The Mythological Icons In Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

The Mythological Icons In Amos Tutuola The Palm-Wine Drinkard


This project explores the Amos Tutuola’s Palm – Wine Drinkard in terms of it’s use of mythological icons. In particular, the project seeks to explore the novel as an important artifact and a literary product of social existence. It examines how “authencity” is signified in The Palm – Wine Drinkard as it is written by a native artist. In doing so, the project seek to demonstrate that it is an ambivalence over the value and significance of The Palm – Wine Drinkard. Instability is also provoked and acute cultural anxiety is shown in the work of a “natural artist” such as Amos Tutuola in this case.

Chapter One


1.1 The Meaning of Mythology

Mythology is a collection of traditional stories that express the belief of values of a group of people. The stories often focus on human qualities such as good and evil.

Myths often tell the story of ancestors, supernatural beings, heroes, gods, or goddesses with special powers sometimes myths try to describe aspects of customs or explain natural events such as the sun or lightning. These stories sometimes contain mythical characters such as mermaids, unicorn, or dragons. All cultures have some type of myths for example, the classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans is familiar to most people. The stories of nature American people are also well known. The same myths can often be found in different part of the world. For example creation stories related to plants, animals and people are common among may cultures.

The study of myth is called mythology and myth belongs to the sphere of will. It does not have a single form or act according to the simple set of rules, either from epoch or from culture to culture. Most mythical stories concern divinities (divine beings). These divinities have supernatural powers – powers far greater than any humans beings has. But, in spite of their supernatural powers, many gods, goddesses, and heroes of mythology have human characteristics. A number of mythical figures even look like human being and in many cases, the human qualities of the divinities reflect society idea. Good gods and goddesses have the qualities a society admires and evil ones have the qualities the society dislikes.

An old theory, and myth that has enjoyed considerable vogue, holds that myth is oral narratives which explain the essences and sequences of ritual performances, thereby preserving the memory of these elements for posterity such that myth is second to rituals, in terms of evolution. Myth is usually divided into two groups, the creation and explanatory myths. Creation myths try to explain the origin of the world, the creation of human beings and the birth of gods and goddesses and this type of myth is developed by the early societies.

Explanatory myth, in its own case, tries to explain natural processes or events. Many societies have developed myth to explain the formation and characteristics of geographical features such as lake, rivers, ocean, etc. Some myth through the actions or particular gods and heroes, stress proper behaviour and this has to do with the ancient Greek’s strong belief in moderation; that is nothing should be done in excess.

Thus, one notes that myth involves living and this clearly indicates the element of struggle in human nature. For thousands of years, mythology has provided material for much of the world’s great art. Myth and mythological characters have inspired masterpieces of architecture, literature, music etc. Mythical beings fall into several groups, these include ‘anthropomorphic’ divinities, which are called from Greek expression meaning ‘in the shape of man’, these divinities were born, fell in love, fought with one another and generally behaved like their human worshippers. Another group of myth beings include gods and goddesses who resemble animals and these characters are called ‘Theriomorphic’ which mean ‘in the shape of animal’ and many of these occur in Egyptian mythology.

The third group of mythical beings has no specific name; these beings were neither completely human nor complete animal. An example is the famous sphinx of Egypt who had a human head and a horse body. Human beings play an important part in mythology as myth deals with the relationships between mortals and divinities. There are two ways in which the presence of myth in any society may be explained; one is by the way of diffusion and the other is through the independent working of imagination.

Myth hides nothing and flaunt nothing: it distorts; it is neither a lie nor a confession; it is an influxion.

1.2 African Belief System and Myth

A wide variety of mythologies have developed among many people that live in Africa; and some of these mythologies are simple and primitive while others are elaborate and complex.

African mythology is a living chronicle in the minds of people. Myth expresses the history, culture and the experience of the African man and it portrays his wishes and the fears as he gropes to understand the unknown by disserting and remolding it to fit his frame of reference. In the study of myth, the African’s metaphysics is created and his beliefs are constructed. African mythology as every other form of African conceptual pattern, emphasise human interaction in life itself. It, thus, explains the context of various African cultures and norms though spiritual communication which often occurs in African myth as a means to uplift the living from the sorrows of their entanglements in the ‘here and now’ philosophy. A myth is created to enhance this and this is done through reincarnation.

Perhaps the best – known African mythologies are those of the West African Ashanti, fon, and Yoruba people. Nyame is the Ashanti sky and fertility god, the rain source for his wife Arase ya, the earth itself. It is the culture hero trickster Aranse the spider who acts as the god’s connection to human beings. Essentially, Arranse corrects the mistakes of Nyame’s creation, convincing the god to send rain to counteract the extreme heat of the new sun, and river and ocean banks to contain the water that would otherwise have flooded the world. Aranse also lives up to his trickster reputation by succeeding in marrying the high god’s daughter.

