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Ancient African Literature (3000 BCE-to 700 CE)

The material below is part of a larger project still in progress, the anthology Early African Literature: The Written Roots from 3000 BCE to 1900 CE, and thus is still being researched and provisional. Comments and corrections welcome.

Chapter 1: Art Narrative Texts

African rock art is perhaps the oldest art in the world, dating to at least 77,000 years ago. Africans engraved and painted rocks all over Africa, with the greatest concentration in the Sahara and Southern Africa. As a kind of provocation to our ideas about what constitutes literature, my book starts with African rock art, which contains the oldest known narratives in the world, some dating to over 8,000 years ago. Beginning with this type of narrative reminds us at the outset of the limitations of a focus on written literature and of the necessity of expanding our understanding of African literature. African rock art does not contain letters, but it does include inscripted meanings that can be “read.” Western scholars used to assume that rock art engaged in simple realism—picturing ordinary animals and human beings in domestic activities. But research has revealed that much of the art is symbolic with, for instance, animals depicted in postures with cosmological significance. Further, many depict a sequence of events such as different stages in a hunt, battle, dance, or religious festival. Thus, one might argue that certain pieces of African rock art are narratives since they use symbolism and metaphor and because they portray sequences, changes in time and place. I point this out to remind us that African have always been meaning makers, whether in writing or not.

Chapter 2: Egyptian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, or Demotic

This is probably the only category of ancient African writing with which most are familiar.

Chapter 3: Nubian Written Texts in Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Meroitic, and Old Nubian

Many assume that writing on the African continent occurred only in Egypt. Yet, in the kingdoms of Nubia, south of Egypt in the Middle Nile Region, indigenous people also wrote in their own language and script.The earliest surviving Nubian texts were written in Egyptian hieroglyphs in the ancient Egyptian language. They date to 800 BCE. After that, in the later part of the first millennium BCE, Nubian texts were written in a combination of Egyptian hieroglyphs and a cursive script called Meroitic, developed for a local African language. The Meroitic cursive script, which eventually displaced hieroglyphs entirely,  remains largely undeciphered today. Thus, I have not provided here any of the 2,000 or so texts in the Meroitic script (including many funerary inscriptions from the second and third century CE as well as historical texts) because they have not been translated. Subsequently, the peoples of this region used the Coptic script to write religious and legal texts in the Old Nubian language, which is of the Nilo-Saharan family and unlike Meroitic was the language of the common people. Nubians also wrote in Greek and then Arabic in the ancient period.

Chapter 4: Egyptian and Nubian Written Texts in Coptic

Ancient Coptic literature was written by indigenous Egyptians in the first millennium CE.  Although indigenous Egyptians also wrote in Greek and later in Arabic, Coptic is an Afro-Asiatic language written with an alphabet innovated on the continent. The earliest texts in Coptic were short magical ones, starting in the first century BCE,  but Copts composed longer texts in Coptic from the fourth century through the eighth century.  After that, composition shifted into Arabic.

Coptic literature appears in a number of genres—life stories of various types (e.g., hagiographies, martyrdoms, encomia, epigraphs), legends, poetry, and religious commentaries (e.g., homilies, treatises, and polemics). Nevertheless, Western scholars often assumed that Coptic literature was only derivative or pragmatic.  While it is true that the Copts did translate many Christian texts from Greek and Latin  and that biblical books were among the first written Coptic texts, the Copts also composed original works. And, while some of these works were religious, it is wrong to assume that their authors did not see them as literary works.  Indeed, even translations can be highly original and important literary works.  Unfortunately, a deep understanding of Coptic literature has yet to be attained, since so few of the texts have been edited, translated, or published.

The earliest literary writing in Coptic was written by the Desert Fathers, Saint Anthony, Pachomius, and Shenute. The most famous original literary texts in Coptic may be those by Shenute (or Shenouda the Archimandrite) (348-466 CE), the abbot of a monastery situated between Lower Egypt and Nubia.Unknown by Western scholars until the twentieth century, Shenute wrote sermons, treatises, and homilies noteworthy for their literary style. Another famous text was written about him, The Life of Shenoute,  by his disciple Besa (Wissa) not long after Shenoute’s death.  In the twentieth century, the letters of the desert fathers Saint Anthony and Pachomius have also been confirmed as authentic Coptic compositions.  The Coptic hymns of the seventh and eighth century are also outstanding literary works. One of the more fascinating Coptic genres are “epic” hagiographies, including the hagiography of Apa Matthaeus the Poor, who lived in Egypt, which has no known Greek original and was most likely drafted in Coptic (translated by W. Till).  

