The motivation for this study springs from the realization that of all the features of the African epic, the supernatural factor seems to have been the least fully explored in the literature. Since Bowra’s work (1964), the very existence of the epic in Africa has been denied by many Eurocentric scholars due mainly to the very presence of the supernatural in the genre. Typically, such scholars tend to dismiss the existence of the heroic epic in Africa largely because of the role the supernatural plays in African oral literature. However, the tendency for human beings to appeal to forces outside and beyond the natural as coping strategies to adverse life situations can be traced back to antiquity. For example, we are aware of how the ancient Kemetic people implored their gods; and made ritual sacrifi ces to them in order to achieve specifi c objectives. (Abarry & Asante,1996: 98) This should not sound strange to any serious student of African culture. For, in the African worldview, the realm of the visible and the invisible do not constitute two completely separate entities; these entities combine to form one dynamic entity. Welsh-Asante stresses this harmony between the two worlds when she states,
The process of perception in an African centered worldview combines the sacred and profane, mind and body, the natural and the supernatural as organic dynamic entities, able to manifest themselves in all sorts of combinations and disciplines.(Welsh-Asante, 1993: 17)
However, it is this ubiquitous reference and appeal to forces beyond human scope that has led to the questioning of the very essence of the African epic. Despite the fact that the presence of marvelous elements and heroic actions are widely considered as being distinguishable characteristics of the epic in general, such characteristics, ironically, are those that are exploited by Western scholars to deny the literary and historical values of the African epic. Moreover, except for Isidore Okpewho’s (1976) article entitled “Africa and the Epic: Comparative Thoughts on the Supernatural Machine”, and more recently, Mugyabuso Mulokozi’s (2002) book, The African Epic Controversy: Historical, Philosophical and Aesthetic Perspectives on Epic
Poetry and Performance; there seems not to be any comprehensive and extensive study that specifi cally deals with the role, importance and functions of the supernatural in the African epic. Most of the studies that do mention the supernatural in African epics (Okpewho 1976&1979; Coulibaly 1997; Ayivor 1997; Belcher, 1999) do not analyze the supernatural as a subject on its own, but rather as a sub-theme in the hero’s life. The issue of the supernatural is almost always dealt with in relation to the hero, thus denigrating its impact on the society at large. It is for this reason that more attention needs to be devoted to the study of the hero’s supernatural powers, and their impacts on the heroic tale as a whole. The supernatural as an analyzable structural device and characteristic of the African epic has not so far been extensively investigated in the scholarship on the genre. This is not surprising, considering that the African heroic epic has only recently become the object of scholarly inquiry.