Oral literature is an important cultural resource in Ethiopia. Folk history, myth, legend and cultural ideas are conveyed in tales that may be many hundreds of years old. This unique body of literature is under threat, however. Literacy, the spread of broadcast media such as radio and television and the break-up of traditional ways of life mean that the old stories are no longer told or valued as they once were. They can be lost and forgotten within a generation.
Illustration by Yosef Kebede from The Good Wife (Afar Region)
Folk stories from widely scattered regions around the world often bear an uncanny resemblance. This will be noticed in some tales in this collection, which show affinities with the fables of Aesop, the Old Testament, the Thousand And One Nights, tales from North America and European fairy stories. All the stories, however, have the flavour of Ethiopia, in their settings and cultural norms, and many are unique to the country.
It is not possible to determine the age of these stories, but many are no doubt very ancient. The fact that some of them include modern elements (a car or a bus, for example) only underlines the fact that they are part of a living tradition, which has adapted itself to new circumstances throughout history.
It would take a trained folklorist to properly analyse the different types of stories. The following is a rough rule-of-thumb, simply to give some idea of the diversity.
The stories differ in length and interest. In some regions there may be few stories of considerable length. In others there are many stories, some of which appear to be little more than fragments. All have been included here.