The Journal of African History

Research Article

The Kisra legend and the distortion of historical tradition*

Phillips Stevens Jra1

a1 State University of New York at Buffalo

The presence of the ‘Kisra legend’ in certain western Sudanic societies has long puzzled historians and anthropologists. Attempts by many to explain the phenomenon have been seen as unsatisfactory. In Section I of this study we noted the fact that the Arabic Kasra or Kesra, having been derived from the title of one or the other of two Persian kings of the sixth and seventh centuries, denotes, in von Grunebaum's phrase, ‘a truly royal style of life’. The profound influences of Perso-Arabic elements on many cultures of the southern and western Sudan, even before the spread of Islam in these areas, strongly suggests the possibility that, rather than by any specific migration, the idea of ‘Kisra’ was borne across the Sahara, to the areas where it took root in the form of the Kisra legends. When the geographical situation of those societies having fully-developed Kisra legends is considered, noting that the most detailed and strongly held legends obtain among societies who were constantly threatened by others who were recognized as technologically, and possibly felt as culturally, superior, and among whom the Kisra idea also existed, the origins and distribution of such legends becomes more plausibly explainable. It has been suggested that, through a selective altering of historical tradition, over time, societies who felt so threatened were able to (1) assert their equality to, if not superiority over, the threatening power; (2) justify their successful maintenance of independence in spite of this threat; and/or (3) thus re-establish a basis for societal unity.


* Fieldwork on which Section II of this paper is based was conducted in Adamawa from September 1969 through March 1971, and was supported by a Field Grant and Fellowship from the Cultural Anthropology section of the National Institute of Mental Health, and by assistance from the Program of African Studies, Northwestern University.

The idea of the ‘Kisra effect’ was born after a discussion with Professor R. J. Gavin of the Department of History, Ahmadu Bello University. The original draft of this paper was presented at the 1972 meetings of the African Studies Association in Philadelphia. Subsequent revisions have benefited from critical comments offered by Dan Ben-Amos, James W. Fernandez, A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, Daniel F. McCall, Nicholas Pweddon, Karl Reisman, and Vito Signorile. The map was drawn by Gordon J. Schmahl. Additional acknowledgements will be made in subsequent notes.