Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story, from an extinct language group in Southern Africa, offers an explanation for the beginnings of death.
The original language this story was told in was the |Xam language, which is now extinct. The people who spoke this language are part of a larger ethnic group commonly referred to as “Bushmen”; in academic circles, the term “San” is used. Both names may have pejorative connotations for the people to whom they refer; I have chosen to use the academic term.
When the San people first saw the new moon, they would look towards it, and put their hands over their eyes, and say this:
“Star, O Star, yonder in the sky!
Take my face there. You shall give me my face there.
When you have died, Moon, you return, alive again;
We no longer saw you, and then you came again.
Take my face that I may resemble you.
You always return, alive again, after we lose sight of you.
It was the hare that told you that you should do this.
It used to be that you told us that we also should return,
Alive again, after we had died.”
Having said this prayer, once a man of the San people named Dia!kwain followed the prayer by telling this story:
In the beginning, the hares looked much like a human beings. And when they died, they did not die forever, for after a time they would return to living once again.
There was a young male hare whose mother died. She would not return to life, for she was altogether dead. Seeing this, the hare cried out for his mother.
The Moon heard the hare. “You should leave off crying,” he said to the hare. “Your mother is not altogether dead. She will return to living once again, just as I do. When I am dead, I return, and once I return I am living once again.”
“I am not willing to be silent,” said the hare. “You are wrong. I know that my mother will not become alive again. She is altogether dead.”
The Moon became angry that this young hare should speak this way, and not agree with what the Moon said. So the Moon hit the hare in the mouth, splitting the hare’s lip. “The hare’s mouth shall always be like this,” said the Moon. And the Moon gave the hare the form that all hares have today, with a lip that is in two parts, and longs legs for running.
“The hare shall always bear this scar on his face,” said the Moon. “And the dogs shall always chase him, and he shall have to spring away, doubling back and forth as he tries to run away. If the dogs catch him, they will bit him and tear him to pieces, and he will altogether die, and never return to living once again.”
“And they who are human beings,” said the Moon, “when they die, they too shall altogether die, and never return to living once again. For the hare was not willing to agree with me when I told him that he should not cry for his mother. The hare was not willing to agree with me when I told him that his mother was not altogether dead, but would return to living once again.
“I told the hare,” the Moon went on, “that all people should be like me, and do that which I do. When I am dead, I return, and once I return I am living once again. But the hare contradicted me, when I told him that.”
And the Moon spoke further, saying: “Ye who are people, when ye die ye shall altogether vanish away. Before I said that when ye died, ye should again arise, ye should not altogether die — just the way that when I die, I again return living. I had intended that ye who are people, ye should resemble me and do the things I do. I had thought that I would give you joy. But the hare, when I tried to tell him about this — when I tried to tell him that his mother had not really died, but that she only slept — the hare was the one who said that his mother did not sleep, that she had altogether died. This is what I became angry about, for I thought the hare would say, ‘Yes, my mother is just asleep’.”
Because of the hare, the Moon cursed him, and cursed all people, all of us. And this is the story that tells why when we died, we die altogether, never to return.
The storyteller Dia!kwain went on to add:
This is the story of the hare that San mothers told to their children: the hare had once been like a human being, but when he talked the way he did to the Moon, the Moon cursed him, and turned him altogether into a hare. And the San mothers told their children that to this day, hares have a bit of human flesh left in them. For this reason, the San mothers would say to their children, when they killed and ate a hare, there was one small piece of meat, called the ||katten-ttu, which they should not eat.
Notes on pronunciation:
Based on descriptions in the source book:
The symbol || represents a lateral click. The speaker covers the whole of the palate with the tongue and produces the click as far back as possible; “A similar sound is often made use of in urging forward a horse”.
The symbol ! represents a cerebral click. “This is sounded by curling up the tip of the tongue against the roof of the palette, and withdrawing it suddenly and forcibly.”
Source and Notes:
This story comes from “The Origin Of Death; Preceded By A Prayer Addressed To The Young Moon,” Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek, Lucy C. Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore (London: George Allen & Co., 1911). I stuck to this original text, a translation of the original |Xam language, as much as possible, but rearranged the story and removed some redundancies to conform to narrative norms of written English.
The story was dictated to Bleek and Lloyd in 1875 by Dia!kwain: “Dia!kwain gives fifteen pieces, which are in the Katkop dialect, which Dr. Bleek found to vary slightly from that spoken by ||kabbo and |a!kungta. He came from the Katkop Mountains, north of Calvinia (about 200 miles to the west of the homes of |a!kungta and ||kabbo). He was at Mowbray from before Christmas, 1873, to March 18th, 1874, returning on June 13th, 1874, and remaining until March 7th, 1875.” (from the Preface)
Above: A photographic portrait of Dia!kwain in European clothing, from the Bleek and Lloyd Archive.