Alexander  ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)


Despite the progress made in the creation of Somali written culture over the last 10-15 years,[2] Somali remains a predominantly oral language. The number of the recorded pieces of verbal art is rather limited as regards both poetry, remarkable for its refined style, and folk prose, consisting mainly of short tales or anecdotes. The ‘Soothsayer Tested’[3] stands out among these latter by its philosophical content and consummate artistic form. On three occasions prose narration is interrupted by ‘acts’ in verse. [4] All this makes ‘The Soothsayer’ a unique manifestation of Somali ‘high prose’, situated halfway between poems and regular folktales. Let us examine the tale’s narrative and thematic structure.

1. The goals of the analysis

The plot of the tale is briefly as follows.

The sultan calls a famous soothsayer and orders him, on pain of death, to predict what will happen to his tribe in the coming year. The soothsayer tries fortune-telling by beads but his skill betrays him. He moves away from the people, continues his attempts but in vain. Suddenly a serpent speaksto him, they exchange an oath of friendship and the snake tells him (in verse) the desired prediction in exchange for his promise a share of the reward. The soothsayer goes to the sultan and passes onthe prediction: a year of enmity is coming. The tribe gets ready for war in good time and comes out the victor. The sultan rewards the soothsayer with livestock; instead of giving the serpent his share he tries to kill him, but the serpent escapes.

The next year, the chief demands another prediction. The soothsayer appeals to the serpent, who forgives him and predicts a drought. The soothsayer goes to the sultan, the tribe gets ready for the drought in good time and manages to survive. The sultan rewards the soothsayer again but once again he avoids repaying the serpent. The sultan wants to know what will happen for the third time. The soothsayer goes to the serpent and returns with the prediction of rain. The tribe has time to prepare the reservoirs for water and avails itself of the generosity of nature in full measure. Everybody is replete and happy.

This time the soothsayer drives all the livestock with which he was rewarded to the serpent, begs forgiveness for the past and, acknowledging the serpent’s higher wisdom, asks to be told about the structure of the world and the life in it. The serpent refuses the gift and the friendship of the soothsayer and says: ‘World there is, but life is not distinct from it. Your life, as you call it, goes as the world goes, for God made the world with many patterns and it is these that rule men’s lives. When war is the pattern of the times all men are at enmity with each other, and thus it was that during wartime you took your sword against me even after I had helped you, and said to yourself, “Cut off his head!” And then again, at a time of drought no man is generous to his fellows, so you ran away with all your herds, giving me no share in the sultan’s reward. But when there is a pattern of prosperity… then you come to me, offering me all you have, not keeping even one animal for yourself. Each time it was the pattern, not yourself, that forced you to do whatever you did.’

What is the immediate impact of the tale? The closure comes, of course, with the final monologue of the serpent, who formulates the innermost meaning of the tale, elucidating in retrospect the manifold peripeties of the plot. This new understanding is unexpected but also well prepared, causing the listener/reader to experience a powerful shock of recognition – a sudden grip on the meaning of life as it appears in the tale. One is literally on the verge of exclaiming: ‘Aha! That’s it! So true!’. How is such an effect achieved? To answer this question, we must demonstrate, for the course of the tale as a whole and for each one of its episodes, the way they work for its central conceit, bringing it home on the crest of an aesthetic experience caused by the narrative. In other words, we must identify the function of every component in successfully realizing the theme.

This calls for a ‘generative’ description, specifying the text’s derivation from its theme in accordance with the principles of artistic expression.5 This project is an updated version of a traditional literary-critical problem: an attempt to reconstruct, in a painstakingly explicit and graphic step-by-step manner, the creative logic inherent in works of literary art.

2. The theme

The literary scholar usually begins by groping intuitively for the formulation of the text’s theme. In our case, this is made easier by the serpent’s final words: life echoes the structure of the world, i.e.,people’s actions are not free but determined by fate. This sounds close to the myth of Oedipus,6 except that our tale does not involve two conflicting concepts of causality (fatal inevitability vs. freedom of will). The serpent states that life echoes the structure of the world, not that it is determined by it; indeed, the actions of the soothsayer are connected with the general course of events in the sense that they are similar to it, rather than that they are caused by it. Never does the tale suggest that the soothsayer attacked the serpent because of fighting in battles; or that he kept the livestock because of the drought and general scarcity; or that he felt like giving because he had enough himself and saw generosity all around him. Only in the denouement do we find out that there has always been a connection within each of the three pairs of events, but that it is not a causal connection in the chain of causes and effects but a simple similarity, based not on the impact of one phenomenon upon another, but on a certain hidden affinity between the phenomena.7 This view is presented in the tale not as merely a correct idea or even a striking truth, but as the most absolute of all truths: a revelation. The theme of the tale thus is:

A revelation: people’s life is not independent; it is connected with the structure of the world by a relation that is not causal, but rather one of permanent mystical affinity. In short, revelation: life resembles the structure of the world.

