African Religions: Mythic Themes
AFRICAN RELIGIONS: MYTHIC THEMES
It is common to regard myth as the chief intellectual product of cultures with strong oral traditions (in analogy to philosophical and theological texts in literate civilizations). However, this would oversimplify the African situation. While African myths, as the "true dramas" explaining how the fundamental realities came to be, do often embody profound reflections, other forms of African wisdom exist that can be equally insightful and systematic or religiously significant. Ritual, for example, can often do without myth because it evokes the living experience of realities that are controlled by ritual symbols shaped over many generations. Proverbs may form the sole content of initiatic instruction, for although perhaps trivial taken one by one, their cumulative impact may transform one's vision of life and teach a poise or stance on life that may be said to be the chief fruit of religion. The more complex divinatory systems often embody a total classification of possible events in life and may ground it in a philosophy that is impersonal and elemental. The teachings of such proverbial, ritual, or divinatory systems may not be duplicated by myths. In fact, many African religions seem to function without many myths.
However, myths do provide us with a deep insight into African religions. But this is only so if it is appreciated that many, if not most, of the published myths from African cultures deal with the quasi-folkloric tales available to outsiders and children. The existence of esoteric levels of mythology in many cultures cannot be denied. Of course, one culture's initiatic myth is often, in fragmentary form, another culture's childish tale, even though the narrative itself may remain the same. What has changed is the context, the overall meaning, and the integration of this story into a larger narrative vision. In interpreting African mythology, then, that larger context and meaning must be attended to if one is to discover the vision of the sources of reality that alone defines true myth.
Not all myth directly justifies everyday cultic life or social structures. For example, the powers that are invoked in the everyday cult of the LoDagaa of Ghana (the earth, ancestors, and medicine spirits) are hardly even mentioned in the initiatic myth of Bagre (which centers on God and the bush spirits). But this is because the Bagre myth concerns the more primordial realities that lie behind and permit the concerns of the ordinary village cult and its associated spirits. In fact, it articulates the basic vision of life that animates the LoDagaa, without which they could not exist at all.
There exist four major sets of themes in the rich variety of African mythologies. This classification is naturally not meant to be exhaustive. The first set centers on the primordial personal encounter of humanity with God, in which human destiny—and especially the basic boundaries and limited conditions of life—is directly determined forever. The second major set of myths centers on the process of mediation, change, and renewal in the universe, focusing on the sometimes demiurgic figures who embodied this process in the beginning of time: the trickster, the smith, the diviner, and the kingly culture hero. The third major set centers on the ways in which the present universe in all its aspects is a creative equilibrium built up by such dynamic interacting opposites as male heaven and female earth (in the first phase of creation), culture hero and chthonic earth monster (or cruel ruler), sacral king and aboriginal peoples, and even competing brothers or wedded twins (in the next phase). Sexuality, battle, and sacrifice control the transformations of this mythic history. The fourth set of major themes include highly philosophical esoteric myths found in many Sudanic and West African religions; these theosophical syntheses, known only to the highest initiates, center on concepts of the cosmic egg or the primal word, and the inner mysteries of sacrifice.
The Personal Encounter with God
Many African religions take the basic forms of the universe for granted, and their creation myths center instead on the development of the human condition. In any case, God is usually the central actor in these myths. It must be stressed that African religions universally acknowledge a supreme being, and there is often a direct cult to this being, which may be personal (prayers to God morning and night) or communal (during such crises as famine or drought). Such movements can even be formal and enacted periodically by the group as a whole. A basic trait of the African supreme being is that he determines destiny, both personal and (in the creation myths) universal human destiny. These myths turn on that assumption.
