THE OZIDI SAGA; From oral to written literature  

1 | John Pepper Clark, ed. and trans., The Ozidi Saga, Collected and translated from the Ijo of Okabou Ojobalo (Ibadan; Ibadan and Oxford University Press, 1977).

2 | Tides of the Delta – The saga of Ozidi, filmed by Frank Speed (London, Colour Film Service, 1977).

3 | J.P. Clark, Ozidi, A play (London; Heinemann, 1966).

Inaugural Lecture (Bayreuth, 1982)

(I am most grateful to Martina Kleinert (Arcadia films) who digitized the film included here.)

The story of Ozidi is a simple one: a precocious boy, born posthumously and ignorant of his father’s murder, acquires the qualities of a great warrior and is further strengthened by magic. Under the guidance of his grandmother, who is a consummate witch, the archetypal hero realizes his true nature, overcomes his father’s enemies and goes on to overmaster monsters and supernatural forces inimical to the community. This particular epic is unique, so far as I know, in that we are fortunate enough to have J.P. Clark’s bilingual text of a recitation by an accomplished bard | 1 | – a film showing the high points of an actual village performance | 2 |, and a modern verse play in English based on both these sources, as well as a third, but yet unpublished recitation (Afoduwa). | 3 | With such a wealth of material one has access to a deeper insight into the relationship between oral and written literature.

A publication such as The Ozidi Saga raises vexing questions of genre classification as well as those of critical method and interpretation. The problem hinges on a definition of epic form. Instead of looking more closely at the social function of traditional heroic literature, Europeans have tended to concentrate on formalistic criteria and the specific features of the Homeric epic. One conventionally understands the form to consist in the artful celebration of a cultural hero and his relationship to the community as a regenerative model of virtue and strength overcoming human, natural, and supernatural forces. There can be no doubt that the story of Ozidi is epic. Should one insist that epics must begin in medias res, contain repeated invocation of a muse, catalogues of warriors, etc., and be heightened by compound epithets and extended similes, as well as metrical verse rhythms, the legend of Ozidi is not an epic. Beowulf, the ninth century Anglo-Saxon saga is also denied epic stature by ‘flat-earthers’, as well as Gilgamesh, etc.. One also hears of doubt that African philosophy exist.

The structural design of Okabou’s recitation of The Ozidi Saga is equally as dynamic and effective as either the Iliad or the Odyssey. A repeated pattern of near failure or defeat followed by success and victory forms the basis of the plot. Ozidi fails the first two tests of courage before succeeding, just as the blacksmith produces two flawed swards before forging the perfect one. In West African cultures a smith (especially a gold smith) is possessed of supernatural powers – so was it also in medieval Japan.

Ozidi’s grandmother’s power also falters – she is struck down and presumed dead on more than one occasion before rising again, restored to control and power. The device is common in literature worldwide – such formulas are simply collages of effective action.

To argue that the Ozidi narrative is an epic because of similarities to European models is almost as unfortunate as to insist on the reverse proposition. Figurative language, for example, can only be assessed in terms of its effectiveness within a given work and in the context of its cultural reality. The Ozidi Saga abounds in original and highly effective figures of speech. The praise name of Ogueren, of the twenty hands and twenty feet, springs to mind, and no Ijo speaker could conceivably confuse such a wonderful trope (a doubly complete man – ten fingers and ten toes) with the literal truth that a monster such as Tebesonoma does have seven heads. The final test of the hero’s prowess is also culture-bound and a brilliant conceit as well.

It is a great dishonor for any Ijo man to fall to the ground for any reason. Oreame sends the unsuspecting boy on an important errand across a greased floor. He slips, slides, fights against gravity, and with supreme exertion dances himself upright. In an ecstasy of triumph over nature he names himself Ozidi, which he does not know was his murdered father’s name, nor do many European critics recognize it as meaning ‘Warrior’.

On another level there are tropes such as that of Ozidi’s sword which is described as spiraling about his forearm as a python might about the trunk of a palm tree. The magic charm which inspires the warrior’s battle frenzy turns his bowels (the seat of rage) into a mortar, and animals, originally pounded together to make the charm, are heard to cry out each time he is possessed. That figure is repeatedly invoked in performance as an idiophone, and the importance of musical devices crops up. Sound patterning, especially onomatopoeia, is notable in the transcription of Okabou’s recitation, but the narration is not conceived as poetry.


Ruth Finnegan, one of the (then) leading scholars of oral literature in the English speaking world, holds that the heroic narratives of Africa cannot properly be classified as epics because they are not written in verse. | 4 | Yet there is no obvious reason why prose should not be suitable for epics – so long as the intensity and expressiveness of language is heightened in one manner or another. In many African cultures, for example, it is common for the performance of a heroic narrative to be accompanied by music, and in the case of The Ozidi Saga or the Mwindo Epic, that music is understandably polyrhythmic, complex, and expressive. Isidore Okpewho assumes that such musical accompaniment remains relatively constant while the number of words within each breath group and/or the distribution of accents which suggest emotional content, is varied. | 5 |

4 | Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 109.


