Carl Einstein finds inspiration in African fairy tales (1917)

Carl Einstein (1885-1940) was a German-Jewish historian and art critic who is well-known for championing and promoting modernist art. Like many modernists, he was impressed with new discoveries that pointed to a long tradition of sophisticated arts and culture in Africa. He fought in the First World War and spent much of it working in the colonial office of occupied Belgium, where he had the opportunity to research African art and legends collected by colonial authorities. Since Herder, folk legends had been seen as an expression of a people’s cultural roots and were thus necessary for appreciating any culture. He was interested in myths, especially origin stories (humanity, death, war, light and dark) that readers might compare with European stories. But as an expressionist he was also interested in using such “primitive” cultural artifacts as a way to make readers question the stifling conventions of modern civilization and suggest the liberating possibility of new ways of life. Stories of broken conventions, human imperfection, and violence drew his eye, as well as stories that suggest a break with the existing order could be a creative force. Rather than translating them directly, he re-told the stories in ways that made them sound more “authentic,” chiefly by writing in simple language and removing them from any historical context. 

The story reprinted below, from the Bakuba kingdom in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, tells a story of how humans learned to make fire.

Jeff Bowersox


How one kindles a fire

During the reign of Muchu Mushanga there lived a man with the name of Kerikeri. One night he dreamed that Bumba game to see him and told him to go on a certain path, to break off branches of a certain tree, and to carefully hold onto them. He did this, and when the branches were completely dried out, Bumba came to him in a new dream, congratulated him on his obedience and directed him to make rows of fire. Kerikeri kept his secret to himself and when by chance all the fires of the village were extinguished, he sold fire to his neighbors at a high price. All clever and smart men tried to discover his secret, but he protected it carefully.

Muchu Mushanga had a very beautiful daughter with the name of Katenga; he said to her, “if you can discover the secret of this man, you will be honored and sit among the elders like a man.” Katenga tantalized Kerikeri, and he fell in love with her. When Katenga saw this, she ordered that all the fire of the village be extinguished and sent a slave to tell Kerikeri to expect her in his hut in the evening. When this was accomplished, she slipped to his hut and knocked on the door. The night was very dark. Kerikeri allowed her in.

She sat herself down and remained silent. The lover asked, “why are you silent Katenga? Do you not love me?” She replied, “how can I think of love when I am shivering in your house? Go, get fire so that I can see you and warm my heart.”

So Kerikeri ran to the neighbors to get fire, but, remembering Katenga’s instructions, they had put out their fire, and he returned having found none. In vain he entreated Katenga to ease his desire, she persisted that he should start a fire. Finally he gave in, found his sticks and prepared a fire while she watched attentively. Then she laughed and said, “you thought that I, a king’s daughter, loved you just for who you are? I only wanted to see your secret, and now that the fire has been kindled, you can have a slave put it out.” Then she arose, fled from the hut, announced the secret to the entire court, and said to her father, “where a powerful king founders, a crafty woman will succeed….”

Source: Carl Einstein, “Negermythen,” Marsyas (1917): 45-46. Translated by Jeff Bowersox.

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