Saturday, 22 October 2016

Koumen: First Clearing

Silé Saajo was looking for his lost cow when he heard the following:

“My voice, my voice calls out: I am here, I am Koumen. The heaven smiles above my head. The earth trembles underfoot. My very breath makes the branches sway. I am at the entrance to my turf. This is the first clearing, constructed from the branching web of the marvellous kelli and the virtuous nelɓi, famous for its healing.[1]The over-grown delɓi bush[2]has spread across the latticework of my enclosure. Its rare flowers smile and sing for my herd of cattle. Sing for my herd, birds of the trees…
Counterclockwise: nelbi (crossberry), delbi (gardenia) & kelli (jackalberry) on the pastoral path
I am sovereign of pastoral things. The ndurbeele cow, who bodes well, bellows in the midst of my herd. She is chief of my animals, a fadaletodde, a rare beast indeed.
Hurr! Hurr! Hurr!
Fita! Firaa! Fiti! Fiti! Firi.[3]

The males and the females possess in their loins the sperm of calves and bull-calves, future cows and bulls, a brilliant demonstration of my good fortune.[4]

Come on out fat cattle and full-bodied cows... Jump over the spells. It pleases me that you will graze in the grasslands and drink from the watering hole of the “seventh sun”.[5]I am Koumen of many forms: a whirlwind raising the dust, a flood drowning the high grasses. As for my proficiency, I take hold of a man and plunge him into the watering hole of the sun where my cattle drink. I whisper into his right ear the true-secret name of the cow. It is a magical word which multiplies the cattle and ensures the milking is good. I am Koumen. I let my tongue suck from my nursling. I communicate to him by means of my saliva the spell that fertilises the cow.[6]

Guéno knows me.[7]From up high, he made me an eternal child. The earth obeys me because I have descended from heaven through the air at the moment when the oceans were boiling, pregnant with the motherlands which gave birth to pastures and crops. I am Koumen, the Magician.[8]I transform all animals, the twisted and the humped back, into fat and nice-looking cattle. What is more, when I whistle to an angry herd, they turn into domestic livestock or else disappear into the foliage.

Shepherd! Would you like to hear me? Hunter! Would you like to see me? Get yourself treated by ear doctors and eye doctors, the former residing in the “black termite mound” and the latter under the “single baobab tree”[9]planted in the mysterious land where the stars are whitened before being embedded into the sky and sent into orbit in space. I know the initial temperature of the oceans, the nature of the stars and the purpose of their existence. I know the secret of the moon when as a growing crescent it pierces the clouds, or when “round as straw” it lights up the spring nights and extols the virtues of butter and milk.[10]

Enter, while leaving… On leaving, enter…”[11]

In this manner, Koumen was speaking to himself when Silé Saajo took him by surprise as he lay under a great tamarind tree at the edge of the Toumou pond in Jolof.[12]Silé Saajo grabbed hold of Koumen. He imagined him to be an abandoned child whose mother had been devoured by wild beasts, but he saw on him the half-greyed beard of a patriarch. He was overwhelmed with amazement.

Koumen said to him, “Silé Saajo! I am Koumen the Magician. I initiate men gradually to the example of the genies of Solomon who temper steel.[13]I am Koumen. I sit on the bull’s neck, my two feet between its horns. The beast goes about its grazing without minding or disturbing me. I shall make a second appearance in the valley of Boukoul.[14]But before that, carry me on your back and let us go visit the domain of Guéno, my Master and yours…

Silé Saajo! Make yourself at home. You are here at the threshold of my domain. Tell me what you want from Koumen, Master of magic rites?”

“I desire to know what will make me a better pastor and increase my skills and knowledge of the pastoral way.

“I would not have walked with you another step had you asked for anything else.”[15]

The people inside do not go outside and those outside do not go inside. The area is guarded by an old man wearing nothing but for his black hair.[16]

Silé Saajo perceived a light rising out of an urn full of water. A snake, facing this urn, was playing melancholic tunes on a flute carved out of the hollow of a sorghum stalk pierced with seven holes to modulate its sound.[17]

“O fire!” hissed the reptile, “Why are you not extinguished by the water? Is it that the sounds that I draw from my flute do not produce a gust to diminish the force of the flame and kill it?”

