Friday, December 04, 2015

Lundja daughter of - whom? Some of a myth's many guises

One of the classic characters of north African folklore is Lundja or Nuja, a girl who... well, a girl, anyway. The name is widespread, but the story is somewhat more variable. Vermondo Brugnatelli and Hamid Oubagha record practically identical versions from western Kabylie (with the heroine named Lunja and Nuja respectively), in which a prince raised in luxury and isolation ventures forth to seek out Lunja, daughter of the ogress; they fall in love and escape by virtue of Lunja's wits, but the prince is swallowed up by a vulture on the way back, and Lunja disguises herself as a slave and toils for the king's household, regularly visited by the prince's soul in the form of a bird, until they manage to bring him back by offering the vulture a fat cow. In his fascinating but speculative article, Brugnatelli argues, based on some rather stretched comparisons with a widespread North African rain-making custom (which I might discuss later), the Ugaritic myth of Aqhat, and the Greco-Levantine myth of Adonis, that the prince in this story was originally a rain god, and Lunja his bride.

However, there are many versions of the story of Lundja - perhaps even many stories featuring Lundja. For Figuig (SE Morocco), Sahli (2008) records one where the connection with weather on which Brugnatelli speculates is made positively blatant, but in a manner difficult to reconcile with his specific hypothesis. In this version, Lundja is an ordinary girl, tied by her hair to a lote-tree by jealous comrades, who escapes only to stumble into the ogress's house. The ogress makes her her servant, and among other things requires her to tend her baby son, to whom Lundja sings Mi teḍṣid teffeɣ-d tfuyt, mi tilled taɣ tbica "When you smile, the sun shines; when you cry, the rain falls". She assigns her impossible tasks, but the birds help her to accomplish them. Eventually, her cousin shows up to rescue her, and Lundja manages to outwit the ogress in ways strikingly similar to Brugnatelli's version. She escapes with the ogress's bags of wind, sun, rain, and axes (perhaps originally thunderbolts?), and throws them one by one to the ogress each time she's about to catch them, delaying the ogress long enough for them to escape safely - and they live happily ever after. In this version, even more than in the western Kabyle one, Lunja's boyfriend is just a sidekick, and the real action is between Lunja and the ogress.

In Dellys, just a few dozen kilometres north of where Brugnatelli recorded his version, no ogress even features. Instead, Lundja is the daughter (or captive?) of Drig the ogre (دريڨ الغول drig əl-ɣul), who ties her long, long hair to his teeth when he sleeps to stop her escaping. To rescue her, they assemble a veritable team of superheroes: ضرّاب السيف đ̣əṛṛab əs-sif, the Sword-Striker; سمّاع الندى səmmaʕ ən-nda, the Dew-Hearer (to hear the ogre's snores from miles away); ضرّاب خطّ الرّمل, đ̣əṛṛab xəṭṭ əṛ-ṛməl, the Geomancer; and سلاّك الحرير من السدرة səllak əl-ħrir mə-s-sədra, the Disentangler of Thread from the Lote-Tree (to disentangle her hair from his teeth). Unfortunately, no one I know remembers much of the actual plot - and I've never come across anything similar in books or online, although the last of these "superheroes" clearly echoes the opening of the Figuig version of this story.

Brugnatelli tries to connect Lundja's name to those of a rain-making custom once widespread in the Maghreb, in which children dress up a ladle (Berber aɣenja) in women's clothes and go through the streets with it chanting a prayer for rain, while passers-by pour water on it. Whatever the plausibility of that connection, the name of Drig points in a rather different direction. In the context of an old North African port which received many Andalusi refugees in its day, one can hardly fail to be reminded of Roderic/Ludharīq لذريق, the last Gothic king of Spain, depicted in later legend as a usurper who kidnapped the daughter of one of his own noblemen. Could this be an Andalusi, or Andalusianised, version of the same folktale? Any leads would be welcome!

Sahli, Ali. 2008. Muʕjam Amāzīγī-`Arabī (xāṣṣ bi-lahjat 'ahālī Fijīj) yaḍummu qawā`id hāđihi l-lahjah wa-jāniban min turāŧihā l-'adabī. Oujda: El Anouar El Maghribia.


Anís del moro said...

And not only "one of his own noblemen", but Count Julián, who is traditionally said to have opened the doors for the Islamic conquest of Visigothic Hispania.

Moubarik said...

In the Rif, northern Morocco, her name is pronounced Nunja with 2 letter "N"s.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In some parts of Kabylie they say Nuja too. Haven't come across any versions further south than Figuig - it wouldn't fit very well in Tuareg I think...

Talia Felix said...

Just reading the plot summary at top, the story reminded me of the old Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris (wherein Osiris is killed and cut up, so Isis has to go out in disguise to collect his body parts in order to reassemble them; and there's a particular adventure wherein she becomes a servant to some powerful nobles and takes care of a baby.) I remember coming across a Greek/Roman myth very similar to the Isis story, involving Ceres while looking for her kidnapped daughter Proserpina. It could be the original Egyptian story took on another form as it traveled Africa?