Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

Who owns the story? Is it an individual work or a collective effort? Is it a object merely in the service of religious ritual or is it an aesthetically informed piece of poetry? (Imagine if you will the difference between reading the Koran for purposes of religious practice or for purposes of analyzing the poetry in which it is composed, which is stunning.)

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Okpewho addresses some of these questions and quite a few more. This is a fairly specific text, but if you’re interested in African oral literature – or, actually, in any of the commonly known epics (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Illiad and/or the Odyssey)-  you will certainly find some merit. I really enjoy Okpewho’s writing – it’s clear that he is far more concerned with poetry than with the mathematical functions of the folktale like some good Russians we know *ahem*Propp*ahem* and this carries through.

So for your enjoyment, my notes on The Epic in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

The Epic in Africa

Columbia University Press, 1979


An Introduction to Traditional African Art

Okpewho’s main contention is that the work of anthropologists and art historians has not sufficiently understood the oral artform of traditional storytelling in Africa, particularly as concerns the epic. In his view they are overwhelmingly concerned with the metaphorical value of the story, rather than determining the complex aesthetic principles at hand. It would seem that these studies that he criticizes are largely geared toward portraying the story as something in the service of ritual or religion. This makes sense, as they are often performed in such circumstances. However, Okpewho states that that artist has been seen as the “slave to ritual” (1). And it’s important that he weights this statement with the word ‘slave’ because, throughout the book, he is very concerned with making the individual freedom of expression of African artist abundantly clear. This makes sense. He’s combating a lot of history here. The history of both the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism which reduced the African to an unthinking animal in order to justify violent mistreatment of him. But then you have this offshoot, even among people who aren’t try to exploit African people and land, of social scientists whose basic premise rested on the fact that even the arts of Africa must have mindlessness at their root, their beauty curious and coincidental. This is also, by the by, the reason that he often cites Homer throughout this study of the Epic. As if to say “Look, it’s the same thing. Your most vaunted of poetry is the same thing as ours. There is as much individual artistry in Sunjata as you will find in the Odyssey. You just have to know what to look for.”

For reasons I’m not total clear on, he addresses the theme of combat against the gods in the Ozido and Mwindo epics. In both cases, the editors of these recorded oral epics try to explain that the hero has ‘overreacted’ in his violence. Defeating a god would be sacrilegious, so how could this possibly happen within the context of an art that, allegedly, slavishly serves religion. For Okpewho, this is easily explained not as ‘overreaction’ but in the fact that the gods can indeed be defeated for entirely literary purposes.

And he continues…

“Perhaps the most fundamental element in this enquiry involves what one might define as the traditional African world-view. In this respect, one cannot accept without qualification some of the phrases that have constantly been bandied about. When they have approached clarity, they have often implied a tendency among members of the traditional society to respect the unlimited scheme of things and like helpless romantics to preserve unmolested the sanctity of a complex universe” (9-10).

This is actually LOT easier to understand when you consider the project as a whole. Okpewho wants you to know that African oral artists are not simply preserving a tradition going back gazillions of generations. This is not primitivity magically brought into the contemporary world. They preserve the tradition precisely because it will continue to change and grow. Changing and growing are what make sustainability of an artistic tradition. This is the first hint we have of this most fundamental premise. But there will be more.

So art and religion – what is the relationship???

“I stress the idea of a dynamic, creative temper, because it would appear to be the source of true aesthetic worth. Art came to the service of religion only after the craftsman had attained a creditable sureness of hand; only then was he recognized as the repository of a certain measure of beauty and thus enlisted as a trustee of communal truth” (11).

What he’s saying here is that art and religion are DISTINCT entities, that serve each other. (By the by, he thinks this about all art, I’m fairly certain, not just African art). This becomes more clear when he talks about the two levels of reality invoked by the artist, in the next chapter, but there’s this wonderful idea he forms here that the artist is pulling the metaphysical realm into being in images that can be understood. This talent serves religion, and develops because of the relationship to religion, but the impulse is aesthetic, not sacred.

