chapter  3
The Supernatural in African Epics
Pages 25

This chapter deals with the different occurrences of the supernatural in the hero’s life and how they impact his destiny.

PROPHESY

Prophesy constitutes an essential feature of the epic because it occupies a very prominent place in the African epic tradition. Indeed, the success of many epics depends on the denouement suspected by the audience. Divinatory symbols such as dreams, warnings, signs are used to alert both the hero and the audience on the direction of the different events that are going to unfold. Consequently, not supposing their knowledge to be shared by anyone else, the time, place, birth, death, and future course of events of all the characters in the story are foretold to them. Commenting on the role that divination plays in Mandé society, McNaughton (1988) explains:

Great value is placed on divination as a process that can help solve problems, improve one’s life, and, in general, assist individuals in living up to the full capacities that constitute their destinies. Several people in every town have special knowledge and special powers enabling them to ascertain events likely to occur in the future and to determine the cause of present situations. (p. 51)

McNaughton goes on to state that there are several divination techniques practiced throughout traditional African societies. Referring to the specifi c example of the divination technique through the throwing of cowry shells, he states:

Throwing cowry shells, kolonw, is a popular form of divination . . . It involves the tossing or scattering of twelve, twenty, or forty shells, which have had their backs removed so that they are as likely to land on one side as they are on the other. Practitioners look for confi guration in the tossed shells. Each possible fi gure is associated with a variety of meanings, and from among them the diviner selects those that fi t the client’s situation. When the shells are cast, many will be scattered into isolated

positions, creating no meaningful arrangements. Seers look for groups of up to four shells, aligned through contact or overlap. (p. 53)

As the left -handed hunter from Sangaran uses twelve cowry shells to predict the destiny of Mandé, we can safely assert that prophesy by means of divination is thus, one dimension of the role that the supernatural plays in the African epic. Indeed, Sundiata’s birth and greatness as well as Naré Maghan’s marriage with Sogolon Kedjou were prophesized several years before by the hunter soothsayer:

I see two hunters coming to your city; they have come from afar and a woman accompanies them. Oh, that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, she bears on her back a disfi guring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely laid on her face, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal for ever. King of Mali . . . You have ruled over the kingdom which your ancestors bequeathed to you and you have no other ambition but to pass on this realm, intact if not increased to your descendants; but, fi ne king, your successor is not yet born. I see two hunters coming to your city; they have come from afar and a woman accompanies them. Oh, that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, she bears on her back a disfi guring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely laid on her eyes, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal for ever. The child will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth. He will be more mighty than Alexander. But, oh king, for destiny to lead this woman to you a sacrifi ce is necessary; you must offer up a red bull, for the bull is powerful. (Niane, 1965: 5-6)

This quotation is quite telling about the role of the supernatural as a mean of revelation. This role is well dramatized in the buffalo’s prophesy concerning Sogolon Kedjou who, as she foretold, will be an extraordinary woman if the hunter manages to possess her. Sundiata symbolizes the combination of both love and good luck made possible by supernatural circumstances. His mother conceived the night when “she was congealed in her human body and her wraith was no longer in her.” (Niane, 1965: 12)

Moreover, the premonition in the enigmatic phrase, “the child will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth” informs the audience of the mightiness and greatness of the future hero as well as that of his empire. And the mystery surrounding Sundiata’s mother is another indication that he will be a super-human person, destined for a glorious career. Also, his father, Maghan Kon Fatta Konaté is referred to as a “Lion” (Djata). Hence, Sundiata is said to be “the son of the Buffalo” and “the son of the Lion.” The Lion comes from his father’s totem. The lion and the buffalo are the

most feared two animals of the Savanna. Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté stresses the potency of the combination of the lion and the buffalo in Sundiata’s personality when he states that, “at the age of eighteen he [Djata] had the stateliness of the lion and the strength of the buffalo.” (p. 47)

Usually, in the epics, the births, lives, and deaths of prominent characters are foretold by prophesies, dreams, and omens. Yet, the heroes pay no attention to them, and go to meet their fate, exactly as it has been fore told, no matter how authoritatively made these prophesies are. Even Shaka Zulu himself goes to his fate as if he were unaware of his own prophesy that came to him as a dream in which his late and beloved mother Nandi warns him:

It was on this day that Shaka had a visitation. He dreamt that Nandi was scolding him fi ercely, Saying: ‘The nation awaits you, Mlilwana. It is time your feet climbed the mountain. Do not sink with me into the soft eternal night. What will those who came before you say? Enemies will begin plotting against you, Saying you ruled only through the house of abasemaLangeni. Rise and give your command like a true leader.’ (Kunene, 1979: 338)

For example, the soothsayers foretold Askia Mohammed’s birth and destiny even before he was born:

The seers said “listen”—they told Si it is Kassaye who will give birth to a child who will kill him and take over the throne of Gao. It is Kassaye who will give birth to a child. That child will kill Si and will take the position of ruler. (Hale, 1996: 17)

By the same token, Shaka’s birth and greatness were prophesized to his grandmother Jama by the oracle in these words:

I see a vision of houses consumed by mountains of fi res . . . It is from here the beautiful shall be born . . . The generation to come shall rule the earth. (Kunene. 1979: 3-4)

Shaka’s birth is accompanied by a sense of mystery through the diviner’s premonition:

From the womb of Nandi comes the language of their secrets, Quivering on the forehead of him who shall be great. It was because of these prophecies of our Forefathers; we listened;

They talked into the elephant-ears of future times. Like Malandela, son of Mdlani of Nkosinkulu;

Like Phunga and Mageba of ancient times, Who was dreaming their greatness into our age. Their progeny was their hand of sacrifi ce. They vowed: ‘Jama’s fame shall radiate into the sun. The diviners prophesied the greatness of his house; By their fi nal word they said a nation of red spears shall be born.