Fon stories

Why tortoise lives in the bush

In olden days, Chicken, Pigeon, Duck, and Tortoise were friends, and they lived in the same house. They always ate together. Nearby, there was a blind man who cultivated his field, and planted much corn. Good.

In olden days, Duck could fly like the vulture. So one day, he went to steal corn in this man's field. When he came home, they cooked the corn and the four of them ate together. Good.

So among these four, Tortoise ate more than the others. Duck said to him, "Look here, since you ate most of the corn I brought, over there is the place where I got it. Go and get some yourself now. But be careful that you are not caught."

Now, Tortoise went away. He went to get the corn, and later, he came back home. When Tortoise came back, Duck was not there. Duck and her children had gone to the lagoon for water. So when Tortoise came home and Duck was not there, he called Partridge, and Pigeon and Chicken to come and eat with him.

When they finished eating, Chicken said, "Where is Duck's part?" Tortoise said, "I believe Duck ate already." Then, Duck came back and found nothing. Angry, he went to tell the farmer that Tortoise had been stealing his corn.

Now, when the animals gather at home, it is Cock who is their chief. The farmer asked Cock, to call together all of his birds. He said, "I have something to ask them." Cock ordered all of the birds to come together, and he told the farmer to speak.

The farmer said, "Tortoise took my corn without asking me for it." Tortoise said, "No, it is not like this. I did not know your field. The duck showed me the way." Duck said, "No, it is Cock himself who showed me, for one day he came home with a grain of corn in his mouth, and I saw it".

Cock said, "I never go into the field. I found the corn in the market. The market place is the place I frequent, but everybody knows that I am never found in the fields. The day he saw me I was coming home from market."

Everybody had his turn. Cock finished talking; Duck finished talking; Pigeon also finished talking. Cock said to the farmer, "Whom was it who stole your corn?" The farmer said it was Tortoise.

Tortoise said, "I am going to take my case to Dada Segbo." So they all went to Dada Segbo. Dada Segbo asked them what they came for. Tortoise said, "The others stole the corn, and now I am being blamed."

But all the others said, "It was Tortoise alone who stole." Good. Dada Segbo said, "Now, I cannot get to the bottom of this. Do you want to remain with these birds?" He asked the Tortoise. Tortoise said, "No. No, you must separate us."

So Dada Segbo said to Duck, "You are always staying at home, with your friends Cock and Pigeon. Man must build your house for you. You, Tortoise, you go to the bush, and make your bed. You must make an open nest." And Dada Segbo said, "You get away far, for otherwise you will be killed."

That is why Tortoises now can be found in the bush. And his nest is open, just as Dada Segbo had ordered. From his open nest, anyone passing can see Tortoise at once.

The Killing of Leopard and his children

Leopard It was a time of hunger. There was a tree called vo. This tree stood in the back of an old man’s house, and Tokè, the bat, came and ate its fruit. Now at this time Yo* found he had nothing to eat. He told Tokè to take him to eat vo with him. Before they came to the tree, they passed another fruit tree along the path, called asolo. Tokè did not eat the fruit of this tree.

Tokè took Yo to the vo tree and there they ate. But the moment Yo noticed the asolo tree, he left the vo tree and went to eat the other fruit. After Yo ate all that he wanted, he put the rest of the fruit in his sack. In order to let the owner of the tree know that he had eaten his fruit, he threw one into the house of the owner.

Good. But the sack was very heavy, and Yo could not climb down with it. He would have to throw the sack down. The moment the fruit fell into the old man’s house, he said, "Something is eating my fruit, I'll go and see". He went out.

Now Yo’s sack reached from on high right down to the ground. The old man, seeing the sack, went over to it and touched it. He tried to take the sack, but Yo would not let go. The old man pulled at the sack, and Yo pulled at the sack. Yo said nothing, and the old man, too, said nothing. So they did this (pulling back and forth) from early morning till midday.

A young boy passed. He said to the old man, "What are you doing here?" The old man said, "I want to take my fruit, but the tree won't let go".