He uses the terms ‘religion’ and ‘ritual’ somewhat interchangeably in this introduction, but I think that’s a fairly easy point to gloss over – religion largely IS ritual. Anyway, point being, here, for Okpewho, art brings religion into being, NOT the other way around.

Okpewho sees the distinction between secular and religious art extremely problematic and wants to ‘transcend’ this dichotomy. For him, there is a difference between religious value and secular, aesthetic principle, but these both function, simultaneously, within the same art work. (13)

[By the way, I should note here that this whole introduction is largely based on the plastic arts, but Okpewho sort of uses these to set up certain guiding principles. Keep in mind, working with ORAL literature, so any principles that we may glean from the history of Western, written literature, is not likely to be very helpful. This is his way of getting to aesthetic principles of this body of work, without having to go through a whole tradition of paper and pen.]

So he explains the mimetic principle guiding the art, and I love this. On the one hand, we have the mimetic principle whereby visible things are rendered into another visible form. (Portraiture, Balzac’s novels, animal carvings.) Then we have, on the other hand, the mimetic principle which brings unseen things into visible form. This has been called ABSTRACT but for Okpewho, this is kind of an inapplicable term. Abstracting puts distance between the artist and his subject, but what happens on this second mimetic level of reality is actually the bringing-into-being of extremely real spiritual presence. It designates closeness, not distance.

Another argument that he wants to bring to the fore of this study is the mistaken relationship between “tradition” and “originality”… Here’s the problem: “Is the traditional African artist primarily a slave to model, or does he, like the truly imaginative leader of his people, seek first and foremost to give vitality and meaning to the community’s life and myth with the aid of his creative vigour?” (23)

I mean, from the way he has phrased that, obviously it is the latter. (Note again, please, the use of the word ‘slave’.) But the problem is that we don’t know where these aesthetic principles come from. What makes this different from Homer is that we simply don’t have documentation of centuries’ old renditions of Sunjata. So how are we to know whether the storyteller is merely obeying an aesthetic tradition or acting as an individual? But we must consider the vastly different oral performances of the same ‘text’ – sometimes even vastly different when given by the same performer on different days. This should obviously indicate that oral art is ever transforming, though the main elements of plot will remain.

The Resources of the Oral Epic

I read this chapter VERY skimmingly because it doesn’t hugely relate to my work, but there are some important parts.

For example, this handy definition of the oral epic:

“An oral epic is fundamentally a tale about the fantastic deeds of a man or men endowed with something more than human might and operating in something larger than the normal human context and it is of significance in portraying some stage of the cultural or political development of a people” (34).

Exactly a hundred pages later, he will say all of this in a shorter and more gobsmacking way:

“The hero is simply the ordinary man writ large” (134). (I know, you didn’t know you’re in love with Okpewho but you are a little now aren’t you?)

Here are a few more tidbits:

– The training of a bard is not a training in memory, or not solely. It’s a training in process of story creation and, of course, he’s supposed to know the main points of all the stories. But that’s it. (40).

– It’s common among bards to attribute their powers of storytelling to a divine source (or to someone else). But the tale remains unique. (47)

– We have to abandon the notion that we are supposed to ‘understand’ the oral work in the same way that we think we must understand the literary work. There is no fixity here. (57)

“Poetry, in a context of this nature moves beyond a simple order of words and lines, or even the subtle flavor of a phrase, and involves the totality of the moment of making: which is what poiesis is” (52).

– There is no necessary separation between history and myth. (66)

– Paradoxically, the bard is supposed to involve himself in contemporary events, inasmuch as he touts the ‘truth value’ of his pronouncements. He’ll say ‘I heard it from my father” … but it happened yesterday. (68)

– It’s a process of navigating history vs. The values that history yields. (76)

The Hero, His Image and His Relevance

So, who is the Epic Hero? What makes him that way?

First of all, there must be some kind of portent surrounding his birth. This will be followed by an indicative infancy and childhood. This can be good, like he’s stronger than everyone else, or it can be band, like he is unable to use his legs for seven years. The origins are important.

