Ethiopia's Image in World Literature, 1


From Ancient Greece to Samuel Johnston

 by Richard Pankhurst

(Source: Addis Tribune)

Ethiopia has long attracted the interest of European creative writers, who have referred to the country in innumerable different ways in their novels, short stories, plays, poems and songs. The object of the present paper is to examine such  creative literature chronologically and to place it in historical context.

 These works should all be in the Ethiopian Studies Library of the future!

 The Ancient Greeks

The first Europeans to employ the term Ethiopia were the ancient Greeks, who used the word to designate all dark-skinned people south of Egypt. The classical authors of Greece made many references to the country. Homer, in the 9th. century BC, wrote in the Odyssey of the Ethiopians as eschatoi andron, or the most remote of men. In Book I of the Iliad he makes Zeus, the king of the gods, leave heaven for twelve days, with all the other gods, to visit the "blameless Ethiopians", while the goddess Iris goes to their country to participate in sacrificial rites to the immortal gods. In the Odyssey the sea god Poseidon is likewise said to have "lingered delighted" at one of the feasts of the Ethiopians. 

 Almost half a millennium later, in the 5th. century BC, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus had Io, the  wandering woman of Prometheus  Bound, travel to "a far-off land". It was inhabited by "a nation of black men", who lived near "the fountain of the sun" and the "river Aethiops".

 Later again, in the 1st. century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus observed that the Greek hero Hercules and the Greek god of wine Bacchus were both "awed by the piety of the Ethiopians.

 "Loved by the gods"

Later once again, in the 7th. century AD, the Byzantine writer Stephanus Placidus reiterated that the Ethiopians were "loved by the gods because of their justice, and adds:

 "Juniper frequently leaves heaven and feasts with them [the Ethiopians] because of their justice and the equity of their customs. For the Ethiopians are said to be the justest of men and for that reason the gods love their abode frequently to visit them".

 Such passing references to Ethiopia and the Ethiopians may be supplemented by a more comprehensive Greek work set in Ethiopia, which dates from the 3rd. century AD. It was the romance Aethiopika, which tells of the travels south of Egypt, in all probability to Nubia, of the hero, Theagenes, and heroine, Chariclea. This work was translated into many languages. The earliest and best known version, in English, was translated by Thomas Underdowne, and was first published in London in 1587, with the title An Aethiopian History of Heliodorus.

 The Land of Prester John

Medieval European interest in Ethiopia owed much to the belief that it was the mysterious Land of Prester John, as well as the country from which the Queen of Sheba left on her famous visit to Jerusalem. These two beliefs led to the emergence of a considerable  literature featuring Ethiopia.

 One of the first creative writings about the Land of Prester John was an Italian poem by Giulano Dati, in praise of an unnamed ruler of Ethiopia. It appeared in a small pamphlet entitled Lagran Magnificentia del Preste Ianni Signore dell India Maggiore & della Etiopia, i.e. "The Great Magnificence of the Prester John, Lord of the Greater India and of Ethiopia" (Florence, 1500), which was illustrated with wood-cuts.

 The widespread belief in Italy that Ethiopia was in fact the Land of Prester John found expression shortly afterwards in the Italian author Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which was published in 1515-33. It has its hero flying over the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia.

 This was followed half a century later by an anonymous Spanish novel about the loves of an imaginary Ethiopian prince called Luzindaro, who claims he is a prisoner of love.

This work first appeared in a volume entitled Processo de Cartas de Amores... i.e. "Process of Maps of Loves" (Venice, 1553), and was later translated into French, with the more explicit title La complainte et avis, que fait Luzindaro prince d'Ethiopie e l'encontre d'amour, et une dame, i.e. "The Complaint and Advice which  Luzindaro, Prince of Ethiopia, made the Encounter with Love, and a Lady" (Antwerp, 1561). 

 French interest in Ethiopia was shortly afterwards enhanced by the arrival in Europe of an Ethiopian envoy Zaga-za-Ab. This inspired the composition of an anonymous French comic story, La reine d'Ethiopie. Historique Comique. i.e. "The Queen of Ethiopia. Comic Story" (Paris 1570). which was set in the Ethiopian court. The author, clearly wishing to distinguish Ethiopians from negroid Africans, insists that the hero of the story had an aquiline nose and was "without thick lips".

 British interest in Prester John led to the publication a generation later of the first English work on the subject. Edward Weble's Rare and Most Wonderful Things (London, 1590).

 This was followed by the publication of a further French fictional work on Prester John: Philippe d'Alcripe's La nouvelle fabrique des excellents traits de verite, i.e. "The Novel makes Excellent Qualities of Truth" (Rouen, 1620?). It was long afterwards reprinted in Paris  with further information on the Land of Prester John in 1853. 

 The Queen  of Sheba

The legendary account of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon, which impinged on European awareness of Ethiopia, was a further important source of creative writing . One of the earliest literary works on the theme was an anonymous German poet  Zwolff Sibylle weissagungen... Die Kunigin von Saba, Kung Solomo gethane Propheccie, i.e. "Twelve Wise Sayings of the Sybils...The Queen of Sheba, King Solomon according to Prophesy" (Frankfurt, 1531) which was enlivened with wood-cuts.

 More important, however, was a full-length play on the subject by the renowned Spanish author Dom Pedro Caldéron de la Barca. This work, entitled  La Sibila del Oriente, y Gran Regna de Saba, i.e. "The Sybil of the East, or Great Queen of Sheba" (Madrid, 1750), placed the Queen indisputably in Ethiopia - but, curiously, unlike many of his works, has never been translated into English.


The travels of the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits in late 16th. and early 17th. century gave rise to a  new European interest in Ethiopia. The renowned British author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had translated the memoirs of one of the Jesuits, Jeronimo Lobo, wrote his famous allegorical novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, in 1759. Based largely on Lobo's account, it told the story of Prince Rasselas and his sister Nekayah. They reputedly  lived in an Ethiopian "happy valley", where, before their eventual escape, they were "confined in a private palace, with the other sons and daughters of Abyssinian royalty" - until their possible succession to the throne was decided.

 Johnson's allegory, over the next two centuries, ran into many translations. These included Bengali in 1833, and in Ethiopia's national language Amharic, in 1946-7.

 Johnson's Rasselas also soon inspired a today little-known British authoress, Ellis Cornelia Knight, to write a kind of sequel to it. Entitled Dinarbas: A Tale being a Continuation of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, it appeared in London in 1770, and told of the Ethiopian prince's supposed subsequent travels to Egypt. There he is said to have befriended a young local nobleman called Dinarbas, whose name became the title of the book. This work also ran into several editions, the last in 1823.

 French awareness of Ethiopia subsequently resulted in the publication in Paris, in 1789, of yet another literary work set in Ethiopia. Entitled Grandor ou le heros abissin, histoire héros-politique, "i.e. Grandor or the Abyssinian Hero, History of a Political Hero", it told of the imaginary travels of an Ethiopian nobleman called Grandor, and - particularly relevant in the year of the French Revolution - included passages on subjects then bitterly debated in contemporary France, such as  Aristocracy, Despotism, and Democracy.

 And those, on any showing, were not ideas easily to be ignored!n


Next Week: The Dawn of the Historic Nineteenth Century

The views reflected in the above  essay are solely of the author and are not necessarily shared by Meskot. This article was taken from the HISTORICAL FEATURE section of