Mythology and Fables
|Among the most popular of all African
stories are the animal fables.
Those involving the tortoise and the hare are well known, but there
are many more, either comic or solemn: some set out to explain how
animals gained their characteristics, while others are morality
tales aimed at humankind.
Leopard got its Spots (Sierra Leone) -
One day Leopard's wife invited their friend Fire to visit. Fire was
happy and played and jumped all over the house, with disastrous
effects. Poor Leopard's house burned down and Leopard in his
attempt to save the house, got scorched in many places. The spots
remain as a lesson never to play with Fire.
But the Tumbuka of Malawi say Leopard's spots were painted on by
Tortoise who also painted Zebra's wonderful stripes. Tortoise was
an artist and painted all the animals. When it came to Hyena's
turn, Tortoise painted him an ugly coat because Hyena, who likes to
laugh, had put him up a tree as a joke.
origin of Elephant: A Kamba tale from Kenya
A poor man who wanted to become rich was sent for advice to a
wealthy benefactor called Ivonya-Ngia. This man thought for a
while, and then gave him an ointment, telling him to smear it on
his wife's canine teeth. They would grow to an unusual size; then
he had merely to extract and sell them.
The poor man did as he was told, and was delighted when, in a few
week's time, her canines turned into tusks of ivory.
He pulled them out and got a good price for them, then repeated the
process. Soon he was as rich as he had wished.
His success aroused the envy of his neighbour, who asked how he too
could make money. The first man directed him to Ivonya-Ngia, who
gave him the same ointment, but neglected to mention anything about
tooth-pulling. As a result, the man let his wife's tusks grow so
large that her entire face and body were transformed and she became
an elephant. Eventually she went to live in the forest. From her
the elephant race descended - and they are still as clever as
Crest and the Hide: from the Lega people of the Congo
A lizard and a guinea-fowl lived in a village where the people took
it in turns to be chief.
When the lizard's time came, it did everything possible to ensure
that its investiture was suitably splendid. It got a ceremonial
drum, a magnificent outfit, a hide to sit on and plenty of beer to
refresh the onlookers.
All that remained was a suitable headdress. Wanting a splendid
plume to top it, it sent word to its friend the guinea-fowl. The
bird presented lizard with feathers of every shape and size, but
none would do, for the lizard had already decided that ihe would
only be satisfied with the guinea-fowl's own splendid crest.
Eventually guinea-fowl unwillingly had it cut off - leaving him
looking shorn ever since.
In time Lizard's term as chief ended and the guinea-fowl's own turn
arrived. It too sought to do everything grandly, gathering the
necessary drum, drink and finery to wear. But again something was
missing - this time a hide.
So Guinea-fowl demanded one from Lizard - and, on a quid pro quo
basis, insisted that none would do but the lizard's one.
Public opinion sided with the guinea-fowl over the request, so the
lizard eventually had to agree to be skinned, with fatal
proverb spells out the moral: Don't ask a friend for more than he
Honey Guide from Baila
The honey-guide, which is esteemed by humans for showing them where
to find honey, and the wheat-eater in early times lived together,
and one day went in search of honey.
They found a honeycomb and noted the spot, planning to return the
next morning. But in the night the wheat-eater slipped out and ate
all the honey itself.
When the two returned to the spot the next day, only a few bits of
the comb remained. Angrily the honey-guide accused the wheat-eater
of having eaten it, but the other bird protested its innocence.
When they subsequently found another honeycomb, the wheat-eater, to
bolster its story, insisted that they should put birdlime around it
to see who the thief really was. The honey-guide agreed, and the
two went off to get some from the human beings who made it.
Returning home with their purchase, they agreed to lay it the
following morning. Only this time the honey-guide sneaked off in
the night and set the lime earlier than agreed.
When the wheat-eater then tried to repeat its trick, it got stuck
Next day the honey-guide found the corpse and drew the moral. The
wheat-eater would thieve no more; and people would in future
cherish honey-guides as helpers, while for the wheat-eaters they
would have only contempt - and birdlime.
Leopard and the Goats: from Ethiopia
One day the Leopard cub strayed from home and was killed when
Elephant accidentally stepped on it. As soon as the news reached
his father, he swore revenge. But when he heard that the guilty
party was Elephant, he was in fear of the huge beast and instead
roared to the people that they were wrong - it was the goats that
had killed his son.
