December 12, 2003

Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka on Yoruba myths and the Humanization of the Gods

by Sunday Angleton, A'04, Intern in the Offices of Public Affairs and Publications

Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize laureate, with Professor of English Phanuel Akubueze Egejuru at a reception after Soyinka's public address on November 5. Egejuru invited the playwright, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, to campus. Soyinka wrote Camwood on the Leaves, which recently ran in the Lower Depths Theater. Energetic drumming and a song like a crow laughing declared Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka's progression on stage in Roussel Hall before a full house. Dressed in purple feathers and adorned with silver and gold beads, Brian Nelson, a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, extended a traditional African welcome to Soyinka and set the mood for the audience of 650 people.

Professor of English Phanuel Egejuru, planner of Soyinka's November 5 lecture titled "Youba Myths and the Humanization of the Gods," announced that Niyi Osundare, "second in command in poetry of Nigerian literature in English," would introduce Soyinka. Osundare, who was honored to introduce "indisputably one of the world's best writers and thinkers," went on to describe Soyinka as "a deeply sensitive and responsible person."

Soyinka began by briefly describing "the importance of academic exchanges that raise awareness of complex religious cultures" and "further curiosity in invisible religions" borrowing from Ralph Ellison's allusion to the invisible man as a creature of society's denial. He immediately noted the difference between Yoruba religion and the other major world religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which he described as claiming "spiritual monopoly" and "creating a dismal example."

Soyinka described religion as the "hand maiden of acts of violence" when people fail to recognize that spiritual truths can be captured in many religious constructs and that universal truth is too varied to simply be captured in one system. He described ethics as first "the product of human intelligence and then extended to the supernatural."

Before describing the humanization of the gods, Soyinka provided a short explanation of the Yoruba people and how they were affected by colonization and the introduction of foreign religions. He emphasized the "heavy toll on the mental orientation of Yoruba youth" and the attempt by Christian religion to measure Yoruba gods according to standards of hierarchy normative to monotheistic religions. He explained the early attempts of missionaries to identify a "devil figure" in the pantheon of Yoruba gods. Soyinka described the face of religious intolerance as the face of power lust and the devastation caused by the violence and contemptuousness of Christian iconoclasts when they invaded the black world.

Soyinka explained the Yoruba worldview as centered in compromise and stated that the greatest Yoruba virtue is tolerance. He claims that the survival of Yoruba religion in Cuba and Brazil is because of the powerful sense of tolerance and compromise. "The deities have compromised with present times and modern technologies," he said, citing, "the practice of placing god representations and saints on the single same altar in Brazil.

"The gods are exemplars of human striving," said Soyinka, "paradigms of existence and phenomenon." He went on to say, Yoruba gods are not perfect or infallible, "infallibility is seen as mystification."

Equipped with a deep, rich voice, Soyinka concluded his lecture with an invitation for questions. Soyinka's appearance was part of the university's Biever Guest Lecture Series.