JAN VANSINA. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

MELVILLE J. & FRANCES S. HERSKOVITS. Selections from Part II of Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958. Part II is called “The Narratives,” 124-324.


This review paper is the second part of a two-part series on non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based on a reading of selected narratives from the anthropologists Melville and Francis Herskovits’ 1958 work, Dahomean Narrative, with a bit of comparison to the revised version of the anthropologist Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History. I would like to begin by using Vansina’s work to define what “oral tradition” means in comparison to “oral history.” Oral tradition is defined simply as “reported statements from the past beyond the present generation.”[1] Put a bit differently, the “truly distinctive characteristic of oral tradition is its transmission by word of mouth over a period longer than the contemporary generation.”[2] While oral histories typically pertain to events that took place during the life of the person who is being interviewed, oral traditions extend beyond the lifespan of a single individual; instead, they represent the preserved beliefs of a particular culture, people, or society. Vansina devoted much of his career to the systematic study of oral traditions in African History. He first published Oral Traditions as History in 1959 and then updated the text in 1985. He wrote this guide to introduce historians “to the usual set of rules of historical evidence as they apply to oral traditions.”[3]

Oral Traditions as History is a taxonomic guide for beginners who are looking to use oral traditions as primary sources in their research. Vansina breaks oral traditions down into a series of categories, each with its own set of general rules and principles. There are so many different genres and forms, including epics, tales, proverbs, riddles, myths, testimonies, reminiscences, songs, poetry, genealogies, historical gossip, commentaries, verbal art, and more. While some oral traditions are intended to deliver news, others are intended to be more interpretative; and while some traditions are casual and improvisational, others are solemn and relatively unchanging. Historians must be aware that many traditions vary with the performance and performer. Most of them are culture-bound, fluid, and have undergone both conscious and unconscious alterations.[4] Furthermore, when an historian engages with a particular oral tradition, they must learn to account for the present and the past. As Vansina says, every oral tradition is “the creation of a profile of past history which is the historical consciousness of the present.”[5] Despite these obstacles and quite a few more, Vansina argues that oral traditions are an essential primary source for the study of African history. “Without oral traditions,” he concludes, “we would know very little about the past of large parts of the world, and we would not know them from the inside.”[6] It is with this idea in mind that we turn our attention to the case study from this week’s reading: Dahomean Narrative by the Herskovits’.[7]

Melville Herskovits’ Dahomean Narrative (collected in 1931, published in 1958)

The American anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits is generally remembered for his most famous work, The Myth of the Negro Past, published in 1941. In this work, Herskovits established the main thesis of his career that specific instances of cultural continuity, called “retentions,” “survivals” or “Africanisms,” could be traced from Africa to the Americas.[8] By comparison, the work under review here is a case study of an individual African culture with a focus on what Herskovits variously refers to as their “living narrative tradition,” “oral literature,” and “spoken arts.”[9] The body of the text is a compilation of oral narratives that Herskovits and his wife Francis gathered during their first research trip to Africa, and second field trip abroad, in the spring and summer of 1931.[10] The stories were told by 26 different male narrators, nearly all of whom were middle-aged. They were collected in three cities of the Republic of Benin—Abomey, Allada, and Whydah—during a period of roughly three-and-a-half months.[11] Benin was home to the kingdom of Dahomey from approximately the seventeenth to the late-nineteenth centuries, or 1600 to 1894. This explains the work’s title of Dahomean Narrative. The Herskovits’ recorded all of these traditions in English with the assistance of local aids who translated the words from Fon to French.

Dahomean Narrative is structured in two parts. The first is an “Introductory” of 122 pages. This is where Herskovits contextualizes the narratives. He discusses his methods and breaks down the categories, structures, and themes found in the narratives. In a section called “A Cross-Cultural Approach to Myth,” Herskovits uses his “Dahomean materials” to reflect upon contemporary theories. He engages with ideas espoused in the 27 years that have passed between the collection and the publication of the narratives. This is where Herskovits shows his characteristic ideas about the uniqueness of all African cultures, arguing against “students of myth” who have universalized the process and origins of myth-making in so-called “primitive,” “savage,” or “primordial” societies.[12] Herskovits rejects these labels and argues that “the Dahomean” is part of a closed cultural unit that is equally valid to others and must be understood on its own terms. Even though readers will recognize broad commonalities between Dahomean traditions and oral traditions from other societies—like the existence of Trickster figures, Oedipal themes, or child-like characters who are imbued with supernatural powers—Herskovits contends that these similarities are merely superficial. They “prove nothing at all except that…men everywhere exhibit broad underlying similarities in their ways of life.” [13] The next part of Dahomean Narrative consists of the narratives themselves. 155 narratives are presented as “raw data” in 356 pages, broken down into nine categories.[14]

