The Disobedient Daughter who Married a Skull

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Of the roughly 108 billion people who have ever lived over the course of human history, most left behind no record of their existence. We therefore have no means by which to remember them. Nearly all the everyday heroes – the brave, empathetic, spirited, and devoted people we like to celebrate in the #HistoryHero BLAST – are lost to us. This loss is especially heavy when it comes women and members of pre-literate cultures: those who did not have access to the written word until fairly recently (in historical terms) and whose stories were not considered worthy of being recorded by those who did.

Sometimes, however, we find traces of these lost worlds not in histories, but in stories, particularly in folk tales. Even though these are fictional fables, they provide us glimpses into the values, hopes, and dreams of the peoples and cultures that preceded us. Real or not, the characters of such stories continue to live and breathe with each retelling. Here is one version of one such tale, from southern Nigeria, and the history hero that can be viewed inside it: the Disobedient Daughter who Married a Skull.

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There was once a rich man named Edem who had a beautiful daughter named Afiong. All the young men of the country wanted to marry Afiong, but she refused all their offers for she desired to marry only the most handsome, dashing, and strongest man in the world.

Now, in the spirit world, there lived a Skull. The Skull heard of Afiong’s beauty and grew jealous. The Skull decided to return to the human world to marry Afiong and carry her back with him to the land of the spirits. But to visit the human world, the Skull needed a body. He begged each of his friends in the spirit world for help. One friend lent him a head, a second lent him a body, a third lent him arms, and a fourth lent him legs. The Skull was now a beautiful young man.

The Skull left the spirit realm and met Afiong in the marketplace of her village. The Skull, as a man, was more handsome than all her suitors. Afiong was immediately smitten.

She invited the Skull to come to her house. When the Skull arrived, Afiong introduced him to her parents and asked them to consent to her marriage to the newcomer. Afiong's parents refused to allow her to marry a stranger, but she refused to take no for an answer. At last, Afiong’s father and mother recognized that she would not be dissuaded. The two were married.

After the wedding, the Skull asked Afiong to return with him to his country, which was far, far away. Afiong quickly agreed, for she was eager to travel. Afiong’s parents begged her to stay, but she left with the Skull.

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After walking for days, Afiong and the Skull crossed the border between the human world and the spirit land. The moment the two stepped into the land of the spirits, a group of men appeared. The first man demanded his legs from the Skull. The second demanded his head. The third claimed his arms. And the fourth took back his body. All at once, the Skull was nothing but ugly bones. Afiong was first scared; then she grew very angry for the Skull had deceived her. But she could not return to the world of humans on her own and the Skull had other things in mind for his new bride.

The Skull took Afiong to his home and forced her to cook his food and make his fires. The Skull had an old withered mother, who was incapable of doing any work. The mother soon grew fond of Afiong, and angry with her son for his cruel trick. The Skull’s mother promised that she would help secret Afiong back to the human, but only if she promised not marry anymore skulls in the future.

The old mother sent for the spider. The spider wove Afiong’s hair into a beautiful tapestry. The old mother then called the winds to use it to carry Afiong home. Afiong reappeared in her parent’s house. Her parents were so overjoyed to see her that they laid down their softest animal skins and called the women of the village to a feast that lasted or eight days and eight nights.

Later, Afiong married a local boy with whom she lived happily. The two had many healthy children. Afiong never saw any more skulls and she stayed clear of the spirit realm!

Afiong's story gives us a rare peek into the hopes and fears of West African women hundreds of years ago. It reveals to us that West African villagers feared strangers and had a powerful spiritual relationship with the afterlife. It shows us an example of an independent, determined young woman who is able to get herself into and out of trouble. Afiong is a stand-in for thousands of other women whose stories we will never know. That's why we’re excited to call Afiong, the "disobedient daughter," a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.

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