Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L is for the Lianja epic (Epics from A to Z)

I have read a large number of epics for this challenge. This one was not only new for me too, but I also have to admit that it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful pieces of oral literature I have ever read. Because I loved it so much, today's post is going to be a little longer than usual, so I can fit all my favorite parts into it. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

This epic, like yesterday's, is named after its main hero. The culture it belongs to is the Mongo, a Bantu ethnic group that lives in the tropical forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa. This story has been narrated since the 14th century; the English text I read is based on the performances of three storytellers, recorded in the 1980's. The narration is divided into three nights' performances (the introduction of the book describes really well what these performances look like).

The Lianja epic, unlike many others I have read for this challenge, is a story of peace. It is the tale of a foretold hero-messiah who will come to lead warring tribes to brotherhood and prosperity. It is exciting, eloquent, visually captivating, all-around gorgeous, and has a strong, amazingly relevant message of peace, forgiveness, and cross-cultural understanding.

The Hero
Lianja, while definitely the most important, is not the only hero in the story - in fact, he is not even born until the third night of the performance. He is preceded by a line of strong and wise men and women, like Bokele who leads the Mongo out of darkness into the light, Lianja's father the half-spirit Ilele, or his mother Mbombe, who is not only a famous wrestler, but also named Lady of Wisdom for her advocacy for peace. Lianja also shares his destiny for peace with his twin sister Nsongo.

The Highlights
Too many to count, really. Here are some of my favorites:

1. The prominent role of women. They fight beside their husbands (they lead armies and they have their own groups of experienced female warriors), they decide their own destiny, and they give speeches of wisdom to the community. One time the elders of a council try to shut wise woman Mama Isaso up, and instead a spirit appears to tell them that they should listen.
2. The descriptions of nature. This epic teems with beautiful, detailed descriptions of scenery, nature, and everything that lives. My favorite line is "The clouds played acrobatic games across the sky."
3. The questioning of the enemy's motives. Multiple times in the epic heroes ask themselves: What made our enemies hate us? What do they think about us? Even evil spirits are described like this: "They are infinitely asking themselves the meaning of their lives. As they are questioning themselves and how to change their lives they are lost in their thoughts and thus go around all the cosmos creating havoc, death and misconduct among the living."
4. This line: "How much better is life among strangers with light, than home without the sun and the moon."
5. Choosing a wife: After every nation and kingdom sends girls he can choose form, Ilele turns down the "short-listed" (sic!) bride, saying he wants to marry a girl he had "met, talked with, and loved." He goes on a journey, and joins a group of girls at a dance celebration, picking one he likes. But when he says "I want you to be my wife" this it he response he gets: "Your wife? What do you mean by your wife? A first wife? A second one? Or just for the occasion?" (This smart girl turns out to be a half-spirit herself, and they don't get married). Eventually, Ilele wrestles Mbombe in a pool of palm oil and defeats her, and they get married (she actually wants to marry him before the wrestling, but she says she can't give any suitor preferential treatment). In the wedding song the ideal wife is described as "a girl of plentifulness, selflessness and greatness, a girl of bravery, courage and without self praise, a girl of kindness, power and a sense of humor." Damn right.
6. Talk before action. Most conflicts in the epic are solved through talking them out. When Mbombe is bullied for her too-long pregnancy, the elders gather the community and explain to them how their words hurt her, in simple terms so they can understand. The epic says "Even those who spoke ill of Mbombe did not quite hate her, though they may have said some things out of jealousy." When Mbombo's husband is killed by the rival Sau-Sau (instigated by evil spirits), she is the first one to stand up and say the Mongo should not take revenge, because violence does not bring a solution. She only starts grieving after she makes sure no one goes off to avenge her husband.
7. The miraculous birth of Lianja: Mbombe, after years of pregnancy, becomes a sort of All-Mother: She gives birth to insects, birds, animals, and an entire race of people, before at last her twins are born, fully grown and ready for action. One of the small details I really liked is that Mbombe approaches her children with caution: They might be hers, but they have just been born, and she does not know what they are like, or how they think. They are, essentially, grown-up strangers to her.
8. The tortoises. Tortoises play important roles in the epic. My favorite part is when Mbombe lies to Lianja, telling him his father had died when a tree fell on him (she doesn't want him to go on a revenge quest). Lianja sends the tortoises to investigate. Tortoises stage a re-enactment of the accident to see if a tortoise can get away from a falling tree. When they succeed, they report back to Lianja that his father could not have died that way. CSI: Tortoise. (They also say "trees hate to drink human blood.")
 9. Minimum casualties. After the epic final battle, and killing the evil chief-spirit that ruled the Sau-Sau, Lianja brings all his dead warriors and his enemies back to life to start a new nation together. They cut down the tree that started the war, and plant a tree of peace in its place. Lianja then sets out to lead his people to a Promised Land, and many other groups join them on the way. When they are attacked and they have to fight. Lianja always brings back the dead from both sides.
10. One of the beautiful parts of the journey is the time the traveling nation takes refuge in the branches of a baobab tree from a group of evil ogres. The tree protects them, and in exchange they heal the tree when the ogres try to cut it down. Powerful image.