The category of Dahomean Narrative that is most relevant to this class is number six, entitled “‘Historical Tales’: exploits of the Aladahonu dynasty.”[15] This is because the present course is primarily concerned with how oral traditions may be used as sources on eighteenth-century West African history. First, a few words should be said about Herskovits’ general ideas on the relationship between oral traditions and the study of African History. Herskovits writes in opposition to contemporary theorists like FitzRoy Richard Somerset, who contended that oral traditions are incapable of preserving a society’s historical knowledge. In this sense, Herskovits’ ideas are clearly aligned with those of Vansina. To Herskovits, the historical value of the Dahmoean oral traditions is proved by the fact that Dahomean kings have historically employed a person called the “remembrancer” as the preserver of royal genealogy. This official genealogy, performed for Herskovits in 1931, “compared very well” with written records from “early travelers in West Africa—works to which our informants could not possible have had access.” Overall, Herskovits contends that some of the narratives featured in the section “Historical Tales,” like No. 96 about the “Early days of the Aladahonu dynasty” have been “carried by oral tradition” for more than 300 years. [16]

Case Study: Exploring The Historical Value of Dahomey’s “Historical Tales”

The “Historical Tales” largely pertain to the reign of the most prominent Dahomean kings. Several historical kings are featured in these narratives, namely Hwegbadja (r. 1650-1680), Akaba (r. 1680-1708), Agadja (r. 1708-1728), Glele (r. 1858-1889), and Behanzin (r. 1889-1894). Narrative No. 96, mentioned above, provides an example for how historical content can be gleaned from this set of oral traditions. In this narrative, readers receive an origin story for the name of Dahomey, which Hwegbadja built inside the belly of a local chief named Da who refused to grant Hwegbadja land. The tradition goes on to describe how Hwegbadja then cemented his reputation through various beneficent acts, like stopping the locusts from destroying crops and distributing clothes among the people. Ultimately, the rise of Hwegbadja is said to usher in the end of a barter system and the origins of a new standardized economy. From this oral tradition, we might be able to infer meaning about the violent origins and expansion of the Dahomean kingdom during the seventeenth century, as well as what various local peoples may have expected of their newly enthroned ruler. As Dahomey consolidated its power in the area often referred to as the Slave Coast in the eighteenth century, it wrested control of the coastal transatlantic commerce while subjugating neighboring states that opposed its territorial expansion, literally creating itself out of their bowels. Remarkably, Herskovits notes that a version of this conquest story was first expressed in written form in the 1750s.[17] In this case, literary corroboration increases the story’s historical value for Herskovits.[18]

The “Historical Tales” also feature exploits of war between white people and the nineteenth century rulers of Dahomey. These narratives speak to the value and threat that both guns and slavery held to Dahomeans by the time of French conquest. An earlier narrative states that Agadja sold his daughter into slavery because of her quarrelsome behavior. This may speak to the role that the transatlantic slave trade played as a release valve for dissidents in coastal communities.[19] In narrative No. 102, we read a story that explains the French conquest as originating with a feud between two kings over a prior raid and the enslavement of family members.[20] While France did not conquer Dahomey because they were asked to mediate an African grievance, this version could speak to insecurities between African kingdoms over slavery on the eve of colonization in the late-nineteenth century. The narrative suggests that contested allegiances might have formed before, during, and after the conquest. Other broad themes that come out in these narratives about historical reigns include the perceived deceit of women, struggles between Oyo and Dahomey, the roles that magic is perceived to play in military conquests, and the inferior status sometimes given to Nago or Yoruba people within Dahomey. Despite the many historical conclusions we can propose, the absence of any dates in these narratives remind us about one of Vansina’s most crucial injunctions. “Weakness in chronology,” Vansina says, “is one of the greatest limitations of all oral traditions.”[21]