He then rushed out and killed a herd of them who were grazing
peacefully on the mountain side.
moral of the story is that: when a person is wronged by a person
stronger than himself, he will often seek revenge on someone
The ancient creation myths
of the San of the Kalahari Desert connect to a primeval era of
irregular light and nights of total darkness. Their stories explain
the first appearance of the antelopes and account for the arrival
of the sun and moon in the sky. San mythology has central roles for
the animals and insects of the bush, notably the praying mantis, a
divine creator in many San myths.
The sacred mantis was married to the hyrax, a small mammal,
and their daughter was the porcupine.
Mantis made Eland from the discarded sandals of Kwammang-a, the
primeval ancestor of the San. He loved Eland but feared that
Kwammang-a would be angry with his creation so he kept Eland in a
cool water pool surrounded by thick reeds, and brought him honey
for food. The honey that Mantis gave to Eland was wasp's honey
which gave Eland a dark colour. Eventually Eland was strong and as
big as an ox.
One day however, a hunter came across the water pool and saw the
divine insect sitting on this strange creature's back. The hunter
went and told his story to Kwammang-a who became angry and followed
the path to the waterhole. When Eland came out from his hiding
place in the reeds, Kwammang-a fired a deadly arrow into Eland.
Far away Mantis was seeking food for Eland and when he found that
the honey had dried up he knew this was a sign that blood had been
spilled on the thirsty ground. Quickly he hurried back to the
waterhole and when Eland did not come to his callings, he wept. A
dusty trail of blood led him to where the hunters were cutting up
the beast for meat. Mantis became angry and tried to shoot the
hunters with his own arrows but all his shots missed.
Later, in the bush, Mantis found the dead eland's thrown-away gall
bladder hanging from a branch. When he split it open blackness
flooded everywhere, driving the sun beneath the horizon and Mantis
could not see. So he then took the gall bladder and threw it up
into the sky where it stayed glowing bright to become the
The Yoruba people of Nigeria have a highly developed mythology of
the creation of the world and of the kingdoms of Yoruba, with many
versions featuring different members of a pantheon of spirits and
In one myth, the great god of the sky, called Olodumare or Olorun,
looked down from his lofty heights and saw that the world was all
ocean. He called his two sons, Obatala and Oduduwa and gave them a
bag each then he sent down a great palm tree to the waters of the
earth and his sons climbed down.
Obatala who was thirsty from his descent immediately started to
hack at the palm to drink its sweet sap and soon he became drunk on
the wine it produced. But Oduduwa opened up the bag and inside
found some sand which he sprinkled onto the water. Then he
sprinkled some dark soil onto the sand which he had also found in
the bag and so the continent of Africa was made.
Olodumare was proud of what Oduduwa had created and gave his son a
sack of maize to sow in the ground, a supply of cowrie shells,
three bars of iron, and agricultural tools. And so Oduduwa became
the first king of Yoruba.
Eventually Olodumare sent more people down to the new land and
Oduduwa used the cowrie shells to trade with them. The bars of iron
he had fashioned into weapons. He called the place that he had made
Ife-Ife which means 'Wide House' and it became a great city of the
Olodumare then sent seven more of his sons to the earth - Olowu,
Onisabe, Orangun, Oni, Ajero, Alaketu, and Oranmiyan - with cowrie
shells, iron bars, beads, and a mysterious substance wrapped in
cloth. But the six eldest sons took what they thought was the most
valuable of the items from the bags and went back to heaven. Only
Inside the cloth he found a black powder which he threw onto the
waters and it became another land. Seeing this the older brothers
reappeared and demanded their share of the new land, but Oranmiyan
refused and showed them instead the weapons that he had created
from his iron bars. The older brothers were in awe and bowed
gracefully to Oranmiyan saying that he had defeated them. Oranmiyan
felt sorry for his brothers and gave them a portion of the land he
had created but on the condition that they and their descendants
would be his subjects for all time.
In some traditions, he is known simply as Oranyan and it is said
that he is still living, sleeping until a time of great trouble for
the Yoruba when he will rise up in their defence. Before he died he
taught the Yoruba people secret words in which to summon him and as
a sign of his pledge to them he planted his staff in the market
square of the city. The staff turned into a stone and has stood
there ever since, known as Oranyan's Staff to this
The Yoruba, or Ife-Ife, people were taught the fine arts of bronze
casting by other people who came down from the sky who were called
the orisha, in particular a craftsman called Igueghae. And one of
them, Orunmila, taught them the art of divination.
