oral epic first published in 1969







What makes great works of literature great is that which makes them belong, not just to the canon of their own nation, but to the emergent human canon. Mwindo is a case in point. Certainly, it is deeply rooted in the specific practices and ideas of the Nyanga people of Zaire. But beyond Africa it is one of the great pan-human documents, like all the major epics of the world, an account from the inside of how we humans became human. It has a rightful place in “our” canon.

“Mr. Candi Rureke, during the performance of the Mwindo Epic, holds a rattle (right hand) and a mock conga-scepter (left hand), one fo the main magical attributes of the hero Mwindo. The young men standing behind him participate in the songs.” In The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Edited and translated by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene. U of California P, 1969.

Epic does many things. It defines the nature of the human storyteller; directly or indirectly it recalls the creation of the world and of the human race; it describes the paradoxical role of the hero as both the Everyman and the radical exception; it establishes the complex quest underlying all human action and tells the story of the journey that it entails; it gets to the bottom of the kin-strife that both blocks and inspires the quest; it distinguishes the three worlds of nature beneath us, society around us, and heaven above us; it recounts the tragic-comic Fall of our species from nature to culture, wild man to knowing man; it takes us shamanically into the underworld of death and back; it recounts the basic principles of the founding of a polity’s laws and rituals and gives a representative history of its people; it provides by example a set of fundamental virtues, values, and vices; it embraces and understands the new medium of communication of its time; and it teaches us how to deal with the boundaries of the psychological, social, and cosmological world, especially the mystery of time. All these elements are in Mwindo, many with a clearer and stronger articulation than are found in other epics.

The epic begins with the efforts of Shemwindo, the mighty king, to ensure that he will never be succeeded by a son (and by implication to live and reign forever). In this he fails. According to his orders, six of his seven wives give birth only to daughters. But the seventh, Nyamwindo, bears a son, the hero Mwindo. Shemwindo employs violence and magic to stab, bury, or drown his son; but Mwindo’s magic, though he is still a child, is mightier, and he survives. Shemwindo imprisons him in a ritual drum and casts him into the river, but Mwindo survives the drowning and seeks refuge with his aunt, Iyangura. His aunt’s husband tries to trap him, and one of the guards calls on Nkuba, the lightning god, to strike him–but Mwindo’s magic and his friendship with natural spirits protect him. Having established leadership over his uncles, he returns with them to his native village, seeking vengeance, and destroys all its people.

Shemwindo flees to the underworld, and Mwindo pursues him. Passing the paralyzing tests set for him there by means of his magic wand or conga, he defeats Muisa, the lord of the underworld, and is victorious in a gambling game against Sheburungu, the lord of creation, who reveals Shemwindo’s hiding place. But when Mwindo meets his father, he has a change of heart, forgives him, and agrees with him to share the kingship. They return to the village and bring the inhabitants back to life by the power of the conga. He also revives all the enemies he has killed. A just society seems to have been created. But in his later efforts to protect the village he kills a dragon that is dear to Master Lightning and is carried into the sky to endure an instructive series of penances in the terrible heat and cold of the sun and rain. Mwindo promises not to harm the world of natural life and is allowed to return, where he rules in peace, creating a kind of democratic system of counsel with his people in harmony with the natural world.

Daniel Biebuyck’s translation—or rather, his literal “trot” of the great storyteller Shekarisi Rureke’s oral memorized version of the poem—is clearly the fullest and best version of the story to which a western reader has access. That version is profoundly reflexive, in the sense that the storyteller, in playing out the part of the hero, is also himself performing a shamanic journey into the underworld. He is explicitly taking Biebuyck, the scribe, his helpers, and hearers—and ourselves, the readers he knows will read him—along for the ride. The exhaustion, thirst, and hunger he feels in this enormous recitation—and its astonishing intellectual and artistic effort—are openly introduced into the songs that Mwindo sings as he makes his great journey (a brilliant device that no other epic poet uses so directly and effectively). He takes on the paradoxical authority of the storyteller—he is only a servant, passing along a tradition he inherited from the Babuya lineage of Ihimbi whence the story-cycle came; but he is also himself a shaman, channeling the ancestral and divine beings of whom he tells. The hero’s power comes from his songs; the singer’s ordeal is itself a heroic journey.

The birth of the epic hero is almost always bizarre and marvelous. In telling the story of Mwindo’s miraculous birth and his refusal to be destroyed by his father Shemwindo, Rureke is recapitulating in similar terms the Greek myth of the primal gods, who again and again attempt to eat or smother or abort their offspring and who are thwarted by the heroic intransigence of their young. In his journey Mwindo encounters the great forces of the universe, the animal spirits, the sun, the moon, the rivers and storms—often embodied in the major characters he encounters. This is a cosmogenesis, a myth of the hope of growth, of evolution, of new things breaking in on the old—the amazing ability of time to create a new moment every moment, the ability of life to give birth to new beings. We find it in the birth of the Chinese hero Tripitaka, the Mayan hero-twins, the Egyptian Osiris, Jumong the Korean hero, and Moses (who similarly escape an evil father-figure by floating down a river, a theme in many world epics). Jesus escapes Herod’s massacre of the innocents by leaving with his mother for the land of the Nile. The Malinese hero Sundiata escapes his own tyrants and goes into exile with his mother Sogolon, as Mwindo escapes his father by finding refuge with his beloved aunt Iangura. Time, like the human story, is an escape from the fixity or recycling of eternity. As Rhea saves Zeus from Cronus his father, Iangura offers sanctuary to her nephew, allowing the new time of his future regime to flow forth, to the rhythm of Mwindo’s drum (and Rureke’s recitation).

