Headless Crabs

Text analysis

This aetiological narrative establishes the crab’s origin and its moral signification for the present. Narrated to children, it is a cautionary story that suggests identification —to be averted— between the audience and the ‘young crab’ character that does not know how to handle correctly when relationship with and feelings for his bosom friend are involved. According to Denise Paulme’s model, this narrative has a cyclical form, ascending from lack to amelioration for animals in general, and descending to definitive deterioration for crabs in specific.

SYoo, vinyewo mielia?
My children, are you present?

Formal introduction. The storyteller asks the attention of the children as public (and answer).

SMiawo ya, mietsi o ɖe!; nusiwo teƒe miekpɔe kpɔ o
You are immature!; the things we experienced, you have not experienced them
Mienya aleyi wotoa gliea?
You know how to tell stories?
SKe miatui masea
Then will you tell it for me to hear
SKe nuka nage miala hafi mato glia na mi?
Then what are you going to give me before I tell you a story?
Mi egbeviwo miega ame bum o ɖe.
You children of today, you no longer respect, do you?
Minya be yewo megale ame bum oa
Do you know you are no longer showing respect?
Kpa nané le afiya ɖe
There is something here
Mado gbe ɖa, ne mato gli na mi sia
Let me pray then I tell you a story
(He takes the drink and the glass)

Beginning of the long introduction included in the ritual for appeasing the ancestors as well as eventual evil influences (see later). It expresses the connection between storytelling and the sacred knowledge from the past derived from the ancestors. The educational function of storytelling is stressed by the recurring address to the children as ‘not knowing’ (the question whether they know how to tell a story; their qualification as being ‘immature’ and ‘not knowing respect’). The concept that ‘children of today do not know respect’ is generally used when adults teach children.

Oo! Ðevi menoa aha o hee
A child does not drink, you hear
(He starts to say libation prayer, pouring little drops of the local drink on the ground)

Adults drink while performing the ritual, but they have the duty to warn children against drinking.

Oh tɔgbiwo, mamawo,
Oh forefathers, foremothers
ao ɖe, ãa miatu xo vi aɖe na ɖeviwo le Seva afiya woatsɔ srɔ̃ nu ɖe ŋu etsɔ megbe.
No at all, we want to tell things of old to the young ones in Seva here so that they can learn from it for the future
à eglia ame tsitsiwo ƒe nu wo nye.
Stories are the preserve of the old

The storyteller addresses the ancestors (see the vocative form) and starts the libation prayer. By the expression “ao ɖe” (No at all) he implicitly refuses all forms of evil and states that it is his duty to carry out the libation. He avows the direct link between the knowledge from the past personified by the ancestors and the story that he is delivering to the children.

Ame tsitsiwo,
mia ahae yi
This is your drink
miava xɔ keŋkeŋ
that you should take all
Alebe susu nava miato gli na ɖeviwo woadze fiató adze ga to
For knowledge to tell stories to children properly
woazɔ ɖe eŋu etsɔ sia
to serve as a guide for them in the near future

Libation’s offer and repetition of the concept of the educational function of the story and of the link it establishes between past, present and future.

Aha meƒoa aɖe o
Liquor is not used when one wants to make a speech
Miatɔe nye fafa
Yours is peace
Dzɔge tɔwo tɔe yi, amesiame tɔe ma, keŋkeŋ
That one is for people far away, that is for everybody, all of you

The ritual function of drinking is affirmed as well as the libation’s prophylactic function, so that the ancestors rest in peace and, in a cover form (‘people far away’), the evil dead too.

Nye ŋutɔ me ɖeka zi ge fia ɖe hã
I my own, I will take one
Ɖeviwo migawɔe o hee
Children, don't do it eh!
Are you taking?
(He invites one of his friends to drink)
BSue aɖe
A little
(They drink)
SKe wo ŋutɔ lee ɖe asi
Then you hold it yourself
Nenɔ axa dzi afi yi nɛm
Let it be on my side here

Concluding the ritual, the storyteller and another senior man (the School Headmaster) share drank.

Ɖeviwo miase o ɖe
Children listen
Mise gli loo!
Listen to the story
AEgli neva
Let the story come
SMiga see ake!
Listen to the story again!
AEgli neva!
Let the story come!

The storyteller asks the children’s attention again by using the introductory formula “listen to the story, let the story come”.

