Why Sleep?

No joke, that’s the actual title of a book of children’s stories, translated from the Amharic. But apparently not bedtime stories. You’ll see what I mean. It’s from waaaay back in the day. My guess is that these stories are actually very old, orally handed down (ok that makes no sense right there, plus is there even any context left where it’s okay to use the word ‘orally’ in daytime conversation? anyway, I digress) …handed down through the generations until some forty years or so ago, when someone (actually someone by the name of Blateyn Geta Mahteme Selassie Wolde Michael a.k.a. [Some Official Title] Seal of the Trinity Slave of St. Michael, no seriously, that’s the person’s real name. They didn’t play.) decided to put them to paper and publish them in this here now-collectible edition:


Now it’s a well known fact that some of the most popular children’s stories (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood), before they became Disney-fied, were actually quite violent gruesome tales. I remember hearing something about how originally Cinderella had bound feet and whatnot, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a lot of the stories in this Why Sleep? collection are also kinda R-rated, but truth is I’d totally forgotten how gruesome they were until, a couple of years ago, a cousin of mine – one young enough to remember – said to me hey remember those children’s stories Emay (our grandmother) used to tell us, how violent they were? And she was right. For some reason the one we both remembered best was about a woman who fed her husband stones until he died. Make of that what you will.

So, after I went leafing through this book, I thought I’d write a blog post about the stories in general, but I realized they’re too good to just sum up. Instead, I’ve decided to write semi-translations of them (with plenty of commentary) on here…based on demand.

So here’s the plan. On the days when I really for the life of me cannot think of a blog post topic, I’ll put up a summary of one story from the original book, accompanied by graphics. If there’s enough (or any) demand for a full translation of a story, I’ll oblige. And maybe once I go through them all, do modernized re-writes of them or something, cause a lot of these are…um…country.

So here goes, in the order that they appear in the book. (*Yes I know I started three paragraphs back-to-back with “so”. I’m working on a more personal conversational tone to my posts. So.*)


In Brief: Literally littlest brother of seven gets revenge on his evil but dumb older siblings.

Synopsis: Single mom, saddled with six good-for-nothing sons, begs God for one good son, even one as tiny as a thumb. She gets exactly that. She decides to call him Thumboy. Thumboy grows up to be a cunning and clever boy who not only survives multiple murder attempts at the hands of his brothers but goes on to orchestrate a midnight cattle theft from a farm, drown a woman in a river to steal her lunchbox, and finally throw all six of his brothers to their deaths over a cliff, subsequent to which he lives the good life until one day he literally explodes from overeating.

Moral: Don’t estimate a person by their height or girth. The mind is the true measure. But death conquers all so a good and honest life is preferable above all.

Good night.

Climatic moment of fratricide.
Oh daayym! Shouldn’t have messed with the little guy!


In Brief: Monk beats tiger to death.

Synopsis: A tiger, hunters hot on his trail, begs a monk to hide him. Monk obliges and puts Tiger in his sack. When hunters come looking, Monk tells them he hasn’t seen any tiger pass this way. At end of the day, Monk unties sack and lets Tiger out. You’re free to go, says Monk. But Tiger says, Seeing as you kept me tied up in a sack all day, I’m kinda starving, so I should eat you. A council of animals is called to make a judgement. All of them, being very afraid of Tiger, judge that yes Tiger has a right to eat Monk. Except Monkey. Monkey says How could a wimpy Monk like you have tied up a tiger like that in a sack in the first place? Monkey requests a re-enactment. Tiger goes back in the sack. As soon as Tiger is in, Monk, at Monkey’s urging, ties the sack shut, then beats Tiger to death with his cane.

Moral: Be firm in your judgments. Evil people will stay evil no matter what good deeds you do for them. But don’t worry because they get what’s coming to them eventually.

Good night.

He was so nice at first…


In Brief: The sins of the fathers are visited on the sons.

Synopsis: There were two men who used to do things that pissed God off. One was a murderer. The other a swindler. Eventually, they both died. One day, Swindler’s Son, on his way to market carrying a sack of money, stopped for a rest by a little stream. When he resumed his journey, he forgot his sack. Some other guy came along, found the money, and took off with it. When Swindler’s Son remembered his sack of money and returned to the stream, he found another guy – who happened to be Murderer’s Son – having his own little rest. Eating lunch, actually. SS demanded his money back. MS had no idea what he’s talking about. SS didn’t believe him, so he tortured and stabbed him to death with a spear.

Moral: What goes around comes around…eventually.

Good night 🙂

As reported by some kind of ghostly-spooky monk who lives in the forest.
As reported by some kind of ghostly-spooky monk who lives in the forest.


In Brief: Couple of young hyenas leave Dad to get stabbed to death.

Synopsis: Walking along a road one day, Ol’ Dad Hyena and his two sons find a donkey. So, of course, they team up and kill it. Ol’ Dad says to his boys shoo! and proceeds to eat the donkey alone. When he starts to feel kind of full, he tosses one of the donkey’s ears to one of his sons, but nothing to the other, then keeps on eating. After a while, they warn him that it’s getting to be morning, but he says noone knows donkey-eatin’ and moon-settin’ like your Ol’ Dad, and keeps on eating. Sure enough, soon comes morning and, with it, owner of the long-dead-long-eaten donkey. The sons hightail it out of there but the best Dad can do, since he’s full of donkey meat, is barely limp away. He calls out to his sons for help. Oh now you want to bother with us? they say, disappearing fast thanks to their empty bellies. Ol’ Dad lolls along, but the donkey’s owner reaches him easily and kills him with a spear.