The small boy came close, and saw Yo hiding in the branches. He told this to the old man, and soon he brought many men together there. They then made Yo climb down, and they hounded him, and they flogged him, and they left him underneath the tree.

They left the fruit beside Yo as well. As Yo was hungry, he crawled over to the fruit and began to eat it. When the people came to take away the fruit, there was no fruit left. They said, "Where is the fruit we left here? Where is the fruit?"

But Yo said, "You left me bound. I know nothing". The old man's children went home. A goat passed, and Yo said to the goat, "Come and untie me. I stole some fruit, and they bound me". The goat refused. He said, "I don't know what you did. I can't unbind you".

Now Leopard had borne her young and had nothing to feed them. She went to ask Yo to help her and found him bound under the tree. Yo said, "Untie me, and I will help you find food for your family".

Good. Leopard said, "Before I loosen you, you must tell me what I must do to get food for my young". Yo said, "Hide here. They are coming to flog me again". The old man now came back to see whether Yo was still there. Leopard caught him and killed him. Having done this, she unbound Yo. She told Yo to bring the old man to her house.

When Yo and Leopard finished eating the body, Yo went out. He told a hunter that there was a leopard nearby who had given birth to young, and since she had nothing to eat, she had caught an old man and killed him. "If you do not kill the leopard, you yourself will be caught by her. If I did not know tricks, I myself would have been killed and eaten by the leopard".

And Yo said, "If you like, I will show you the way. I know where her lair is". Now Yo went to Leopard and told her that there was a hunter who wanted to kill her. There were two paths leading to Leapard’s house. Yo had the hunter lie in wait on one path. He told Leopard that when she wanted to go out, she should take this road. He told Leopard that the hunter lay in wait on the other road.

Now, when Leopard goes out, she runs fast. But Yo told her that to save herself she should walk very softly. They left the house together, walking quietly and softly -- Leopard first, then Yo. When they had taken several steps, the hunter shot Leopard and killed her.

Now, Leopard's children did not know that their mother was dead. Yo came to see them and he said he would take them to his house. He was giving a dance. The oldest said, "Where is my mother? I have not seen her since early morning".

Yo said, "Keep quiet. No one can kill your mother. I am her friend. If your mother were dead, I would not dance. But I am going to dance". Good. Now, the children were dancing. Yo said to them, "I am going to see if your mother has caught an animal yet". He went into the bush, cut up Leopard's body, brought the meat back, and put the meat on the tire to cook.

When Yo and the hunter had finished eating the leopard, Yo said to the hunter, "Leopard was a bad animal. Now that the mother is finished, the turn of the children has come. First you must kill the oldest son".

He brought Leopard's oldest son to the hunter. When they came there, the hunter killed him. Yo went back to the children and said that their mother had kept their brother with her. When the hunter and Yo finished eating the first son, it was the turn of the second. Yo brought him to the hunter. He said to him, "I will take you to your mother and your brother". They did the same with the second.

But the third, who was the youngest, followed Yo and his brother softly, softly. No one saw him. When the hunter shot at his brother, he saw it. The youngest now ran back to Yo's compound and began to dance.

When Yo came home, he found him dancing and he suspected nothing. He said, "Now you must go to join your mother and your brothers". The boy said, "Go tell my mother I do not want to go. I like to stay here". Yo said, "I cannot take this message. When a mother calls a son, the son must come". And Yo said, "All right. I will go and bring your mother here".

He went to get the hunter. But the child ran away and saved himself. When Yo came back he could not find him anywhere. He finally gave up looking for him.

The leopard soon grew up and had a family of his own. That is why we have leopards today. If Yo had killed the last one, there would have been no leopards left to make other ones.

*A "Yo" is a gluttonous, selfish spirit (supernatural being).

The Serpent as head-rest for the earth

Dan Ayidohwèdo There are some who say the world is a machine. Somebody made it, but if there was one Mawu or many, history does not tell us. Aido-Hwedo, the serpent, is a vodun, but is not of the family of the gods. They say he is not the son of the Great Mawu, because Aido-Hwedo existed before any of the children of Mawu; before Sogbo. They say that Aido-Hwedo came with the first man and the first woman of the world.