Chapter 5: Axumite Written Texts in Gəˁəz

About three thousand years ago, a new kingdom rose in the Ethiopian highlands, called D’mt (Di’amat). They adopted the Sabaean (Saba was what is now known as Yemen) script for writing in their own language of Gəˁəz. Gəˁəz has been the region’s written scholarly and liturgical language for over two thousand years. 

Out of D’mt grew the Ethiopian highlands’ first empire, Aksum, a highly organized, trade-based empire starting around 100 BCE. Chinese and Indian documents from this period record a high level of human and economic interaction with the Highland Ethiopians. Its capital Aksum, in the Ethiopian highlands about a five-day walk from the Red Sea coast, was the site of enormous granite buildings, including a multistory royal palace, as well as gold statues and engraved stelae that towered over 100 feet tall.  In the fourth century, the Aksumite emperor and his court converted to Christianity within a decade of the religion being tolerated in the Roman empire. By the sixth century it had made significant inroads outside of the court and into the countryside.  With the rise of Islam, Aksum lost its dominance of trade, thus losing the earnings to finance an imperial army, administration, and towns. But Gəˁəz continued to be the written language of the Ethiopian highland court and the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church. An indigenous literature began to flourish in the langauge in the fourteenth century, sustained by more than a thousand monasteries of monks and nuns--a vital but understudied body of eight centuries of African literature, including original texts of theology, poetry, biography, and history.

Chapter 6: North and West African Written Texts in Libyco-Berber

One of the most common assumptions about Africa is that it has no indigenous writing systems. Yet some of the most important and least known scripts in the world are those of northern Africa, called the Libyco-Berber scripts. They have been in use for around two thousand years in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the Canary Islands as well as farther south. These scripts are sometimes called Tifinagh or Tifnar, Tamazight, Numidic or Old Libyan but the preferred term is Libyco Berber. The oldest inscriptions in this script have not yet been dated, but are clearly more than 2,000 years old. The earliest inscription to be properly dated is from 138 BC. But many north African inscriptions appearing on graves and monuments date earlier, to the fourth, sixth, and seventh centuries BC. Since the ancient language which these inscriptions represented is no longer understood, we cannot provide a translation of the meaning of the inscriptions in the photographs. This is yet another example of the vast lack of knowledge about the African continent. Modern research on these scripts only began in the 1930s.

Chapter 7: North African Written Texts in Latin

Africans established the Egyptian state around 3050 BCE and ruled it for almost 3,000 years. But in 332 BCE, the Greeks invaded, taking over the state, and were then succeeded by Roman invaders. The Romans also conquered the coast of North Africa, ruling it from 146 BCE to 250 CE. These conquests lead to the hybridization of both the invaded and the invaders, as peoples intermarried, converted, or adopted some of the customs of the other. Many Africans participated in the Greek and Roman administrations, with a few becoming kings, emperors, and popes. As a result, elite Africans learned to write in Greek or Latin and wrote important texts in these languages from the fourth century BCE to the fourth century CE. Indeed, many of the most important documents of the early Christian Church were written in Africa, including the biographies and autobiographies of early African saints.

Perhaps the most famous author in this chapter is Saint Augustine (354-430 CE), who was born in what is now Algeria  into a Berber, not Roman, family. He grew up speaking his own Berber language  and learning to read and write in Latin, eventually writing more than a hundred texts in that language. One of the first African writers in Latin was Apuleius (123-180 CE), who wrote a bawdy picaresque novel in Latin. Two other famous Africans authors were Tertullian (ca. 160-220 CE), a rhetorician from Carthage who became the first Christian author to write in Latin, and Arius (ca. 250-336), a heretical priest from Alexandria, Egypt.