Hyel and the Corpse in the Tree

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(Bura, Pabir/Nigeria)

Hyel, the supreme deity, was originally a moon deity. The chief of the people belongs to the order of divine kings. When he dies, it is said that God has fallen. He does not actually die, but he goes away for a time. With his person is bound up the well-being of the people and the productiveness of the crops. At his death, there are rituals that resemble a process of rebirth by which the chief is converted into a god. The central religious festival of the year is the Mambila, a feast of all souls, especially the souls of the chief's forefathers. When a man dies, his soul goes to join his grandfather's, but returns to the town each year at the Mambila feast. The festival is held at harvest, and the chief takes the principal part. There are rain rites, prayers to the royal ancestors for the increase of the people, their crops, and their cattle. Each year at the maize harvest, every man who has lost a father or mother selects three heads of corn, dresses them carefully, burning off the sheath, and places them on a tray that he sets by his head at night. The spirits of the dead father and mother come and eat the soul of the corn.

Long ago, there was no such thing as death. All were therefore surprised when a man died. They sent a worm to ask the sky what they should do. The sky said they should hang the corpse in a tree and throw mush at it until it came back to life. Then no one else would ever die. On the way back, a lizard named Agadzagadza, having overheard the words of the sky, ran ahead of the worm to deceive the people on the earth. Agadzagadza therefore ran very hard. When he reached the earth, he told the people that the sky said they should bury the corpse. The people did this. Later, when the worm arrived and gave them the true message, they were too lazy to take the corpse from the grave. They refused to do what the sky asked them to do, and people still die. See also: Iju.

Subjects: Religion.

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