Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World's Epics, III.B


III. "Points of Comparison" : B. "Africa"






Is Epic Oral or Written?

Jan Knappert



Identity and Epics : African Examples

Christiane Seydou



<Arabic Folk Epics

Micheline Galley




Is Epic Oral or Written?

Jan Knappert


pp. 386-8 the epic Nsona Lianja from central Zaire

p. 386

"Lianja is the legendary hero of the Nkundo who straddle the Equator in the Congo Basin ... . The Nkundo ... quote the pair Lianja and his twin sister Nsongo` as their most distant ancestors, ... the parents of the human species. ...

p. 387

Generally, the epic is sung at night around the fire ... . The invited storyteller arrives in great style, his visage and body painted in asymmetrical figures, a plumed hat on his head and his lance in his hand. He is accompanied by a chorus of men and women who will sit around him and take over the songs ... of the recital with enthusiasm. ... The famous tree with the sau fruits is said to be ... at Bompoma in the headship Injolo. Every bird sent by the owner to defend the tree is introduced with its own song. ...

p. 388

In 1957, E. Boelaert published a more complete version ... than ... the 1948 edition ... . In 1958, a second volume was added containing the recitals on Lianja's ancestors".

p. 390 performances by the Nyanga

"Episode by episode, the epic is first sung, then narrated. While singing and narrating. While singing and narrating, the nbard dances, mimes ... . ... Members of the audience also encourage the reciter with short exclamations (including onomatopoeia) and hand clapping or whooping."

pp. 392-3 epics in Nusantara, about Sijoban and about Panji

p. 392

"The Sijobang cycle seems to share features ... with the well-known Indonesian Panji-

p. 393

cycle (see Knappert 1980:103-144). Prince Panji, who changes his name numerous times in one narrative, upon learning that a certain king has promised his daughter to who{m}ever wins the tournament he is organizing, appears, often in disguise, solves the king's problem (... by solving conundrums {conundra}, like Oedipus [riddle of the Sphinx]) and marries the princess. ... This is exactly ... from the long narrative of Sijobang. The hero, Nan Tungga, sails from Island to island, winning a bride each time he has landed."

Knappert 1980 = Jan Knappert : Malay Myths and Legends. Singapore.

p. 396 magical spirits having sensitivities at loci on body

"the magic tales of the Nkundo, the Soninke and the Mandinka ... seem to show parallels with the Kalevala. The heroes' ... spirits can take human form or any other disguise; ... they have ... the magically sensitive place, or they have a "deputy-soul", like the Indonesian characters of myth and epic, who could hide their souls in secret places.

Liongo the hero ... likewise only ... through his navel by a brass needle.

{cf. Chinese needling of a particular locus on body in acupuncture}

We are reminded of Siegfried and Achilles".

{Perhaps these heroes can be regarded as spirits praesiding in particular locations ([Skt.] varman) in one's body (e.g., Akhilleus in one's heel) : and thus to be invoked in mystical physiology.}

p. 397 animal-deities

"Heroes can be tricky characters, like Reynard the Fox, ... of the animal heroes of other national cycles of fables :

the hare Sungura in East Africa (see "Astute Animals" in Knappert 1970),

Kalulu in Zambia, Kabundi in Kasai, a type of marten (Theuws 1983:54), like

Icakijana of the Zulu in Natal (Callaway 1868);

the tortoise in central Zaire, the jackal in North Africa and in India (Knappert 1980:183)."

Knappert 1970 = Jan Knappert : Myths and Legends of the Swahili. London.

Theuws 1983 = Jacques A. Theuws : Water and World : Luba Thought and Literature. St. Augustin.

Callaway 1868 = Henry Callaway : Nursery Tales, Traditions and Histories of the Zulus. Springvale.

pp. 397-8 divinely-made heroics

p. 397

"honest men ... without fear or greed ... gives an impression ... of a nice fairy tale world, in which the heroes are ... puppets in ...

gigantic shadow-play "Round which we phantom figures come and go" (Omar Khayyam). ...

{cf. the Platonic "myth of the cave"}

p. 398

Those of the faithful who die will travel up to heaven ... at the very time it happens; ... and so has nothing to fear. And ... that makes the true hero."



