The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide
It begins when the Flood subsides. Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, and falls into a stupor in his tent. Ham, Noah’s son, sees his father’s nakedness and tells his two brothers what has happened. Shem and Japheth take a cloak between them and, walking backward into the tent, cover their father’s nakedness without themselves seeing it. When Noah wakes up and learns what has happened he lays a curse not upon Ham but upon Ham’s son: “Accursed be Canaan. He shall be his brothers’ meanest slave.” And he elaborates: “Blessed be Yahweh, God of Shem. Let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth. May he live in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his slave” (Genesis 9:20-27).
Taking this story as originally told, we might believe that Ham was simply unfortunate in happening to go into his tent and see his father’s nakedness, thereby breaking a taboo. We might also suppose that the purpose of the story is to explain how, despite the single common origin of Man, some peoples of the world live together on unequal terms.
Whizzing forward to the medieval versions we learn more about the nature of Ham’s misdeed. He mocked Noah’s nakedness, and invited his brothers to do the same (which they refused). What is more, this is not the first of Ham’s transgressions. When they had all been on the Ark together, Noah had insisted that everyone be sexually continent, but Ham, by the aid of a magic demon, slept with his wife. Next day Noah saw his footprints, and there grew up an enmity between Noah and his son. Ham was punished by being given a black skin.
When the world came to be divided up, Japheth received Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham was awarded Africa. Ham became father to all the monsters of legend—including all the monsters of classical legend, the giants, the anthropophagi, the people with heads growing beneath their shoulders, and so forth. In some versions there was nothing necessarily bad about these monsters—they were after all a part of God’s creation—it was just that their ancestry had to be accounted for. In other versions Ham was like Cain—an accursed figure. Here is a Middle Irish account of the matter:
His famous father cursed the son called Ham so that he—he excelled in perversity—is the Cain of the people after the Flood. From him with valour sprang horse-heads and giants, the line of maritime leprechauns, and every unshapely person; those of the two heads—it was a crime—and the two bodies in union, the dun-coloured one-footed folk [i.e., Ethiopians], and the merry blue-beaked people. Every person in the east without a head, going from glen to glen, and his white mouth protruding from his breast, he is of the posterity of Ham.
But not all of this colorful, Bosch-like posterity was accursed. Some were blest …