Second of all, he is extremely proud of himself. Okpewho does note, however, that this isn’t just the narcissistic tendency we often think it. The hero is proud, but the hero is also very concerned with proving himself. (98) It’s a love of danger. It’s a love of charging toward death.

Thirdly, he is not only physically but also intellectually strong. (95)

Fourth, and this is a bit tricky, is the role of the supernatural. (105-106) The hero always has some kind of relationship to the supernatural, but according to Okpewho, there are two ways for this to go down. Either, the supernatural is something solicited by the hero, even as he recognizes his indebtedness to the supernatural. Or – and this is much less obvious – the supernatural is something that he wields unthinkingly. It’s merely part of what justifies the hero’s overall incredibleness. (108)

Fifth, he is a communal man, though he may seem to be ‘above it all’ – this is where the ‘writ large’ stuff comes in. He is diplomatic, and often working for the justice and decorum of society. If he’s chopping off heads, it’s for peace, essentially. He is the embodiment of the human desire to be more than his situation or context or personality. Related (though this is from the last chapter) he is not only recklessly violent. Depending on the audience, this will often be tampered by kindness and generosity.

Sixth, there are often totems and taboos, that work for and against him respectively. That is to say, (super)natural elements that bring him good or harm, playing out throughout the epic.

On Form and Structure

“In examining the art of composition in the oral epic, we must bear constantly in mind the moment of performance – with music, histrionic resources, emotional relationship between singer and audience – which makes this tradition of art different from the literate variety. Each performance is the product o one specific moment or context and, in a creative tradition of the oral epic, is never exactly repeated. Though there are some fixed structural laws which the narrative will obey by the very nature of its oral medium, the results of any performance depend mainly on the particular audience, mood, and atmosphere” (135).

So what he’s saying here is that his examination of form and structure can never simply be that in and of itself, it will ALWAYS have to take into account the moment of inception, and we have to keep that in mind while reading this chapter. In a way, this introductory paragraph serves as a kind of caveat or disclaimer. “Just in case I haven’t made it clear, this is not written literature”…basically…

Because the oral epic is so hard to grasp as a whole, he does us the flavor of building up from smaller to larger pieces. Each of these pieces will also build upon repetitions. Also keep in mind here that in a sense, he has to “save” repetition in a way. Repetition is absolutely the spice and lifeblood of the oral performance, but it is TERRIBLY boring on the page. Remember – MUSIC is built on repetition, and there is A LOT of music in these performances.

“Formula” : He borrows Milman Parry’s use of the term, in considering his work on Homer. The formula is a METRICAL function, which the content of the words serving a secondary function. This can be as simple as a noun-adjective combo to a whole verbal matrix of description. (138-139) Sometimes these play into call-responses sections of the performance. (141)

“Theme” : [To be honest, I can’t quite sort out what the relationship is between formula and theme, and I’m not sure he can either, because while they may apply to Homeric epic, they seem problematic in the African context. But anyhoo…] Essentially, this is a longer statement that is more reliant on content than on metrical structure. It is not restricted by formulaic elements, but can contain them.

Formula and theme work together to advance the story – but many other factors will give the story ‘fullness’ – these are largely structural device that frame the narrative. In way, I think what he’s doing here is distinguishing between fond and forme in the way that Frenchies might, but in the African context (and really, in any oral context), that distinction would be ridiculous, so he needs to reframe it.

He takes the occasion to criticize the religious context that has been bestowed upon these narratives. (153) Lord claims that the origin of so much repetition has more to do with a kind of magical/spiritual/religious invocation, and the fact that they produce aesthetic delight is merely a product of having forgotten their purpose. I bring this up because I love his response:

“Whatever the context in which it originally occurred (whether recreational or religious), repetition was first and foremost a token of the joy of recollection” (153-154).

So, for Okpewho (and Irele after him in The African Imagination and really all African literature scholars) there is NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN PROSE AND VERSE. Got that? Good. There are many technical reasons for this, but he actually admits that it’s largely a matter of their being simply TOO MUCH going on in the performance to distinguish between such things. (154-155, 159).