CHafi miadze gɔmea
Before we start
Miabiɛ tso miasi be
We ask of you
Miadzi ha ɖeka
To sing one song
Hafi Papa nato glia na mi
Before Papa tells you the song
Yoo, akpe na mi
Okay thank you
Yoo (they clap)
CEvɔ eha neva
Okay let's have a song
Musical interlude with dancing
Fetridetsi akplea na vivi
Chicken soup with porridge sweet
Dahumetɔwo gbɔna
People from Dahome (Benin) are coming
Fetridetsi akplea navivi
Okro soup with porridge sweet
Ga ene me tɔwo gbɔna
Four o clock people are coming

At this point, the interviewer asks the children a song.

The children’s song focuses on foods (sweet porridge and okro soup) that children love, and on the danger represented by adults who will eat it (‘people from Dahomey’, i.e. present-day Benin, and adults who come back at four o’clock).

SÐevi ɖeviwo
SÐeviwo miele aƒea mea
Children, are you in the house
SMato gli aɖe nami e
Let me tell you stories
Edo dzidzɔ na mia?
Is it pleasing to you?
SMienya nuita eta mele agalã si oɖoa?
Do you know why a crab has no head?

The storyteller takes up the narration after the children’s song and dance. The formal introduction is repeated, but this time he shifts rapidly to the main theme of the story: ‘Why crabs do not have heads.’

SÃ magblɔ eƒe nya nami miase sea eye mato gli tso eŋu na mi hee.
I want to say the words for you to hear and I tell the story about it for you

Repetition of the educational function of the narrative.

SEgli tso υuu edze lãwo dzi
Story moves and lands on animals
AWodze wo dzi
It lands on them
SWo dze tɔmelãwo dzi
It moves for long and lands on aquatic animals
AWodze wo dzi
It lands on them
SDze aƒemelãwo hã dzi
It moves for long and lands on domestic animals
AWodze wo dzi
It lands on them

Standard formula that establishes and anticipates the characters that the public can expect as actors in the story (aquatic animals, domestic animals).

The description of the story that ‘moves for long and lands on…’ reinforces the idea that storytelling delivers ancestors’ knowledge from the past, as it was already expressed in the introduction and libation prayer.

SMienya nusi va dzɔa?
Do you know what happened?
SGbeɖekagbe wo li a,
One day they were there
SLã ɖesiaɖe lia, ta mele esi o.
Every animal that existed did no have a head
ɖeko wo li nogo ko
They were there, headless
Hukae dzɔ ta mele lãwo si o háà?
Why did animals not have a head?

The storyteller asks again the attention of the children and starts to deliver his story.

The story starts in an undetermined past and relates of a world different from the present one because of a general lack: all animals lack heads. They question their existence without head.

Eva dze agbagba
He tried
Agalã tɔgbia va dze agbagba kakake
The grandfather of crab tried
esrɔ kabita dɔ
He learnt carpentry
enɔ nu kpam
He was carving/making things
Ko ekpana ta ná lã ɖesiaɖe
He was carving heads for every animal
eyi wonɔ ta kpam na lã ɖesiaɖea, ele be woadzrae
As he was carving heads for every animal, he had to sell them
etsɔ via, ebua ame, Agalã ebua tɔgbia nyuie
He took his child, he is respectful, he respected his grandfather very much
ye wotsɔ eta de asi nɛ
And he entrusted the heads to him

Crab (Grandfather crab) offers a solution to the initial lack. He learns carpentry and makes heads for the animals.

He is characterized by knowledge and skill, and by his position as elder. Divine creation is not explicitly mentioned, although the action of carving animals’ heads (it is not said with what material) belongs to the sphere of ‘creation’. The trustworthy relationship between Grandfather crab – with knowledgeable craft – and Crab (Young crab) is established: Young crab respects Grandfather and is entrusted with the selling of the heads. Their hierarchical relation is expressed by their actantial roles as respectively Power (Grandfather crab) and Receiver (Young crab). The concept of ‘respect’ is not explicit, but the narrative unfolds it as obedience and understanding.

AGbemagbe mele eteƒe
On that day, I was present
SNeva mise
Let it come for us to hear

The narration is interspersed with songs thanks to the interaction with the public. A well-known formula allows the audience to intervene by taking witness of the events narrated (“I was present”) and shifting in time from the past (“on that day”) to the present (“let it come for us to hear”).