Some of the Benin bronze heads were created for the royal family,
the oba and represent the ancestors from which the Yoruba people
decend. Some figures are identified with Olukun, the Yoruba sea god
and Benin's most worshipped deity.
Another tribe who trace their ancestry back to a sky-being who
decided to settle on earth are the Buganda people from Uganda. This
person was Kintu, the first founder of the royal line of the
kabakas or kings of the Buganda.
The Zulu also believe that they are decended from a sky-god.
According to the Zulu, the firmament above with the sun, moon and
the stars; the earth below with its mountains, rivers and seas; the
hills and valleys; its succulent grasses and beautiful flowers; the
fertile lands so richly stocked with animals of every description,
and its splendid cattle; and the birds of the sky, were all created
by the great god uMvelinquangi. From him sprang the first of men,
uNkulunkulu, who in turn gave being, first to a man and later to a
woman. These begat others who in the course of time became the
oNkulunkulu (plural), the first generation of the Spirits of their
As time passed so all knowledge of the original uNkulunkulu faded
from the memories of men, and the worship of such an unknown Being
became an impossibility. But as generation followed generation the
lives, characters and deeds of their more immediate Ancestors were
kept fresh in the memories of their descendants by means of their
isiBongo or Praise Songs. Therefore to such Spirits they offered
their praises and with them they interceded in times of danger,
anxiety, sorrow or distress and this has continued through the
centuries to the present day.
uNkulunkulu, like a stalk of maize, having done its work, died and
like the maize seeds, men who sprang from uNkulukulu became centres
of families, each having its distinct family name or isiBongo.
According to tradition, it was during the earthly existence of
uNkulunkulu that two messengers were sent to him from uMvelinqangi
- the first taking the form of a chameleon, brought the message to
mankind that they will not die; and the second messenger in the
form of a lizard, who stated that all men must die. Chameleon
however, loitered on his way and Lizard arrived first with his
mandate decreeing the death of men. When Chameleon eventually
arrived with his message, the people refused to listen and said to
him that they had already accepted the message from Lizard saying
they must die. Today the Zulu people still detest the chameleon for
However, to tone down the
message of death to mankind, uMvelinqangi told them through
uNkulunkulu that, though they were doomed to die, their existence
would not end with this life, for at death their spirits would pass
to another sphere - a spiritual realm, where they would live on and
have certain duties to perform, one of which was to act as
guardians to the people on earth. It was therefore ordained that
henceforward mortals should worship these spirits of the departed
whom they should praise in times of prosperity and whose aid they
should seek in the days of adversity.
Thus originated the belief in Ancestor Worship amongst the Bantu
Their ancestor spirits, iDlozi, would show themselves in the
appearance of a snake - a king in the form of the black mamba, and
an ordinary person in the appearance of a reddish-brown harmless
snake known as the umZingandhlu.
Snakes do not cause the Zulu people to fear, but their appearance
in the home fill the family with a sense of anxiety and a desire to
know the reason for such a visitation. They therefore consult with
the iNyanga without delay who will explain why the visitation has
taken place. Often he may inform his anxious clients that the
mission of the iDlozi is a peaceful one, merely to show them that
they are not forgotten by those in the realm of spirits.
On the other hand he may, depending on the actions of the snake,
inform that the purpose of this visitation was to reprimand them
for some particular shortcoming or transgression on their part. In
such a case, the immediate sacrifice of an ox or goat must be made
and the necessary parts of the animal must be placed in the umSamo,
or shrine, so that the iDlozi will accept these as a token of
In the morning, if the sacrifice has been accepted, it will be
found that the iDlozi will have disappeared. There will then be
much rejoicing and the flesh of the sacrificed animal will be eaten
in a specified sequence. Its bones are carefully collected and
burned to ashes so that none of the animal's remains can be used as
medicine against them by an evilly-disposed person, witch, or
In the realm of spirits to
which all their ancestors were believed to have gone, there are
both good and bad entities for all carried with them into spirit
the same good or bad tendencies that they had displayed during
their earthly existence. And these spirits still retain the
capability of exerting their powers upon those whom they leave
behind on earth. Thus, because fear of, rather than reverence for,
these Ancestral Spirits was the predominating element in their
worship, this was ever conducted primarily with the object of
averting some threatened disaster or pleading for the relief of
some affliction which had already befallen them - for example, the
failure of their crops through prolonged drought and threatened
famine; illness resulting in death; or when an intertribal feud had
brought serious loss to them.
