Storytelling has always been a central component of Ethiopian culture. Even today, despite political and economic difficulties, in the midst of war and famine, storytellers continue to entertain, transmit history, and spread traditional wisdom.

Most of the stories are still passed on orally. Tales commonly told in Ethiopia include the expected variants on world tales, such as those in which the “little guy” gets the better of the overlord. In one Ethiopian example, a clever man (or sometimes a boy) and a selfish rich man argued. The selfish rich man claimed that a poor man did not have to share in his meal but could be nourished by the scent alone. The clever man pointed out that a distant fire does not provide the same heat as one up close.

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Local or national tales that may be based on historical incidents include one about the discovery of coffee. Tradition states that a goatherd discovered its effects when he saw his goats prance about after eating coffee beans. This tale has spread throughout the United States within the last decade, thanks in part to the proliferation of coffeehouses.

Specific cultures within Ethiopia have their own stories and lore. The Ethiopian Jews, for example, passed Judaic stories along within Ethiopia for generations. Coptic Christians also have their religious tales, which tend to be similar to the great body of world Christian tales and are separate from the folklore of the general population.
In earlier days, each lord or ruler within Ethiopia had his own storyteller, in addition to the public storytellers and singers found in every village. The latter sometimes passed along political commentary by reciting a specific form of verse called a kinae, which contained both obvious and hidden meanings.

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Today, public entertainers are known as azmari, or singers, who accompany their tales and poems with the masengo, a one-stringed fiddle, or the krar, a type of lyre. These performers still pass along both praise and social commentary in their work, which is performed in bars or on street corners.