Announcements and Articles: The Gatehouse Quarter => Exilian Articles => Topic started by: Jubal on February 09, 2018, 11:40:34 PM

Title: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Jubal on February 09, 2018, 11:40:34 PM
Realms of Myth: Somalia
By Jubal

This is the first of what will hopefully be a number of articles on the folklore of different world regions that I’m thinking of doing. In particular, I’d like to explore bits of folklore that haven’t made their mark on the modern fantasy and gaming scenes, and showcase some of the reasons why you might want to read and discover more about them. The worlds we know as “fantasy”, which have their roots in a mixture mainly of Northern European, Greco-Roman, and western Christian myths and legends, are just based on a small portion of the world's mythical output, and I hope looking at some more in these articles will help spark off ideas for some readers.

For this article, I’m doing – there’s a huge amount more to say about Somali myth than I have time to write here, and I hope I’ll manage to come back and write more on it at some future point, but here are some of the themes that for me make the myths of Somalia quite so fascinating:

Folk(lore) on the move

A typical Somali landscape - in places like this, it can pay to stay on the move.
For much of Somalia’s history, many of its people have been semi-nomadic – not “never having homes”, but with encampments and even villages that could be moved in response to drought, or to find more pasture for key herd animals. This is reflected in their myths, many of which have much more mobile “key locations” than in the folklore of more sedentary cultures. For example, a common opening trope that brings a bad situation into being simply involves characters finding that their parents or family have moved the encampment whilst they were away, or characters heading to some rough area where part of their family was known to be last, only to find that the way is difficult or the encampment simply not where they expect. This is an extremely simple and effective narrative device, and shows a fluid, mobile world that offers a wide range of storytelling possibilities.

Kinfolk and close kin-groups are also a very large element of Somali myth (and one that finds echoes in some older European myth but is often quite absent from its modern fantasy variants). Part of the corollary of having a society based on small, closely related encampments and clans is that a great deal of narrative tragedy is built up from internal familial jealousies and disagreements. In one myth a character known as the “missing-fingered priest” murders his wife Falaad’s brother over jealousy that he is too close to their son, for example; these sorts of close kin-politics issues are the bread and butter of storytelling, and are an intriguing look at story-driving dynamics in these sorts of smaller groupings.

Another thing it’s worth thinking about is what different societies value – herds and herd animals are often looked upon in derogatory terms in modern fiction, or are almost completely absent from them – but this idea of the “adventuring” (usually upper and/or urban urban) classes who tend to be the heroes of our modern stories looking down upon the rural world is a very modern creation. Somali myth often takes us into a world where keeping a good herd of camels or other prized animals could be the difference between life and death when times got tough, and where, for exactly this reason, having a really large herd was the sign of real, practical power, writ large in the faces of grumpy livestock. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the “jewels and silks” view of power that fantasy worlds often give us.

Female heroes and villains

Whilst male characters often play significant roles in Somali folklore, many of the strongest and most important characters are women, including the two most famous mythical figures in Somalia, Araweelo and Deghdeer.

The most significant central female character is Araweelo, a mythical warrior queen who according to legend created a matriarchal society. In some myths, she castrates all the men of the kingdom in order to try and better control them, a plan that is ultimately flawed when her daughter conceives via an old wise man and raises a son who grows to overthrow her. Whether Araweelo is seen as a mightily strong embodiment of feminine liberty and success or as a corpulent and dictatorial ruler may well vary according to the taste and intentions of a storyteller. Certainly, she is seen as an embodiment of power – a ruler with herds of a thousand camels who could drink as much milk as she ever desired, but whose downfall is in her excessively brutal use of that power, is a compelling centrepiece to a setting in itself.

The monster Deghdeer is another key female antagonist. Mutated into a ghoulish monster by turning to cannibalism and named for one extremely long ear which she uses to listen for her human prey, she is a far more specifically magical and monstrous terror. Like many good folkloric antagonists, she has a variety of specifically numbered, possibly magical, artefacts (a special cooking-pot, for example) that she uses to carry out her evil deeds, and a range of specific strengths and weaknesses. She’s extremely strong, for example, and extremely fast, but so heavy she has difficulty turning, such that clever heroes can dodge out of her path. She’s also not generally shown as very bright, as in one myth where two children each trick her into thinking they’re helping her catch the other and thus escape together – though she’s also capable of cunning, often putting up a whole circle of huts wherever she camps so as to make travellers believe there is a village there and tempt them closer.