Identity and Epics : African Examples

Christiane Seydou


pp. 404-6 mvet

p. 404

"Among the Bulu, the Fang and the Beti of Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea [respectively], the term mvet designates both a musical instrument (a four stringed long harp-lute) and the group of literary genres (lyrical, romaneque, epic) accompanied by this instrument. ...

p. 405

According to tradition, this mvet (both the instrument and the narrative) was revealed to the first initiate while he was plunged into a week-long lethargic sleep during the great migration that led these peoples from the banks of the Upper Nile {i.e., from Noubia} to the regions in which they now live. ... It is this inspired dream that the bards repeat when, during the endless mvet performances (some can last up to seven nights), they sketch out, first the cosmic creation

(stemming from an original, copper egg),

{cf. the Bon "Copper egg" whence was hatched a red 9-headed goddess (A&ACS, p. 178, citing Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1956, pp. 301-2)}

then the long genealogy ending up with the two brothers from whom both immortal and mortal peoples descend ... constitute ... the Fang version. ... In one of the songs included in the mvet, Zwe Nguema relates how the master who taught him his art had himself received the "charms of the mvet". As he was about to die, his own master transmitted the "charms" to all his disciples, sharing his heart and his liver with these

p. 406

words : "... . ... when you hear a song coming forth from my tomb, raise your arms upward in order to receive ..."."

A&ACS = Hugh A. Moran & David H. Kelley : The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs. 2nd edn. Daily Pr, Palo Alto (CA), 1969-70.

Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1956 = Rene' de Nebesky-Wojkowitz : Oracles and Demons of Tibet. 's-Gravenhage : Mouton.

pp. 407-8 heroic genealogy in Fan epos

p. 407

"A long genealogy ... positions the two primordial ... clans -- the mortals and the immortals ... . ... Only the power of their magic science -- gift of the ancestors -- differentiates one from the other ... . ... Hence, they move through the skies to the depths of the waters, under and above the

p. 408

earth, incessantly going from the human to the spirit realm".

p. 409 Mwindo

"Mwindo, a hero who is extraordinary, ... is cast by destiny into a succession of ... adventures in the course of an eventful voyage leading him back and forth between this world and the subterranean, aquatic, and celestial realms of diverse divinities, .... crowned by his final stay in the celestial realm where, passive at last, he grasps the meaning ... before he is permitted to return to earth."

p. 410 karisi

"Among the Nyanga, the term Karisi which designates the epic genre and the bard, is the name of a mythical chief, father of Mwindo ... . ...

A man generally decides to become a bard when he has been summoned by the spirit [viz., by Karisi] in a dream.

{Could this "dream" refer to hypnogogia marked (in Bodish dream-control technique) by the visionary beaded network which must develop into a dream of the divine world?}

Besides following a long period of apprenticeship, the student must also worship this spirit in order to avoid any difficulty or delays in his study (Biebuyck & Mateene 1969).

Furthermore, during his performance, each bard (shekarisi) must display the cultural emblems of this spirit [viz., of Karisi] (his lance is planted in the ground near each bard;

{Cf. the lance held (e.g., aspects on CBM, pp. 53-4) by Aztec dawn-star god Tlahuiz-calpan-tecuhtli : also (in Tahitian myth -- HM, p. 251) >arihi (< */KARISI/)'s being "guided by the dawn-star maiden" to "the net-plaiting place of Ta>aroa's daughters." [written Sept 14


bells are tied around his ankles ... ). With these accoutrements,

{These "bells" may be aequivalent not only the to the anklets worn (according to the Veda) by the Marut gods, but also to the beaded nets fastened around calabashes shaken to summon deities in West African rites : />alihi/ (< Proto-Polynesian */KARISI/) are the "loops at the top of a koko net holding a calabash" (HD, p. 19a) -- cf. the ankle-bells (evidently intended to summon deities). [written Sept 14 2015]}

he narrates, sings, dramatizes one or the other of the episodes of the long story of Mwindo, whose parts he plays."

{cf. the [Tahitian] >arioi (< */KARIoI/) who "wandered from one place to another reciting old poems, and giving recitations, &c. ..., thus becoming the vehicles of much traditional lore." (M-PCD, p. 131)}

Biebuyck & Mateene 1969 = Daniel Biebuyck & Kahombo C. Mateene : The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Univ of CA Pr, Berkeley & Los Angeles.

CBM = Codex Borgianus Mexicanus

HM = Martha Beckwith : Hawaiian Mythology. Yale Univ Pr, New Haven (CT), 1940.

HD = Mary Kawena Pukui & Samuel H. Elbert : Hawaiian Dictionary. Univ Pr of HI, Honolulu, 1971.