Now, when the Creator made the world, she1 had Aido-Hwedo with her as her servant. Aido-Hwedo carried her in his mouth everywhere. We do not know if the world was there already. We know the earth was the first created, because the world is like a calabash. The top is put on last.

Wherever the Creator went, Aido-Hwedo went with her. That is why the earth is as we find it. It curves, it winds, it has high places, and low places. That is the movement of the serpent Aido- Hwedo. Where Mawu and Aido-Hwedo rested there are mountains, because the mountains were made by the excrement of Aido- Hwedo. That is why we find riches inside mountains. They say too, that the cowries are the dung of Aido-Hwedo.

Now, when the work was finished, Mawu saw that the earth had too much weight. There were too many things too many trees, too many mountains, elephants, everything. It was necessary to rest the earth on something. So Aido-Hwedo was told to coil himself into a circle and rest as a carrying pad underneath the earth. Now, Aido-Hwedo does not like heat, so Mawu made water for him to live in.

So he is in the sea. But it is not he who commands the sea. It is Agbè (Mami Wata), a Son of Mawu, who commands there, because those who command must be of royal blood. Now, when Aido-Hwedo stirs, there is an earthquake.

That is why the Serpent is used as a head-rest for an overburdened earth.

1. Mawu (Segbo) is customarily regarded as female.

Sakpata's control of earth affirmed

When they were about to choose the child who was to rule the earth, Hevioso was the first to offer to go. Mawu said as the earth was too far from the sky, the oldest had better go. So Sakpata went. When he came there, Hevioso stopped the rain from falling.

He waited for men to entreat his mother to send him instead. The people complained. They said [of Sakpata], "This king is not good for the earth. Since his coming, we find nothing to eat; we find nothing to drink. We have nothing."

One day Mawu sent Legba to earth to see what was happening. He went to see Sakpata, and Sakpata told him Hevioso was keeping the rain from falling. Legba said, "All right. That is nothing." He climbed back into the sky, promising Sakpata to send him a bird who would tell him of Mawu's decision.

On his arrival there, Legba sent a bird named Wututu to Sakpata with the message that a fire, so great that the smoke would mount on high, should be kindled at once.

Now Legba had himself suggested that Hevioso cause the rains to stop. To accomplish his purpose, Legba had gone to Mawu with a tale that there was no water in the sky, and that everyone was dying of thirst. Mawu, on hearing this, had given orders that not a drop of rain should leave the sky, so that all the water might be retained there for those in the heavens.

But now, after visiting Sakpata on earth, Legba had told the bird Wututu that when Sakpata lit the great fire and the smoke began to rise so high, Wututu should begin to sing.

Thus when Wututu came to earth with his message, Sakpata kindled the fire he had been told to light and, as the smoke rose, Wututu began to sing. Legba then hurried to Mawu and said that he had not been able to go to earth himself, but had sent his "little assistant", Wututu, who, because there had been no rain on earth and the heat had so dried everything that the trees and all else were burning, was on the verge of being consumed.

He said, also, that all the sky risked being destroyed in the flames, if rain was not at once made to fall and extinguish the fire. Mawu at once gave Legba orders to command Hevioso to cause the rain to fall, so that Wututu should not be burned. And rain fell abundantly and the earth was saved.

All this time Mawu did not know about the quarrels between the brothers, Sakpata and Hevioso, and to this day knowledge of their quarrel bas been withheld from her.

However, because of what occurred, Mawu decreed that all rain should be regulated from the earth, since the danger of a universal conflagration lies there. For this reason Wututu was sent to live on earth, and when this bird finds that the ground is too hot, he cries out, and the rain comes down.

Later, Legba effected a reconciliation between the two brothers, so that today, people live without fear of another such severe drought.

