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Mrile Discovers the Human Condition


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A Human Finds Godly Links and Stark Reality.

The reality of life on earth does not achieve the perfection of God's realm. That domain is the ideal; humans seek to recover that state. Cultural rituals are meant to enhance this process, but such rituals are not a guarantee of perfection. Tales are frequently brutally realistic, recasting traditional motifs—in this case that of a mother, symbol of life, who is, incongruously, also responsible for death. It is this paradox of the human condition, humans caught between the perfection of heaven and the flawed earth, that storytellers frequently depict.

(Chaga/Tanzania) Mrile creates a child from a seed bulb, but his mother, fearing that he is feeding the child his own food, kills the child. Mrile, dispirited and against the pleadings of his relatives, leaves home, sitting on his father's chair, which wafts him into the heavens. As he moves to the realm of God, the king of the moon, he encounters various groups doing the agricultural work of the Chaga people—wood gatherers, grass cutters, livestock herders, cultivators, harvesters, water carriers. Each group shows him the way to God, but only after he has assisted them in their work. Finally, Mrile arrives at the place of God, and he gives God fire in exchange for which God and his people present him with livestock and grain. When Mrile wishes to return to earth, he asks various birds to carry to his family the message of his return. Only one bird is able to take the message, and Mrile returns to earth on the back of a bull, one of the animals given to him by God. The bull tells Mrile that he must never eat of its flesh. Mrile promises, but when his mother slaughters the bull and feeds him the meat, Mrile, not knowing that it is the flesh of the bull, eats it. He then slowly descends into the earth until he sinks out of sight. The reality of life on the earth is the mother, a dualistic person, at once life-giving, in the sense that she wants to nourish her child, and death-dealing, in the sense that her efforts result, both at the beginning of the myth and the end, in death. This dualism, the idea that the obverse of life is death, is the reality of the human condition. Rituals and traditions may move us closer to original godly perfection, but there is no assurance that such perfection will be achieved.

Subjects: Religion.


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