Musical interlude with dancing
Fetridetsi akplẽa na vivi
Okro soup the porridge tastes good
Ga ene me tɔwo gbɔna
Four o clock people come around

Interlude with song’s refrain.

AKpɔ aɖe
Look your tongue (Its your turn)
SGbemagbea woe nye Agalã tɔgbia
On that day, you are grandfather crab

The storyteller assigns a character to the child who started to sing and makes the story shift back in time again (“on that day”). A storyteller can assign the audience righteous or bad characters, what implies a form of control on the audience’s role and position. In this case, the Grandfather’s positive role is assigned (rewarding).

Ke Agalã tɔgbuia tsɔ Agalã
Then grandfather crab appointed crab
be nenɔ ta dzram na wo tɔwo
that he should be selling the head to his peers
Ko lã ɖesiaɖe ne ehia eta ko eva na Agalã gbɔ.
Then when every animal needs head he comes to crab

The task is assigned and carried out. The heads’ selling takes place and the appointed role of Young Crab is confirmed.

Ke Agalã tɔgbuia tsɔ Agalã
Then grandfather crab appointed crab
be nenɔ tawo dzram na wo tɔwo
that he should be selling the heads to his peers
Ko lã ɖesiaɖe ne ehia eta ko eva na Agalã gbɔ.
Then when every animal needs head he comes to crab
Evɔ ta mele agalã ŋutɔ si haɖeke o.
However, crab himself has not got a head yet
Tɔgbia gblɔe nɛ be ɖe
The grandfather told him
benedze agbagba woaɖo ŋku eɖokui,
that he should try and keep this in mind
Wo he be yoo.
And he said: yes

The narrative presents a second lack, expressed in the specific form of the initial one: Young crab lacks his head.

Warning of Grandfather crab and anticipation of the test that Young crab has to go through.

Young crab agrees.

Koa, Tɔgbia nɔ ta kpam
Then, the grandfather was carving the head
wò nɔa dzadzram na lãwo vovovo.
He was selling to the different animals
adzrae na akpa, blolo, bɔyi adzrae na lã yi…
he sells to tilapia, and sells it to different types of fish
Mienya nuyie va dzɔa?
Do you know what happened?
SAgalã tsɔ eta ɖeka da ɖi na eɖokui
Crab kept one head for himself
be eya edze mo anyi nyuie; eya za ge yeala
that it was so pretty; that is what he would use

Repetition and expansion on the previous actions.

The storyteller mentions a number of fishes known to the children, and then resumes the narrative line.

Disclosure of the test. At this point, different resolutions of the test are still possible (“Young crab keeps a head for himself”: is he acting correctly? does he understand Grandfather crab correctly?).

Wòle edzi eta dzram; ele edzi etsɔ,
He continued selling the head; he continued tomorrow
ele edzi nyitsɔ; ele dzi etsɔ, ele dzi nyitsɔ...
He continued the previous day, he continued and continued
Ʋukeke Agalã tɔgbia tsi eku tɔgbi
For a long time; the grandfather of crab grew very old
ko ne ekpa ta koa ekɔe dzra
When he carves the head he sells it
newo kpae ko ekɔe dzra
When he carves the head he sells it

Repetition and expansion with anticipation of risk (“grandfather had grown very old”).

Ema dzi wole ko mienya nuyi va dzɔa?
That was what they were doing, you know what happened?

The storytelling asks for attention.

SGbeɖekagbe koa, Tɔgbia kpa ta vavãa aɖe
One day, the grandfather carved a beautiful head
ya ko wokɔe da ɖi be
And he put it aside
Eya kɔge yeala woanye
And he said that was the one he would take to be
yetɔ elabe eya nyakpɔ, dze ɖeka nyuie,
his own because it is very pretty, it is handsome
koa miekpɔ amenuvevea..?
then you see kindness?

Confirmation of test and correct handling of Young crab: he understood well, he had to take a head for himself. Grandfather crab manifests his consideration for Young crab by carving and choosing for him a ‘pretty’ head. Young crab has passed the test.

Without mentioning the concept ‘respect’, the storyteller gives a clear example of the ‘right’ behaviour elders expect from children.

Suspense (does the story end at this point? How it comes that crab has no head?).

