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sikán, belkis & me: in search of ancestral legends

African princess have a tendency to single-handedly slay sea monsters, dethrone unfit kings with sheer wit, lead entire armies against terrible foes, and sometimes... get offered up in sacrifice.

Princesses have been top of mind, as I raise a spirited five-year old obsessed (despite my best efforts) with the Disney Princess franchise.

Lately, snuggled up in her twin bed at night, I have been telling her the story of a different kind of princess.

Belkis Ayón, La Cena (The Supper), 1988 (image credit: "Image" by hermien_amsterdam)

The story is not about some white girl tragically locked up in a tower singing to birds, but rather of a young Black woman, daughter of a great king of the Cross River region connecting Cameroon and Nigeria. Afro-Cuban practitioners of the all-male Abakuá sect call her Sikán. Her story is part of the sect's origin lore and several secret rituals in which her presence is evoked.

I wonder about her name's origins, seeking its pre-colonial root in books about Ejagham and Efik names and in the archive of slave ship ledgers... searching for her face among spirits.

The story begins with Sikán fetching water. I imagine her at the banks of Lake Ejagham, a lake in my ancestral village where fog casts a thick haze upon the surface of the water. To my ancestors, this must have looked like spirits and so the lake is sacred and known as the Lake of the Dead. Carved stones representing ancestors float upon its banks. So it should come as no surprise that Sikán upon dipping her calabash into the lake one day, captures a powerful spirit. Now, this spirit had taken the form of a divine magic fish. The fish speaks to her. The oral retellings note the deep sonorous voice with which the fish greets Sikán--an energetic vibration likened to the rhythm of a potent drum. The fish-spirit-ancestor-god is called Tanze in the Abakuá mythology. The name, a creolization of various indigenous words for “fish” and "lord", “father” in Efut, Ejagham, and Efik, three closely related ethnic groups in the Cross River region of Cameroon and Nigeria. Abakuá, itself, traces its origins across the ocean to this region and to my ancestors.

Tanze grants Sikán and her people great magical knowledge and power. Tanze, however, seems to be dying outside of his natural habitat and his demise also coincides with Sikán “betraying” her people by sharing the mystical and magical secrets with her lover from a neighboring tribe. Thus, the local neighborhood witch doctor along with the leaders of her village call for Sikán’s death. Yet, the calls for her sacrifice are not mere punishment for the perceived betrayal. The fish-god and Sikán are now one, inextricably connected in some mystical way, wedded to one another, (re) birthing one another, inhabiting one another. She is sacrificed and her body and spirit are used to amplify the waning power of Tanze which the witch doctor preserves in a sacred drum even more powerful than before. This power sustains the clan and all its descendants.

The end. Roll credits. Disney’s next big hit.

Now, if you’re lost, you are not alone. Not only is it difficult to tell stories and myths from traditions that have long been marginalized and do not have the benefit of collective reference and knowledge… in these stories, we don’t readily know what happens when the apple is eaten or the beast transforms. The lush bush by Lake Ejagham, does not easily unfold in the mind’s eye the way the forests of Snow White and Rapunzel do, populated by cheeky cotton-tail bunnies and the occasional rabid wolf… all based on European landscapes and aesthetics.

What do we know about the brilliant otherworldly plumage of a kingfisher, of mysterious freshwater serpents who shed skins eighteen feet long, and of leopard kings who are also mermaids?

But something inside me remembers the long towering trees dancing like moko jumbies, the red earth and the limestone bluffs, the ground teeming underfoot-- alive with delicate winged insects in the rainy season.

The story of Sikán is the inspiration for a novel I am writing based on a retelling of the myth during the dawn of the slave trade in the Cross River region. In her essay "The Writer Before the Page" the legendary Toni Morrison states, "In the third-world cosmology as I perceive it, reality is not already constituted by my literary predecessors in Western culture. If my work is to confront a reality unlike that received reality of the West, it must centralize and animate information discredited by the West-- discredited not because it is not true or useful or even of some racial value, but because it is information held by discredited people, information dismissed as "lore" or "gossip" or "magic" or "sentiment." I've been meditating on Morrison's powerful words... asking myself what it means to be centering and animating this "information"... these stories of the discredited and dismissed.

The Cuban artist, Belkis Ayón, was also deeply steeped in the mythology of Sikán. I recently discovered her work and have felt a deep connection to the late artist whose haunting large-scale collographs center the lore of the Abakuá and the role of Sikán in it. The artist probes weighty questions of patriarchy, power, gender, trauma, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the psyche.

Ayón and Morrison feel like creative ancestors now as I embark on my own journey through the mysteries of Sikán and all she has come to embody for me in my own work.


- Two versions of the myth of Sikán are retold in Robert Farris Thompson. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art & Philosophy. Vintage Books (1983). 241-244.

- Toni Morrison. The Source of Self Regard. Knopf, Borzoi (2019). 267.


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