The Use of Animal Figures in Oral Narratives Animals can be personified in a way that will convey messages to others through the use of stories or narratives. During one’s childhood, parents share stories that include animals to teach us different lessons. The Tortoise and the Hare is a common and popular story that most children often hear. The main plot of the story is centered on a race between the Tortoise and the Hare. Once the race begins, the Hare pulls far ahead of the Tortoise.
He becomes so far ahead of the Tortoise that he stops to take a nap during the race.
At the end of the story, the Hare wakes up to realize that he has lost to the Tortoise. The Hare does not give his all during the race because he knows that he is much faster than the Tortoise. The message within the story teaches children about certain beliefs called morals. This particular narrative teaches us that we should not to be lazy or become complacent in all things.
There will always be someone trying to get to the same place at the same time, while there is only room for one. Many, if not all of us, have been exposed to this type of storytelling where animals take on human capabilities.
African, oral traditions also use the animal to display human characteristics and capabilities. The use of animals in this light is called anthropomorphism. To analyze the type of literature that personifies animals, we will draw from narratives that demonstrate this method and consider its purpose. Oral narration is used within many cultures. Oral narration is defined as a spoken account of connected events or story. It is a tradition deeply embedded within the African culture. Before the colonial period, oral narration was Africa’s educational system.
The children learned through a repeat of a theme, song or the important part of a plot (Kalu). In the African culture, there is a person who is held accountable for telling the stories. This person is called a griot, who is a keeper of traditions of the community or tribe and thus seen as a cultural leader. He is a professional, not because he went to school and received a degree. He is a professional because he is the member of a family who is mandated to keep the people and their history alive in the present and in memory (Kalu). A griot was not just any person who wanted to tell stories.
A griot had to tell the stories with the same vigor and historical accuracy as the griot preceding him (lecture). Oral narration is used within different literary styles such as song, chants, poetry, and proverbs. They are used to entertain, inform, and teach not just children but the entire community. Oral narration answers question about an ever changing world by exploring the universe, life and death, kindness, courage, love and honesty. Narratives that explore the universe are called etiological narratives. Here is an example of a narrative explaining the events that happen within the universe coming from South Africa.
This tale explains how the hippopotamus received its short tail. It serves as an answer to what is unknown about the world around them. This tale involves a Hare, Elephant, and Hippopotamus interacting with each other to teach a universal lesson to those that hear it. The Hare took a long rope to the Elephant and was going to prove that he was stronger than the Elephant. The Hare told the Elephant to stand at one end of the rope by the river. The Hare then took the other end of the rope and gave it to the Hippo and challenged the Hippo to the same task.
The Hare went to the center of the rope and pulled twice. Both the Hippo and the Elephant both pulled on the rope, not knowing the Hare was not at the other end. Hippo was surprised to find himself pulling with all his might. So the Hippo went to the other end and found that it was not the Hare but the Elephant at the end of the rope. The Hippo and the Elephant found out that the Hare tricked them both. The Elephant was furious and was not going to be tricked a second time and did not believe the Hippo when he told him that the Hare tricked him too.
The Elephant and then pulled out a sharp assegai and attempted to cut the Hippo but the Hippo ran and the Elephant caught him by the tail and chopped it off (Kalu). Narratives also examined the social issues within Africa. Although African traditions explore the role of communities and the upkeep of human rights, traditions also bring attention to the existence of a creative power. This creative power is usually explored through objects (Kalu), specifically, the animal. Due to Africa’s animist religion, animals are very important within the culture.
Africans believe that they are a part of nature. Thus they visualize every component of the world as if it is human so that it can be interpreted in a way that is understood (Finnegan). A North African story demonstrates the existence of a creative power through a giant serpent. This particular story also gives light to Africa’s animist religion when the reader sees a man bowing down to an animal. The story goes on to speak of a sailor who was the only one to survive a shipwreck and floated to an unknown island. On this island, “There was not anything which was not within it. (Kalu) When the sailor goes to make his burning offering, he hears sounds of thunder and sees the trees shaking. As all this is occurring, the sailor tries to cover his face from any flying debris. Once he uncovered his face, the sailor sees a serpent. The sailor immediately falls on his belly. Here nature announces that the serpent is coming in a similar way that trumpet playing announces the presence of royalty. The sailor shows respect by stretching himself onto the floor in order to honor the serpent. Just as if a person would bow to royalty upon entering a room.
The serpent then speaks to the sailor but the sailor cannot hear him. The sailor does not answer the serpent until after the serpent touches him. We see a similar series of events in Christianity. A person does not hear God when He first speaks. It is only when a person is touched (saved) by God that the person can hear from God. The serpent continues to tell the sailor not to worry because God has brought him to the island. A boat shall come back for him and he will be able to see his family again. Here the serpent foretells the events to come, the serpent prophesizes the sailor’s life.
In this story, we see that animals are being used to represent royalty and have divine-like powers (Kalu). Stewart Guthri states that our ability to recognize people where they exist is critical to our survival and success. Doing so allows us to recognize that of which is important (Burke and Copenhaver). The Epic of Sundiata tells a story about a lion child. The King of Sundiata comes across a hunter whose game has gone into the King’s land. The king agrees to have the hunter over for dinner. Upon the hunter’s departure, he tells the King that sacrificing a red bull for its blood will bring about a wife for him.
Soon there was talk of a buffalo that has taken a victim every night. The King travels to the land and the buffalo tells the King how to kill itself if he promises to marry the ugly maid. The king agrees and successfully kills the buffalo that was hunting the land. Keeping his promise, he chooses the ugly maid and marries her. She gives him a boy. The boy is referred to as the lion child. The boy’s childhood was harsh. The boy crawled on all fours while the other children were walking upright. His head was very big, complimented by large eyes and strong arms.
