Siya and Maadi
Siya and Maadi are ill-fated lovers popularized in legends from the Wagadou Empire. To listen to the episode, Betrothed and Beheaded, please click here.
I chose this story because I read Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World Retold by Bolu Babalola. The anthology draws from different BIPOC myths and legends from around the world, but the one that caught my attention was the reimagining of Siya and Maadi. I haven’t spent too much time on the pair of lovers and sharing stories from all over the world is important, which made me realize that we have another couple to join our collection! Of course, we have Persephone and Hades, Hiku and Kawelu, Shirin and Khosrow, and now we have Siya and Maadi.
I found various retellings of the story and an article by Kwame Adapa titled: The Nagas, the seven-headed Serpent, and migration to different parts of the world. Adapa follows the story of the Seven-headed Snake through to the Wagado Empire by the Soninke people and compares them stylistically and thematically. There is also the book La légende du Ouagadou Bida with glorious illustrations by Ana Svetlana Amegankpoé (pictured below).
I have taken one version of the story, but as always, but more versions are included in the five fantastic finds! Scroll down to the bottom for those.
The Beginning and the End
The beginning and the end began with the love story of Maadi and Siya.
The Empire of Wagadou had 99 villages. Within the Kingdom, there was a well where the Seven-Headed Serpent resided: the formidable Bida. Due to a deal between the King and the Serpent, Bida agreed to bring rain and gold nuggets to the Kingdom, but in return, it wanted a beautiful young girl as a sacrifice. So it came to be that the nobles would search high and low for a beautiful and pure girl to sacrifice. One year, the chosen one was Siya Yatabéré on the cusp of her upcoming marriage to Maadi.
She was the most beautiful girl in the Empire at the time, and she resigned herself to her fate. Her father sent a servant to Maadi with the news that his bride would not be his and would meet her destiny on the seventh day of the seventh month after the last rain.
Maadi listened and told the servant to return with the news that her fate was not what she thought, and she would certainly not meet it at the bottom of a well.
Maadi’s well thought out Plan
A few days later, Maadi went to Siya’s village to speak to her. When she arrived, she was worried and begged him not to kill Bida. The Serpent’s death would end the abundance of rain and gold. It would ruin the Empire.
Image from ‘Sia, le rêve du python’ by Dani Kouyate (2001).
Maadi bid her farewell but did not promise anything or reveal his plan to Siya. When he returned home, he went to his friend, the blacksmith, and asked him to spend an entire week sharpening his sword. At the end of the week, he thanked his friend, bid farewell to his mother, Djamere Soukhouna, and rode off to the well.
Meanwhile, Siya has been led away and readied by the people of Wagadou. At night, she led the procession to the sacred woods where the well was and sat on the sacrificial golden stool.
The nobles sang her praises and warned her that if she survived the night it meant that the Serpent had rejected her for being unclean. Siya was still uneasy because she had not heard from Maadi but retorted that she did not know what the night held for her, but she knew that she was clean.
Bringer of doom
Everyone left, and Siya waited for hours. Suddenly, she felt someone creep up behind her and swung around to see Maadi. Again, she begged him not to destroy the Empire, but Maadi replied that their fate was sealed.
He stalked away to the side of the well, and they both waited. The time finally came. The time of spirits. The time when the Serpent comes out and possesses his offering. The Serpent had seven heads. The first was silver, the second was gold, the third was fire, the fourth was black, the fifth was white, the sixth was red, but the seventh was normal. This seventh head was always the first to come out of the well, and then they rise in reverse order if the sacrifice is pure.
I Curse the Rains
As soon as the seventh head rose, he sliced it off. He cut each head off until the first head rose and lit up the world with silver light. Before he could sever it, the fearsome creature rained down its curses with its dying breath, “I swear by the lord of the Seven-headed being, for seven years, seven months and seven days, Wagadou will not receive a drop of rain.”
The ever-stubborn Maadi swung his sword, and Bida’s last head joined the others. Now, this is where most versions of the story end. Maadi and Sia escape or ride off, leaving behind the chaos. However, other tales keep going and highlight Maadi’s mother, so we will continue.
Before Maadi left, he took off his left shoe, scabbard, ring and cap. He gave them to Siya and told her to guide the nobles in their search for the culprit. He returned to his mother, and after hearing what happened, she declared that she would stand between him and the nobles.
Art by Ana Svetlana Amegankpoé
If the sword fits
The next day, the nobles were surprised to see Siya seated on the stool. Those who hated her gossiped about her impurity, but others joined the nobles in questioning her. On closer inspection, they were shocked to see the decapitated heads lying by the well. Siya got up and presented them with Maadi’s items but said she did not know anything else. The shocked nobles went to work systematically going from village to village in a Cinderella-style test to capture the owner of the items.
Eventually, they made it to Maadi’s village. It was finally his turn. His mother insisted on coming with him and promised to put her life before his in the face of the Empire’s fury.
As you would guess, the sword fit his scabbard, his foot fit the shoe, the cap his head, and the ring his finger. After donning all his gear, he declared that he was the killer. In case anyone was still wondering.
A Mother’s Fury
People rushed to grab him, but his mother stood between them. She roared at the crowds, “I thought there were men in Wagadou, but I hardly see any here. You are afraid of Bida’s predictions but my son will not be killed because of a snake. My loincloth is better than all your pants put together. During these seven years, seven months and seven days, the Empire’s needs will be my responsibility. In return, my son will have his life with Siya.”
The nobles dropped their heads in shame and accepted her deal. At the end of Bida’s curse, Djamere Soukhouna died, but the curse had still come to pass. Wagadou was barren. The Soninke people dispersed. It was the end of their Empire.