Accordingly the diviner, the iNyanga yokubhula, would be consulted
to ascertain the reason for their affliction and a sacrifice
offered. The rituals observed in many of the ceremonies vary with
different breaches of conduct and in the case of a national
disaster many oxen would have to be offered. Prayers and
supplications would also be offered to appease the iDlozi or
When a person however dies in old age, the Zulu believe that the
transfer of the person to the realm of the spirits is a joyous
occasion rather than for sorrow as the person concerned is now
released from all physical ailments and limitations and can now
enjoy the fellowship of his brethren and friends who have preceded
him. Funerals and burial ceremonies are carried out through a
prescribed custom. During the initial grieving process all work
ceased and certain foods became taboo. To rid any traces that might
be attributed to witchcraft the family submit themselves and the
deceased to customary rites of purification. It was essential to
bury the deceased with all his earthly possessions so that he would
not be angered in the spiritual realm and special care is taken
with the preparations of his burial so again his spirit does not
Grave guardians, especially for royalty, are posted at the
gravesite so that it is not disturbed by witches and sorcerers and
also to protect it from marauding wild animals seeking a free meal.
The guardians watch the gravesite for a prescribed time in which
time the body has decomposed sufficiently and no longer in danger
of being dug up. However the graves of royalty are watched
continually over centuries - King Cetshwayo's grave is still
closely watched by a nominee of the Royal House and numerous
assistants still to this day.
Mourning can last for up to 12 months, during which time the family
still has duties to perform in relation to the deceased and in
purification rites of themselves.
To ensure that the spirit of the deceased passes into the spiritual
realm and not wanders aimlessly off-track, the Zulu hold a ceremony
called the ukuBuyisa, which goes back to the dawn of history. This
ceremony can be traced to the Dogons of Mali whose burial rites
were written about by Herodotus in the fifth century before
Myths and Legends
There are many tales told of the sun, moon and stars.
Some stories say that the sun was once a man from whose armpits
shone rays of light.
He dwelt alone in a hut and his light shone only for himself. Some
children belonging to the first Bushmen were sent to throw the
sleeping sun up into the sky, from where he now shines upon
In the evening, he draws his blanket of darkness over himself to
keep warm. But the blanket is old and has many little holes in it
and at night the sun still sparkles through them to make
Another story tells of a lonely young girl who awaits the return of
her hunter companions. To light their way in the dark of the night
she throws up a handful of white wood-ash. This becomes the Milky
Way and even when there is no moon, its light guides the hunters
The moon, say the Bushmen, is really an old shoe belonging to
Mantis, who threw it up in the air to guide himself. As it rises,
it is red with the red dust of Bushmanland, and cold like old
They say the sun is jealous of the moon when it is full as it is a
challenge to the sun's brightness. So with its sharp rays the sun
cuts bits off the moon until there is just a little left and the
old moon cries, 'Oh! Oh! leave a little backbone for the
Then the sun goes away, and soon the moon starts growing back,
little by little, to its normal size and the process starts all
Some say that when the moon is hollow and young, she is weighed
down with the spirits of the dead which she carries; clouds that
pass are really the hair of the dead, and the wind blows to sweep
the footprints of the dead from the sand.
The Bushmen believe that
the world was made by the spirits which are all around them.
Whatever tale they tell comes from within them and as one Bushman
says, 'There is always a dream, dreaming us!' Without a story, a
Bushman is without a home.
Most of the Hottentot myths and legends have a solar and
celestial bias like those of the Bushmen.
The name of the Hottentot deity and supreme being is Tsui-Goab. To
him they ascribe the creation of the world, of man, and the
elements. It is he that shakes their crops prosper and gives them
skins, full bellies and happy hearts. His opposite is Gaunab, a
kind of vengeful devil.
This very same Tsui-Goab, the supreme being of the Khoi-Khoi, is
the subject of the strangest of stories.
He is known to have first lived many generations ago, when he was
said to have been an old witchdoctor with a broken knee named
Among the Hottentots, he was renowned as a sorcerer of great skill.