Ultimately, the boy learns how to walk upright and makes his mother popular among the people. It is seen that a child has characteristics of a lion and the mother is shunned for having such a child (Kalu). The lion child is of course different from all the other children and is bullied. Soon, he becomes faster and stronger than all the other children in the village. A child who gets bullied can recognize himself and see that even a person who is half lion and half human is special and has a talent. He can then make the connection and realize that he also has something to offer.
Here the child does not completely transform into an animal but instead the reader sees the opposite of anthropomorphism, where the human has animal characteristics and capabilities. When a human completely transforms into an animal it is called transmogrification (Burke and Copenhaver). Animals are used in a variety of ways. Some examples would be in song and in praise. Since animals are viewed in such good light, the way that they are expressed within song and praise is in the highest light possible to give an object that is not human.
Narratives were also used to entertain, to pass the time or to provide a temporary escape (Burke and Copenhaver). Usually, narratives were performed at the end of a work day (Kalu). Animals are used in narratives to distinguish between different characters. It was believed that if no one knew who the story was referring to, then they did not possess the knowledge of the essence of the person (Vansina). In the past, storytellers would use the same word when referring to a person in the story (Finnegan). Though the structure of the narrative does not change, the details may, in order to keep up with the present (Vanisina).
Many times, storytellers would look for a situation within his community and add them to his story (Kalu). It is also an attempt to relate the text to the children’s social context. To hinder confusion, animals could be used in place of the actual person, creating a more dynamic story that is easy for children to follow. In this sense, animals could be used to keep a sense of privacy. When personal risk is too high, the use of animals gives psychological distance between the storyteller and the subject matter (Burke and Copenhaver).
The animal is used to identify the name of the person or the animals are given a name that is common for ease of reference (Finnegan). An example of this would be from Central Africa. The story does not give the Ture a name and the man is named One-leg. A Ture takes the spear-shaft of a man and hides it going from hole to hole. The man named One-Leg chases the Ture every year. Soon the sons joined in the chase for their father, the Ture. They came to a house and asked if they had seen the Ture and a man. The people responded that he passed by years ago. The two went on asking if a Ture and a man passed by.
At every house, the people responded that he passed by five years ago, four years ago, a month ago, twenty days ago, until they caught up with the man and the Ture. The sons saw them coming and formed a line to protect their father whom left them as small children. The sons of Ture kill One-Leg and cut his body parts. Ture takes the head to a rubber-vine and eats of the fruit. The head tells the Ture to give him a fruit but the Ture is frightened and runs off. The sons of Ture kill the man again. In this story, we see the use of the Ture as the name for the trickster animal.
Many societies have given names to the heroes with this trickster nature. These types of heroes are seen as heroes to everyone but the reader. Every society has heroes. If the story is associated with an animal and thus appears as a lion, vulture or some other animal that implements bravery, wildness and fearsome (Finnegan). The hero speaks as himself through the animal. Animals are often used as trickster figures that tend to perform the same tricks, story after story. For instance, there is the spider that is often wily and boastful. There is the tortoise, as mentioned above who is cunning and smart, and the hare that is sly.
Often the tricksters are adaptable, able to take advantage of any situation. These animal symbolisms are mostly universal for all tribes in Africa, however, they are more popular in South Africa. Often, the main character embodies the ideals of the community. Aside from the main animal characters, there are the supporting or stock characters: the lion that is strong and powerful but not so smart, the elephant that is heavy but slow, the leopard that is untrustworthy and vicious, the antelope that is harmless and often clever (Finnegan).
Anthropomorphism is a way to generate questions and create an open dialogue in order to generate solutions as events and issues relate to each other and how they will impact our world (Burke and Copenhaver). The narratives give unity to the African heritage (Kalu). Life events can be simplified through these narratives. The structure of the narrative gives a sense of organization to the chaos. The structure helps to eliminate pieces and formulate solutions. Once there is a solution, then there is a plan of action to face uncertainty and gain the willingness to try again.
Today this same concept of animals is used not only in children stories but we see it in movies such as Planet of the Apes, and other science fiction along with animation to deal with adult issues. Anthropomorphism is also seen in politics as reference to political cartoons (Burke and Copenhaver). Many times, Wall Street is made into a bull and congress is referred as the dodo bird (politicalcartoons. com). The political parties are even viewed as a donkey for democrats and an elephant for republicans. Animals are a favored symbol within literary devices that help convey different messages to those that read them.
Without them, who knows what objects people would use to convey the different messages about the universe that people tend to believe are necessary for the average human to possess knowledge of. Animals are sometimes seen as our equals so that are the go-to object to represent any human-like representation. Works Cited Burke, Carolyn and Copenhaver, Joby. Animals as People in Children’s LiteraTure, Language Arts, Vol. 81. No. 3, Jan 2004. Finnegan, Ruth. Oral LiteraTure in Africa, World Oral LiteraTure Series: Volume 1, United Kingdom copyright 2012 Vansina, Jan.
Once Upon a Time: Oral Traditions as History in Africa. Daedalus. Vol. 100 No. 2, Spring, 1971 Bibliography Burke, Carolyn and Copenhaver, Joby. Animals as People in Children’s LiteraTure, Language Arts, Vol. 81. No. 3, Jan 2004. Finnegan, Ruth. Oral LiteraTure in Africa, World Oral LiteraTure Series: Volume 1, United Kingdom copyright 2012 Vansina, Jan. Once Upon a Time: Oral Traditions as History in Africa. Daedalus. Vol. 100 No. 2, Spring, 1971 Vanisna, J and Leydesdorff S et al. Oral Tradition: A Study in historical methodology. Transaction publishers, New Brunswick Copyright 2009
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