|Death and the King's Horseman
can be read without
any detailed knowledge of Soyinka's own religious positions, yet the following may be helpful
in understanding Soyinka's judgments concerning certain aspects of religion
in the play:
- Soyinka was raised in a Christian home that included regular church
and Sunday School attendance
- He rejected Christianity as a college student and later began to
seriously research traditional Yoruba religion
- Soyinka's religious beliefs could best be described as eclectic: a
mixture of Western modernism, portions of Yoruba religion, and a smattering of
Christianity and Buddhism.
- His particular devotion to the Yoruba deity Ogun is in part based on
his understanding of himself as an artist. He sees Orgun as representative of both
the creative and destructive sides of humanity. Orgun represents the ever changing
cycle of human action.
From William McPherson's Introduction to Soyinka
"At its center and guiding its artistic mission lies the
idea of "organic revolution," which Soyinka contrasts with the neocolonial
practices that black Africa absorbed from European imperialism. As he defines the concept,
organic revolution is a process of communal renewal reached in moments of shared cultural
self-apprehension -- moments whose manner and content are particular to each society. Such
revolution is inherently local and cyclical, qualities more appropriate to African
culture, Soyinka argues, than the global teleologies of either Marxist communism or
capitalist nationalism. Indeed, Soyinka's mode of liberation ultimately displaces the
logic of Western politics with the rhythms of native ritual.
For the revolution he advocates rejects the abstractions of both dialectical materialism
and market economics for the particularity of ceremonial healing -- of the divisions that
isolate individuals from society and sever both from their sustaining integration with
The god whose ritual Soyinka offers as the model for this organic restoration is
Ogun , who
risks his own life to bridge the abysses that separate the three stages of Yoruba
existence -- the world of the ancestors, the world of the living, and the world of the
unborn. Ogun, as Soyinka reads the myth, is unique among tribal deities because he is at
home in none of these three structured states of experience. Rather, his realm is the
chaotic region of transition between them, what Soyinka calls the "fourth
stage" of the Yoruba universe, a condition where opposites collide without resolution in "a
menacing maul of chthonic strength that yawns ever wider to annihilate" all social
and natural order. Ogun's heroic passage through this realm not only preserves the
connections between the ancestors, the living, and the unborn. It also revitalizes the
Yoruba cosmos by benignly channeling into it fresh energies from the fourth stage.
This model of social revolution is essentially one of recurring crisis, where novel and
alien forces are regularly mastered and integrated into the matrix of tradition and
custom. It is to the challenge of this crisis that Soyinka commits his art, and only
within its context can the signature gestures of his style achieve their full meaning. But
once seen in the framework of Ogun's encounter with the fourth stage, Soyinka's discordant
mixing of genres, his willful ambiguities of meaning, his unresolved clashes of
contradictions cease to be the aesthetic flaws Western critics often label them and become
instead our path into an African reality fiercely itself and utterly other. "
Soyinka on Christ as a Symbol
"This, again, I believe is part of the
pattern of acceptance of European thought and ideas -- this idea of attributing the
concept of self-sacrifice to the Christian, to the Euro-Christian or Judeo-Christian
world, simply because a single figure emerged from that particular culture to espouse, in
very beautiful mythological terms, the cause of the self-sacrificing individual as a kind
of, as the surrogate for world suffering, social unhappiness, and general human
unhappiness. It is often forgotten that the idea of individual sacrifice-the principle of
the surrogate individual-is, in fact, a "pagan" one. Those who attribute this
concept to Europe forget that Christianity itself is not a European religion. And that
Christ, the central figure of Christianity, is really a glamorization of very
"paganistic" ideas: the idea of personalizing the dying old year, the dying
season; to insure the sprouting, the fertility, the idea of the emergence, in fact the
very resurrection, of Nature. All this is "pagan" -- "pagan" as an
expression used by the Christian world to describe the fundamentally natural, Nature
religions. I see Christianity merely as another expression of nature religion. I cannot
accept, I do not regard the principle of sacrifice as belonging to the European world. I
completely reject the idea that the notion of the scapegoat is a Christian idea. This
scapegoat idea is very much rooted in African religion...I think the obsession with