One myth, found in the Sahelian savanna region (the region of northern Africa between the Sahara and the rainy tropics that extends from the Atlantic to the Red Sea) and in coastal West Africa, explains that God once dwelt close to or on the earth (for heaven was near then) until an accidental offense against him (or actual disobedience, usually by a woman wanting more or better food) compelled God to remove the heavens far away and to break his direct link with humanity. The Ashanti (southern Ghana) say that God, Nyame (also known as Onyankopon), withdrew heaven from the earth because he was annoyed when the low floor of heaven was knocked from below by the pestle of an old woman who was pounding fufu (mashed yams). So he climbed up to heaven on a thread, like the Great Spider (Ananse Kokroko) that he is. Mischievous still, the old woman ordered her children to build a tower of mortars, one atop another, right to the sky. Needing one more mortar, the children took it from the bottom—and the whole edifice collapsed, killing many. The theme of the pestle knocking against heaven is surprisingly common in these myths. It would seem to link both eating and the major task of the culture, farming, to alienation from God. Among the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri forest, a basically similar mythic structure involves hunting instead, as the Mbuti do not farm. The first Pygmy provided food for God by hunting, and the Pygmy's two wives cooked and served the deity's meals, but were forbidden to look directly upon him. The youngest wife stole a look, and so the Pygmies were banished from heaven to earth, to hard work and death.
The Dinka (southern Sudan) say that there used to be a rope that hung down from heaven, and people could climb it when they wished to speak to God. But when the woman kept hitting the underside of heaven with her pestle, God withdrew the heavens and had the rope cut. A variant Dinka myth attributes the original split between humanity and divinity to fratricidal clan conflicts. The Nuer, a neighboring ethnic group closely related to the Dinka, say that when people grew old they would climb the rope, become young again, then come down and begin life anew. But one day the hyena (often the symbol or animal form of witches), which had been exiled from heaven, cut the rope. Since then people have not been able to renew their lives, and they die instead. The Lozi, or Rotse (northwestern Zambia), say that the arrogant, disobedient, and murderous tendencies of the first humans so irritated God that he finally sought to flee from them. But they pursued him everywhere. At a loss for a hiding place, God consulted the divining bones, which referred him to the spider. At God's order, the spider spun a thread to heaven, and God and his family ascended into the sky. The myth goes on to relate that the first ancestors tried to reach God even then by building a tower of cut trees—but the tower crashed down.
The motif of the tower built to reach heaven is very common in the versions of the separation of heaven and earth myth found among central Bantu-speaking peoples. The Luba say that humanity originally lived in the same village as God. But the creator wearied of the constant quarreling in the village and exiled humanity to earth (village quarreling is said to anger God, harm hunting and the crops, and even prevent pregnancies and increase deaths). There humans suffered hunger and cold and, for the first time, sickness and death. Following the advice of a diviner, who told them to go back to heaven to regain immortality, the people began building an enormous wooden tower, which after months of labor reached the sky. The workers at the top signaled their success by beating a drum and playing flutes, but God hated the noise and destroyed the tower, killing the musicians. The Kaonde, Lwena, Lamba, Lala, Chokwe, and other peoples date their dispersion from this event.
It is evidently dangerous to be too close to God; humanity cannot endure such powerful fusions. The human condition is only possible when God mercifully veils himself behind his creation and spirits. One example of this view is the attitude of the Bantu-speaking peoples to the rainbow being, considered a serpent spirit that is dangerous even to see. It links heaven and earth, or male and female life principles; its appearance drives away the rains and brings drought. It is considered a primary agent or, in some cases, as even a form of God.
There are many kinds of myths that explain how death entered the world. Among these is the myth of two messengers or the perverted message. According to this myth, God sent two messengers to humanity, the first with the command that humans would never die, the second with the command that they would. But the first messenger (usually the chameleon, an animal with certain resemblances to the variegated rainbow) traveled too slowly, and the second (often the lizard or hare) arrived first. The first declaration to be given fixed human nature forever. On the other hand, death may be blamed on the primordial exile from God's presence. Or it may be said that humanity was told to stay awake to await God's arrival with the declaration of human immortality, but everyone fell asleep and missed it. There is a complex irony in this story, for it turns on the view that sleep is a foretaste of death. Only if humans were already immortal would they have been able to banish sleep. Being mortal, they succumbed to sleep—and to death. The seeming arbitrariness of all of these myths of personal interaction with God masks a deeper necessity; however, when examined more closely, this necessity merely affirms that what is, is, and so is again arbitrary. The real significance of such myths, perhaps, is that finitude or arbitrary limitation is the very essence of life: only God escapes it, and he has ordained the present order.