Hyena plays dead

In earlier times, the animals had a king. They had as their king a man named Hyena. One day the animals were told Hyena died. He was not really dead, he was alive. He pretended to be dead to get food, because when he was alive the other animals did not come near him. He wanted them to come within reach, so that he could test them.

He had a sub-chief named Squirrel, and he was the one who assembled all the animals of the bush when their king had something to tell them. So now he brought all the animals together. They made a grave, and Squirrel named the animals who were to take care of the burial.

When Squirrel went to look at the body, he saw that Hyena's eyes were open. They had bought cloth to cover him, and since Squirrel was cunning, he had one of his friends, Rabbit, who is as cunning as he, come. He said to Rabbit, "Now that Hyena is not dead. He wants to eat us. I have seen his two eyelids move".

When Rabbit heard these words, he said, "We need only sing to tell the other animals. This will let the others know quickly that Hyena is going to get up and eat them".

Is it the way of a man lying dead,
To get up and strike us dead?
A blow from a stick will not kill me,
I dance far off;
Lightly, lightly,
Far away will I dance.

After hearing the song, the animals ran away. Hunter was in a nearby tree, and he saw and heard everything that happened.

As the other animals ran away, Hyena ran after them. Hunter fired at him and killed him. From then on, Hunter became the eyes and the ears of the forest. And this is why, if there is something secret that happens in the bush, it is the hunter who sees it.

Dog’s head in the path

There was Goat and there was Yo*. So the king sent them to visit another country. They spent several days there. Then one day Yo said to Goat, "All right, tomorrow we leave".

In the village where they were there were houses all about them. Now, there was one house which was all closed, and inside that house were the animals. In the walls of this house were holes through which ropes which held the animals were pulled and tied to stakes. Now, the large animals had thin ropes, and the small animals had very thick ropes about their necks.

So the next morning, they said to Yo and Goat, "Good. Now, you cannot go away with empty hands". So they brought them to this house where the animals were kept, and told Yo and Goat to choose among all those ropes one for each of them.

When they said this, Yo ran and took a thick rope. So Goat took a thin rope. Now they said, "Good. We will bring out the animals you have chosen". The first one led out was the animal for Yo, and what came out was a little goat. Then they brought out the one which Goat had picked. That one was a big steer.

So they told them, "Good-by". On the way Yo said to Goat, "Lets kill our animals". Goat said, "No, I won't kill mine. I will take it to show it to the king. It is the king who sent us here".

So Yo killed his goat and he gave a piece to Goat to eat. But Goat did not eat it. He put it under his tongue. Now Yo finished eating all the meat. So Yo asked Goat, he said, "Give me the piece of meat I gave you".

Goat said, "You thought I ate it, well, here it is". Yo said, "Can't you take a joke? I'm only joking. But I gave it to you to eat, not to keep". So Goat hid it again under his tongue.

After they walked a piece, Yo asked again for the meat. Goat took it and gave it to him. So Yo became annoyed. Now, to get back to their own village they must cross a river. When they came to the river, Goat dropped the meat in the river. So when they reached the other shore and had walked a piece, Yo said, "Give me my meat. I know you did not eat it".

This time Goat had no meat to give him. He said, "I don't know how it happened, but I don't have it". Yo said, "Good. I want my piece of meat, or else kill your steer and give me a piece".

Goat killed the steer. Then he gave a piece to Yo and kept the rest. When Yo finished his piece, he began to bother Goat to give him more. Goat refused and refused, but Yo annoyed him so much that he gave him a joint. So, they walked a piece more and Yo began to ask again, and then again, until he took all the meat away from him. When Yo had taken all, Goat went off ahead of Yo. Yo had not eaten all the meat. He was bringing it home.

So Goat now found the head of a dog, and he placed it on the road where Yo must pass. He made a hole there, too, for himself. Now he attached a cord to the dog's head, and the other end he took with him inside the hole. When he heard Yo’s steps, he began to move the dog's head.

Yo saw this and was afraid. He stopped before the head. He began to ask it, "What do you want?". The head moved all the time. He said, "Do you want a joint?". The head made the sign Yes. He threw it down. But when he wanted to pass, the head would not let him.