  1. This really sounds like a beautiful epic.
    I also like the message of peace and brotherhood the filters through, so rare in epics.

  2. CSI: Tortoise, haha! I would love to read this one. I will see if I can get a copy.

  3. An epic of peace: that is brilliant. I love all your favourite bits - especially the CSI tortoise :)
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  4. Wonderful and yes to the tortoise!

  5. I loved this line too- "How much better is life among strangers with light, than home without the sun and the moon."

    Did you know the tortoise plays an important role in the Mahabharata too?

  6. What's not to love, they have crime tech tortoises! Plus female representation of course - but CSI tortoises!!!
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles
    Wittegen Press

  7. This sounds really cool! I think it needs to go on my reading list.

  8. Anything that describes nature beautifully is something I'd be into. This one sounds great!

  9. Bella epic! I love prominent role of women!

  10. Any story with female warriors has my vote. Excellent post.

  11. Will you tell it? Is there a way to bring it to a manageable size, say two hours, for a one-person epic performance?

  12. That sounds like an interesting story, and I do love women being in the foreground. Reading epics for this sounds like a humongous task!

    1. Also, this is the first time I'm seeing someone use a baobab tree! I use it in my story! For normal tree uses, though lol.

    2. Also, this is the first time I'm seeing someone use a baobab tree! I use it in my story! For normal tree uses, though lol.

  13. I'm trying to imagine this epic being played out over three nights in an open air setting with every one of the audience knowing the story, having seen it over the years. What an exciting live performance that must be.

  14. Sounds like an interesting book! I love all things Africa.

  15. Interesting how many elements of epic stories from all over the world are similar. It's amazing.

  16. Interesting how many elements of epic stories from all over the world are similar. It's amazing.

  17. Added it to my wishlist. Really happy to get some African literature on my list! Thank you. :)

    Alex Hurst, A Fantasy Author in Kyoto
    A-Z Blogging in April Participant

  18. It sounds to me like the story of Abraham Lincoln. But with tortoises. And a happy ending.

  19. This one sounds fascinating.

  20. That's a cool epic. I like that the people are battling for peace and that women are equal to men. I wonder if anyone would ever make a movie of the story, without changing it.
    The View from the Top of the Ladder
    Take 25 to Hollister

  21. Wow, that does sound really amazing. I love the overarching idea of peace and the connections with nature. Also, actor tortoises sound awesome.

  22. This is definitely an epic I want to investigate further. Sounds like there's some powerful women in this one.

  23. Okay...love the tortoise thing first of all. I could only picture the large tortoise from Neverending Story in my head. I also really like the symbolism of the trees. I think I've read other mythological works that refer to the baobab tree as a tree of protection. Elle @ Erratic Project Junkie