Some Theories on African Tales and Folklore

The Origin of the Tales

For the Mambwe people, stories as moral allegories comprise a special part of their cultural heritage nurtured over the centuries. Since the tales were passed down from generation to generation, some researchers (e.g. L.H. Morgan, G. Taylor, J.G. Frazer – the evolutionists) assume that these stories, and likewise all oral literature, have no one individual author.  The tales are reproduced with almost perfect accuracy and, in their opinion, have many authors. According to their theory, they are relics of  the customs and beliefs of a distant barbarian past. Thus, the question of authorship cannot be examined. There is nothing to be gained from referring a tale’s contents to the situation in which it was first told, or discussing the different varieties of the same narrative thread. Since, according to this theory,  a tale is merely a relic of the past, it cannot be subject to normal literary criticism, in contrast to written literature.

Are the Mambwe tales truly only relics of the past, fossifications of oral creativity, as old as the language itself or even older? Do Mambwe tales exhibit only macabre humour, as some would have it?

On the basis of years of observation, I can say that Mambwe oral literature, though based upon age-old themes, is a living art and has its own specific authors, who continuously adapt both contents, form and meaning to the current situation. It should be underlined here that the authentic Mambwe tale is not that which is written down, but that which is told with active audience participation. This unusual oral art, the art of narration, is characterised by flexibility which means that the audience, knowing the main thrust of the story, does not know exactly how it will be adapted by the improvising story-teller. The same theme may on one occasion be used to explain the main weaknesses of the listener’s environment, and on another, lead to philosophical conclusions and a meditation, contemplating human life. Story-tellers often combine several themes, adapting the story’s end and its hidden message.

Hence we cannot reproduce ancient customs, beliefs and culture on the basis of an analysis of Mambwe tales. It should be underlined here that many themes of Mambwe tales recur not only in the Bantu cultural sphere, but also in our European culture or that of Arab countries. This does not bear evidence to the hypothesis that all these tales come from some common source, but rather shows how peoples from different civilisations have to face similar problems and that they react identically to the same phenomena. The recurrence of themes also shows that trends of world culture, especially Mediterranean or Near East culture, always penetrated into Africa.

The Time of the Tales’ Origin

Some authors (e.g. Prof. Stanisław Piłaszewicz), analysing African tales, have come to the conclusion that tales about animals belong to the oldest, as they underline the intimate link between man and nature.  They also claim that magic stories about the blood-thirsty spirit turning into a human being are also among the first tales. Stories speaking of the problems of individual social classes and about interpersonal relationships are delegated to a later stage.  These tales criticise human failings and encourage obedience to the norms of tradition. Without beginning a discussion on the time at which this literary genre appeared, I would merely like to stress that, in view of the scarcity of comparative sources from earlier periods of Mambwe history, it is impossible to ascertain which tales are indeed the oldest. Mambwe story-tellers are extraordinarily creative in the literary sense.  Thus, new tales have appeared over the last few years which speak of the close link between man and nature. Modern day tales also include magic motifs. In conclusion, it seems that there is no way of determining the time individual tales first appeared. However, the general division into thematic categories, starting with tales about animals, man’s symbiosis with nature and then magic stories, remains unverifiable due to lack of comparative sources.


Taking into account the contributions of different disciplines: the evolutionist, the historical and geographic, as well as the structural and functional, into research on African oral literature, it should be noted that each school, despite having done much towards discovering this creativity, has made many mistakes. One basic error is to assume that African  story-telling traditions can be treated differently to those from cultural spheres nearer to ours. These schools do not undertake any literary criticism of the works, concentrating only on historical and geographical analysis, is meant to determine or investigate the extent to which a given story has spread, or on analysis of the individual story’s social function.

Some researchers (such as J.G. Frazer) assume that folklore (thus, tales as well), being a relic of the past, is the result of primary creativity, which is ‘early’ and poorly developed. Folk stories, according to J.G Frazer, have been passed down from one generation to the next with perfect accuracy. Thus, modern story-tellers merely recreate stories which were told a long time ago. In other words, they themselves are judged to lack imagination and ideas. It is also wrongly assumed that African peoples have no idea about aesthetics and that tales appeared only because they are a useful factor in conserving African tradition and stabilising the hierarchical structure of African societies. In studying African tales, the limited extent to which we know them should be kept in mind. In characterising tales the reactions of people among whom given stories are told should be taken into account, as well as the place occupied by story-telling among other forms of creativity such as poetry, songs and proverbs. Furthermore, it is important to analyse the artistic level of the author and story-teller, his originality, the vocabulary he uses and the dramatisation of his performance, that is all that makes us experience story-tales as beautiful art forms.