5 | The Epic in Africa, Towards a poetic of the oral performance (New York; Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. 63-65.

In any African society, as the evidence so far suggests, prosodic structure of the song (especially in a public performance) is treated as loosely as
possible so as to give the performing bard sufficient freedom to attend to
music, dance, drama, and so on, and even allow impromptu repartee and
other participation from the audience. Whether the bard is performing
to unchanging musical tempo, or […] to a variety of accompaniments, he
does not even feel himself so bound by the constraints of the music that
his words have to follow a rigidly regulated pattern. (154-5)


In the case of loose prose narratives accompanied by music, the recurring rhythmic patterns replace syllable count, stress pattern, or tone sequence. With that complement prose is heightened and intensified – it approaches the condition of verse. As in contemporary European poetry, the formal distinction between prose and poetry is not always clearly defined.

The Ozidi saga is also acted out in the presence of the cultural community for which it is relevant. Here we have a truly Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, and to understand it as a work of oral tradition, one must take into account the effectiveness of extra-literary techniques such as costuming, mime, dance, music, and song. An appreciation of the work as a dramatic production is necessary in addition to its character as an ever-changing oral composition.

Since the saga is performed only once every twenty-five years in an obscure and inaccessible Nigerian village, we are particularly fortunate in having a film of an authentic presentation. Because the story is very long and stretches over seven day’s recitation, the film is much condensed but it offers enough to provide an insight into theatricality as well as illuminating and animating the text of Okabou’s recitation as it exists on the printed page. The film shows only a selection of scenes from an actual performance, but the general outline of the action does differ in some respects from Okabou’s version. J.P. Clark made self-conscious decisions when arranging the scenario and commentary. However, the film does demonstrate the meaning the saga has for its natural audience.

Some effort, however, must be made to explain the curious dependence of the hero on his grandmother. Of course, she is a consummate witch and helps him to conquer both natural and supernatural forces – but then, the Ijo family system does tend to matriliniality. It is the case that in large, polygamous families throughout West Africa, the mother is normally the child’s proctor and mainstay. Among the Ijo the wife is considered co-equal with her husband and children remain in her care should the partnership be dissolved. A man is normally buried at the home of his mother’s family, and the supreme god, the one source of life, is female: Oyin – Our Mother – also known as Tamara, ‘She Who Cares’. The instrumental role played by Oreame in Ozidi’s progress towards heroic stature, is perhaps singular when compared with other African epics, but it is normal in Ijoland.


The tradition of the Tarakiri Clan among the Western Ijo holds that the story of Ozidi came into being only three generations ago, and that its origins are closely linked to religion. It is also said that the epic tale was revealed to a priest who had fallen into a trance at the shrine of the supreme god. | 6 | Whether or not these traditions are based on historical fact is of little importance; their primary stress is on the contemporary relevance of the tale and its relationship to a communal god. One doubts very much that the Ijo would generally agree with Clark’s assertion that the festival drama constitutes an act of worship (xxxiii), but the film rightly emphasizes the ritual processions and sacrifices which frame each day’s performance. We also see the long leash of cloth tied to the story-teller, lest he be snatched away by evil spirits at the waterside | 7 | and we also see his body-guard, whose office is to prevent him from doing himself, or anyone else, harm when overcome by the frenzy of spirit possession – a common phenomenon in African religious practice (xxxiv-xxxv).

6 | Clark (1977), p. xx.


7 | Trolls are not always malevolent. Mermen do carry off beautiful, earth women and hold them in thrall, but Mammy Water compensates personal/social failure, especially in the case of barren women and usually with financial success.

Among the more striking features of the dramatic production, stage conventions, costuming, and the use of song require some commentary. The people of Orua obviously found no difficulty in establishing conventions for portraying supernatural events and characters. They did not baulk at choreographing Oreame’s ability to fly, for example, or presenting many-headed and flame-emitting monsters. The production techniques seen in Frank Speed’s admirable film are not at all unique, but share common features with the usual performance of masquerades and ritual drama in many parts of West Africa. Clark comments further:


Another device serving to underline individual traits of this great
gallery of characters is color. Dress shades and make-up are therefore
chosen and worn with particular care. The story-teller, because he
represents the hero beloved by everybody, appears always in white,
denoting purity and innocence. In contrast, intractable roles demand
blue and indigo, and really sinister ones charcoal. This is a pattern
noticeable in the use of white, Benin chalk as against common charcoal.
The application of either pigment about the eye suggests the kind of
vision, baleful or innocent, that a role requires of a player (xxiv)

Clips from Frank Speed’s film can be accessed here.