The King and the Ju Ju Tree
South African folktale – Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria
Udo Ubok Udom was a famous king who lived at Itam, which is an inland town, and does not possess a river. The king and his wife therefore used to wash at the spring just behind their house.
King Udo had a daughter, of whom he was very fond, and looked after her most carefully, and she grew up into a beautiful woman.
For some time the king had been absent from his house, and had not been to the spring for two years. When he went to his old place to wash, he found that the Idem Ju Ju tree had grown up all round the place, and it was impossible for him to use the spring as he had done formerly. He therefore called fifty of his young men to bring their matchets (knifes) and cut down the tree. They started cutting the tree, but it had no effect, as, directly they made a cut in the tree, it closed up again; so, after working all day, they found they had made no impression on it.
When they returned at night, they told the king that they had been unable to destroy the tree. He was very angry when he heard this, and went to the spring the following morning, taking his own matchet with him.
When the Ju Ju tree saw that the king had come himself and was starting to try to cut his branches, he caused a small splinter of wood to go into the king’s eye. This gave the king great pain, so he threw down his matchet and went back to his house. The pain, however, got worse, and he could not eat or sleep for three days.
He therefore sent for his witch men, and told them to cast lots to find out why he was in such pain. When they had cast lots, they decided that the reason was that the Ju Ju tree was angry with the king because he wanted to wash at the spring, and had tried to destroy the tree.
They then told the king that he must take seven baskets of flies, a white goat, a white chicken, and a piece of white cloth, and make a sacrifice of them in order to satisfy the Ju Ju.
The king did this, and the witch men tried their lotions on the king’s eye, but it got worse and worse.
He then dismissed these witches and got another lot. When they arrived they told the king that, although they could do nothing themselves to relieve his pain, they knew one man who lived in the spirit land who could cure him; so the king told them to send for him at once, and he arrived the next day.
Then the spirit man said, “Before I do anything to your eye, what will you give me?” So King Udo said, “I will give you half my town with the people in it, also seven cows and some money.” But the spirit man refused to accept the king’s offer. As the king was in such pain, he said, “Name your own price, and I will pay you.” So the spirit man said the only thing he was willing to accept as payment was the king’s daughter. At this the king cried very much, and told the man to go away, as he would rather die than let him have his daughter.
That night the pain was worse than ever, and some of his subjects pleaded with the king to send for the spirit man again and give him his daughter, and told him that when he got well he could no doubt have another daughter but that if he died now he would lose everything.
The king then sent for the spirit man again, who came very quickly, and in great grief the king handed his daughter to the spirit.
The spirit man then went out into the bush, and collected some leaves, which he soaked in water and beat up. The juice he poured into the king’s eye, and told him that when he washed his face in the morning he would be able to see what was troubling him in the eye.
The king tried to persuade him to stay the night, but the spirit man refused, and departed that same night for the spirit land, taking the king’s daughter with him.
Before it was light the king rose up and washed his face, and found that the small splinter from the Ju Ju tree, which had been troubling him so much, dropped out of his eye, the pain disappeared, and he was quite well again.
When he came to his proper senses he realised that he had sacrificed his daughter for one of his eyes, so he made an order that there should be general mourning throughout his kingdom for three years.
For the first two years of the mourning the king’s daughter was put in the fatting house by the spirit man, and was given food; but a skull, who was in the house, told her not to eat, as they were fatting her up, not for marriage, but so that they could eat her. She therefore gave all the food which was brought to her to the skull, and lived on chalk herself.
Towards the end of the third year the spirit man brought some of his friends to see the king’s daughter, and told them he would kill her the next day, and they would have a good feast off her.
When she woke up in the morning the spirit man brought her food as usual; but the skull, who wanted to preserve her life, and who had heard what the spirit man had said, called her into the room and told her what was going to happen later in the day. She handed the food to the skull, and he said, “When the spirit man goes to the wood with his friends to prepare for the feast, you must run back to your father.”
He then gave her some medicine which would make her strong for the journey, and also gave her directions as to the road, telling her that there were two roads but that when she came to the parting of the ways she was to drop some of the medicine on the ground and the two roads would become one.
He then told her to leave by the back door, and go through the wood until she came to the end of the town; she would then find the road. If she met people on the road she was to pass them in silence, as if she saluted them they would know that she was a stranger in the spirit land, and might kill her. She was also not to turn round if any one called to her, but was to go straight on till she reached her father’s house.
Having thanked the skull for his kind advice, the king’s daughter started off, and when she reached the end of the town and found the road, she ran for three hours, and at last arrived at the branch roads. There she dropped the medicine, as she had been instructed, and the two roads immediately became one; so she went straight on and never saluted any one or turned back, although several people called to her.
About this time the spirit man had returned from the wood, and went to the house, only to find the king’s daughter was absent. He asked the skull where she was, and he replied that she had gone out by the back door, but he did not know where she had gone to. Being a spirit, however, he very soon guessed that she had gone home; so he followed as quickly as possible, shouting out all the time.
When the girl heard his voice she ran as fast as she could, and at last arrived at her father’s house, and told him to take at once a cow, a pig, a sheep, a goat, a dog, a chicken, and seven eggs, and cut them into seven parts as a sacrifice, and leave them on the road, so that when the spirit man saw these things he would stop and not enter the town. This the king did immediately, and made the sacrifice as his daughter had told him.
When the spirit man saw the sacrifice on the road, he sat down and at once began to eat.
When he had satisfied his appetite, he packed up the remainder and returned to the spirit land, not troubling any more about the king’s daughter.
When the king saw that the danger was over, he beat his drum, and declared that for the future, when people died and went to the spirit land, they should not come to earth again as spirits to cure sick people.