by Magdalena Szewczyk

Ethiopians like to express themselves metaphorically, and in order to understand them, one should look for the “deeper” meaning of a word, a phrase, an expression or a story. Thus tales have to entertain and to teach, and because of this double function, they are much loved by both young and old.

Tales are very popular in Ethiopia and it is hard to find a person who couldn’t tell any story. Folk-tales are still being told as part of “daily life”, stories are retold and they change as the culture or the situation of individuals change. In this way Ethiopians pass their cultural heritage from generation to generation.

A well-known author, Haddis Alemayyehu, has written stories in the style of traditional folk-tales. Also Taddese Liben has written folk-tales he heard from his mother in his childhood. Historical tales were written by Kebbede Mikael.

But there is few studies concerning Ethiopian tales, which are theoretical analyses of Ethiopian tales in whole. The common Amharic word for “tale, folk-tale” is teret, but its meaning is rather large. Ethiopians often use the word tarïk, which means both “history” as well as a fictional story.

In Ethiopia tales are told practically everywhere and by everyone. But there are great and well-know storytellers in Ethiopia and they usually tell folk-tales. As they tell stories to different audience, their stories are matched to situation.

The typical, public storyteller is the “wise old man”, who tells stories to children at central meeting place in the village.

Parents also tell folk-tales to their children before they go to sleep – this is the most common storytelling session among Ethiopian inhabitant.

They often choose tales about bravery, cleverness or – on the contrary – foolishness, laziness – depending on their children’s characters. Sometimes parents tell stories about their forefathers or homeland. Storyteller starts with introduction by asking the riddles to help concentration.

After this, a proper event begins. This also has its formulas: rhymed predominately starts by teret teret yemeseret, “Tale, tale of the base”. And in the end a storyteller often asks questions about various characters in the story or about the meaning of a tale. Some tales finish with a proverb that makes a conclusion or a summary of a tale.

The biggest printed collection of folk-tales in Amharic in called Inqilf leminé, “Why should I go to bed?”, collected by Mahteme-Sillasé Welde-Mesqel and published by him in Addis Abeba in 1957/8.

In modern Ethiopian schools folk-tales are used in teaching mother tongue, literature and culture. Most Ethiopians are aware of the educational value and influential power of folk-tales.

Adequate stories are told to support and increase some good traits; they are meant to prepare the young for adult life and form his character. Many stories are suitable to be told to groups, but often a parent will take a child aside to tell the story in his/her own way in order to improve a certain feature in the child’s character.

In Ethiopia very popular are numerous trickster tales. Human and animal tricksters are admired for their cleverness and agility to survive. Unscrupulous, smart cheat often wins with the honest and hardworking plodder or social superior e.g. a king.

It is probably correct that the trickster represents many people’s desire to act with complete freedom, without social and moral constraints; he gains wealth and hardly ever is punished for any wrong-doing.

In Ethiopian trickster-tales it is said that stealing (or another inappropriate act) is not so bad if you can hide it; being found out and shamed is worse than stealing.

Animals are stereotypes in Ethiopian folk-tales, it is because of people’s consideration of various animals. The lion is courageous and a plays a role of a leader, but he also may be outsmarted by more clever animals.

The hyena is thought to posse portrayed as being hungry, while eating or looking for food. The donkey is presented as a foolish and lazy animal. The dog is said to be dissatisfied with his fate and always complaining while the cat is described as mean, frugal, and no demanding.

However, the most animal is a female monkey – totit, who is the Ethiopian counterpart of Reynard the Fox.

Conflicts, struggles and unfaithfulness are frequent subjects.    Female character is often portrayed as untrustworthy and devious. In Ethiopian folk-tales  among human characters, the most important person is a man and his world.

Subject in the tales show the contrast between trickery and foolishness, problems of poverty and of finding food, mistreatment of animals, relationship between men and women or parents and children.

The difference between the beautiful and good and the ugly and bad is also visible: ugly people are get less kindly treatment than the nice good ones. Helpfulness and co-operation are described as something wrong; the lazy but clever person can gain everything from the others work.

Reading Ethiopian tales we need to know that in order to understand hidden message, it is necessary to have some historical, social and psychological knowledge about Ethiopia and its people.

Telling stories from generation to generation maintained tradition and Ethiopian identity during centuries. Tales are significant component of education and socialization in Ethiopia.

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