One of the classes I’ve been taking this semester as part of my Undergraduate program in Religion is “Myth and Ritual.” This class has been positively awash with lively discussion. As part of our multicultural and multiregional exploration of the role, place, significance, and meaning of societal myth we recently read and examined an African fertility myth belonging to the Fon tribe entitled “The Quarrel between Sagbata and Sogbo.”
This myth recounts the rivalry of two sibling deities, Sagbata and Sogbo, both sons of the Great Creator Goddess Mawu. Mawu, having stepped aside from her reign, enlists her sons to be co-rulers of the Universe; yet, the relationship between the two brothers is marked by tension and tumult. As each refuses to cooperate with the other they bitterly part ways. Sagbata, the oldest brother, decides to descend to earth and live amongst humankind while Sogbo remains a tenet of the sky. Sogbo, after having gained more power and the allegiance the other sky deities and still angry with his brother, ceases all rain from falling to earth thus, inflicted a three year draught upon the land and all its inhabitants. Having seen the immense devastation caused by this draught Sagbata, decides to cede to the rule of Sogbo and Sagbata gives Sogbo his inherited portion of universal control and power, in return for rain and the restoration of life to the earth, its creatures, and its people. Sogbo accepts, sends reign, and the two brothers are then reunited in friendship.
In the classroom discussion that followed this reading I suggested that this story is illustrative of the World healing power of humility. One of my classmates rightfully refuted this claim as only one of the brothers, Sagbata, exhibited a decided enactment of humilitude.
This is an excellent point and I can certainly see where the confusion arises in the story of Sagbata and Sogbo, especially in reference to humility, being that only one of the two seems to actually learn the lesson. Yet, I think, in a way, that is part of the lesson in and of itself. Often those situations where the acts of the humble are most detrimentally necessitated, humility is neither reciprocal nor participatory. It is the willful diminishment of oneself, it is self-sacrificial. Had Sagbata waited for a mutual expression of humility the whole of the created order would have surely broken down beyond repair before either party would have budged. Thus, through the solitary act of Sagbata lowering himself, the doors to restoration, both ecologically and familial, are flung open wide, in ways that they would have never been otherwise.
This reminds me of the endeavors of figures such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each decisively “turned the other cheek” and refused to return violence with more violence. Yet, these are not acts of weakness; on the contrary, these are the most powerful acts possible. These acts do more violence to the structures of power than the most malicious acts of violence the power structures can do to others. Humility is the ultimate negating act. It turns the entire systems of power upside down.
Oppressive and vengeful acts of violence are not acts of power rather they are acts of absolute impotence. It is only through the forced subjugation of a victim that the oppressor can garner power. The oppressor is ultimately weak and displays his weakness and hunger for power through his insistence of violent pursuits, as he can only attain power by robbing the victim of power. Humility on the other hand, is the game changer; it is the wrench in the gears of this system. The would be victim denies participation in this ritual by refusing to be robbed of his power, instead he rather willfully and freely offers it to the would be oppressor. By doing this the victim refuses to play the part of the victim and the potentially oppressed does not lose his power but more fully attains and inhabits it. Thus, as there is no victim, the oppressor can no longer fulfill his role as the oppressor and is forced to more fully inhabit his weakness