He then asked, "Do you want the forelegs?". The head said, Yes. Again, when Yo wanted to pass, the head signaled he could not pass. Yo said, "Yes, yes, I know you want all the meat!". The head said, Yes.

So he threw down all the meat. Now, all that was left was the basket. But the head still did not let him pass. Yo said, "Oh, I forgot. You are asking for the basket in which to put the meat". The head said, Yes.

He threw down the basket. So he wanted to pass now, but the head would not let him. He said, "What are you asking for now?". The head continued to move. He asked, "You want Yo himself?" The head said yes, "Yes!"

Terrified, Yo began to run . . . and run!!!
Finally, Goat came up from the hole, gathered-up all of the meat, and continued on to take it to the king.

*"Yo" is a gluttonous, selfish spirit (supernatural being).

The good child and the bad

There were two brothers who were traders. The elder left his home and went far away. He made a lire in the bush. In the bush of that country, it is Loko [ancestral divinity] who is the diviner.

When Loko saw this trader in the bush, he said, "Come and see me. I will divine for you and you will have everything you want."

Good. He divined. He told the trader to find a dog, a jar of palm wine and pepper. He said, "Now, do as the butchers do. Kill the animal and cook it. Then leave the cooked meat in the bush, and wait nearby." The place where the man was told to station himself was the Segbo-Lisa road.

Segbo-Lisa was returning from the village1 and he was very hungry. When Segbo-Lisa saw the man, he asked, "Have you water? Have you something to eat?" The man said, "Yes, I have palm wine here." But Lisa does not drink palm wine, nor does he eat dog.

Cool Segbo asked, "Is there anyone nearby?" The man said, "No, I'm alone."
He said, "All right. Give me some palm wine." The man gave it to him. He drank, and while he drank the man turned his back to Segbo-Lisa.
He asked again, "There is no one nearby, correct?" The man said, "No."
He said, "Give me a piece of meat and some pepper and turn away from me."

He ate. He said, "I was very hungry and your food was good. I will give you a present. I will give you three small gourds. Now, you will go far, where only the language of birds and animals is heard." Then he said, "You will go to sleep there, you alone. Tomorrow morning you will break a gourd."

[The next morning] the man broke one. The moment he broke it, a large field appeared with many, many men working there. He broke the second one, and more men and women appeared. He broke the third and there were markets, animals, two-storied houses, money, cloths, everything. Nothing was lacking.

So he became king. They called him, "Dada!". No sooner did he want to go out, than a hammock and hammock carriers were there. Everybody called out "Dada!" So as he is there living like a king, his younger brother, worried, sends someone to look for him. They looked for three years. On the third year, they found him.

Now, the name of the older brother was Alè. The younger brother said, "I came here to seek Alè." The man at the door began to insult him, saying, "Who is this man called Alè? We don't know Alè here." The boy said, "He is my older brother. I didn't know he had become king." So they went to tell the king. The king said, "All right. Bring him here."
When the younger brother arrived, he gave him food and drink. The two ate together. That night he gave him a house. He said, "I don't want to sleep." It is the young brother who says this.

His brother said, "Why?". He said, "Because we two were poor. We had nothing to eat. Now you have become rich, but I am still the same as before. You didn't tell me what you did to become rich. You only gave me some food." The king said, "I beg you, go to sleep. Tomorrow morning we'll talk about this." The next day he said, "It's Segbo-Lisa who gave me this gourd." He said, "Here is what I did before he gave me this gourd. I got a dog and palm wine and I gave that to him." When he said this, the younger brother said, "All right. I am going home."

So he returned home. There he got a dog, a jar of palm wine, and pepper and then stationed himself in the bush with these things. But he also took along a bundle of switches. He killed the dog, cooked him well. Again Lisa went by. The boy called him. Lisa came over. The boy offered him palm wine. Lisa said, "I don't drink palm wine." He gave Lisa the meat with the pepper. Lisa did not ask for it. Lisa said, "Do you want to kill me?

