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Wole Soyinka on Myth and Tragedy in Yoruba Culture

 Originally Appeared in: Contexts and Comparisons: A Student Guide to the Great Works Courses | Published: 1991

In 1986, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka comes from the Yoruba people, one of the three traditional tribal groups in Nigeria. In his contributions to Nigerian literature, he melds Yoruba culture into his own literary creations while nonetheless writing in English and adopting many Western literary forms. His critical writings on tragedy explore the connections and conflicts between Western and Yoruba frameworks.

In the Western tradition, in ancient Greece and then again in medieval Europe, drama seems to have developed from ritual. Many theorists have argued that Greek tragedy, for example, originated in ancient rituals of sacrifice, the tragic hero resembling the “scapegoat” who is killed by the community in an effort to right their own relation to the gods. But the connection between theatre buildings and sacred sites of sacrifice, or between characters on stage and a chorus of worshippers, has become so remote as to be merely symbolic—at least in Western drama. For African drama, Soyinka seeks to preserve and reinvigorate the connection between ancient cosmic ritual and modern theatre.

To explain how African theatre can reenact African myth, Soyinka has written several essays dealing with the mythic sources of Yoruba ritual. According to Soyinka’s interpretation, Yoruba culture separates the cosmos into the human world and the world of the deities. At the same time, the human world itself contains manifestations of the ancestors, the living, and the unborn. Soyinka believes this experience differs significantly from the Western idea that individuals orient themselves in their world through a sense of time as past, present, and future. In the Yoruba world, it is not the individual’s sense of time that counts, but rather a community’s collective sense that it has complex ties to the ancestral community and to the unborn community.

The different communities of ancestors, living, and unborn are also, however, separated from one another, and these human worlds as a whole are separated from the realm of the gods. The gulf between areas of existence Soyinka calls transition or the transitional ether. Since, according to tradition, the gods were once completely and unhappily separated from human beings, many Yoruba myths are stories about the efforts made to cross these gulfs. Ogun, the god of iron and of metallurgic lore and artistry, was the first to succeed in conquering the transition. He crossed the gulf to the human world by extracting iron from the earth and thus providing the human world with the source of its weapons and its tools. Ogun is also, Soyinka explains, “the god of creativity, guardian of the road . . . , explorer, hunter, god of war, Custodian of the sacred oath.”

Soyinka argues that traditional Yoruba tragedy acts out the suffering caused by the gulfs in existence and by the painful acts of will or assertion performed to bridge them. He has sought to develop a contemporary African theatre that would not only be drama in the Western, secular sense of the term, but also ritual in the Yoruba sense of tragedy. In the following poetic-philosophical excerpt from an early essay, Soyinka weaves African myth into the idea of tragedy, with important implications for the task of the modern African playwright….

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