Throughout Africa, the distinctions between social groups are explained by choices made before God in the beginning of time. The Nyoro (eastern Uganda) say that Kintu, the first human, asked God to assign the fates and names of his three sons. God therefore placed six gifts in their path. The eldest immediately seized the bundle of food and began eating, carrying off what remained with the help of the head ring, grabbing with his free hands the ax and the knife. And so he showed himself to be the ancestral peasant (kairu ), greedy and impulsive. The second son picked up the leather thong, which was used to tie cattle, so his destiny was that of the herder (kahuma or huma ). And the youngest son took the ox's head, a sign that he was the head, or ruler (kakama ), of all.
In the countless versions of this fateful gifts myth, found everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, it is almost always the youngest brother who gets the best fate. God is shown as the determiner of destiny par excellence. And surprisingly, the foolish ancestor who chooses the wrong gift is often the founder of the people who tell the story, an occurrence that was perhaps especially prevalent during the colonial period. In the common topical adaptations of the myth, White Man was the youngest brother, African the eldest. Sometimes cultural distinctions arise out of other kinds of events, however. The Shilluk (southern Sudan) say that when God began to create humans, God made them from light-colored clays, so that the whites emerged. Later, when God's hands were a bit soiled, the red Arabs and Turks were formed. But toward the end, God's hands were so dirty that the black-skinned Shilluk were the result. The Fang of Gabon used to say that in the beginning God lived with his three sons, White Man, Black Man, and Gorilla. But Black Man and Gorilla disobeyed God, so he withdrew to the west coast with his white son and gave all his wealth and power to him. Gorilla retreated into the forest depths, while the unhappy black people followed the sun to the west. There they found the white people, who slowly poisoned them (with malaria). As a result of this contact, they languish now, dying, and thinking of the time when they lived with God and were happy.
Mediators between Order and Disorder
Perhaps the most surprising of the mythic mediators between the primordial flux and the eventual divine order is the trickster. Certainly one part of the meaning of the African trickster is well summarized by the blunt name given him by the Nkundo: Itonde (death). Itonde has many traits linking him to the typical culture hero. Born to the first human couple, Itonde matured rapidly and soon became a ruler. However, he behaved cruelly and rapaciously (giving us a stereotypic image of the bad king); for example, he slaughtered huge numbers of the aboriginal Pygmies. But like so many African culture heroes and archetypal kings, Itonde set himself to conquer all aboriginal powers, including Indombe, the fiery (rainbow?) serpent, ruler of the forest depths and of the Pygmies. As the master of the serpent, Itonde gained possession of the land, while the serpent obediently went down into the river to control the waters and rain at Itonde's bidding.
Among Itonde's other achievements were the creation of the two staple agricultural crops, bananas and sugarcane. Sugarcane is the fruit of two murders. Indombe had killed Itonde's brother, so in revenge Itonde hunted down a surrogate of Indombe. This victim, an anonymous man of the forest, tried to escape by turning into a sugarcane, but Itonde seized him and killed and buried him. From his body sprang sugarcane plants, indicating that sacrificial death is creative.
Itonde's own death, which released his power into the world permanently, came about through the disobedient and selfish desire of a wife for food. Pregnant and gnawed by strange appetites, she demanded a certain rare fruit available only in a dangerous region. When Itonde died seeking it, the waters oozing from his body formed the first marsh rivers (evidently, Itonde and the water serpent Indombe were strangely akin). From his corpse the first maggots emerged. His wife later gave birth to all the other insects, as well as to the six ancestors of the Nkundo and related cultures and, last of all, to Lianja, the ideal king. So from Itonde, the trickster Death, come the essentials of farming culture, including the major food crops and the changing seasons, as well as the main lines of social organization and kingship, with all the suffering and joy that they imply. Human life in its entirety comes from Death.
The Banda (Central African Republic) say that God had two sons, Ngakola, who breathed life into the first human, and Tere, the spirit of excess and confusion. Tere was assigned the task of taking all the animal species and the life-giving waters down from heaven in baskets. But, like the Luba tower builders discussed above, Tere was overeager to announce his gifts to humanity and he beat his drum while still descending. The baskets slipped from his grasp and crashed to earth, scattering all the species and waters. Tere tried to recapture the animals; those he caught became the domestic species and those that escaped changed their original nature and became wild. The same happened with the plants, creating the distinctions between wild and cultivated species. Throughout the Sudanic region figures much like Tere crop up; in the eastern Sudan they sometimes even have the same name. In the area where the central Sudanic savanna merges into the forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bandziri, Yakoma, and Azande call him Tule or Tore; the Mangbetu speak of their trickster as Azapane and the Babua as Mba; the Manja call him Bele while the Mbuti Pygmies tell tales of Tore.