Among the fon the supreme deity is Nana Buluku, his twin children Mahu and Lisa – female and male, earth and sky, fertility and venality – establish balance in the world. Their son, Dan, maintain life by controlling the deities who embody aspect of nature.

The Yoruba sky god is the aloof Olorun, who load children by the primordial waters, Olokun. These were Obatala of the sky and Odudua of the earth. Some their union came dry and wet trail, which produced Orungan, who made live to his mother, producing the later Yoruba pantheon. The gods of this pantheon represent various phenomena and human activities.

The concept of African mythology is to justify the African wisdom and thus the African scholars find their creature impetus in myth, history and customs. In the light of this mythical concepts, Africans have been able to find their world – view and have made intellectual attempt to understand the phenomenon with which they continually live as Africans. The imprint of myth in the African worldview cannot be obliterated; it educate African about the details of African cosmological beliefs, their meaning and their origins.

1.3 The Yoruba Perception of Myth

The Yoruba cosmogony revolves essentially around the belief in gods, ancestors, spirits and taboos. For a typical Yoruba man, most of the divinities are supposed to have been men and to have been exhausted for their heroic deeds to the admiration and effection of the people. Therefore he believes that in order to maintain societal status quo, there is need to maintain a perfect and cordial relationship between himself and the gods, it is this realization that brings about deification.

The Yoruba society like any other African society comprises mainly of farmers and hunters whose means of livelihood depend mostly on proceeds from the land and forest. And they being aware of both physical and natural threats like war, farming drought, flood etc, realize the need to appease and propitiate the spirits and gods of the land at the appropriate time, for good harvest fruitful hunting, and protection from their adversaries.

In their bid to achieve all these, they developed festivals and rituals which most of the time involves a symbolic enactment of the life of some of the gods. The rituals mostly contain sacrifice, which is the acknowledged means of propitiation and purification. Sacrifices are made to the gods with things that are peculiar to each of them, ranging from in-animated to animated things. It is the priest or priestress as the case may be, that heeds in the ritual act. The people regard the priests and priestesses as representatives of the gods.

Modern African playwrights in their bid to present what can be characterized as a true African drama dive into the history and background of the people which are manifested in their myth, legend, folktales, taboos, proverbs, songs etc. They attempt to depict the sociological, religious, political, economic, cultural and ethical beliefs of the people vis-à-vis their norms and values. One example of such playwrights is Amos Tutuola, who, making perfect use of his knowledge about the Yoruba cosmos, wrote “The Palm-wine Drinkard”.

1.4 The Purpose and Significance of Study

The importance of studying this text is based on mythology. “The Palm-wine Drinkard” uses mythology and symbolism to explore various aspect of death. One definite theme is that death is not an end but a transition. The drunkard faces death many times and in many ways but lives through the experiences. In fact, early in the story be pays Death himself a visit and tricks Death into falling into a net, so that Death can not go back home again. “So since that day that I had brought Death out from his house, he has no permanent place to dwell or stay and we are hearing this name about in the world (Chapter 1, p. 199).

It is usual to hear that these tale express the “traditional sensibility” of an “African” world view and offer a window into the inchoate and frightening world of the primitive imagination. So general statement would be quite misleading. The story and the narrative and visionary techniques reflect one particular and identifiable aspect of a complex and sophisticated tradition.

In the oral tradition the folktale – a rural and cautionary story but clearly recognized as fiction and entertainment – had free range of this random and arbitrary world. Because they were intended for entertainment and instruction, these tales could be as horrific, frightening and bizarre as the inauguration could render them. They require the willing suspension of belief.

“The Palm-wine Drinkard” tells the story of a young man whose sole occupation is in drinking palm-wine, and lots of it. His father provides him with a palm-wine tapper who keeps him supplied when the palm-wine tapper dies, the palm-wine drinkard decides to undertake a journey to find him.

Through his journey he tricks men, gods, and ghosts, saves many people, and ends up meeting all kinds of different ghosts and creatures. The story is fantastic and well worth the read.

The story is told in Nigerian English as it existed when Tutuola wrote the book. The writing style gives it a very unique and different feel which really adds to the folktale feel and makes it seem more real.

1.5 Aims and Objectives

The most significant aim of myth is based on the element of supernatural and mysteries. This is done to create fear in bath the minds of the reader. In traditional African literature most of things done are shrouded in mysterious. Thus modern African playwrights rely heavily on these apparatus to create the desired effects in their text. African modern literature in its attempt to capture the mystic effects of the traditional literature, relies on costuming which has to correspond with the culture and belief of the Africans.