3. Emplotting the theme

Outlining the overall composition of the “future” work can be envisaged as relying on random devices, but they would have greater explanatory power if their choice were determined by the theme. The scholarly legacy of Sergei Eisenstein abounds in instructive examples of detecting the devices that are inherent in the themes they are applied to. Following in his footsteps, let us try to identify devices cognate to our theme, revelation: life resembles the structure of the world, by examining its major components: (i) resemblance; (ii) universality of the revealed law; (iii) revelation.

(i) The idea of resemblance naturally predisposes the use of similes and comparisons. The static (eternal, universal) nature of these resemblances and the emphasis on affinities (rather than causality) also favor metaphorical patterning.

(ii) Laws (of life and nature) are best conveyed through multiple examples illustrating their universality.8Both the general rhetorical rule of diversifying the material and the specific task of rendering the laws’ universality prompt the use of the expressive device of maximal, even contrastive, variation.

(iii) Revelation, i.e. a profound truth, first concealed from the people and then suddenly, often divinely, made known to them, involves the motif recognition, or epiphany, which is usually engineered by a narrative reversal, a sudden turn to the opposite course of events, imbuing the plot with suspense.

Collating the products of the three devices will yield the following outline of the emerging narrative:

a plot with a sudden turn towards the revelation of the multiple metaphorical correspondences proving that life is similar to the structure of the world.

This compositional sketch poses further generative tasks. In order to deploy the device of sudden turn, it is necessary first to formulate the anti-theme, i e. the opposite of the theme, that will provide the initial (pre-reversal) stage of the plot, and find means for concretizing it. It is also necessary to resolve the contradiction between the static nature of the theme proper and the dynamism of its narrative development.

Let us begin by formulating a statement that is opposite to the serpent’s revelation (‘World there is, but life is not distinct from it. This so-called life echoes the structure of the world’). It will look something like: ‘Life as such exists, but there is no structure to the world’. In composing the tale we will have first to produce the picture of life as such that is separate, formless, meaningless, not connected to the structure of the world.

Another relevant aspect of the theme proper is the static nature of the world and life in it, one based on affinities among phenomena. The anti-theme should then paint the picture of a dynamic, narratively suspenseful beginning of the plot, foregrounding characters’ interactions and other cause-and-effect relations. Since causality is only an illusive appearance, the dynamic interactions must be presented as occasional, ephemeral, incoherent ones. But in order to ensure the eventual readability of the revelation, the portrayal of meaningless life should be covertly infused with manifestations of the universal law.

These decisions result in a plot based on contrasting, and then combining, the anti-theme: a formless, patternless life, with its ephemeral temporary dynamic interactions, with the theme proper: eternal static laws representing the metaphorical structure of the world.

The contradiction between the static law of affinity and the dynamism of the plot has thus appeared in a new light: as a sought-out rhetorical contrast, one not to be eliminated or smoothed out, but rather emphasized, so as to allow a spectacular fusion of its opposite poles in a single plot line. The plot will proceed under the predominance of the anti-theme until a sudden triumph of the theme proper – a switch from a plot narrative to a meditative mode, a turn not in the plot but from the plot to a non-plot, to a ‘non-narrational, lyrical, metaphorical, poetic’ view of the world. It is worth noting that this way of matching the components of the overall theme with their respective means of expression (theme proper  poetic similes, anti-theme  plot interactions) is a remarkable peculiarity of our tale: its, as it were, valuable ‘artistic discovery’. Thus, we obtain a blueprint of

a plot with a sudden turn from a story of life as such, with its occasional temporary interactions, towards the poetic revelation of the static proportions between life and the structure of the world, developed with repetitions and contrastive variations.

4. Detailing the plot

Next, the plot outline must be developed into concrete situations and interrelations among characters.

The proportion life resembles the structure of the world can be concretized as follows: manifestations of life, for example, people’s actions, resemble the manifestations of the world, for example, the divine phenomena. With a threefold folkloric repetition this will yield: action 1 resembles phenomenon 1, action 2 resembles phenomenon 2, action 3 resembles phenomenon 3.