According to the Mbuti, Tore kept fire and sexuality for himself in the primordial forest; his old mother would warm herself by the fire while he swung through the forest trees like a monkey. Meanwhile the first human couple shivered in the cold, wet undergrowth. Finally, the first man stole the embers of fire from the side of the sleeping woman and raced off into the forest; Tore chased him and recovered the fire several times but at last failed. The old woman died of the cold, transforming herself into the vengeful Mother of the Forest, who ensnares solitary hunters, abducts small children, and rules the dead but who also occasionally blesses chosen hunters with exceptional luck. But Tore, enraged at the theft and the death of his mother, cursed humanity with death. He still roams the forest, especially in the form of the rainbow serpent.
Stories of Tore found among Bantu-speaking peoples may have been influenced by the Pygmy myths; the Azande say that Tore (whom they identify with the spider) gave people water by stealing it from an old woman who had hidden it. He gave them fire, too, although it was the accidental result of a visit to the smith spirits: his loincloth caught fire, and as he fled through the forest he begged the fire to leave him and pass into the trees instead. The fire did so, which is why it emerges now when sticks are rubbed together.
In general, the trickster appears most distinct in West African and Sudanic cultures, but he appears elsewhere, too: in South Africa among the Sotho and Venda as Huveane, a figure who is part god and part culture hero. Some of the San also call the creator of all life Huve; they pray to him in the hunt, and he presides over initiations. Huve may have been borrowed from their Bantu-speaking neighbors, but the Kaggen, or Cagn, of the southern San is clearly their own creator-trickster figure and shows that the basic concepts are native to them. The Bantu Huveane (little Huve) is also the hero of many trivial adventures. Growing up with startling speed, he plays many tricks on his parents and neighbors, but his parents prosper wondrously and the other villagers are beside themselves with rage and jealousy. They conspire to kill him but are constantly made to look like fools. Finally, it is said, Huveane ascended to heaven, but he will return one day to bring happiness and prosperity to humanity.
The favorite trickster of the Bantu-speaking peoples, however, has nothing to do with creation or with the primordial shaping of culture: he is the folkloric Hare (among some cultures, Jackal), prototype of Br'er Rabbit in the tales of Uncle Remus. The primordial and creative roles of the trickster in most Bantu cultures seem to have been absorbed by the general figure of the aboriginal ruler (often monstrous or serpentine) who is defeated by the archetypal king, the second, more refined culture hero, thus establishing human society.
Divination is one of the chief ways of dealing with disorder and generating order out of it. Often the trickster is the primordial diviner as well as the patron of diviners; in particular, the various spider tricksters, which exist in cultures ranging from Mali and Ghana through to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are almost always associated with divination. The first diviner is a significant figure in many myths. There are several different versions, for example, of how the Ifa or Fa divinatory system (used by the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Fon of Benin, Togo, and Ghana) came to be. A common Yoruba account has it that the supreme being, Ọlọrun, or Olodumare, created two beings to rule the world on his behalf, Ọbatala (also called Oriṣa-nla), demiurge and royal archetype, and Ọrunmila (or Ifa), source of wisdom. Ọrunmila signifies "only heaven can affect salvation" and shows that Ọrunmila is, in effect, merely the mouthpiece of God. Ọbatala was killed one day by an evil slave, but Ọrunmila collected his scattered remains together, ordered them, and deposited them throughout the world; from this have arisen the cults to the many orisha, the divinities. Ọrunmila moved constantly between heaven and earth in those days, solving problems not only for humanity but even for the orisha, who also consulted him. His eight children founded the various Yoruba kingdoms. One day, insulted by one of his children, Ọrunmila withdrew to heaven, and the forces of life ceased to operate on earth: sterility and death affected the fields as well as humanity. (This works to remind that Ọrunmila's constant companion is the trickster Eṣu, a tiny man with a huge phallus, the very image of procreative powers.) The eight children of Ọrunmila came to him in a delegation, begging him to return, but he refused, giving each of them sixteen palm nuts instead. These sixteen nuts composed a person who could be consulted on all questions of life. Ọrunmila was thus present in them.