I am a vodoun. I eat neither salt, nor pepper, nor dog's meat." The young boy said, "Don't say that again. You must speak in a better voice to me than that." When Lisa would not eat his food, he took a whip and began to whip Lisa. As he struck Lisa, the god died. He said, "Ah, you are shamming. I have a whole bundle of switches for you, and you are already dead with but one. I will beat you with the others just the same." So he pushed him with his foot to see if he were still living. He saw he was dead. When he was sure he was dead, he returned home. He left the meat, the palm wine, and went home.

That night Lisa awakened. He went to see the big brother whom he had helped. They said to him, "Lisa has come to see you."
The brother said, "I know. Let him come in, let him come in. So now again Lisa gave him three gourds. He said, "At nightfall you are to break one gourd, at midnight. Another, and at cockcrow you are to break the third. That way you will have double of what you have now."

Good. The man is sad. He did not do anything to offend Lisa. The next evening he broke a gourd. When he broke it, all was still. The birds, the people, no one spoke any more. He broke the second. His house became full of weeds and brush. Now there is left to him only one small house where he himself sleeps. The animals and the men are already gone.

When he broke the third, he was left all alone. He found himself in the bush. No houses, nothing. He wore the same old cloth he had worn when he was still poor. But he never went back home. He was lost in the bush forever.

This is why, when the vodoun Dan has made you rich, you never tell anyone. The moment you tell, he will come and gather up all that he has given you and take it away.

1. Mawu (Segbo) is customarily regarded as female, while Lisa is held to be male.

Why Dogs must be fed

Mawu created humans, the animals, and birds. All people talked the same language. Humans and animals understood each other. In those days people did not give presents to each other. Those who had things kept them for themselves.

There was a man who had a wife who was pregnant. Now this man never stayed at home. He was always away hunting. While the husband was away, the wife went into labor. Now, there was a dog beside the woman. The woman had a hemorrhage as she was about to bear her child. She said, "If I only had someone here I could send to call my husband."

The dog was there and he got up without saying a word and took to the road in search of the husband. When he found the man, he beat against the man's legs with his tail. The man did not get up. He came back and did the same thing again and again. The hunter thought he had trapped an animal, and so he followed him.

Because in those days dogs trapped animals when their master's were away, and later came to find the master, and beat against his legs with the tail to let him know.

After the man had walked a bit, he stopped to look about. The dog, who was running ahead, ran back to his master and beat against his legs again. The man stopped again, and the dog came back to call him. He did this until he brought the man back home.

The man got back just in time to help his wife, as she gave birth to their child. Now, in order to give birth, there was a medicine. The man gave the medicine to the woman. Then the woman gave birth to a son. He was called Hunsu.

The woman told her husband if it had not been for the dog, she would have died. To thank the dog, the woman's husband killed a cock and made a stew of chicken, meat and palm oil for him to eat.

Now, this man has a junior wife, too. She is also pregnant. Now this wife is stingy, and never wants to give anything to anyone. When she ate, she never gave anything to the dog. Now her time to give birth came. Now the dog is beside her. The woman is in pain, and she cries, "If someone were only here, I'd send him to fetch my husband."

The dog said, "You have only to tell it to the stew you like so well and that you never share. Perhaps, it will go and bring your husband." The woman said to the dog, "Ah, you know how to talk? And you don't want to call my husband? I beg you, go for him."

As the woman pleaded with the dog, the dog went to call the husband. But when he found the husband and brought him home, it was already too late. The woman had given birth to a dead child. The husband was angry with his first wife. He said, "Why didn't you tell the dog to come for me?". The first wife said, "I did, but he refused, because the other wife is so selfish".

Then the husband told the woman who bore the dead child to feed the dogs. That is why today, when one eats, one never forgets the dog. In those days, people never gave presents to dogs, but dogs gave presents to people.

All stories taken and modified from: M.J. & F.S. Herskovits: Dahomean Narrative, Northwestern Univ. 1998.