The device of contrastive variation will have to be applied now both to the divine phenomena and thehuman actions. For the phenomena, it can resultin, among other possibilities, the set obtaining in our tale. Indeed, divine phenomena 1, 2, 3 are represented by war, drought, rain. The first is opposed to the other two as social is to natural; inside the natural elements, the opposition is even clearer: rain is opposed to drought as wet is to dry, abundant to scant, generous to stingy, life to death; while war and drought together are opposed to rain as disastrous is to beneficial. As a result the three phenomena supplement each other and, in a sense, cover the world as a whole.

As for the contrastive variation of actions, the tale has sword stroke, reneging on a debt, repaying with a surplus. The first two actions are opposed to the third as violations of a contract are to honoring it, while the first is opposed to the third as active (aggression, generosity) is to evasive (stinginess). All three actions form an even transition from actively bad to actively good behavior, as if spanning the entire range of possible actions.

To schematize the way such sets are created:

(1) For each member of the proportion (actions/phenomena) many possible illustrations are chosen: actions → attacking, defending, stealing, showing stinginess, giving, falling in love, betraying…; phenomena → war, harvest, earthquake, flood, rain…

(2) These illustrations are diversified: actions → good (defending, giving) as opposed to bad (attacking, stealing, betraying); active (attacking, stealing) vs. passive (being stingy, betraying); violent (attacking, defending) vs. non-violent (stealing, betraying, falling in love) and so forth; phenomena → natural (drought, flood, rain) vs. social (war, harvest, festivities); top (rain, eclipse, eruption) vs. bottom (earthquake, harvest); earth (harvest, earthquake) vs. water (rain, flood); mountains (eruption) vs. sky (eclipse, rain); good (harvest, rain) vs. bad (earthquake, eruption) and so on.

(3) From among the diverse actions and phenomena that have a common dimension, e.g. being good, positive, beneficial (rain, giving, defending…vs. bad, negative, harmful (attacking, being stingy, betraying, earthquake…),it is necessary to pick out those that differ maximally in other respects as well.

Each of the phenomena (war, drought, rain) appears in the plot not once but twice: first as prediction, then as fact. The undesirable monotony of these repetitions is avoided thanks to the semantic opposition itself (mental vs. real) and the additional stylistic contrast between verse (rendering the predictions) vs. prose (narrating the events). The opposition is further dramatized by narrative suspense (Will the prediction come true?Will he share the reward?).

Such are the major moves in the multi-step process of creating the comparisons, repetitions and contrasts that convey the theme proper of resemblance.

As for the anti-theme, it is to be concretized through a plot sequence, i.e. something along the lines of the protagonist first acting wrongly, but eventually going right, except that, in order for this course of events to look ‘meaningless,’ the change for the better should be deprived of its causal, teleological sense, for instance, the way it is done in the tale: the serpent ignores the misdeeds of the soothsayer and readily agrees to help him again and again and at the end declines what seemed to be the deserved and long-awaited gift.10

One of the requirements of the ‘sudden turn’ construction is combining the main manifestations of the theme proper with those of the anti-theme into a single chain of events. This means that the two sets of manifestations, so far connected only by resemblance, should now be bound by contiguity, that is, form a plot sequence of the protagonist’s actions in the midst of the world’s phenomena.

Let us combine aggression and stinginess with the wrong actions of the character, and generosity with correct ones, i.e.let him display aggression and stinginess whenin the wrong, and generosity after mending his ways, and do so in time of war, drought and rain respectively. Let us also combine the revelation with the event providing the sudden turn, thus making the revelation the denouement of the plot.

At this juncture, we obtain

a plot that from the history of the character who in connection with war and drought does wrong (attacks, displays stinginess) but later, reforming himself, displays generosity in connection with rain, turns to the revelation of what is really important: that all the human manifestations (aggressiveness, greed, generosity) are similar to the divine ones (war, drought, rain).

5. Engineering the reversal

To make the shift to the revelation both unexpected and well prepared, the unfolding plot must, on the one hand, contain the material and even the pattern of the future revelation but at the same time keep it hidden from the reader. If in the end it turns out that actions 1, 2, 3 resembled phenomena 1, 2, 3 respectively, then in the course of narrating the plot they must appear quite dissimilar. Once again, deploying maximal variation is in order, but in a new way now. So far it has been used overtly, letting the reader notice from the start and enjoy the similarity in difference (war, drought, rain are different as such but similar as world phenomena; the same goes for the protagonist’s actions). Now the difference between similar entities will have to be pushed to such an extreme that their similarity will become unrecognizable, making eventual recognition all the more startling.