The Fon of Dahomey explain their Fa system with similar myths. Around Porto Novo, it is said that Fa was a formless or round man without members or bones, so he could not personally do anything. But all the powerful, including the vodoun (gods) revered him like a king. However, the accumulated resentments of those humans who did not like Fa's adherence to absolute truth—or, according to other accounts, the jealousy of Xevioso, the thunder god—led to Fa being sliced to pieces. Those pieces produced a sixteen-branched palm tree or the sixteen palm nuts themselves, from which the immortal Fa still speaks.
The primordial smith is one of the chief mediatory figures in African mythology. The manipulation of creative fires (often associated with the sources of sexual generation) and the working of earth substances into cultural products have often been regarded throughout Africa as a paradigm and repetition of creation. From southern Africa to the westernmost Sudan, the smith is often the presiding elder at initiation ceremonies, the traditional healer called upon to find witches and expel their influences, and the priestly repository of the deepest mysteries. In myths, he is often the chief agent of God on earth, the demiurge who shapes the world and culture, and/or the trickster.
Among the Yoruba, Ogun, the god of iron and patron of smiths, was the first to descend to the earth while it was still a marshy wasteland. He cleared the way for the other gods. But he preferred the wastelands, for there he could hunt, and there he still rules as the deity of hunters and warriors as well as of all artisans. When Ọbatala had finished molding the physical form of the first ancestors, Ogun took over and made the final details, as he did to the whole of creation. He still presides over initiations, for the finishing touches of culture, such as circumcision and the tribal markings of initiation, belong to him. Surgeons must worship him, too, as must all those who make oaths or covenants or undergo judicial ordeals.
The Fali (Cameroon) conceive of the primal ancestor as a smith who descended from heaven on a bean stalk with a chest or box, which escaped from him (much as the baskets escaped from the Banda trickster Tere) and fell to the earth, disintegrating into four triangles. These four divisions contained all the animal and plant species; the initiated know the classes still, although the fall scattered the creatures throughout the earth. Each class has twelve subdivisions. Every aspect of Fali life is ruled by these correspondences and harmonies, putting back into order what the primal smith disordered.
According to the Dogon (Mali), all of the primal spirits, or Nommo, were smiths, masters of creative fire. One of these escaped from heaven and descended to earth on the rainbow with the ark that he had stolen; it contained the fiery essences of all species, ranged in their proper categories. The first ancestors were also in this ark (which is alternately described as a basket, granary, anvil, or womb). The ark was a picture of the entire world system, which according to some Dogon was akin to a living being, a female, mate to the smith. The smith also bore with him his hammer, which represented the male element and contained the seeds of life. The descent of the smith was not an easy one: he had to fight off the other heavenly spirits, who resented his theft. The descent became uncontrolled and ended with a crash, causing the animals, plants, and human groups in the ark to scatter in the four directions, and even breaking the serpentine, flexible limbs of the smith, so that henceforth human beings would have elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles, permitting them to work.
It is said that another primal spirit, in the form of a serpent, immediately engaged the thief in battle but was killed. Its body was given to humanity to eat (or was used as the model for the first cultivated field), while the head was placed under the first smithy forge. Every smithy thereafter is symbolically situated on the head of the primal Nommo-serpent. This serpent is the symbolic mate of the first smith, and the smithing process is a kind of spiritual intercourse in which the beautiful things that are shaped are the symbolic offspring. Every time the smith strikes the anvil with his hammer, generative vibrations go forth that are like the first scattering of the seeds of life; these are shaped by the smith into the forms of culture. The smith is therefore the human embodiment of the demiurge.
