A literature review of myths and rituals in American poetry.

Most African writers in the 70s and 80s drew extensively for their aesthetic devices, from far gone experiences within their societies to express modern sociological realities. These writers believe that African society at every time, age or civilization is the same in essence, and life is about quintessence. They think that approaches may differ due to developmental realities but African are a people with peculiar ethological sensibilities.

One good thing about African literature is, one can access true life and culture of the African people through their literature, even pre- writing African society can be experienced. The problem Africa had, especially in being reckoned with in global development is documentation. Documentation of her earliest socio-cultural, economic and political life. These were not recorded as such references to these activities are not seen to be authentic, but mere chains by African. And most times unfavorable assumption, being add used by non-Africans.

There are periods of African permittivity and another period of her golden age. The poem under examination in this discourse is one that captures primitive lifestyle within African cosmology, as to how primitive people confront their perceived metaphysical experiences.


In vain your bangles cast

Charmed circles at my feet

I am Abiku, calling for the first

And the repeated time.


Must I weep for goats and cowries

For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?

Yams do not sprout in amulets

To earh Abiku’s limbs


So when the snail is burnt in his shell

Whet the heated fragment, brand me

Deeply on the breast. You must know him

When Abiku calls again


I am the squirrel teeth, cracked

The riddle of the palm. Remember

This, and dig me deeper still into

The god’s swollen foot.


Once and the repeated time ageless

Though I puke. And when you pour

Libations, each finger points me near

The way I came, where

The ground is wet with mourning

White dew suckles flesh-birds

Evening befriends the spiders, trapping

Flies in wind – froth:


Night and Abiku sucks the oil

From lamps. Mothers I’ll be the

Supplaint snake coiled on the doorstep

Yours the killing cry.


The ripest fruit was saddest;

Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.

In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping

Mounds from the yolk.

Culled from: A selection of                                                       African poetry LONGMAN


In my previous article, I did mention that, knowledge of a poets personality gives insight to the content and understanding of a poem. For these poets do not write in experiential vacuum but respond to certain experience within their environment.

Wole Soyinka is a distinguished African writer. He has written in almost every genre of literature – play wrights, actor, producer, poet, film- maker, musician, essayist, editor and novelist. He has been a champion of the responsibility of art and the artist to society. He is a critic of society and the establishment, just like most African critics had paid the price – imprisonment.

Soyinka is a Nigerian, in West Africa. A Yoruba man in South West region of Nigeria. He studied at the University College Ibadan – Nigeria and Leads University, England. He had a degree in English. He was involved with the Royal court theatre at a time when it was the focus of revolution in English drama, also worked on Nigerian culture and literature through a Ford foundation grant. He was a fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge and Head of Department in many Nigerian Universities – presently, retired from his university chair but still actively involved in development of art in Africa. Soyinka was born in 1934 in Ake in Abeokuta Nigeria.

He wrote extensively, to mention but a few: Drama; A dance of the forest, The Lion and the Jewel, Brother Jero, The Road, Death and the kings Horseman, Opera Woyonsi, A Play of Giants. Novels; The Interpreter, and Season of Anomy. Memoir; The man Died, Ake, Poetry; Three volumes and others, Idanre, A shuttle in the Crypt, Ogun Abibima. A book of critical essays. Myth, literature and the African world and many others.

Soyinka won the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in (1986) The first Africa to be so honored.


‘Abiku’ is a Yoruba word for a child born to die young and to be reborn by the same woman over and over again. Such babies are believed to be accompanied to the world by spirits- who monitors activities around the child – who at the time of parents joy, calls the ‘Abiku’ child to return to spirit world – to the sorrows and pains of the parents. The child returns again to be born by the same parents, when they have overcome the sorrow of last event.

To put an end to Abiku’s repeated coming and returning, to and fro the spirit world parents resort to magic and rituals to forestall re-occurrence. The sacrificial attempts to shield Abiku child from Abiku Spirit and its defiant response to the magic and rituals, done to hinder its return, is what the poet replicates in this poem, as his aesthetic device, to bring to light contemporary issues.


The voice in the poem is that of Abiku spirit, for the Abiku Child cant talk but cry. It vents a challenge to the inefficiency of administered remedies. It says, ‘in vain your bangles cast’. Bangle cast are noise some beads meant to distract Abiku child from the calls of Abiku Spirit. Other items in the poem, goats, cowries, palm oil, and sprinkled ash are gifts used as palliatives to dissuade Abiku child to accept the perceived pleasures of the spirit world. To this Abiku spirit response. “Yams do not sprout in amulets” yam is metaphor of life. This means that, enchanted amulets can’t produce life.