Moral: Share what you have, so that your fellow will lay down his life for you. Otherwise, eat alone, die alone. (Yes, even you, dad.)

Dad, seriously?

Good night 🙂


In Brief: Aiming for the fly on her nose, foolish man bashes equally foolish wife’s head in.

Synopsis: A man and his wife fall on hard times, so they decide to slaughter the one bull they own. While they are butchering it, vultures keep swooping in and snatching away the meat, no matter how much the man and his wife warn them that it isn’t free. So they take what is left of the meat inside and cook it. Before eating, they decide that they need some sticks to pick their teeth with after. So they go out to search for some, barely closing their door to their house.

On their way, they cross paths with some soldiers, whom they tell about all the cooked meat at home, the fresh baked bread, and the barely closed door. They strongly warn the soldiers to not eat any of it.

The soldiers go directly to the house, eat all the meat, return the bones to the pot, and divide up the bread amongst themselves for the road.

When the husband and wife return with their toothpicks, they find that all the food has been eaten, there’s nothing but bones in the pots and flies everywhere. Of course, it had to be all the flies that ate all the meat and bread, so the man and his wife run to a judge and file a complaint about those flies, such arrogant flies that had not only eaten all the food but were hanging out at the house even now, completely remorseless.

The judge tells the man and wife they’re free to take revenge. After all it’s their house and their meat. So the man and wife return home and pick up sticks with which to beat up the flies. In the effort, they end up smashing everything else they own, reducing it all to smithereens.

Finally, one fly lands on the wife’s forehead. She tries to swat it but it gets away. Another fly lands on her nose. Quietly, she calls her husband over and points out the fly on her nose. Taking good aim, the husband  swings with all his might, misses the fly, but successfully smashes in his wife’s head. Wife lies in a dead grin. Husband says to leave off the laughing and keep on with the task.

Moral: Much foolishness brings death.

Hold still, darling.
Hold still, darling.

Good night 🙂


In Brief:  Soldier’s mean trick comes back at him.

Synopsis: A soldier on a horse and a student meet on a road, and decide to travel together. At nightfall, they ask around for a place to sleep but no one will take them in. But when the student disguises himself as a monk, he is taken into a house and given food and a nice bed. He asks the owners if his “servant” (the soldier), who is waiting outside, can be let in too. They let him in but give him the monk’s leftovers to eat, and make him to sleep on the floor. At night, the soldier, out of jealousy, pokes at the student’s fake-monk’s clothes with a flaming stick and goes back to sleep. The student, who had only been pretending to sleep gets up later in the night and cuts off the soldier’s horse’s lips.  In the morning, he gets up before the soldier, puts on his charred fake-monk clothes, and starts saying his prayers in front of the lipless horse. When the soldier wakes and sees him, he says oh why are your clothes burned like that? The student, acting surprised, says, oh that must be why your horse is laughing at me!

Moral:  Jealousy no good. Bad deeds harm the doer.

Who's laughing now?
Who’s laughing now?

Good night 🙂


In Brief: Hyena eats the donkeys that came to pay their condolences.

Synopsis: The hyena’s son dies. He cries out for the animals to come and sit with him. The animals are afraid. If they don’t go, he’ll quarrel with them. If they do go, he’ll eat them. They prefer to be eaten so they go over. No amount of consoling will satisfy the hyena. They consider sacrificing one of the animals to him, but she takes off fast. So, at the end of the mourning, they offer to give him just their lips. So he cuts off all their lips and lets them go. On the third day, they go to visit him again, with all their teeth showing. You’re laughing at my sorrow! says hyena, so all the hyena’s relatives tear them to pieces and eat them.

Moral: No point avoiding it if you know you’re gonna get eaten.

Laugh at my pain.
Laugh at my pain.


In Brief: Three brothers try to chop down a tree and fall to their deaths.

Synopsis: Three idiot brothers live together. One day they are out on the road when they come to a cliff’s edge with a big tree on it. Deciding that the tree will make a great plow, they decide to cut it down, but quickly realize that their saw is too blunt for the job. So the one brother tells the other two to climb on the tree to weigh it down. So they squat up on the tree and swing this way and that. Finally the tree snaps, and takes them down the cliff with it. The third brother, not to be outdone by his brothers who he thinks have run off with the trunk, chases after them…by jumping off the cliff. In this way, all three meet their end.

Moral: Too much foolishness leads to death. Dear cow, watch out not only for the grass but the deep fall too.

Fool’s wood.

Good night 🙂

11 thoughts on “Why Sleep?

  1. Dear Rebecca,

    I liked you comments on Inqil lemene. It has been translated into Czech under the title Etiopské pohadky (Ethiopian fairytales), but quickly the readres started to call it Ethiopian Horrors.
    Anyway it is nice reading.



  2. Oh wow! The story of Sinziro was totally told to me by grandma without the violent ending. She totally changed the story. Until this day, I never knew how it ended. I guess she thought it was too graphic for me. Amazing!!!


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