Having been regarded as extraordinarily powerful during life he was
invoked after death as one who could still bring help and
protection, and with the passing of time, he became closest to
their conception of God.
U-tixo, they said, was a
powerful chief of the KhoiKhoi, and the first Khoi-Khoi ever. He
made war against a wicked chief called Gaunab who had killed many
Khoi-Khoi. They had many battles. Each time U-tixo won, and grew
bigger and stronger. At last, in the final terrific struggle, he
gave Gaunab a great blow behind the ear. While Gaunab lay dying, he
landed a last blow which hit U-tixo's knee, and since then U-tixo
has been called Tsui-Goub, or 'wounded knee'.
He was a prophet and able to do wonderful things. He died several
times, but each time returned to life, providing occasion for great
feasting and rejoicing.
He made the clouds and lived in them, and brought the rain. Thus
through him the cattle were plentiful and the grazing good.
Tsui-Goab resides in a beautiful heaven of light and sunshine, and
Gaunab, meaning 'destroyer', lives quite separately in a dark
retreat. He sends the sleep of death to man, but Tsui-Goab, the Red
Dawn, brings the light and life. The Khoi-Khoi always pray in the
early morning with their faces turned towards the east where
Tsui-Goab's first light appears.
In arid surroundings, where life itself depends upon the vagaries
of the sun and the rain, it is natural that fantasies are spun
around the spirits of the elements.
The rain and the rainbow, the flaming heat of the day, the peaceful
little clouds drifting by - all have their place in Bushman
Many Bushmen are very frightened of the rainbow. When they see its
beautiful arch in the rain-washed air, they will beat two sticks
together loudly and shout, 'Go away! Go away and do not burn us!'
This is because of the story of Rain and her son.
It is told that Rain was once a beautiful woman who lived long ago
in the sky. For a girdle she wore a rainbow around her waist. Rain
married the man who created the earth and they had three beautiful
When she grew up, the eldest daughter wished to leave home and
visit the earth below. Her parents let her go and once there she
fell in love and married a handsome hunter.
While she was away, her mother Rain bore another child, a son, whom
she named Son-eib. When Son-eib was old enough his sisters begged
their parents to let them also travel to see the world, but their
mother, Rain, was afraid she would lose them all, and refused.
However, an acquaintance, Wolf, had looked upon the two daughters
and found them fair. Disguising his wicked heart, he said to the
father: 'Pray let them go, it will be good for their education, and
I myself will go with them to look after them.'
So the father gave them permission in spite of his wife's grief:
and off they went, full of happiness.
Soon after they had come down to earth, they came to a village
where both good and bad people lived. A woman passing by stared
hard at Son-eib and said: 'How can this be? This boy has my
She offered them food, but Wolf did not give any to Son-eib,
saying, 'He is not a person, he is just a thing.' Son-eib turned
away angrily, but the daughters ate.
While sitting by himself in the long grass the boy caught a
beautiful red bird which fluttered past him, and concealed it under
That night the woman offered them the shelter of her house. 'For
you cannot lie in the dark, beautiful girls, and boy with my
However, Wolf would not let the boy into the house but made him lie
by himself in a little hut.
After dark, Wolf went and fetched some of the bad people from the
village and they set fire to the hut and burned it down with the
boy inside, but as the roof fell in, a lovely red bird flew up into
the night. Up, up it flew, straight to the boy's mother, Rain.
'Son-eib is dead! He perished in the fire and his sisters did not
know him,' sang the bird.
'Do you hear what the bird sings?' asked Rain of her husband. 'You,
whose name is Flame, what will you do now that they have killed our
A little while later, the good and bad people in the village
observed a great black storm cloud approaching fast and around its
middle was a rainbow.
Suddenly lightning flashed wildly from the cloud, striking here and
there. It singled out Wolf and all the bad people and struck them
A mighty voice roared out of the cloud: 'Do not kill the Children
of the Sky.'
And ever since then, the Bushman has feared the
Other Star Myths
Kanus, mythical birds who are known in African legend as birds of
promise: If the kanu flies over your village, you will have good
Mythology - The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and
Storytelling by C. Scott Littleton Pub Duncan Baird Publishers ISBN
The Warrior People by C.T. Binns Pub. Robert Hale & Company