The smith, in these myths, has a peculiar link to disorder and the wilderness as well as to culture. He joins both. The Dogon smith is even thought to wander in the bush still, in the form of the pale fox known as Yurugu, or Ogo, the Dogon trickster and patron of divination. So it is not surprising to find that in some cultures smithing is directly revealed to humanity by the spirits of the bush. The LoDagaa (Ghana) teach their middle-level Bagre initiates that in the beginning there were two brothers who were troubled by God until Younger Brother set off to find a solution. Overcoming several obstacles, including the crossing of an impassable river, he passed into a forest where he met with the beings of the wild, the bush spirits who control hunting and fishing even today. They taught him how to be a farmer, to clear the bush and plant grain, to harvest it and to cook it. They also taught him how to make fire, how to forge metal, and even what tools to make. Finally, they revealed how to make a smelter and how to be a smith. Following this, Younger Brother, now the ancestral smith, had a vision of the primal essences of the universe engaged in generative intercourse: the rain mated with the earth. A tree was created by this intercourse, which lifted him to heaven. There God instructed him directly in the mysteries of sexuality and family life.
A major theme in the myths of mediatory figures is creative sacrifice. Such sacrifice often marks the break between the primal era of flux and the following heroic age when the basic elements of the divine order are clearly established. Fittingly, the foundation myths of kingship and other chiefly offices often include an account of how the king sacrificed his main opponent (the aboriginal ruler) or a surrogate of him and thus began his kingly office. The sacrifice equates to the determination of order out of disorder. A common variant has the hero himself sacrificed, so that his spirit may live on in those who possess his regal implements and who fulfill his role (in a kind of eternal spirit possession). So it is with the Dogon priest-chief, the hogon, whose career is modeled on the exemplary death and sacrifice of the first hogon, Lébé (whose death, in turn, mirrors the sacrifice of the serpent opponent of the first smith). Human sacrifices therefore often marked the installation of kings, and the royal candidate himself might have to go through a symbolic death and resurrection, being killed as a natural human being or aboriginal ruler so that he can be revived as primordial king made flesh. Aged or blemished kings were actually sacrificed in some cultures so that the archetypal royal spirit inhabiting them might be released and be able to take over the offered body of the candidate.
The Shilluk say that their founding king, Nyikang, left his home country and traveled to the Nile. The waters parted, and he walked across on dry land, or, as it is more usually said, a white albino slave bore him across the river (he could not touch the waters himself). The slave, tainted by this sacrilegious contact, was sacrificed on the other side, and Nyikang walked between the two halves of his body, symbolically entering into and possessing the new land. He went on to conquer the native inhabitants and to institute culture, marrying the daughter of the aboriginal chief and so becoming husband to the land she embodied. Some myths claim that Nyikang was the offspring of a waterspirit, the crocodile mother of water creatures; this is why he has control over the rains, the Nile floods, and the fertility of the land. However, when a king's generative powers begin to slacken (his watery semen cease to flow, drought occur, famine or disease spread, etc.), he must disappear and allow the spirit of Nyikang to be passed on intact and unblemished. The ritualized installation of the successor imitates the myth of Nyikang's first conquest of the land, even down to such details as the sacrifice of an albino slave.
The Dinka, neighbors to the Shilluk who share many of their cultural values, are led by spear masters (priests who own the land) and war leaders (metaphorically, younger nephews of the spear masters, their maternal uncles). The various accounts of how the spear masters first appeared agree that in the beginning there was a spirit or ancestor called Aiwel Longar (born, some say, after the river impregnated a human woman). Aiwel Longar was powerful and mischievous even as a child, and he eventually fled hostile human society to live with the river spirit for a time. After he returned, his prosperity made people jealous, for their herds were perishing in a drought. Finally, Aiwel Longar offered to lead all of them to paradisiacal pastures, but they refused and set off on their own. The crucial event of the myth then follows, alike in all versions. Aiwel Longar laid in wait for them at a river, and as they tried to cross it, metaphorically like fish, he speared them as Dinka fishermen spear fish. One leader (differing in name according to the subtribe telling the myth) placed an ox's sacrum on his head as he crossed through the reeds, and Longar's spear was deflected. A substitutionary ox sacrifice was henceforth the basis of cultic ritual. Longar confessed himself beaten and bestowed the powers of the spear masters on the leader who had outwitted him; he also established other major features of culture. In one verison, Longar was speared by God in punishment; his head and body pinned to the ground, Longar joined heaven and earth (just like the spear masters). Thus impaled, Longar promised his help to humanity and disappeared. Spear masters, his embodiments since then, are actually buried alive when they grow too old, releasing their spirits to continue their cultic mediation.