The former aim at the most general statement, focus on myth as one general factor in human thought, the teller emphasise the variety of myths. Efforts are made on one hand to father the inner meaning of myth because of the authoritative, indeed revelatory function they have for human existence, while on the other hand, there is tendency to deal with myth in term of general theory of man that may be inspired biologically, psychologically or any other way.

The original Greek term for myth (mythos) denotes “word” in the sense of a decisive, final pronouncement. Myth present extraordinary events without trying to justify them, people have sometimes assumed that myth are simply unprovable and false stories and thus have made the word a synonym for fable. However, through indept study of myth was discovered that there are distinct differences between myth and fable.

All survey of myth scholarship done by inquests, anthropologists, folklorists and literary critics reveal that a concensus of what the term ‘myth’ means has never seen achievement within any of these fields let alone among them. Even a simple rehearsing of the arguments that has taken place would lead us far away from our topic, so we will need to accept for the time being the working definition of myth in this work.

1.6 Methodology

The study is purely applied research, it is based on an extensive library research of published and unpublished materials. There is no doubt, however, sharing the same socio-cultural background with the playwright, the present researcher has a good insight into the study. This, in fact, does not make the study a basic research rather it is an applied research of critical examinations of Amos Tutuola’s mythic text.

1.7 Scope of Study

This study, however, shall focus on Amos Tutuola myth. One of his text, “The Palm-wine Drinkard” shall be critically and analytically examined base on the above topic, mythological icons in Amos Tutuola’s “The Palm-wine Drinkard”. To really do justice to this pre-occupation, the present researcher shall also adopts a form of comparative study of the text.

The study shall be divided into four chapters: Chapter one states the rationale behind the study and it also spells out the scope, organization and methodology of the study. Chapter two is review of relevant literature on nature of Amos Tutuola’s text, whilst in chapter three we shall examine the mythological element in Tutuola’s work. Chapter four, the last chapter, concludes the study.

1.8 Playwrights Autobiography

Amos Tutuola was born 1920, Abeokuta, Nigeria. He was a Nigerian writer. He had only six years of formal schooling and wrote in English and outside the mainstream of Nigerian literature. His stories incorporated Yoruba myths and legends into loosely constructed prose epics that improvised on traditional themes. His best – known work is “The Palm-wine Drinkard”(1952), a classic quest tale that was the first Nigerian book to achieve international fame. His later works include the tale The Witch – Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981), Yoruba Folktales (1986), and Village Witch Doctor (1990).

Tutuola hoard his first folk stories at his speaking mother’s knee when he was about 7 years old, one of his father’s cousins took him to live with F. O. Monu, an Ibe man, as a servant. Instead of paying Tutuola money, he sent the young boy to the salvation Army primary school. He attended tages High School for a year, and worked as a houseboy for a government clerk. His father Died in December 1938, Tutuola had to end his studies. He tried his luck as a farmer, but his crop failed and he moved to Lagos in 1940, during World War II he worked for the Royal. Air forces as a blacksmith, and stores a number of other vocations, including selling bread, and messengering for the Nigerian Department of Labour. In 1946 Tutuola completed his first full – length book, “The Palm-wine Drinkard”, within a few days – “I was a story teller when I was in the school”, he later said. Next year he married Victoria Alake.

“The Palm-wine Drinkard” and His Dead Palm in Tapster in the Dead’s Town by Amos Tutuola is the novel that gained Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola acclaim in the west and criticism at home. The book was based on Yoruba folklore, but was largely his own.

Amos Tutuola achieved only sixth grade education due to financial constraints following his father’s death. He later tried his hand at farming without success, then pursued the blacksmith trade. He served as a coppersmith in the West African Air Corps of the British military in World War II. After the War Tutuola had to take a job as a messenger, and it gave him time, between errands, to write down stories he had heard. His first novel, “The Palm-wine Drinkard” and his Dead Palm-wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, became the subject of much controversy because of its frequently ungrammatical, though stylist and vivid, writing.

A landmark work, it was the first novel to be published by a Nigerian author, and also the first novel by a black African to be written in English. The work is classified as a novel, but there has been some debate about whether this designation is accurate, since “The Palm-wine Drinkard” incorporates so much oral tradition. Indeed, this novel has provided many with their first glimpse into Yoruba folklore “The Palm-wine Drinkard” draws heavily on traditional folktales, which has been another source of controversy, prompting some claim that the work plagiarizes the intellectual property of the Yoruba people.

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