Watched 'Greek Myths: Tales of Travelling Heroes' (BBC4. 23/05/12) and am convinced classical historian, Robin Lane Fox is on to something with his hypothesis that landscape inspired ancient stories.
He investigated the origin of Greek myths by visiting sites in modern Turkey with striking topographical features (e.g. Mount Cassios, Bald mountain to the Turks.) It was known, called something else then, to the pre-1200 B.C Hittites. Being the focal point for thunder and lightning in the area, Hittites and their successors believed this summit was home to a fearsome god. Lane Fox suggests that 8th century B.C Greek travellers, the Euboeans, took the tale and made it into their own Zeus. The rest is (classical) history.
It occurs to me that one could claim the same type of seed for San stories, which may, for all we know, be far older. Consider the story of Pishiboro, the trickster god and butt of many jokes in some San folktales. There is a cautionary tale about him mistreating a python he encountered. She was lying in a hollow, coiled around her eggs. He defecated on her. (I see you wrinkling your brow and nose, dear reader. Some of the Early Race tales sound shocking to Westerners raised on a diet of sanitised Grimm's fairytales. Remember that those too were never intended for children. For example, did you realise, as a child, that Sleeping Beauty was a tale of rape? (See the writings of Jack Zipes or Sheldon Cashdan should you wish to be awakened from your innocent slumber, princess.) I was clueless, buying into the whole life-giving kiss thing. Yes, he gave her life. Twins.
Anyway, I got an inkling that there was something fundamentally incredible in the tale, even for fabulists, some twenty years ago when I told it to a group of San. They had just treated me to an extraordinary folktale about Pythongirl and her jealous sister Jackal. Two minutes into the 'Sleeping Beauty' tale I knew I'd lost my audience. They couldn't willingly suspend disbelief in a tale about a comatose girl wakened by a snog. I had a lot more success with Henny Penny thinking the sky was falling. At this they slapped their thighs laughing at the hen's foolishness, as they do about Pishiboro's. Which reminds me ... back to a scatalogical story which may support an eminent scholar's theories about myth and landscape.
Pishiboro torments the python by pooing on her and her brood three times before she's had enough and sinks her fangs into his testicles. They swell to enormous proportions (during this part of a performance the San storyteller will delight in waddling, splay-legged, to demonstrate Pishiboro's discomfort. This gets the crowd thigh slapping.) Pishiboro runs off in pain, across the Kalahari, dragging his testicles, now the size of boulders, through the sand, gouging out the dry riverbeds one can still see in the area today. But Pishiboro finds no relief so he buries his gargantuan gonads in the sand, trying to cool them. Round and round he trundles, boring into the sand until he's made a deep hollow. 'And that is where we get our Kalahari water holes from,' the storyteller will say.
African novelist, writing tutor and UK academic.