Before the universe was created, there existed only a vast expanse of sky above and an endless stretch of water and uninhabited marshland below.
Olorun, the wisest of the gods, was supreme ruler of the sky, while Olokun, the most powerful goddess, ruled the seas and marshes. Both kingdoms were quite separate at that time and there was never any conflict between the two deities. Olorun was more than satisfied with his domain in the sky and hardly noticed what took place below him. Olokun was content with the kingdom she occupied, even though it contained neither living creatures nor vegetation of any kind.
But the young god Obatala was not entirely satisfied with this state of affairs, and one day, as he looked down from the sky upon the dull, grey terrain ruled by Olokun, he thought to himself: “The kingdom below is a pitiful, barren place. Something must be done to improve its murky appearance. Now if only there were mountains and forests to brighten it up, it would make a perfect home for all sorts of living creatures.”
Obatala decided that he must visit Olorun, who was always prepared to listen to him. “It is a good scheme, but also a very ambitious one,” Olorun said to Obatala. “I have no doubt that the hills and valleys you describe would be far better than the grey ocean, but who will create this new world, and how will they go about it?” “If you will give me your blessing” Obatala replied, “I myself will undertake to do this work.”
“Then it is settled” said Olorun, I cannot help you myself, but I will arrange for you to visit my son Orunmila. He will be able to guide you.” The next day, Obatala called upon Orunmila, the eldest son of Olorun, who had been given the power to read the future and to understand the secret of existence.
Orunmila produced his divining tray, and when he had placed sixteen palm nuts on it, he shook the tray and cast its contents high into the air. As the nuts dropped to the ground, he read their meaning aloud: “First, Obatala, you must find a chain of gold long enough for you to climb down from the sky to the watery wastes below. Then, as you descend, take with you a snail shell filled with sand, a white hen, a black cat and a palm nut. This is how you should begin your quest.”
Obatala listened attentively to his friend’s advice and immediately set off to find a goldsmith who would make him the chain he needed to descend from the sky to the surface of the water below. “I would be happy to make you the chain you ask for, provided you can give me all the gold I need. But I doubt that you will find enough here for me to complete my task”, said the goldsmith.
Obatala would not be dissuaded, however, and having instructed the goldsmith to go ahead with his work, he approached the other sky gods and one by one explained to them his purpose, requesting that they contribute whatever gold they possessed. The response was generous. Some of the gods gave gold dust, others gave rings, bracelets, or pendants, and before long a huge, glittering mound had been collected.
The goldsmith examined all the gold that was brought before him, but still, he complained that there was not enough. “It is the best I can do; I have asked all of the other gods to help out and there is no more gold left in the sky. Make the chain as long as you possibly can and fix a hook to one end. Even if it fails to reach the water below, I am determined to climb down on it”, Obatala told him.
The goldsmith worked hard to complete the chain and when it was finished, the hook was fastened to the edge of the sky and the chain lowered far below. Orunmila appeared and handed Obatala a bag containing the sand-filled snail’s shell, the white hen, the black cat, and the palm nut, and as soon as he had slung it over his shoulder, the young god began climbing down the golden chain, lower and lower until he saw that he was leaving the world of light and entering a world of twilight.
Before long, Obatala could feel the damp mists rising up from the surface of the water, but at the same time, he realized that he had just about reached the end of his golden chain. ‘I cannot jump from here’ he thought, ‘If I let go of the chain I will fall into the sea and almost certainly drown.’
And while he looked around him rather helplessly, he suddenly heard a familiar voice calling to him from up above. “Make use of the sand I gave you” Orunmila instructed him, “toss it into the water below.”
Obatala obeyed, and after he had poured out the sand, he heard Orunmila calling to him a second time: “Release the white hen” Orunmila cried. Obatala reached into his bag and pulled out the white hen, dropping her onto the waters beneath where he had sprinkled the sand.
As soon as she had landed, the hen began to scratch in the sand, scattering it in all directions. Wherever the grains fell, dry land instantly appeared. The larger heaps of sand became hills, while the smaller heaps became valleys. Obatala let go of his chain and jumped onto the solid earth. As he walked, he smiled with pleasure, for the land now extended a great many miles in all directions. But he was proudest of the spot where his feet had first landed and decided to name this place, Ife.
Stooping to the ground, he began digging a hole and buried his palm nut in the soil. Immediately, a palm tree sprang up from the earth, shedding its seeds as it stretched to its full height so that other trees soon shot up around it. Obatala felled some of these trees and built for himself a sturdy house thatched with palm leaves. And here, in this place, he settled down, separated from the other sky gods, with only his black cat for company. (From the Yoruba people, West Africa)