Conclusion – Comparing the Views of Vansina and Herskovits

Jan Vansina had not yet written Oral Tradition as History when Herskovits published Dahomean Narrative in 1958. Nonetheless, careful readers will notice many of Vansina’s views supported in Herskovits’ earlier case study. For example, Herskovits argues that Dahomean oral traditions are constantly evolving and incorporating new elements (such as French currency, firearms, and trousers), that they are creative and innovative sources which vary greatly based on the telling and the performance, that they are the reflections of specific cultural groups and cannot be properly analyzed if they are removed from that cultural context, and that they possess insight into both the past and the present.[22] Regardless, here Herskovits is more singularly interested in mining the oral traditions for information about the Dahomean present than the past.[23] As such, his main focus in Dahomean Narrative is on the contemporary social and cultural worldview of the Dahomean people. This largely explains why Herskovits restricts his analysis of Dahomean history to a handful of narratives that Vansina would likely have classified as “accounts.” Accounts are traditions that Vansina defines as containing references to past personages or events which can be dated.[24]

Vansina and Herskovits both recognized that Africanist scholars of oral narratives need to differentiate “which messages are specifically designed to tell us about the past and which are not.” Nonetheless, Vansina concluded that even those which were not designed to tell us about the past could give us “unintentional historical messages” if only we subjected them to his rigorous methodology. [25] Herskovits seems to have been far more cautious about this prospect, and he wanted to avoid being accused of “raising” what he referred to as the “ghost of euhemerism.”[26]  Euhemerism meant an analysis of oral traditions whereby either events or persons were presumed to have come from identifiable historical antecedents. This was generally a discredited viewpoint in Herskovits’ time. His reluctance to make historical claims from his data is epitomized by the basic fact that he chose to segregate these “Historical Tales” from all other forms of Dahomean narrative, even those which the Dahomean people adamantly classified as History using their Fon word hwenoho. Whatever historical value hwenoho narratives such as the Dahomean clan histories might possess, Herskovits saw as complicated by the fact that they were also “living spoken documents” manipulated to serve all sorts of contemporary economic, social, and political motives.[27] This skepticism leads Herskovits to sometimes employ quotations marks when he refers to oral traditions as “histories.”[28] Nonetheless, one cannot help but feel that, if Herskovits were drafting Dahomean Narrative today as opposed to in 1958, he would be much more ambitious in his historical interpretations.


[1] Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 27.

[2] Ibid. 29.

[3] Ibid. xiii.

[4] Ibid. 81.

[5] Ibid. 190.

[6] Ibid. 198.

[7] Melville J. and Francis S. Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958).

[8] Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941),3, 7, 11.

[9] Herskovits and Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative, 4-5.

[10] Their first research trip abroad was to Suriname, or Dutch Guiana, in 1928. During their trip to Benin, the Herskovits’ also spent some time in Ghana and Nigeria, where they interviewed Yoruba, Hausa, and Ashanti people. Herskovits also revisited regions of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1957, in preparation for the publication of Dahomean Narrative.

[11] Ibid. 6.

[12] Ibid. 96-97.

[13] Ibid. 98-102, 118.

[14] Ibid. xxvi.

[15] Ibid. 354-384.

[16] Ibid. 112.

[17] Herskovits and Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative, 366-367.

[18] Ibid. 367, n. 10. Herskovits also mentions the historical value of this story on 112.

[19] Ibid. 377. Interestingly, the historian James Sweet has used Herskovits’ work to make this exact claim in his book, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 9, 22, 27.

[20] Ibid. 381-384.

[21] Vansina, Oral Traditions as History, 56, 185.

[22] Ibid 115-118; Herskovits and Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative, 71-72.

[23] This is true for Dahomean Narrative, but it should be noted that Herskovits was interested in articulated Dahomean history elsewhere. He wrote, for example, a two-volume history of Dahomey based partly off these oral traditions. Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom, 2 Vols. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1938.

[24] Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, 32.

[25] Ibid. 91-93 , 108.

[26] Herskovits and Herskovits, Dahomean Narrative, 22.

[27] Ibid. 15, 20.

[28] Ibid. 367.