Nàɔ Tâɔnà [naɔ52 taɔ453 na52], or Lady Tâɔnà, was a Mɔłɔ philosopher, founder of the Nàłó or Interiorist school of philosophy. (The Mɔłɔ form of her title is Jiŋ Tɔuna, but she’s better known under the Lé form.)
The only sources on her life are stories and legends based on oral tradition. We may discount the obvious prodigies— miracles foretelling her birth, the ability to talk as an infant, blue skin like an iliu— but there’s really no ‘straight’ story to be told; her biography is essentially a teaching story suffused with supernaturalism.
She was born as a princess, with the birth name Siŋnɔi (Lé Hìnŋáe), in the early 1600s, in Klɔusa, the capital of Mɔłɔsɔu. She was the third daughter of the queen, thus a lofty figure but unlikely ever to rule. The stories describe her as dispensing wisdom and moving between the worlds (ŋǎ) as a child, yet a spoiled and selfish adolescent. She tried “every virtue and every vice”, as well as investigating all the known paths to enlightenment (nɔtǎn); none of them satisfied her.
She decided to enter the inner world— nɔŋǎ, the spirit realm underlying our world— for good. But a firefly spirit stopped her.
“Why do you wish to enter nɔŋǎ?” the spirit asked. It spoke only when it was lit, and unlike a mortal firefly, it was invisible when unlit.
“Because I am tired of dòŋǎ (the mortal realm),” she replied.
“To be tired of things is mortal,” the firefly pointed out.
Siŋnɔi admitted that this was so.
“Therefore, entering, you will still be in dòŋǎ. To truly enter nɔŋǎ you must learn to do so without leaving dòŋǎ.”
“How is this done?”
“By learning that you are already here,” the firefly answered. It said no more— as it was invisible when not speaking, it was impossible to know if it was there or had gone.
Siŋnɔi resolved to reflect on this. She could not do this in a palace, or amid the interruptions of other people. She said goodbye to her friends and walked to the river that marked the beginning of the virgin jungle. She removed her clothes and her knife. She crossed the river naked, bringing nothing with her.
She stayed there for a year, eating nothing, drinking nothing but water. She knew that she could not be harmed, because she was prevented from leaving the mortal realm.
However, she did not find nɔtǎn. After a year she exclaimed, “I should swat that firefly.”
The firefly blinked its light next to her: “Try it, if you can!”
She turned to where it had lit, angrily: “Have you been here all this time?”
It blinked on again. “Not all the time. Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I’ve meditated for a year, but I’m no closer to nɔŋǎ,” she admitted.
“And yet no farther,” the firefly said. “However, thinking won’t bring you to nɔŋǎ; you must give birth.”
“I have to have a baby to enter nɔŋǎ?”
“You are so literal-minded,” said the firefly. “But being born, does a woman not move from nɔŋǎ to dòŋǎ?”
“I don’t understand. Can a woman give birth without having a baby?”
The firefly didn’t respond. But she had reached the limits of meditation; she left the jungle, putting on clothes again— or perhaps she didn’t, as artistic representations invariably show her naked (and blue-skinned). She had sex with a peasant man and gave birth to a baby. She cared for the baby for a year, but it grew sickly and died.
Crying, she said to herself, “This little one has passed from nɔŋǎ to dòŋǎ and back again; the one with my help, the other against all my wishes. I have no power at all in this.”
“You are very close now,” the firefly said, blinking on next to her.
She was too distraught to be angry; and so she no longer resisted, and understood what the firefly had been saying. She could enter nɔŋǎ because she was already inside it. She did so now and spent a year in the spirit world, and then another year in the moral world, resting and reflecting.
Then a woman asked her what do do with her son, who was hearing spirit voices. She listened to her and then to the boy, and rebuked the spirits so they would not bother the boy. Because of this she realized that she should use her knowledge to help others. Thus she became a healer and teacher. She spoke of enlightenment coming to the heart alone (tâɔ nà), so she was known as Lady Tâɔnà, though she never called herself this, having little use for titles or even names.
In legend she lived for two hundred years. She mastered her own physical appearance, so that she could appear as an aged crone or a beautiful young woman as she wished. When she felt she had done enough for her people, she left the mortal plane for good... or at least she ceased to make it her habitation; her followers believed that she occasionally reappeared for many centuries and still could, if it interested her.
Nàłó, for a description of her philosophy