Balladeer’s Blog presents another neglected epic myth from around the world. In this case, Liberia’s Woi Epic of the Kpelle people.
The Woi Epic is often studied for its use of music, dance, singing and audience participation to reflect the action in the story. Think of it as a combination opera, ballet, live drama and Rocky Horror Picture Show screening.
The order of the episodes in the epic is not set in stone and a performance may include only a few of the episodes, all of them or just one. The finish of each episode is marked by the performer(s) announcing “Dried millet, wese” to which the audience repeats simply “wese.”
ONE – Woi, a culture deity and master of ritual magic, and his wife Gelengol are the only living things that exist. After Woi impregnates his wife she eventually gives birth to human beings, chickens, goats, cows, sheep and, after all other life-forms, spiders. (Plenty of African myths feature a female deity giving birth to multiple living creatures and many feature the woman also giving birth to tools and weapons and utensils.)
TWO – Woi notes that the demonic figure Yele-Walo has stolen one of his bulls by sneaking up on it in the form of a rattan plant. Yele-Walo took the bull with him to his hideaway “behind the sky.” Woi prepares for battle and is aided by squirrel-monkeys, tsetse flies and horse-flies. Yele-Walo also steels himself for the upcoming fight.
THREE – The Prime Spider is fed its full to prepare itself to beat on the slit-drum for hours. The drum-beat serves as a timer for the pumping of the bellows for the fire which will be used to forge iron for needles to sew Woi’s battle clothing. (That image of an eight-legged creature beating on a percussion instrument is terrific.)
FOUR – The Prime Tuu-Tuu Bird pumps the bellows for the fire in time to the beating on the slit-drum. The Tuu-Tuu Bird keeps falling asleep, but once enough iron has been forged for Kpayang-Miling to craft a cutlass for Woi, our main character then pokes the bird’s butt to wake him up when he falls asleep.
Woi’s wife Gelengol becomes jealous of the other wives that Woi has recently taken and quarrels with her husband, saying he no longer loves her. Woi orders her to sit at a fork in the road and make bowls with her singing. (Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog will remember the Mwindo Epic from Africa, in which Mwindo’s song-spells were his most potent weapons.)
FIVE – Gelengol gets her own back against Woi by letting male passersby have sex with her as payment for the fine bowls her singing produces. (“Good-night and thank you, whoever …”)
SIX – With all his battle clothing and weapons prepared, Woi herds all of the Kpelle people into his massive house along with his wives and children. Woi causes the house to take flight toward Yele-Walo’s hideaway “behind the sky.” Roosters serve as praise singers for Woi.
SEVEN – Yele-Walo causes a gigantic bele-tree to grow so large it fills the sky, thus blocking Woi’s flying house. Woi orders his sons Zu-kpeei and Woi-boi to cut down the tree so that the journey can be resumed. Woi’s daughter Maa-pu waits nearby to burn the tree once it is cut down.
Maa-pu’s husband, the demon Meni-maa-fa, sympathizes with his fellow demon Yele-Walo and assumes the form of a giant lizard. Disguised in that form he repairs all the damage done to the tree as quickly as Zu-kpeei’s and Woi-boi’s axes inflict it.
EIGHT – Woi gives his son Zu-kpeei and his daughter Maa-pu two of his iron bows and plenty of arrows. The pair shoot the enormous lizard full of arrows, causing it to revert to its true form as Maa-pu’s husband. The family enjoys the defeated demon’s embarrassment.
Woi’s sons resume chopping down the tree but rather than have Maa-pu set fire to it, Woi causes the tree to form into a house even larger than the one he and his passengers were already flying in. In this new home the flight toward Yele-Walo’s lair behind the sky resumes. (In some versions it is only in this larger house that Woi gathers all the Kpelle people for the ride.)
NINE – Woi and his flying house resume their journey, with our main character itching for the coming battle.
TEN – Next, Yele-Walo causes a Koing-tree to grow to enormous size to block the path of our hero’s flying house. Furious, Woi prepares to use his axe and cutlass on the tree.
ELEVEN – Woi succeeds in clearing away this giant tree and resumes flying his house toward Yele-Walo’s hideaway. Maa-pu’s husband Meni-maa-fa now tries to force Maa-pu to leave the house with him and return to the Earth. She refuses and Woi backs her up.
Meni-maa-fa flies off alone but convinces the bats that Woi has stolen his wife Maa-pu from him. The bats all come to their fellow night-being’s aid and attack the flying house en masse.
TWELVE – Woi and his family fight off the bats, killing untold numbers until Woi decides to get the bats high on dried koong-leaves and captures them all in an enormous bag.
THIRTEEN – As the flying house continues its journey, Meni-maa-fa tries to help his fellow demon again. He causes a pumpkin to grow large enough to blot out the sky and block Woi’s aircraft.
FOURTEEN – Woi uses his iron knife to slash the enormous pumpkin to pieces, hacking a pathway for his flying home. Our hero and Yele-Walo begin their fight.
FIFTEEN – The war between Yele-Walo and Woi lasts so long that, back in Africa, a tyrant named Gemila rises and conquers several tribes, pulling out the eyes of his fallen foes and eating their bodies in massive cannibal feasts. Still locked in battle, Woi sends Kelema-Ninga the female firebird down to Africa to order Gemila to change his evil ways.
SIXTEEN – Gemila refuses to change his ways and continues the beatings, eye-pullings and cannibalism. Kelema-Ninga informs Woi of this but Woi is still too engrossed in fighting Yele-Walo to be able to help.
SEVENTEEN – Kelema-Ninga dresses herself in carved beads and a red headscarf. While Woi finishes off Yele-Walo, she deals with the evil Gemila, cheered on by the world’s birds.
© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
18 responses to “WOI: EPIC HERO OF LIBERIA”
Very interesting. Such an odd story structure.
Thank you. I agree.
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There’s something compelling about this story. I can tell it is one of those stories where the tone and mood of the delivery is as important if not more than the actual information being conveyed.
For example, the fantastic bigness of the pumpkin that filled the sky so that it actually blocked the flying house. And the overwhelming experience of the attack of the bats. And the frustration I can feel right through the translation of the hero as he tries the craziest things to get to his goal.
And that strange happening at the end of the entry of the female firebird to do what WOI’s too busy himself to do.
So much friendship happening everywhere.
It’s very sweet actually. Everyone’s taking sides and helping their friends.
The shocking revenge of WOI’s first wife or main wife or whatever… and the polygamy.. And Maa Pu’s actually being married to a demon.. those are very challenging things.
I found when I was reading ancient epics, that often, there are parts of the story added over the years; things not quite in the spirit of the original, but often aimed at scandalizing the audience to get attention or fitting in with common culture.
I always enjoy how you immediately plug into all the themes of the stories and how you “get” the way cultural and political changes influence the way the stories change over time.
That is so interesting about the live performances!
The different types of monsters in different cultures are always so interesting.
That is how I feel too.
They will be coming up!
Amazing. Thank You! I need to come here sometime and read, read, read!!! Loving Woi! You’re like the Joseph Campbell library of blogland! Thank You! 🙂
That is very, very nice of you! Thank you again!
You’re the best!
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