Dead and famous, or unknown but alive? Heroism and common sense in medieval Scandinavian and African tradition

SigurdDead and famous, or unknown but alive? Heroism and common sense in medieval Scandinavian and African tradition

By Peter Buchholz

South African Journal of Folklore Studies, Vol.3 (1992)

Abstract: Heroism is an important aspect of African and medieval Scandinavian tradition. Although some scholars see heroism as a characteristic of the whole Germanic tradition, a careful study of Scandinavian literature reveals that this is not the case. In these works heroism is linked to posterity’s evaluation of an individual’s feats and can be seen as a last resort when faced with inexorable fate. However, common sense is of at least equal value. This also seems to the case in Northern Sotho oral literature.


Greetings, you crowds of people,
I see neat and tidy men and women,
I see the beautiful radiant cream,
Things with minds aglitter with the stars and the moon…
Please arise, you things with brains
That fly ’mongst the stars and the moon,
Arise and take up sticks
So that you do research with rigor
And stop splitting hairs over folktales.

This is the advice given to us in 1985 by the Xhosa praise poet DLP Yali-Manisi. Careful reading reveals that the poet addresses persons working within the aura of a university. This is obvious not only from the hopefully not too exaggerated view of the spiritual forces at work there, but also from the emphasis on beauty and cleanliness. Exemplary personalities such as these, the poet says, are obliged to arise and take up sticks – spiritual sticks or clubs for the strengthening of research. The pur­pose is not to smite erring colleagues, one hopes. Healthy, vigorous research and strong tools indeed! Of course, sticks are quite unsuitable for hair-splitting, as the poet so logically concludes. Other passages of his exhortatio reveal that the poet pleads for relevance in research and teaching. He is thus in good company, one might even say in most relevant company.

Those neatly dressed battalions of stick-wielding lecturers might not all wish to rally behind banners such as ‘Victory or Death’. The question of heroism, though, is indeed relevant in present-day South Africa. People die in circumstances that lead to an apotheosis of the dead as heroes by those of the same persuasion.


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