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Shared Stories: Common themes in myths and legends across cultures

Soninke and Chinese legends of the Slayer of the Snake God

The Chinese recorded the legend Li Ji Slays The Snake in Sou Shen Ji, a collection of supernatural tales. Li Ji was said to have lived in the Warring States era (475-221 BCE).1 She was a teenage girl who lived in a part of China where people sacrificed a twelve-to-thirteen year old girl yearly to a snake god. The priests believed that the meal of human flesh would avert the wrath of the giant snake, which lived in a cave and came out to plague the people. One year, Li Ji volunteered to be the sacrifice against the will of her parents. But unknown to any, she went to the lair of the snake, taking some fragrant rice and a hunting dog with her. She placed the rice outside the snake's lair, and then hid herself. The snake came out, attracted by the fragrant smell of rice. Its eyes were as big as saucers, but Li Ji was not afraid and set the hound on it. While the snake was busy defending itself from the dog, Li Ji attacked it from behind, hacking at it with her sword until it died. She went into the cave and found the remains of the previous nine sacrificial victims. The snake was no god at all, but a mere brute which devoured humans. The king of the land heard of Li Ji's courage and invited her to become his queen.2

The Soninke of West Africa also tell a story about single individual defying tradition and public opinion to stand up to a snake god. In the West African legend, the snake was Bida, a god of the ancient Ghana Empire. It demanded an annual offering of one maiden in exchange for the prosperity of the wealthy kingdom. One year the maiden Sia (or Siya) was chosen to be the sacrifice. Her betrothed husband Mamadou (Amadou or Maadi in some other tellings of the story), an army officer, fought the snake to save her. The snake had hydra-like properties of regenerating its severed heads but the officer eventually defeated the deity. The Ghana Empire, bereft of its guardian deity, declined soon after.3

The superficial similarities between the Chinese and Soninke stories are quite clear, but there are also fundamental differences:

  • The Soninke snake was an actual god; the Chinese one was just an animal.
  • The Soninke tale was set at the time of the decline of the Ghana Empire, around the 11th century.4 The Chinese one was set more than a thousand years earlier.
  • The Chinese sacrificial 'victim' saved herself. The Soninke sacrificial victim was saved by her fiance.
  • Li Ji's deed was hailed as heroic by her community. Mamadou's deed, however, went unappreciated by the Soninkes, who saw it as the beginning of their misfortunes.

For a brief history of Ancient Ghana, see BBC World Service: The Story of Africa: Ancient Ghana.

The myth of Sia and the snake has inspired modern works of fiction, including the play "The Legend of Wagadu as seen by Sia Yatabéré" by Mauritanian playwright Moussa Diagana, and "Sia, The Dream of the Python", a film loosely based on Diagana's play.5

  1. Biography of Li Ji on baidu encyclopedia
  2. Li Ji Slays the Snake
  3. Daniel Chu and Elliot Skinner, A Glorious Age in Africa: Ghana, Mali and Songhai, pp. 42-45
  4. Chu and Skinner, p. 45
  5. 'Sia, le rêve du python' on Wikipedia