He cites Nagler’s Spontaneity and Tradition which I thoroughly want to check out now – because apparently this guy’s big idea is that we need to focus more on motifs as providing a kind of ‘Gestalt’ in the oral text, rather than focusing on memory. Bards are not trained in memory. They are trained in motifs, that they then render into presentable format, depending on the given context. Nice.

Remember how I told you that the word ‘slave’ was really important? Twice? Well…

“In this way, we are inclined to see the poet more as a slave to a fossilized pattern than as a skillful manipulator of sounds and ideas that continually suggest themselves to his mind in the rather challenging circumstances of his act” (162).

This is in response to those who think that the African storyteller simply memorizes. Nope. Not even a little. Okay maybe a little…

But is motif? It’s another part of the framework. It’s a “frame of reference” (162)…you know…I thing that happens, and can happen over again in a slightly different context.

For Okpewho, motif can function on different levels. And here, my caffeine rush went away and I really started banging my head against the table, because this stuff is HARD. But what I pick up are three allomorphic levels of motif.

1. When a scene starts the same but ends differently. Sumanguru consults a marabout about whether or not Sunjata will beat him, he makes two cocks fight. Sumanguru consults another marabout, he makes two rams fight.

2. When a scene, providing one detail similar to those previous scenes, invokes all of the already established description. Sumanguru’s cocks/rams had been decked out in gold and silver. So later, when he tells Sunjata’s sister that she can only kill him with a white cockspur covered in gold and silver, attached to an arrow (seriously, wtf?) he is simultaneously invoking the prophecy.

3. “Preverbal” motifs. These are things that are ALREADY UNDERSTOOD by everyone in the audience. (171) Two examples he gives: a) “success after initial setbacks” and b) “the hero’s enemy always appears insuperable” should be familiar. (172). Anyway, these are HIGHLY allomorphic. They will keep coming back up in every rhyme pattern imaginable. They have no reliance on form.

So finally…

Okpewho has already warned against taking too much from Aristotle’s idea of an “organic” work of literature, with a beginning, middle and end, which teleological sense. The African oral epic has an immensely expansive character. Which is to say, there is a beginning and and end, but everything in the middle is completely dependent upon artist and situation. Within the framework we’ve discussed, anything goes. He cites gnomic devices as one way in which that happens (aphorisms, moral advice, reference to fables etc.); passages with a musical, fugue-like feel – monologues; and Internal/External digressions (the former would be “My oh my, I am tired just like our hero!” The latter would be “Hey, musicians, are you getting tired? We’re still playing here!” – often to comic effect).

I’ll conclude by saying that, when you’re thinking about African oral literature, one of the main characteristics Okpewho would have you notice is ACCRETIVENESS – know what that means? The tendency to take on more and more and more words. There is a gathering instinct. He actually describes this as a kind of “ventilation” – some of the details that seem entirely useless, actually are. The performer is continuing to perform, while ‘breathing ‘ – cool, yes?

“He is not expected or even inclined to introduce any details into the story which are totally alien to the known facts of it, for that would be an unacceptable violation of ‘historic truth.’ The only manipulation that he is therefore permitted is structural and stylistic; the proof of his excellence is in the nature of his presentation of that ‘historic truth’” (193).

So, with all that said, I want to mention one more beautiful idea that I think is also quite useful if you’re reading this stuff, and that is the idea of the ‘collage’…I won’t go too much into it, but the reason I’m taken with it is partially the kind of temporality it would imply. Whereas the written is meant to be ever progressing forward, avoiding repetition – or obvious repetition (because its boring) – and teleologically linking the end to the beginning in a way that moves backwards forwards but is still linear, this ‘collage’ of overlapping sentiments and scenes is a world of ‘entangled temporalities’ (to use Achille Mbembe’s phrase) that requires repetition to link. (Disclaimer, I have a whole MA thesis on this sitting in the freezer doing nothing. It comes back sometimes…)

And now, friends, you have Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa under your belt. (Mostly, except for the last chapter.) Hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions, would love to discuss.


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