Agalã xɔlɔ vevie aɖe va
Crab’s bosom friend came
yeƒe velia vevi aɖe vá be yehiã na ta le ɣetrɔme
his friend cam esaying he needs a head in the afternoon

The test is resumed in the form of the moral dilemma: Young crab’s bosom friend lacks his head too.

AGbemagbe mele eteƒe
That day I was present
Let it come
Musical interlude with dancing
SMido vivi ɖe hã ŋú
Put some life/joy into the song
AAgbelimɔkplẽ kple fetridetsi
Cassava porridge and okro soup
Vivina kaka tso eme
It tastes more than the best
Vivina, vivina ŋutɔ
It tastes very well

The narration is interspersed with another child’s intervention.

(see before)

AKpɔ aɖe
Look your tongue (Its your turn)
SEe gbemagbe woe nye elã yi va ƒle eta mamlɛa
On that day you are the animal who came to buy the last head

The storyteller assigns the child the skilful friend’s role (rewarding).

Yako ɣetrɔ me koa eƒe velia va ɖe kuku nɛ υuu yeƒe velia υuu koa
Then in that afternoon, his friend pleaded for long
Yako wotsɔ eta yia wo da ɖi na eɖokuia wokɔe dzra na eƒe velia
Then he sold the head he kept for himself to his friend
be yewo kplia tsi metoa yewo kpli dome o.
explaining that they were so close (water does not pass through them)
Eta ma wodzra gbemagbe ƒe zã me
That head he sold that night
koa Tɔgbia ku!
And the grandfather died!
AAo, Oh! Oh! Oh!
No, oh no!
SAgalã Tɔgbia ku!
Crab's grandfather died!
AOh! Oh!
Oh no!

Repetition and expansion on the test. Young crab could not ‘say no’ to his bosom friend and sells his own head.

At this point, the test could still open up to different resolutions (“is he acting correctly? will he get another head?”), but the question at the beginning of the story (“why crabs have no head”) warns the audience as to what follows.

The risk ventilated before becomes now definite: Grandfather died and there are no more heads. The storyteller does not explain or makes the point explicit, but the children’s answer “Oh! Oh! Oh!” express the understanding of the situation. Didactic form of instruction: the children have to draw the conclusion.

SNuma va wɔe be Agalã eta meva le esi o.
That made crab not to have a head
Miekpɔ Agalã ƒe ta kpɔa?
Have you ever seen a crab’ s head?

Aetiological ending: the present world (headless crabs) has its foundation in the past (re)-created in the story.

SNumata amenuveve fuũa ɖe wo tsia ƒuƒlu ame loo
That is why too much kindness will make you be naked

The moral dilemma is disclosed and elucidated. Moral teachings: you have to learn to draw a line between kindness (Grandfather crab) and over-kindness (Young crab); friendship should not prevent you from ensuring your own health and well-being.

Ye metsɔ tso afimae ye nyagaɖeɖia aɖe tsɔ ble me
That is what an old lady used to deceive me
Ye metsɔ be matsɔ ble mie loo.
And I want to use and deceive you

Formal ending. Final formulas often have a prophylactic function in order to avoid or divert evil influences. Here, the old lady as ‘giver’ of the story marks the distance between story and actual storyteller, enforcing the idea that the storyteller does not ‘own’ the stories. The ‘deceiving’ quality of narration is moreover stressed, indicating that this narrative genre belongs to the realm of fiction (as a deceiving story). However, the storytelling is attributed a form of veridicity at the beginning of the narration, when stories are presented as a form of wisdom derived from the ancestors’ knowledge, and in the aetiological ending that anchors the present world in the narrated past.

‘Deceiving’ also points to the expectation that the story constitutes a test for the audience. This seems to be confirmed in the subsequent line, when the storyteller uses the term ‘adzo’ (for ‘riddle’ and ‘riddle story’) when he indicates ‘this is the end of the story’.

Adzo ɖu mie mi
This is the end of the story
AWoe tso gli wo de
You are from the land of stories

The closing formula highlights the storyteller’s belonging to the (ancestors’) world of storytelling and the children’s capability to keep and tell stories (‘you have cupped ears’).

Musical interlude with dancing
Kpɔkplɔkuku dzimeloto
Dead frog with a bloated back
Ata ŋeŋi abɔ ŋeŋi…
Broken legs and arms…

Children’s song referring to the dead frog’s story.