M-PCD = Edward Tregear : Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary.

pp. 412-5 Malinke epos of Sunjata

p. 412

"Sunjata Keita ... left a unified Mande world ... resting on alliance pacts between the different clans ... . ... Transforming history ... into the mythical destiny of the Mande world by lending its princes a genealogical depth going back as far as the three Simbon, these master hunters who had come from the heavens on a divine arch ... . This mythical episode ... is treated as a vast parable whose symbolic meaning is revealed by a mysterious character called Kabaku ... .

p. 413

... . ... when this geste was composed; according to tradition, it was recited for the first time at Sunjata's funeral. For historians ..., this text must have taken its present form toward the end of the sixteenth century ... . ... Every ordinary griot everywhere can sing the famous hymns to "the bow", to "harmony", to "peace", and each can relate the most popular episodes of Sunjata's story, which they only know

p. 414

in its public version. ...

Near Krina, in Kangaba, a sanctuary shelters the ancestral relics and altars;

every seven years, the reroofing of this sanctuary

{"Since the seventh century A.D., the Naiku, Geku, and their respective auxiliary sanctuaries have been rebuilt every twenty years" (PP&P"I").}

is the occation of a specific ritual regrouping the most confirmed griots who participate in the private, secret se'ances ..., but they also come here ... to recite the genealogies of ... different clans to the public. For the young griots (who are present) this is an opportunity to pass a kind of exam that tests their knowledge.

p. 415

In Krina, the cult of the mythical bird ... is celebrated every year : and

every sixty years, there is a public feast of the priests."

{cf. Chinese 60-year cycle}

PP&P"I" = Places of Peace and Power "Ise".



<Arabic Folk Epics

Micheline Galley


p. 432 >abu Zayd

"a prince's wife cannot give birth to a son. One day, her attention is caught by a spectacle ... in the sky : birds fighting. She is struck by the noble appearance of a solitary bird fighting alone against several others. She cannot help saying : "May I give birth to a son ..., even though he were black as the bird is" (Baker 1978:4). The prayer becomes reality ... .

But in fact he is described in most versions as being ... "piebald", or "half black and half white"".

{Negroid pseudo-albinism is commoner than Negroid true albinism}

... different groups, either black- or white-skinned altogether, ... make Abu Zayd their own, and ... certain communities ... adopt him ... ."

{Such groups may consider themselves as Zaydi, the denomination of Yarsani praevalent in Yemen.}

Baker 1978 = Anita Baker : The Hilali Saga in the Tunisian South. PhD diss, IN Univ.

pp. 432-3 Dyab

p. 432

"[Dyab]'s birth takes place in the desert among wild animals, because his mother has been left alone, simply "forgotten" -- the jealous co-wife says --, when the caravan left in the morning. The new-born child ... is called [Dyab] after the jackal (dyab, plural of dib). ...

p. 433

As an illustration of the hero's strength ... mention

his capacity for swallowing considerable quantities of food and water ...,

{Among the attributes of the Daghdha is "a voracious appetite." (LI, s.v. "Daghdha", p. 151b)}

the possibility he has of piercing rocks when urinating ...,

{The Daghdha's son Aonghus's steed "urinated and thus gave rise to the great Lough Neagh." (LI, s.v. "Aonghus", p. 22b)}

and also ... the secret receptacle of his might : his knees."

LI = The Lore of Ireland : an Encyclopaedia of Myth ... . 2006.

pp. 433-5 the heroine Jazya

p. 433

"the most outstanding character of all in the Hilalian sira (at least in Maghribian versions), is a woman ... : Jazya ... (see ... Mukhlis 1964). ...

p. 434

At the time when the tribe has to take decision of high moment (for instance, before migrating westward), the Elders ask, and follow, her advice. In all such cases she is pictured as the counsellor par excellence, in the sense that she knows how to disentangle intricate situations (dabbar) and find out the most appropriate concrete solution. For the sake of her people in periods of drought, she serves as the barter ... a prince ... gives grain, pasture and water, and marries Jazya

(a temporary marriage, in fact ...). ...

{Such "temporary marriage" is a peculiarly Yarsani practice.}

p. 435

Prose versions contain ... incantation (in short rhymed stanzas ...)."

Mukhlis 1964 = Faiq Amin Mukhlis : Studies and Comparison of the Cycles of the Banu Hilal Romance. London School of Oriental and African Studies, PhD diss.


RELIGION AND SOCIETY, 30 = Lauri Honko (ed.) : Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World's Epics. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 1990.