Binary Oppositions and Interchanges
Almost universal in African mythologies is a dialectical interchange between male and female elements to produce the various aspects of the world. A creation myth of the marriage of heaven and earth often lays the groundwork. The Zulu (South Africa) may serve as an example for a closer look.
There has been some controversy concerning the status of uNkulunkulu in Zulu religion, but it appears probable that he is merely a culture hero given demiurge status, while the supreme being should be identified specifically with iNkosi yeZulu, "heavenly lord" (a title rather than a proper name, for one ought not presume to name the great directly, especially within its presence). Edwin W. Smith, in his African Ideas of God (1961), observed that while uNkulunkulu was spoken of as creator, it is in terms of his making things below as the agent and slave of God above (p. 108). A praise name of iNkosi yeZulu indicates this priority, which, with the fate-determining power, is one of the chief characteristics of the African supreme being: uZivelele (he who came of himself into being). Prayers used to be offered to iNkosi yeZulu for rain, and when storms were too frightening, rain doctors would pray to the celestial god as follows: "Move away, thou Lord of the Lord, move away, thou greatest of friends, move away, thou … Irresistible One!" (Smith, 1961, p. 109). God is also too close in thunderstorms or when the mist veils the earth; then people should stay indoors, for the lightning bird, sent by God, may strike down the guilty or unfortunate.
But if iNkosi yeZulu is self-created, he is also the firstborn of serpentine twins, and the earth is his female twin. The rain is likened to the semen of God (a widespread conception among Bantu-speaking peoples). Every spring the Zulu nation celebrated the nuptials of Heaven and Earth, the latter embodied in the ever-virginal uNomkhubulwana, or iNkosazana. Sometimes also called the daughter of the firstborn, she is said to be everything: river on one side, forest on the other, laden with all kinds of food, and surrounded by mist. The rainbow and the python are both identified with her and are forms of her or her servants; there is a giant python said to dwell in a sacred pool, surrounded by lesser snakes, the metamorphosed ancestral spirits. The python has a special relationship with the rainmaker doctor: when rain is needed, the doctor goes out to a certain rock in the pool in the dead of night. The snake emerges, licks off the fat from sheep or goat skins covering the motionless doctor, and recharges the medicines lying about. They will be used the next day to bring rain. Similarly, diviners are initiated by entering the pool in trance and meeting the great python under water. They may find giant mating serpents ruling there.
The marriage of the mythic archetypes Heaven and Earth provides the basic framework for such beliefs and can be symbolized by the mating of twin water serpents. From this all life originally comes. The ancestors return to dwell with the python being, too. Among some central Bantu-speaking peoples, the entire creation is said to have begun with two mating serpents or from within a giant serpent womb. In any case, the marriage of Heaven and Earth explains the otherwise enigmatic Zulu myth of the origin of humanity: the first ancestral couple emerged from a reed growing in swampland. Myths of the emergence of humanity from underground, or the primeval swamp, usually via a sacred plant or tree, are very common. Initiates throughout Africa are often made to emerge from actual or symbolic underground tunnels and/or to lie gestating beneath certain trees for long periods of time. As Jacqueline Roumeguère-Eberhardt has also shown, the symbolisms of Venda and other South African initiations, in which novices are said to lie within the womb of a great serpent, are precisely repeated in the initiatic symbolisms of such distant peoples as the Fulbe of West Africa. The Dogon also conceptualize the earth as a womb from which the first ancestors emerged via a bamboo. The first couple had been nurtured by serpentine twin spirits, the Nommo, in their underground placental chamber.
