Qene (also known as Qiné and Sдm əna Wдrq (wax and gold))

A Note from the Editors:

We set out to lay this out with enthusiasm and excitement, having come across this genre in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in the Ethiopian Poetry entry. We glossed over when the entry itself said that “the rules of this poetry are complicated and take years to master. Main centers for teaching this type of poetry are found in…” and named several Ethiopian provinces, in our enthusiasm for a poetry genre and form that one doesn’t usually come across. Then we started researching it. Gentle reader, lovely fellow poetry lover, what you’ll find here is what we’ve been able to come across so far but does not, to be clear, include any description of form so far. That is because not only is the genre vast and complicated in it’s subgenres and subforms, subject matter and uses and history, but the metric and melodic system in Ethiopian poetry is..vast isn’t the word. It isn’t something one can get the gist of in a week, and lay out in a glossary term, let’s just say that. PhD dissertations, Masters thesis’s, and entire scholarships have been dedicated to the subject. I would urge you, as always, to be highly skeptical of any source you find which ties it up in a handy little short explanation, as with any long historied poetry form. So, we here are simply hoping to introduce you to this fascinating subject, in hopes of contributing to a more complete discussion on global poetics. That said, good luck and god speed if and when you decide to look into it yourself. If you do, please, please comment here on the site and let us know what you find. Again, please keep in mind that what we have below is a tiny, teensy spec on the tip of the iceberg, and is by no means a complete explanation. It is but an introduction to an introduction, times ten.


Qene, also known as Qiné and Sдm əna Wдrq, is a genre of church-inspired poetry which hinges on and is defined by it’s use of Sдm əna Wдrq, which literally means ‘wax and gold’  which is a double entedre structure where the superficial message (the wax), “hides” the genuine message (the gold) and historically was used frequently to criticize the government while flying under the radar of the censor. Qene is distinguished by its form, and has a strict metrical pattern and there are 9 distinct types of Qene, some with subtypes which brings the total to about 17, each with its own metrical pattern and stanza count. While Qene is said to have originated with Saint Yared in the 6th century, scholars on oral history believe it to have existed in oral form much earlier than that and he is not believed to have set the form or the meter. For that, there are several theories. One possibility “lies with Qəne scholars during the reign of Emperor Eskender (1478-1494) – Hawira, Menkera, Eskendera, Poeskenedera and Abidira. Another explanation – commonly referred to as the Wadla claim – attributes it to an early 15th-century scholar from Wadla named Yohannəs Geblawi. And then there is the Gonj claim – attributing the deed to a certain Täwanäy who flourished after the 15th century.”

There are three traditions in Qene, and mastery of these traditions is the sign of the BaläQəne’s expertise of the genre and his placement at the summit of the Qəne world. These three traditions are:

Nät’äqa which involves finishing off the verses of a Qəne as another person is reciting the beginning verses. This shows that the one who is doing the Nät’äqa already knows what the other composer was going to recite. Example: Emahoy Gälanäsh’s Nät’äqa of her father’s Qəne.

Gəlbät’a which involves taking someone’s Qəne creating a new Qəne by changing the message and rhyming scheme-like overturning the message and turning it on its head.

Tämäst’o which, to summarize and paraphrase, is a deep contemplation while composing Qene where one becomes oblivious of ones surroundings.


For this, we’ll just put our outline.

    1. 9 main forms of Qiné have names according to how many syllables there are in a line
      1. Guba’é Qana-4+4
        1. two verses
        2. symbolizes the divine and human nature of god
        3. There are four types, differentiated by length of stanza (Short Gubaʾe Qana and long Gubaʾe Qana) and Zema mode ( Gəʾəz Gubaʾe Qana and ʾəzl Gubaʾe Qana)
      2. Ze-Amlakîyyé (Zдʾдmlakəye)-4+4+4
        1. consists of three stanzas 
        2. zema mode is ʾəzl
        3. the second stanza is called Mändärdärya 
        4. The name Zäʾämlakəye is derived from the fact that this type of Qəne is composed using the first line of Psalm 62
      3. Wazéma-6+4+4+3+3 
        1. There are two types of Wazema: Long Wazema (five verses with Araray zema mode) and Short Wazema(two verses) 
        2. composed on the eve (wazema) of a major church holiday, or name is derived from a line in St Yared’s chant 
        3. The long wazema is always composed on the eve of major church holidays.
      4. Meweddis (Mдwдdəs)-9+4+5+3+3 
        1. denotes gratefulness
        2. There are two types of Mäwädəs: fətah litä (eight verses with Araray zema mode) and kuləkəmu (nine verses) 
        3. Fətah litä is so named because it is performed after Psalm 42 
        4. kuləkəmu is performed after Psalm 46
      5. Mibдzhu 
        1. also three verses
        2. zema mode is ʾəzl
        3. symbolizes the trinity 
        4. composed using the first line of Psalm 3
      6. Səllase  
        1. has six verses and the zema mode is ʾəzl 
        2. symbolizes the 6 commands of the New Testament 
        3. name is derived from the prayer of the 3 children thanking the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
      7. Zдyəʾəze 
        1. usually presented in honor of a sovereign 
        2. name is derived from the Psalm 
        3. There are two types of Zäyəʾəze: long Zäyəʾəze (five verses with Gəʾəz zema mode) and Short Zäyəʾəze (three verses with Araray zema mode) 
        4. The Short Zäyəʾəze is also called sahləkä
      8. kəbər yəʾəti 
        1. four stanzas
        2. usually composed about the subject of the holy cross 
        3. According to the Zema mode, kəbər yəʾəti is classified into two: Gəʾəz kəbər yəʾəti and ʾəzl kəbər yəʾəti 
        4. it is performed after Psalm 149:9
      9. ʾət’anд mogдr 
        1. There are two types of ʾət’anä mogär: Gəʾəz ʾət’anä mogär (seven verses) and ʾəzl ʾət’anä mogär (eleven verses) 
        2. The first 4 verses of Gəʾəz ʾət’anä mogär and the first 6 verses of ʾəzl ʾət’anä mogär usually recount about the day’s festivity 
        3. The last 3 verses of Gəʾəz ʾət’anä mogär and the last 5 verses of ʾəzl ʾət’anä mogär are called ʿäsärä nəgus. The ʿäsärä nəgus is composed in honor of a sovereign or to praise or rebuke a public figure.



Wikipedia contributors. “Qene.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Jul. 2017. Web. 19 Jul. 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qene

Greene, Roland, and Stephen Cushman. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 2012. https://www.britannica.com/art/Ethiopian-literature

The Goethe Institute-Qene Project. http://www.qeneonnet.org/index.php

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman, Peter Jeffery, and Ingrid Monson. 1993. Oral and written transmission in Ethiopian Christian chant. Early Music History 12: 55-117. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:3292407


Greene, Roland, and Stephen Cushman. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 2012.




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