The Inspired Story-Teller in Traditional African Culture

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (Baltimore: Penguin, 1988), the tribal elder who greets Ikem explains not only the socio-political functions of narrative but also the nature of divine inspiration:

When we are young and without experience, we all imagine that the story of the land is easy, that every one of us can get up and tell it. But that is not so. True, we all have our little scraps of tale bubbling in us. But what we tell is like the middle of a mighty boa which the foolish forester mistakes for a tree trunk and settles upon to take his snuff. . . . Yes, we lay into out little tale with wild eyes and a vigorous tongue. The, one day Agwu comes along and knocks it out of our mouth and our jaw out of shape for our audacity and hands over the story to a man of his choice. . . Agwu does not call a meeting to choose his seers and diviners and artists; Agwu, the god of healers, Agwu, brother to Madness! . . . Agwu picks his disciple, rings his eyes with white chalk and tips his tongue, willing or not, into the brew of prophecy; and . . . his chalked eye will see every blow in a battle he never fought. So fully is he owned by the telling that sometimes . . . he will turn the marks left on him by the chicken-pox . . . into bullet scars. . . . But the lies of those possessed by Agwu are lies that do no harm to anyone. They float on the top of story like the white bubbling at the pot mouth of new palm-wine (114-115).

Agwu, like the Greek Apollo, is simultaneously god of poets, healing, and divine madness. Why does Achebe introduce this information into his novel? Why does he have the elder include the poet's lies and exaggerations?

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