The initial opposition life vs. world has yielded the antithesis actions of one person vs. phenomena affecting the fate of people and nature. This makes the two opposites quite different, but not different enough.Creating unrecognizability is basically a compositional task and calls for compositional means: the dissimilarity of the opposites can be achieved by their maximum separation in the tale’s narrative space. One way of making them non-comparable is splitting the plot into two stories, one internal, or framed, the other external, or framing, to be suddenly fused in the denouement. The inequality of their narrative status will hamper their comparison and make them incommensurable.11

To split the plot into a framing story and a framed one, narratives resortto message motifs (songs, recollections, dreams, orders, letters, etc.). Our sketch already contains something of the sort: a revelation, which, along with such motifs as presentiment, prediction and others, is, indeed, a type of message. Bringing the plot’s protagonist in line with the motifs of revelation and prediction and the cosmic scale of the theme will, in turn, prompt the raising of the social rank of the characters (yielding divine creatures, kings and whole nations) and result in the figure of the provider of magic predictions. The sequence of the actions of the predictor will naturally form the framing storythe divine phenomena (war, drought and rain), i.e. the objects of the predictions, will constitute the framed story.

The actions of the protagonist (the framing story) must be connected, plotwise, with the events of the framed story, while at the same time being far removed from it – in time, place and motivation. With this in mind and in tune with the elements generosity/stinginess and right/wrong, we can cull from the traditional folktale repertoire the motifs of contract, king’s order, and reward; coordinating this with prediction will result in a prediction stipulated by a contract, an order and a reward.

As a next step, the provider of predictions can be split into an oracle and a soothsayer, who will provide the characters of the framing story. Contract, order, and reward will play the role of additional links, augmenting the length and flexibility of the plot chain and driving its ends (actions and phenomena) even farther apart. As a result, the compositional separation (into two stories) can be supplemented by a separation in the plot (of the two characters), a temporal one (they will communicate before and after the war, i.e. during a time of peace, before and after the drought, etc.), and a spatial one (their meetings will take place outside the main scene of action).

These new narrative moves will help foreground the motif of revelation. The resemblance of the soothsayer’s actions to world events will pass unnoticed through the end, creating a narrative need for an explicit announcement. Once stated, the resemblance will be perceived not as a moral tacked on to the tale, but as the denouement of the plot, i.e. as a long-awaited and necessary revelation clarifying the structure of the story and the world.12

The introduction of the motifs of contract, order, and reward will also further develop the motif of ‘meaningless life as such’ by engaging the reader’s attention with the superficial, causal aspects of actions and phenomena, i.e. questions like: Will the soothsayer manage to make the prediction? Will he honor the contract? Will he be punished by the serpent? Will they make peace in the end? and so on. Although the tale concerns the fortunes of an entire people and Fate itself is involved in them (‘I am… Fate,’ says the serpent), most of the time the plot focuses on the everyday needs of an average man: his attempts to avoid punishment, do his job, get a reward, and handle his debts.

An even more ambitious task is to project the tale’s anti-theme, i.e. the meaninglessness and transitoriness of life, onto the storyline of the divine oracle. To do so, let us turn the oracle into a character of the framing story and link him with the soothsayer by materialistic property relations — via the motifs of contract and reward. Let us also make the oracle’s predictions, important and correct as they are, into separate predictions valid for one year only and pertinent to only one (internal) storyline, and what’s more, limit them to forecasting specific events, rather than intimating ultimate eternal truths about the world as a whole. Finally, let us use the problematic character of predictions to heighten the suspense (Will they come true?), further widening the gap between the oracle’s predictions and his final revelation.

At this still intermediate but fairly advanced stage we can stop our simulated generation of the tale’s plot:

Motivated by an order and the promise of a reward, a soothsayer concludes a contract with an oracle about prediction; they communicate in a special place and at a special time. As predicted, war, drought and rain one after another occur. The soothsayer is rewarded each time but acts respectively aggressively, stingily and generously towards the oracle. In the end, the oracle reveals to him that the actions of people, including those of the soothsayer’s, have an affinity with the course of world events: life resembles the structure of the world.


