African 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.











How the 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.







The 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 people.





The 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 results.
A Lega proverb spells out the moral: Don't ask a friend for more than he can give.






The 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 and died.
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.




The 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.
The moral of the story is that: when a person is wronged by a person stronger than himself, he will often seek revenge on someone weaker.










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 moon.



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 gods.
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 Yoruba.
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 Oranmiyan stayed.
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 day.




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 Ancetors.
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 his dilatoriness.





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 people.

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 repentance.
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 sorcerer.






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 Ancestral Spirits.
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 become angry.


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 Christ.




Other 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 all.
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 stars.



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 home.


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 leather.
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 children!'
Then the sun goes away, and soon the moon starts growing back, little by little, to its normal size and the process starts all over again.
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 U-tixo.
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 mythology.



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 daughters.
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 mother's eyebrows.'
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 his coat.
That night the woman offered them the shelter of her house. 'For you cannot lie in the dark, beautiful girls, and boy with my mother's eyebrows.'
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 son?'
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 dead.
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 rainbow.




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 luck. (Swahili)



Sources :
Mythology - The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling by C. Scott Littleton Pub Duncan Baird Publishers ISBN 1-904292-00-3
The Warrior People by C.T. Binns Pub. Robert Hale & Company ISBN 07091-50474



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