It’s Tidbit Tuesday. Rejoice!
It’s nearing Thanksgiving so today we’re going to talk about yams. Not all about yams because, frankly, it would take several posts. The history of the yam is complicated and lengthy and, while I think it would be mega interesting, I want to keep it simple.
So I’m going to tell you a bit about yam mythology. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about yam rituals.
The yam is a staple in many cultures. There are tons of species all over the world and for the most part they aren’t that different from each other. People use the word “yam” to talk about other root crops, like sweet potatoes, taro, and oca, but they aren’t the same root. The confusion comes from the origin of the word “yam.”
The word on the street is that on a trip to Africa to, uh, acquire more slaves, the Portuguese observed Africans digging up the roots. When they asked what the roots were, the Africans misunderstood the question and answered it was “something to eat.” The word for that phrase in Guinea is nyami. It became inhame in portugeuse, then igname in French, and finally yam in English.
Back to the mythology.
Most yam mythology comes from Africa and Oceania (the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, etc). For those areas, yams acted almost as a life giver. When famine rolled around you could count on yams to keep growing. Polynesian sailors relied on yams during voyages because they kept so well, whereas other foods would go bad. The importance of such a crop gave the Oceanic people a desire to explain its existence. One of the most popular beliefs was that yams came from the sky world and were brought to earth by a miracle.
Yam origin myths are unusual. There are your “we stole this glorious food item from the gods” and strange sex myths, but there is also a defecation myth.
Not even kidding, you guys.
Many of the South Pacific origin myths revolve around humans stealing yams (and other foods) from the gods or the gods taking food that already existed on earth. In one Samoan myth, flying gods stole yams from a high chief. Outraged, the chief sent his son to the spirit world to take them back.
Then there are the impregnation stories. A Maori myth tells the story of Whanui, keeper of the yam in heaven, and his brother Rongo-maui, god of agriculture, fruits, and cultivated plants. Whanui was hanging out in heaven, taking care of his yams, when one day Rongo-maui went up to heaven and stole the yam from his brother. He hid it in his loincloth and used it to impregnate his wife. She brought it to the people by giving birth to it, providing humans with the very first sacred yam. A Kiawi myth tells the tale of a man who copulates with the earth and accidentally impregnates a female spirit living under the earth. A short while later she gives birth to yams.
Shoulda used protection, dude.
In Oceania, women are the cultivators and harvesters of yams, which could explain the idea of the woman as the mother of the yam. On the other hand, the story of the amorous man and the female spirit, there is more focus on the soil. In either case, the yam is life giving and connected to fertility. In addition, many of the yam origin myths of the South Pacific deal with famine because the people had frequent experience with hunger and starvation. The yam, as a hearty, easily accessible vegetable, nourished the people and kept them alive.
Two examples of famine myths come from New Guinea. In one, the people are starving. A man noticed that, while the people were starving, the dogs were healthy and strong. He followed a dog one day and found it eating yams from the bottom of a pond. He brought them back to the people and saved them from starvation. And then there’s this gem: a woman sees a man taking a poo in a creek. Later, she finds yams in the same spot. She takes them home and plants them. They became the world’s first food plant.
I guess if it works, it works.
One African myth not only explains how the Ashanti got yams but also the Ashanti inheritance rule. The Ashanti people were in the middle of a famine. A man came to their village with yams. The villagers realized that they needed to get the yams to end the famine and searched all over for the plants. They finally found them but acquiring the plant was not enough. In order to grow the yams, they would have to surrender one of their own people in exchange. Everyone refused and the people continued to starve. Finally, a woman sacrificed her son to save her village from starvation. Because of her sacrifice, boys inherit property and wealth from their maternal uncles. When men die, they leave their all their possessions to their sister’s sons.
See ya tomorrow.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Andrews, Tamra. “Yams.” Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2000. 249-51. Print.
-Davidson, Alan. “Yams.” The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 858-9. Print.