Like all epic quests, Mwindo’s search for revenge on his father changes its goal and meaning radically as it brings the experience of the encounter with death and lived life. Mwindo is not only an epic but a Bildungsroman, a story of personal and moral formation and development. The hero finds that those who have most betrayed him and most deserve his wrath are also those most closely tied to all those he has loved; that the greater the offense to us, the more its revenge will damage us and our dear ones. He finds that his heroic ebullience and self-assertion—essential to being a person, a somebody, at all—must be humbled and chastened to really come into its own. Odysseus, too, must hubristically challenge Polyphemus in order to make his name—literally to “get into trouble,” since “Odysseus” means “trouble” in Greek—but he must also learn patience and self-control so as to be able to regain his wife, son, and home. Mwindo’s vaunting defeat of the nature-dragon Kirimu, who is dear to the lightning-god Nkuba, is like Odysseus’ vaunting defeat of the nature-giant Polyphemus, who is dear to his father, the sea-god Poseidon. Both heroes—like Parzifal, Cuchulainn, and Monkey (in The Journey to the West) —must repent of their hubris. Likewise, Gilgamesh’s triumph over Humbaba leads to the death of his friend Enkidu, and his humiliation in the quest for eternal life is the very thing that makes him a good king and city-builder. In these archetypal moral equations Mwindo is not just an epic but part of the eternal human epic, told again and again with a different dialect, but always in what Steven Pinker calls “Humanese.”

Epic often recounts the tragic conflict of close kin as we as humans continually struggle with the paradoxes of the human kinship system: selfish care of our own genes versus unselfish sacrifice for the genes of our kin; blood kinship versus affinal love; father against son; female against male. The explicitness of Mwindo’s Oedipal theme is itself an important gloss on the many world epics in which the hero must contend for his existence and identity with a tyrannical male figure. Yes, basically men must struggle with their fathers (as women with their mothers) to find their own heroic stature—Cuchulainn with Conchobar, Sohrab with Rostam, Achilles with Agamemnon and Priam, Hamlet with Claudius, the Pandavas with the blind king Dhrita-Rashtra, Moses with Pharaoh. But usually the conflict is, in Freud’s terms, more or less repressed and symbolically redirected; Mwindo, however, blurts it out. But what is truly remarkable about the poem is that Mwindo forgives his father. The truth-and-reconciliation ritual in which Shemwindo confesses his crimes, Mwindo refuses to accept his father’s abdication and reinstates him as a king but under law, and embraces him as the father without whom he, Mwindo, could not be a true son, is a deeply moving solution of the Freudian problem. It is also an extraordinary political example to the whole continent of Africa. Mwindo always repents of the slayings that he as hero must perpetrate; and the greatest power of his conga, his caduceus or thyrsis, is not to kill but to bring back to life.

The central drama of all epic is the fall of the natural human being from the naked, innocent, deathless, simple, indigenous, and unashamed state of nature into the clothed, prurient, death-obsessed, wandering, conflicted, and self-conscious state of culture. We see Mwindo grow from the naked natural baby, full of ebullient strength, unconscious boastful self-assertion, and oedipal passion for his aunt, into the wise, self-aware, well-travelled, and fully clothed king/husband at the end, who, in Wordsworth’s words, “hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” Mwindo achieves this transformation—as, in different ways, do Odysseus, Aeneas, and Dante in the Italian epic tradition, and the Pandavas and the hero twins in the Mayan and Hindu epics—by means of the journey into the underworld of death. In contention with the lords of the underworld Mwindo must himself submit to death but rise again through the power of his invincible conga; he must transcend death by internalizing it.

Mwindo’s ordeals are, in a common epic trope, intended to prepare him for marriage with divine Kahindo. Significantly, one of the marriage-tests imposed on him by her kin is to cultivate and harvest a crop of the staple food of the tribe (bananas) in one day.  That is, to demonstrate the technology of post-lapsarian civilized culture (as Hunahpu and Ixbalanque in the Popol Vuh must do, with an instant crop of corn, to be recognized as the true sons of the first pair of hero twins).  In transferring his love from the mother-figure Iangura to Kahindo, Mwindo has achieved full human fallen adulthood. But he is not to enter a divine wedding.  In an important twist, he will not marry the goddess but a mortal woman. He is not instituting a theocracy but something like a participatory democracy.

In his second great journey, with Nkuba/Lightning into the chilly or searing realms of heaven, he shows himself to be not only the black shaman of the subterranean journey but the white shaman of the sky journey. Mwindo returns, like Moses from Sinai, with the legal and moral laws of Nyanga polity and the liturgies and founding rituals of his society. His is to be a kingship bound by laws and limits and prohibitions, in which he is not the master but the servant of his people: his kingship is no more than the stamping feet of his people’s assent.

Rureke himself is well aware that in transmitting his poem into the magic machines and alien medium of the recorded, written, and translated text he is joining myth to history. He simultaneously makes fun of the incomprehension and naivety of his European scribe, and acknowledges the profound new meanings that emerge from the transcription of his story into another universe and a future time.

Frederick Turner (Emeritus)
University of Texas at Dallas


[Partly adapted from Epic: Form, Content, and History (Transaction Publishers, 2012)]


Work Cited

The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Edited and translated by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene.

U of California P, 1969.



The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic). Edited and translated by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene. U of California P, 1969. English & Nyanga.