individual salvation -- which, if you like, is on the opposite end of the axis to
self-sacrifice -- is a very European thing. I am not aware that it occupied the minds of
our people. I think it is a very European literary idea; in fact, the obsession itself is
a very Christian principle. In our society, this kind of event, this process, is inbuilt
into the very mechanism which operates the entire totality of society. The individual acts
as a carrier and who knows very well what is going to become of him is really no
different, is doing nothing special, from the other members of society who build society
and who guarantee survival of society in their own way. I think there is one principle,
one essential morality of African society which we must always bear in mind, and that is
the greatest morality is what makes the entire society survive. The actual detailed
mechanism of this process merely differs from group to group and from section to section,
but it is the totality that is important. I think there is far too much concern about this
business of the Christian ethic of individual self-sacrifice. "
Interview by Louis S. Gates. Black World, v 24, #10 (August, 1975 )
Soyinka insists that the principle of sacrifice and the scapegoat
are not European things nor endemic to Christianity alone. For him, Christ is but a
symbol of these things. He also argues that African religion is more concerned with
communal salvation and not individual sacrifice.
The Ethics of the Theatre
"First of all I believe implicitly that
any work of art which opens out the horizons of the human mind, the human intellect is by
its very nature a force for change, a medium for change. In the black community here,
theater can be used and has been used as a form of purgation, it has been used
cathartically; it has been used to make the black man in this society work out his
historical experience and literally purge himself at the altar of self-realization. This
is one use to which it can be put. The other use, the other revolutionary use, may be far
less overt, far less didactic, and less self-conscious. It has to do very simply with
opening up the sensibilities of the black man not merely towards very profound and
fundamental truths of his origin that are in Africa in suddenly opening him...to new
experiences...as a means of making the audience question an identity which was taken for
so long for granted, suddenly opening the audience up to a new existence, a new scale of
values, a new self-submission, a communal rapport. By making the audience or a member of
the audience go through this process, a reawakening has begun in the individual which in
turn affects his attitude to the external social realities. This for me is a revolutionary
purpose...Finally and most importantly, theater is revolutionary when it awakens the
individual in the audience, in the black community in this case, who for so long has
tended to express his frustrated creativity in certain self-destructive ways, when it
opens up to him the very possibility of participating creatively himself in this larger
communal process. In other words, and this has been proven time and time again, new people
who never believed that they even possessed the gift of self expression become creative
and this in turn activates other energies within the individual. I believe the creative
process is the most energizing. And that is why it is so intimately related to the process
of revolution within society."
Interview edited by Karen L. Morell, April, 1974
Excerpted from: In Person -- Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of
Washington. Seattle: University of Washington, 1975.
Soyinka argues that theatre has for the African three important
- "a form of purgation," in that it brings one a measure of
- an awakening to a new state of community and its
- and a way
to express creativity in creative ways rather than self-destructive ones.
- How should we respond to the reality of death?
- Are different cultures' spiritual views
commensurable in any way?
- What forms of ritual shape our own lives and our
- Is Soyinka right to stir the direction of
the play away from a clash of cultures?
- What does he mean by "abyss of
- How would you characterize the initial
responses to death in the opening acts of the play, especialy of Elesin?
- What are some ways in which the Pilkings
do not understand native Yoruba viewpoints?
- How is Amusa treated by Pilkings and by
the young women of the market?
- Does Jane come to understand Olunde? Why
or why not?
- Why does Olunde respond the way he does to
- Why does Iyaloja speak the way she does to
Elesin in Act V?
- How does the play finally judge the
actions of Pilkings, Elesin, and Olunde?
- Are Soyinka's concerns with ritual and organic restoration present in
- Can Soyinka's view of Christ be found anywhere in his representations
- How can Soyinka's view of theatrical ethics be applied to the plot or
performance of the Death and the King's Horseman?