Myths as a genre of Igbo Oral Literature

Iwu, I. (2000-06-19)

Scholarly articles


Oral literature is one area that has for many years captured the interest of' scholars and students, especially within the African continent. Akporobaro (200 1 : 36) offers six variant definitions of' oral literature. One of them which appeals more to us is adopted here as an operative definition. It states that oral literature is the imaginative compositions distinguished by their beauty of forms of expressions and local ideas developed over the years by a people and handed down one generation an another by words of mouth. Oral literature exists in various forms one of which is myth (see Dundes 1965, 1967: Lusweti, 1984: Chukwuma 1986, 1994:Ikwubuzo 1998; Akporobaro 2001). The New Webster's Dictionary of the English Language (1997) defines myth as an old traditional story or legend especially concerning fabulous or supernatural beings, giving expression to the early beliefs, aspirations and perceptions of a people and often serving to explain natural phenomenon or origins of a people, etc… Akporobaro(2001: 230)Whose own idea of mythdoes not differ from the above definition writes as follows highlighting a few but different focuses of myths: Myths usually originates in ancient, oral tradition. Some explain origins, natural phenomena and death; others describes nature and function of divinities; while still others provide models of virtuous behavior by relating the adventures of heroes or the misfortune of arrogant humans. He also points out that myths often include elements or legend. Earlier, Chukwuma (1994 : 31) has noted that myth is the category of tales that deals with origins and extraordinary phenomena. Citing that such things as “rivers, big and outside human control, unusual natural phenomena as groves and huge trees are aptly accommodated in a mythicschema.” Until recently, little attention was given to the study of Igbo Myth. While some Igbo literary scholars merely identified myth as a genre of Igbo oral literature (Ezikeojiaku, 1985; Chukwuma 1986; Nwadike 1992, etc), others went a little further than mere identification of where to classify it to include some analyses of few samples of myth from the field of (Nwaozuzu1980: Opkewho 1983; Chukwuma, 1987, 1 994). This state of affairs in the study Igbo Myth prompted the remark by Ikwubuzo (1998:533) that "unlike folktale…which has for many years now been taught as a full-fledged course, the study of Igbo Myth has not been given enough attention." In most cases some teachers of Igbo oral literature mention myth in passing without giving it any in-depth exposition. For instance, none of the studies that identified myth as a genre of oral literature considered how myth possesses the qualities of oral literature in order to give an insight into its nature. I have elsewhere proposed a classifications framework for Igbo myth. And since a number of previous studies have already identified myth as one of the major oral literary forms, it is neither the intention of this paper to recapitulate the issue of the classification of oral literature nor to go into the contention of Finnegan's ( 1970) claim that myth does not seem to be "a characteristic African at all" for this claim has long been invalidated by research findings (Goody, 1972; Beier, 1980; Chukwuma, 1994; Ikwubuzo, 1 998; Akporobaro, 2001, etc). This paper rather aims at considering how myth shares the features with which oral literature is associated and identified. The subject will be discussed with reference to Igbo myth.