Soninke women divide a wall surface into panels before painting in Buanch, Mauritania, 1988. Photograph by Margaret Courtney-Clarke for African Canvas.
Before the serpent died, he used his last breath to curse the land for seven years with no rain. Seven years, because seven is his number, and lack of rain to directly counter what was once his blessing. This curse is a poetic way to resolve the story. It follows through on the stakes previously set in the tale, and it’s in line with the monster’s powers. But I thought it would be good for us to establish what a curse is. Like magic and spells, it’s one of those things people usually know, but I thought it would be fun to take a closer look.
In short, a curse is a wish to inflict pain or punishment onto another through supernatural means. They can be cast verbally or written down to serve as a warning. Curses spoken for an intended individual or bloodline are often personal revenge from the curser. Like in today’s story, these curses usually act as laser-guided karma to the target.
On the other hand, written curses are less personal and are often left to guard a specific place or item. As such, written curses will serve as a warning before a character opens a book filled with dark magic or enters a forbidden tomb. In these scenarios, characters may question if there is any weight to the curse or if they are empty words. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter since the idea of the curse may be enough to cause panic in those who disregarded the warning.
There are many stories that relate to Bidaa the Black Snake throughout Western Africa. The Wagadou-Bida is the serpent spirit in our story and part of the prosperity and fall of Ghana. After the death of the ruler Dingha Cisse, his two sons fought over the Kingdom, with Khine winning. In retaliation, his brother, Dyabe, made a deal with Bidaa to protect him and give him victory. In return, he would sacrifice a virgin to him every year. From then on, Bida was a protector of the Kings and would rain down gold for the prosperity of the Kingdom. In some retellings, Sia’s fiance was called Amadou Sefedokote, and instead of seven heads, the serpent regrows his head seven times. The couple then escapes, and the Kingdom falls into drought.
Another recollection of the legend is in Leo Frobenius’ book, The Age of the Sun God. The first ruler of the Sonnike Griots was Dingha Cisse. After his death, his son, Lagarre, was advised to meet with the Bidaa and negotiate the sacrifice from ten virgins down to one. Bidaa agreed and fulfilled his promise until Sia was chosen as the sacrifice one year, and her fiance, Mamadi Sefe Dekote, slayed the snake bringing forth seven years, months and days of drought.
It is important to note that this story is about the Empire of Wagadou, known in relation to the Empire of Ghana, not modern-day Ghana. Today it would be Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The story has many tellings and variations, but the stock story remains of a virgin sacrifice, a snake God, her fiance’s slaying of the God and prosperity turning into a curse.
Siya was selected to be the sacrifice because she was a beautiful pure maiden. While human sacrifice does, unfortunately, have some truth in history, the specific idea of a pure maiden sacrifice is more rooted in stories like these than reality. This disconnect is likely because a quote on quote “pure maiden” would be as highly desirable. So they likely wouldn’t want to sacrifice them. Plus, once a pure maiden was chosen, she might make herself not pure and live to see another day.
So why sacrifice a pure maiden? Because it provides specific parameters. The only reason Siya’s chosen is that she is pure. This parameter eliminates the question of “why not someone else?”. Now the story can focus on Maadi and how he will save her. That’s right, a girl set up to die, serves as a plot device, giving the male character angst and motivation to make the plot happen.
For the greater good
Would you sacrifice one life if it meant greater happiness and prosperity for the rest of the Kingdom? If you answered yes, then congratulations, you are a Utilitarian. Or are you? The Philosophy of Ethics is a fascinating subject. We see moral dilemmas play out in our lives but also on a grander scale in our favourite movies, tv shows and books.
Utilitarianism is the belief in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, with the ends justifying the means. Jeremy Bentham’s “Greatest Happiness Principle,” says that the goodness of any action should not be judged as good or bad by its intentions but by its consequences which is human happiness. As with all forms of philosophy, there are many issues with Utilitarianism. Below is a clip from “The Good Place” which dives into the Trolley Problem.
Overall, how do we measure happiness objectively for a large group of people? The idea of sacrificing a stranger for the greater good is fine, but what if the sacrifice was someone you loved? Objectively, it should not change the equation of one life taken for hundreds of lives spared, but human emotions and motivations are not equations.
You can see why ethics and the philosophy of ethics is such a mind-boggling experience. There are many theories and ideas trying to understand intentions, motivations, emotions, consequences, justice, and virtue, not to mention seeing ethics on an individual level versus a societal level.
seven headed snake
While the seven-headed serpent from today’s tale is unique in its own right, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another iconic multi-head monster: The Hydra (pictured above on a vase by a Diosphos Painter). This Grecian mythological creature is a giant multi-headed serpent, dragon-like creature. I say multiple heads because the headcount frequently changes. You see, Hydra has a nasty regeneration ability. When one head is severed from its body, two more take their place.
The main story featuring the hydra comes from Heracles’ second labour. Heracles had to kill this nine-headed serpent, which had a deadly poisonous breath. But of course, this is no problem for good old Heracles, who seems to be favoured by the gods (except for Hera, who hates him and specifically raised this hydra to kill him). But that won’t stop our boy.
So, after bashing the serpent monster a lot and seeing it grow more heads as he picked them off, his nephew had this idea of cauterizing the wound where the heads grew back. Because if you can’t solve your monster problem with stabby weapons, why not play fire? Luckily for them, this worked and stopped the head-growing business quickly. After this, killing it became relatively simple, and Heracles buried the last head at the side of the road.
While regeneration is a neat trick, I think the seven-headed serpent was more powerful. After all, it cursed the land for seven years after its demise, whereas the hydra just became a footnote in the tale of Heracles.