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Somalia: A Country Rich in Oral Tradition and Mythology

posted on: Aug 2, 2021

Rock paintings in the Las Geel cave, a type of literature found in Somalia. Photo: Wikipedia

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


Somalia has, unfortunately, over the years been known for its numerous civil wars, failed governments, and terrorist attacks that have taken place in its capital, Mogadishu, but were you aware there is so much more to this beautiful Arab country in the Horn of Africa? This is because Somalia has a rich literary and cultural history thanks to its huge grounding in both poetry and an exquisite oral tradition that goes back centuries. In fact, Somalia has been called a “nation of poets” by many academics. In this article, we are going to discover the country’s rich literature that is informed by the oral tradition and mythologies of Somalia.

What is Oral Tradition?

A tablet of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” an epic poem of Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq) as an example of oral tradition. Photo: Wikipedia

So, some might be asking, “what is the definition of the term, ‘oral tradition,’ “how does it apply to the poetical heritage and the literary history of the country of Somalia?” And knowing that some may be asking those questions, it is important to define what oral tradition actually means. Encyclopedia Britannica defines oral tradition as, “the first and still most widespread mode of human communication…in which it is a dynamic, highly diverse oral-aural [spoken word and listening] medium [meant] to evolve, store, and transmit knowledge, art, and ideas.” Furthermore, oral tradition is different than literature and literacy as it is usually not written down. The oral tradition dates to ancient times, and it was through this mode that people communicated before writing was created. Family heritages, poems, music, origin stories, folklore, tales, and jokes were communicated through some type of oral tradition before writing was invented. So, it is easy to understand how Somalia’s great poetic heritage developed from this medium or art form of spoken word and passed down through the generations by those who listened.

A fine example of oral tradition from the Arab World is the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which is an epic poem created in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), and it was thought to have been later written down on stone tablets between 2100 to 1200 BCE.

Somalia’s Great Poetry Informed by Oral Tradition:

A banner from PBS’s show, ‘Somalia: A Nation of Poets.’ Photo: PBS

As a country, Somalia has numerous forms of poetry, writings, and art that are informed by an oral tradition. Within the field of literature, Somalia is known for its “Islamic poetry, prose, fiction, and contemporary writers,” and many of these cultural productions resulted from oral tradition and mythology. The interesting thing is that Somalis are known to be vectors or originators of this oral tradition because they are considered to be “walking repositories of the country’s stories, myths, traditions, and genealogies that are heavily informed by syncretic beliefs of Islam and pre-Islamic times.”

In the case of Somalia, and other countries as well, this oral tradition could be as simple as passing down an origin story through numerous generations or something much more complicated such as a religious text. For example, the Quran is considered to be a piece of an oral tradition that was eventually written down which allowed the text to be standardized, and many more people could have the opportunity to learn and recite its verses.

Finally, Somalia’s poetry and oral tradition also have an important role in society besides it being a literary and cultural production. In fact, “a Somali poet is expected to play roles that support his clan such as defending their rights in disputes, defending their honor, and acting as a spokesman for the group.” This notion of defending one’s clan assumes that the oral tradition of poetry is not just an art form, but rather it is also political, contains meaning-making to many, is ingrained within society, has power, and may even serve as a sort of diplomacy and decisionmaking in local governance.

Somali Mythology and Oral Tradition:

Jinni in Arabian literature. Photo: Wikipedia

The origins of Somali mythology are both interesting and very diverse. This is because a lot of their stories were formed from “indigenous and Islamic beliefs,” and these tales feature characters that come from both faiths. This is called syncretism. Additionally, there are certain parts of nature that are important to Somali mythology including “rain is known as roob, and lions,” and many roles of humanity are featured in their national folklore which all emanates from some sort of oral tradition.

The syncretic poetry that originated from oral tradition included stories involving “jinni who are supernatural beings below angels and demons from Arabia, other spirits, ghouls, and shapeshifters.” These tales were created when two cultures and belief systems mixed together, and by doing this, a new ‘religion’ formed. This Islamic syncretism is known to have occurred in other parts of the Arab World including in Morocco with the Gnawa people who created their own traditions as well.

The core of these beliefs is that they originated from an oral tradition as these stories were told in a spoken word form, passed down through generations and multiple cultures, and these tales may even change as the storytellers deal with the evolution of memory. Or these tales may even change because society informed the story in a whole new way as time passed. The most important thing to remember with oral tradition is that the story can and will evolve as time passes and people’s memories may change as well.


How the Somali people think of poetry. Photo: Buzzfeed

The world of Somali literature is diverse, exciting, poetic, and beautiful especially since a lot of it comes from an oral tradition which is the purest form of communication because it is the spoken word. Somalis have managed to create a unique art form from the human voice, memories, and combined it with syncretic religious beliefs which make this poetry so intriguing. This article was only an introduction to the wonderful world of Somali poetic culture that is heavily informed by oral tradition and its mythologies, but it is the author’s hope that you all have learned a little bit about this wonderful country and its amazing literature.

Here is a sample of Somali oral tradition poetry: “This is a song used to soothe crying babies [translated in English]”:

            Hey hey baby

            Why cry darling mine?

            Why so capricious be?

            Hasn’t the milk vessel been filled up?

            Had the breast milk dried up all?

            A drop of milk giving you no more?

            Had the milk camels gone

            To water ponds far away?

            Has daddy on journey gone away?

            Tarrying to you to return?

            Haven’t the goats found grass fresh to feed on?

Poem: “Why Capricious Be?” From: “Folk Songs of Somalia,” page 25.

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