Why the Worms are Blind: A Folktale of Calabar, Nigeria

Calabar Nigeria - Folkli
Pinpoint Location: Calabar, Cross River State / Map data ©2019 Google

This folktale from Calabar tells the of the elephant, who was a greedy eater who got tricked by the tortoise. 

When Ambo was king of Calabar, men and animals were friends; they all mixed together quite freely. The elephant was the largest animal, and he had eyes in proportion to his immense bulk. And when King Ambo gave a feast, the elephant used to eat more than any one, although the hippopotamus used to do his best.

The tortoise, who was small but very cunning, made up his mind to put a stop to the elephant eating more than a fair share of the food provided. He therefore placed some dry kernels and shrimps, of which the elephant was very fond, in his bag, and went to the elephant’s house to make an afternoon call.

When the tortoise arrived the elephant told him to sit down, so he made himself comfortable, and, having shut one eye, took one palm kernel and a shrimp out of his bag, and commenced to eat them with much relish.

When the elephant saw the tortoise eating, he said “You seem to have some good food there; what are you eating?”

The tortoise replied that the food was very sweet but rather painful to him, as he was eating one of his own eyeballs; and he lifted up his head, showing one eye closed.

“If the food is so good, take out one of my eyes and give me the same food.” the elephant replied greedily.

The tortoise, who was waiting for this, had brought a sharp knife with him for that very purpose, and said to the elephant, “I cannot reach your eye, as you are so big.”

The elephant then took the tortoise up in his trunk and lifted him up. As soon as he came near the elephant’s eye, with one quick scoop of the sharp knife he cut the elephant’s right eye out. The elephant trumpeted with pain; but the tortoise gave him some of the dried kernels and shrimps, and the elephant’s soon forgot the pain.

Very soon the elephant said that he wanted more, and the tortoise told him that the other eye must come out. The elephant agreed; so the tortoise quickly got his knife to work, and very soon the elephant’s left eye was on the ground, leaving the elephant blind.

The tortoise slid down the elephant’s trunk and hid himself. The elephant then began to make a great noise, and started pulling trees down, calling out for the tortoise. But of course he never answered, and the elephant could not find him.

The next morning, when the elephant heard the people passing, he asked them what the time was, and the bush buck, who was nearest, shouted out, “The sun is now up, and I am going to market to get some yams and fresh leaves.”

Then the elephant understood that the tortoise had deceived him, and began to ask passers-by to lend him a pair of eyes. At last the worm grovelled past, and seeing the big elephant, greeted him in his humble way. He was much surprised and flattered when the king of the forest returned his salutation.

The elephant said, “Worm, I have mislaid my eyes. Will you lend me yours for a few days? I will return them next market-day.”

The worm was so flattered at being noticed by the elephant that he gladly agreed, and took his eyes out — which were very small — and gave them to the elephant.

When the elephant put the worm’s eyes into his own large eye-sockets, the flesh closed round them so tightly that when the market-day arrived it was impossible for the elephant to get them out again. So although the worm repeatedly asked the elephant to return his eyes, the elephant always pretended not to hear.

Ever since then the worms have been blind, and elephants have small eyes.

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