These powerful female antagonists are treated as the leading characters in their respective cycles of stories (which have many variants – Hanghe for example records a significant number of different possible deaths for Deghedeer). Many of the protagonists are also female, though – one of the Deghedeer variants has a girl called Falaad as a primary character, and another has a group of girls including Deghedeer’s own daughters managing to finally kill the beast that she has become.

Giants and beasts

Hyenas - much more than cackling antagonists...
There are many mythical beings in Somali myth, with giants as some of the most prominent. In Somali folklore, giants lack the stigma and attributes of clumsiness and stupidity with which they are so often portrayed in European myths. “Giant tales” usually have the giant as a hero, either matched against a bad giant (as with Biriir Ina-Barqo) or plotted against by jealous kinfolk and neighbours (as with Gannaje). It is perhaps most right to see these tales as stories about how to use strength and show mercy; the power of the giant heroes is a lesson to others in how best to use such power.

Hyena-folk are another common part of Somali stories. The aggressive, cackling hyenas that a modern audience was probably mainly introduced to via the Lion King are given a great deal more complexity and interest by the Somalis, especially in their part-human variant as “qori-ismaris” – hyena-men (it is unclear whether they are regularly part-and-part or shape-shifters, and probably variable according to narrative usage). Hyena-folk are generally mistrustful of mankind, but can help and otherwise interact with them too. In one case, one grants a traveller a magic staff that gives him the ability to turn into a hyena himself (as long as he tells no humans), in another, causing problems by successfully winning the hand of a human woman, who then eventually rids herself of the unwanted husband by forcing him to abide by human and civilised customs that he cannot stand. This tension between hyenas as magical and wild and humans as settled is an interesting one to read about.

There are a number of other monsters – the monstrous “five-belly” who eats whole herds and flocks of animals, and one of whose victims results in the birth of the tiny trickster “thumb-size” who outwits bandits by simply being smaller and clever than they are, as two examples. Animal tales are also very common, and often include humans and animals (especially lions or snakes, but also smaller creatures) interacting. Certainly it’s worth remembering the presence of animal actors in myth: a manticore or a gryphon of course always have a certain mystique to them, but there’s a lot of power and interest vested in perceptions of real animals too, and allowing them to voice their perspective and interact with humans opens up a lot of potential stories.

I’m still very much a novice in the world of Somali myth, and I’m sure there’s vastly more to discover than I know, but hopefully the above gives you an idea of some of what there is to look at. Ahmed Artan Hanghe's "Folktales from Somalia" is the source of most of the above stories, and I believe there are one or two other English-language books available (which I'm hoping to get my hands on copies of at some point)! I'd also encourage you to look at Exilian's Somali Mythology Project (https://exilian.co.uk/forum/index.php?board=197.0), which I'm hoping to do some more work on in the coming months to turn it into a useable reference guide to at least the basics of the Somali mythological world (and please do let me know if you'd like to help with that!) Mostly, though, I hope you found this interesting, and I hope you stay tuned for future articles covering some of the world's less widely known cultures and myths!
Title: Re: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Pentagathus on February 13, 2018, 11:52:12 AM
This article is very cool, but I'm pretty sure Somalia is actually a real place not a mythological land.
Title: Re: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Jubal on February 13, 2018, 12:21:54 PM
Don't worry, I'll get onto writing "Realms of Myth: East Anglia" and do some really mythical places at some point...
Title: Re: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Caradìlis on February 13, 2018, 12:26:24 PM
Sound like something to look forward to... :)
Title: Re: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Jubal on February 13, 2018, 12:48:27 PM
That was sarcasm :P My actual next planned article in this series is Georgia. I probably could do one on English folklore sometime if there's demand though...
Title: Re: Realms of Myth: Somalia
Post by: Caradìlis on February 13, 2018, 01:31:16 PM
Sorry, my phone doesn't provide acoustics... :P
Georga sounds cool too... I'm up for anything mythology related... :) Mythology is always great, from anywhere in the world/universe... :)