Somali folklore is rich in powerful stories that have withstood the test of time in the absence of a written script. One particular legend, celebrated and loathed by many equally, is the ancient Somali queen named Caraweelo (English: Araweelo). She was a powerful and fearsome ruler who antagonised her male subjects by castrating them right after birth in an attempt to keep them from dethroning her. Dozen versions of the tale have been recorded from Somali oral tradition but the key elements are in sync, namely a formidable ruler and castrator despised generally by her male subjects.
Legend dictates that she was ultimately killed by her grandson who escaped her campaign of emasculation after Caraweelo’s daughter interceded several times to delay the wicked process until he was of age.
Somewhere in northern Somalia, a stone mound that represents her tomb became a place for both reverence and contempt. For centuries, Somali men that passed her resting place would shout obscenities and throw stones whilst Somali women, to show their respect for her memory, would tear off a small portion of their skirt or break a twig off the nearest bush and place it at her grave.
With the advent of the Somali civil war that oversaw grotesque atrocities perpetrated by Somali men, her legend was revived and reinterpreted to emphasise that the reign of a Somali queen brought peace and prosperity to a land devastated by inter-clan strife. The controversy surrounding her legend never extended to her ethnic background. Whatever polarised view Somalis have towards this regal matriarch, her Somali background has never been in question. For most, Caraweelo was nothing more than an archetypal queen of Somali fable, confected to enhance Somali children’s imagination, but for others, her myth signifies an icon of a bygone epoch in pre-Islamic Somalia, never to return.
It is said that all legends have a historical foundation, a core of truth commonly known as euhemerism. Abdirashid Mohamed Ismail, a senior lecturer in literature and linguistics at Djibouti University, attempts to shed light on the historical facts that spawned this narrative in his article “When an Abyssinian Queen Dominates the Horn of Africa, Teen [sic] Centuries ago…” using a variety of historical, linguistic and anthropological tools. Ismail argues that the mythological Somali Queen was not of Somali origin nor had a basis in any historical Somali monarch, but was an offshoot of a medieval semi-fictional Cushitic Queen who ruled Abyssinia with an iron fist. Her name was Yodit (Amharic: Gudit, meaning monster).
She hailed from a small Cushitic ethnic group called Agaw. In 960 C.E. she put an end to the tottering Aksumite Empire by performing a coup d’état, killing the emperor (Hadani), and ascending the throne herself, which resulted in the temporary halt of the Christian Solomonic dynasty. She holds pride of place alongside the famed Somali Muslim conqueror, Ahmed Gurey, as one of the ‘monsters’ of Ethiopian history. Nicknamed the ‘monster’ or the ‘fiery one’, she ravaged the ancient capital and established herself as the most powerful ruler in the Horn of Africa for close to forty years.
Ismail first examines the etymological meaning of the name Caraweelo. He dissects the name into its constituent parts: Caro and Weelo. Caro in the Somali language means soil (country), whilst he attributes Weelo to the eastern-centre region of Ethiopia. The meaning of the name would translate as “land of the Weelo”. Weelo was the birth place of Yodit and the dwelling place of the Agaw ethnic community. Ismail cites considerable primary sources to prove that before the Muslim sultanates, the Aksumite emperors exercised authority to a great extent over some of the regions presently inhabited by Somalis. Yodit inherited that realm when she assumed the reins of the empire.
Ismail advances two likely arguments for Caraweelo’s castration drive. In the first argument, he interprets the gelding as just metaphorical. Perhaps a mental castration to denote a “dominion exercised over those who usually beheld the power, meaning men” (p.8). The second argument, preferred by the author, is the Agaw origin of Yodit. The Agaw name bears a striking resemblance phonetically to the Somali word cagdhow which means “castrator”. He mentions that the Somalis, inhabiting the regions occupied by Ethiopia, have a habit of calling the residents of Welo region (whether Agaw or Oromo) collectively “cagdhow”.
The author extends his hypothesis by linking the legendary cannibalistic Somali ogress (Dheg-dheer or Buti), who terrorised the locals, to the Agaw queen. The name Buti, according to the author, is merely a pejorative reformulation of the Amharic Gudit considering that it does not belong to the Somali language. He cites the famous chorus “Dheg-dheer dhimatay, dhulkii nabad” – Dheg-dheer has died, the country is in peace – that marks the end of the ‘monstrous’ creature, in reference to Yodit who terrorised regions under her dominion for so long. Though it is established that Yodit persecuted the Christians in Abyssinia, the author does not provide reasonable evidence that she harassed the rising Muslim population in Zaylac and the surrounding areas.
The Agaw queen practised a religion described as Pagan-Hebraic, which combines elements from both paganism and Judaism but referred to herself as a Jewish queen. Ismail notes that her Jewish influence might have reached a Somali community group, known as the Yibir. Although presently they are largely Muslims, he highlights their Jewish ancestry, arguing that they could be a by-product of the contact between the Somalis and the Agaw group in order to explain their Hebrew forebears. The Yibir have been a historically marginalised minority, both socially and politically. However, it is noteworthy to mention that during the Ahmed Gurey campaigns against Christian Abyssinia, they played a decisive role as skilled Muslim archers.
Whilst his main theory might not sit too well with the majority of the Somalis; it is perfectly common for many cultures to have legends of foreign origin. The joohaar (legendary serpent) is another ancient Somali legend that might have originated from India. Ismail presents a convincing hypothesis – albeit still preliminary – to explain the possible origin of this famed legendary Somali queen. Given that no similar investigations have been attempted thus far, his findings might serve as a catalyst to reinterpret our cultural legends in the light of historical facts.
By Mohammed Ibrahim Shire