass after her race. One of the men ran and lifted a stone and threw it at the hare. Its truck her right in the mouth and cleft her upper lip; hence the lip has been cleft ever since. That is why every hare has a cleft upper lip to this day.3

In this last story we read how men were angry with the animal which brought the message of death and how they ill-treated it. Similarly the Matotela kill tortoises because they owe them a grudge, not indeed for bringing a message of death, but for bringing the message of life too late and so depriving men of immortality. Ina widely diffused story of this type the Two Messengers are the chameleon and the hare, the chameleon being the messenger of life, and the hare being the messenger of death; and the Thonga and Ngoni, who tell the story, kill the chameleon whenever they get a chance, because by its slowness in carrying the message of life it was the cause of human mortality.4 Similarly in the corresponding Biblical narrative there is enmity put between man and the serpent, because the serpent is supposed to have brought death into the world, and in consequence it is said that men will bruise the serpent's head.5 Originally, no doubt, this bruising of the serpent's head was meant in the most literal sense; men trampled on a serpent whenever they could, just as some people in Africa kill a tortoise or a chameleon for a precisely similar reason, because they look on the creature as the hateful agent or minister of death.

In both the Biblical and the Matotela version of the story the agent of death is a serpent, but in view of the frequency with which the serpent figures in the sad story, not only in Africa but in other pans of the world,6 we need not suppose that this feature of the Matotela version is borrowed directly or indirectly from the Hebrew version; both may be drawn independently from those springs of barbaric fancy which everywhere underlie the surface of humanity; or if there has been borrowing, it is perhaps more likely that Judaea borrowed from Africa than Africa from Judaea. In any case we may conjecture that in all the stories of the Origin of Death, whether African or Judaean, in which the serpent figures, the original motive for introducing the reptile was to explain his imaginary immortality by contrast with the real mortality of man, though that feature has disappeared both from the Hebrew and from the Matotela version of the tale.

  • 1.

    See Above, pp. 105 sq., 114, 117, 133 sq., 136, 149, 162, 163, 167 sq., 169, 172 sq., 176 sq., 177, 185, 192 sq., 195, 199, 213 sq., 214 sq., 216 sq., 217 sq., 218, 221, 222, 223, 234 sq., 235 sq., 255-258.

  • 2.

    F. Worthington, C.B.E., Deputy Chief Censor, London, “Life and Death,” The Mail Bag, A Souvenir of the Postal Censor's Office at Liverpool during the Great War, April 30, 1919, p. 6. Printed and published by Daily Pest Printers, Wood Street, Liverpool.

  • 3.

    Rev. S. S. Dornan, “The Tati Bushmen (Masarwas) and their Language,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, xlvii. (1917) p. 80. I have cited this story elsewhere (Folk-lore in the Old Testament, i. 56 sq.).

  • 4.

    Flok-lore in the old testament, i. 63-65.

  • 5.

    Genesis iii. 15.

  • 6.

    See above, pp. 199, 218, 222, 223; Folk-lore in the old Testament, i. 50 sq., 66-68, 74-76.

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