“Lie down, serpent!” Koumen commanded.

Silé Saajo overcame the abode of the snake with fear suppressed at the bottom of his heart.

Images: (A) Maxine Stussy, The Guardian
(B) Evelyn Pickering de Morgan, Mercury.

[1] These two trees are respectively the white cross-berry (Grewia tenax Fiori / Grewia betulifolia Jussieu) and the African jackal-berry / West African ebony tree (Diospyros mespiliformis Hochst). They have mythical status on the pastoral path, associated with the female and male respectively, and they are the two trees from which the shepherd’s staffs are made.
[2] This is Gardenia erubescens Stapf. or Hochst or some other variety of gardenia bush.
[3] This incantation is untranslatable: fitaa (to be ejected, to come out), firaa (to fly off), fiti (to be ejected, thrown out), filti (to have surrounded), firi (to be blown off). It evokes perhaps the skewering of a cock which precedes any important sacrifice and has an important divinatory function: the bonds of the dying animal as well as its final position once it is dead are interpreted to determine if the sacrifice to be offered after its immolation will be accepted and beneficial.
[4] It is a hermaphrodite beast, called ndurbeele because of its gender and fadaletodde because of the flecks on its skin.
[5] Each sun corresponds to a universe akin to our own star system as well as to one of the aspects of the initiation. The seventh is the sun of highest degree.
[6] This is a metaphor for the initiation process. The initiator puts his tongue for a moment in the mouth of the initiate pupil who sucks it, next he gives the teaching, transmitting therefore first saliva which tranfers bodily fluid, then the “word”.
[7] Guéno denotes God. He is supreme, immortal, omniscient and omnipresent. He is also called by the name of Doundari. Though ever present, he remains invisible and does not show himself on earth.
[8] Koumen is an Elder being with natural wisdom, like the character Tom Bombadil in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
[9] The black termite mound, out of which the jackal-berry tree (nelbi) often grows, and baobab are both medicinal, associated with the healing of hearing and seeing it would seem from this tale. When combined, they also have divinatory associations.
[10] The three days around the full moon are known as “milky days” (nyalɗe kosamaaje).
[11] This incantation refers to initiates who, having left the first stage without having broken any prohibitions, return again to instruct those that follow after. Those who would like to penetrate the path of knowledge without going through the successive levels of initiation are excluded.
[12] The tamarind tree is a symbol of life and regeneration. It is a common ingredient in all medicines. To encourage the ill to get better, it is said: “Catch the roots of tamarind” (nangu ɗaɗi ɗammi).
[13] The Fulɓe make constant allusion to events at the time of Solomon, who appears in legends and historical traditions as a master and source of certain initiations. This passage shows the association of the Fulɓe with the art of blacksmiths. During his pastoral trips, Koumen is sitting on the head of a bull, whose two horns symbolize a hakille spirit and a wonkii or yonki soul, from wonde(to be) and yonde (to be worthy).
[14] The valley of Boukoul is in modern-day Senegal.
[15] If the initiate asks for anything apart from knowledge, then he is not able to enter the first clearing, symbolising the entry into initiation, nor of course any of the others.
[16] This man at the threshold symbolises one who “knows but one word, but can keep it secret (in darkness)”. The hair is a symbol of his masculinity. Its blackness despite his age symbolises the perennial nature and unity of the science of initiation.
[17] The snake in this passage is Caanaba who guards access to knowledge: he plays a flute with seven holes which represent the range and unity of sounds. The four elements at the basis of creation are represented in this scene by the urn (“earth”) containing “water” topped by a “fire” on which the snake breathes a melancholic “air”. If Silé Saajo had not been worthy of knowledge, the water or the breath of the snake would have put out the fire. The stability of the four elements demonstrates that the initiation can be conducted on him. The snake will therefore lie down under Koumen’s command. Meanwhile, just as a snake sheds its skin each rainy season, Silé Saajo must also “shed his skin” on the spiritual plane. One who finds a snake’s moulted skin rubs it twice over his body: the first time to protect against the bite of the mythical snake “coiled around what is perishable” and the second time to evolve spiritually.

A. Hampâté Bâ & G. Dieterlen (1961)

Text in French:

Amadou Hampâté Bâ

English Translation:
First Clearing 

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