The Abiku voice shows that it’s an intelligent being, it knows the activities around the parents in inference, Abiku is an old person, not a child. In the poem it refers itself as ‘ageless’, the parent repeatedly, plead with ‘Abiku’ child, despite its inability to neither understand nor speak, but the parents believe otherwise.

The poem is a monologue rendition of Abiku neither the voice of the enchanter; neither the priest nor the pleading parent is heard.


Religious methods may differ in different milieus but the essence remains the same. Man pleads with any perceived higher power incase of difficulty or issues beyond his comprehension – That applies in Abiku metaphysical concept. Most religion of the world, evolve from this background of uncertainty. Religion improves with time, when metaphysical becomes physical: Man confronts his challenges with any available response within his present environment. The concept of God and worship depends on the knowledge available to man at any given time. 


The belief that certain events cannot be explained by reason the fear of what is unknown or mysterious. ‘Abiku’ phenomenon keeps parents helpless and confused. In line 25 in the poem, Abiku, Spirit muck-up the sleepless mother watching the Abiku child throughout the night, still the spirit strikes and the child dies. It says “Night and Abiku sucks the oil from lambs” Abiku phenomenon is mysterious to desperate mothers and create fears of the unknown within them. After this experience, any other child from same woman is believed to be accompanied by some spirit.

Its believed that Abiku spirit has link with witchcraft that the poet refers as “White dew suckles flesh –birds” witches are believed to fly  like birds and eats human flesh, whose superior spiritual power over humans so expressed metaphorically as, “…………the spider, trapping flies in wind –froth”.


Abiku phenomenon is an ancient story that explains repeated infant deaths experienced within early period among Yoruba people of South west Nigeria. This experience was not exclusive of the Yoruba community but other communities had such experience. But the difference is with names and myth surrounding the experience within each community. These postulations are not scientific but imaginary. It’s not true, but concocted within the mind of the people; this has much influence over their existence.


Abiku may be empirical but can not be said to be scientific. Scientific discoveries have proved that, there are infant diseases that can kill repeatedly, children of the same parent, like cycle cell anemia, and others. Adequate pre- natal, anti- natal and post natal attention has given answers to the Abiku phenomenon. In addition improved hygienic condition has contributed to reduction in infant mortality.


This phenomenon is still striving on the back of insufficient medical personnel and facilities, mostly in rural areas. Also, illiteracy has kept some from embracing the present realities.


 The technique implores by the poet to tell his story includes; use of wise saying, proverbs, and African idioms. These are words mostly, used by the elderly. The sage of African community. To list a few; “Yams do not sprout in amulets”, “……the squirrel teeth, cracked the riddle of the palm”, “……….snail is burnt in his shell what the healed fragment”, “……….the god’s swollen foot”, “the ripest fruit was saddest”.

These uses of language have connotative and denotative meanings embellished therein. Space may not allow us to access each in this article but scholars in need for further analysis may make contact.


One may ask of what use is the for-gone myth to contemporary life, can it be used to explain recent or present realities? When this poem is read critically, such themes may be addused from the content.

a. Theme of helpless man in the hand of the supernatural. Today many medical issues keep doctors gazing in the space- patient are watched to die because no medical solution is available.

b.    Theme of death. Death is Abiku, that repeatedly calls for humanity, despite the bangle cast,palm oil, goats, magic and rituals of modern remedies. Death comes, all answers to its calls.

c. Theme of politics and governance. In African, especially during military dictatorship era, change of government occur frequently, the citizen receive such with joy and great expectation of change in their living standard. This expectation will soon become a charade like the joy of a new born baby. Abiku child who will soon turn to pain. The poet satirizes the African society – the political class.


This can not be all that’s needed to be said of this poem but will serve as a base to study of other poems of African origin. My critical analysis of African poems will continue in subsequent articles, later will undertake analysis in other genre of literature, novel, drama, panting, artifacts, music’s etc.

Liked it
Liked this? Share it!
Tweet this! StumbleUpon Reddit Digg This! Bookmark on Delicious Share on Facebook
Leave a Reply
comments powered by Disqus