1 This is a condensed version of the article published in Russian in the Russian-language journal Narody Azii i Afriki, 1 (Moscow, 1970).

2 See M.Moreno, Il Somalo della Somalia, Roma, 1955; M.Galaal, B.W.Andrzejewski, Hikmad Soomaali, London, 1956; B.W.Andrzejewski, Muusa Galaal, A Somali Poetic Combat, Michigan, 1963; B.W.Andrzejewski, I.M.Lewis, Somali Poetry, Oxford, 1964; Shire Jaamac Achmed, Gabayo, maahmaah iyo sheekooyin yaryar, Mogadishu, 1965;] and also various publications in the magazines Iftiinka Aqoonta (1966, N1-6) and Horseedka.

3 ‘Faaliyihii la bilkeyday’, – Galaal, Andrzejewski: 49-61.

4 The poems were composed by Muuse Galaal; see Galaal, Andrzejewski: v.

5 See A.Zholkovsky, La poetica generativa di Eisnstein, in Cinema e Film, 1967, 3; A.K.Zholkovskii, Yu.K.Shcheglov, Strukturnaia poetika – porozhdayushchaia poetika, in: Voprosy literatury, 1967, 1 (English version: Structural poetics is generative poetics, in: Ed. by D. Lucid, Soviet Semiotics, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

6 i.e. the myth’s explicit meaning and not those archetypal oppositions reconstructed by scholars (see Claude Levi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale, Paris, 1958). Remarkably, in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex,’ fate triumphs in the plot (borrowed from the myth) but the protagonist (Oedipus) proves equal to fate. Sophocles achieves this by structuring the tragedy as an investigation conducted by the suspect himself, resulting in his sentencing himself to a punishment carried out by himself.

7 This is similar to Leibnitz’s ‘monadic’ view of the world, according to which every entity, or monad, is designed like a clock: it reflects the Universe not because the Universe (through other monads) affects it, but because there is a pre-established harmony between the changes in all the monads, creating a false impression of an interaction.

8 “How does this thesis [the implacability of time in a text by Ovid]… turn into an artistic image and obtain persuasiveness and strength? ‘1. A bull gets used to a yoke, a horse to a bridle, a lion loses its rage, an elephant starts to obey its master… 2. Fruits become sweet, grapes fill with juice, granules ripen in an ear of corn… 3. A tooth of a plough, a stone, a diamond, is ground down… 4. Anger and grief abate’. Objects are taken from all possible spheres of reality… so that they supplement each other, presenting together a… complete picture of the world, while the subjects… display different and sometimes opposite qualities… and are evenly scattered within each appropriate sphere.” (Yu. Shcheglov, K nekotorym tekstam Ovidiya, in: Trudy po znakovym sistemam, 3, Tartu, 1967: 173-174.)

9 About the notion of ‘artistic discovery’ see: L.A.Mazel, Estetika i analiz’, – ‘Sovetskaya muzyka’, 1966, 12: 20-21.

10 The effect of ‘meaninglessness’ also has a narrative function: by making the reader feel dissatisfied with the narration it suggests the existence of a hidden meaning. The problem will be resolved in the ending, when the illusiveness of plot connections, especially from the point of view of the serpent, becomes clear.

11 Compare the plot of the Babylonian ‘Dialogue of the Master and the Slave about the Meaning of Life,’ which consists of ten episodes; in each, the master orders the slave to make certain preparations (to go to the court, to help a friend, etc.), then listens to his speculations about the futility of these intentions and cancels his order. In the last episode, the master, who is now convinced of the futility of life, decides to die and gives the corresponding order, stipulating, among other things, the burying of the slave together with his master. Thus the slave, who at first acted only as a discussant and executor of the orders, becomes the object of the last and most fatal one.

12 The combination of a wise remark with a denouement ending in a punch line is a widespread device in Somalitales, e. g.:

Once a man gave shelter to a boy but did not feed him. At night a hyena came, took the boy and carried him away. The greedy man caught up with the hyena, snatched the boy away and said to him, ‘ True, I didn’t give you food last night, but now I did save you from the hyena. Do I deserve your gratitude?’ ‘No, you do not,’ the boy said. ‘You don’t like it when something falls into someone else’s mouth –you just wanted to keep the hyena hungry!’

The plot resembles our tale in that the apparent change in the man’s behavior (from bad to good) also exhibits the preservation of the status quo (denying food, this time to the hyena), as captured by the punchline.