Following the mythic era in which Heaven and Earth generated the first forms of life comes the epoch of the culture hero and the founding of culture. Chieftaincy and kingship are legitimated by these myths, which installation rites may reenact. Here, too, the binary oppositions are repeated. They may be represented by the struggle of the culture hero with the forces of the primeval earth. The battle is often resolved by a conquest that is symbolized by a sacrificial rite, and is stabilized by a sexual relationship. Conquest, sacrifice, and sexuality are three powerful metaphors of transformation. For example, the Korekore, a Shona people of Chakoma District (Zimbabwe), say that Nyanhehwe, the ancestral culture hero who settled this area for the Korekore, had to fight the earth serpent Dzivaguru, who ruled the region and laid it to waste. It was a battle of forceful cunning against the magic of the earth, but Dzivaguru finally conceded defeat and even offered to share his mystical powers and medicines before retiring into the mountain pool where his shrine is still located. He also taught Nyanhehwe the social laws and the proper cult for obtaining rain from him. (These events may be compared with the history of Itonde and Indombe among the Nkundo, related earlier.) The culture hero henceforth viewed the earth as his wife, although this is a reciprocally applicable symbolism, since chiefs have had to offer virgins periodically to the spirit as its wives: some maintained the shrine, and some were ritually drowned in the pool. The rainmaker priests who preside over the shrine and its sacrificial cult protect the king mystically and are feminine to him.
Luc de Heusch has shown that throughout the central Bantu-speaking area and beyond, there is a complex mythic pattern involving a culture hero's conquest of a monstrous or uncouth opponent (an elder brother, a savage earlier ruler, or even a magician who turns eventually into a water serpent and goes down to rule the dead and the rains from the depths of a river or pool). The culture hero may be the Sun, who conquers his elder or twin brother, the Moon, thus instituting the primacy of day over night and culture over nature. (Formerly the sun and moon were of equal brightness.)
The Luba explain that the first king was an egalitarian but savage ruler of Pygmies, given to coarse habits and impulsive violence. This king, Nkongolo, who now assumes the form of a rainbow serpent, had two sisters, one of whom married a refined stranger, Mbiti Kiluwe. Mbiti's aristocratic ways shamed Nkongolo, and Mbiti was finally driven away by the king. But the sister gave birth to Mbiti's son, Kalala Ilunga, whom Nkongolo hated almost from his birth; after various conflicts, the king was prevented from attacking his infant rival because the infant had managed to flee to the other side of a river that the king could not cross (many African sacred kings are prohibited from setting foot in water, lest they fuse instantaneously with their true spiritual element, change into a water being, and leave the land and the people without the fertilizing presence of their ruler). This Luba Herod was finally decapitated by Kalala Ilunga, his body placed in the river and his head in a termite mound (termite mounds are generally regarded in central Africa as residences of the dead) or in the king's ritual hut. When the rainbow rises up and unites the body with the head, humanity cannot endure: this is the time of annual summer drought. The Luba also picture the rainbow as mating serpents, Nkongolo committing incest with his sister or heaven uniting with earth. Only when Kalala Ilunga decapitates the serpent and separates the halves of the body can the mediated human order and culture arise, with the gentler fusions of controlled rains aiding the growth of life instead of overwhelming it. So it is possible to sow and reap and depend on the seasonal recapitulation of archetypal myths. The Shilluk concepts outlined earlier belong in the same framework. This is why the death of a sacral king, embodiment of the culture hero, requires the reenactment of the basic symbolisms of the hero myth and even of the primal creation to reconstitute the world and its distinct gradations.
These polar oppositions are repeated endlessly in everyday life and thought. The Ila (Zambia) believe that every human being is shaped in the fiery womb by two tiny serpentine creatures (bapuka ), an inert male and an active female who molds the semen and menstrual blood into the infant. The Ila homestead is likened to a similar womb in which the mother and father cooperate in procreating and then molding the children. The upper frame of each doorway has two breasts modeled on it and a symbol of fire placed below them, all of which is enclosed in the figure of an undulating serpent. Every granary has the same symbols modeled on it, and a basically similar symbolism controls smithing and even the entire layout of villages.
Examples have thus far been taken primarily from Bantu cultures, but as has been hinted already, similar oppositions appear in West African religions. According to the research of Percy Amaury Talbot in The Peoples of Southern Nigeria (1926), the figures of a celestial, fertilizing supreme being and a chthonic generative earth mother are encountered throughout this region and in nearly every tribe. There is often a direct cult to the supreme being, but the earth mother, as the nearest intermediary to God or, indeed, even as God herself, is more emphasized. God may be addressed as male in certain spheres and female in others. The people of the Nike region among the Igbo hold Chukwu to be the maker of everything, the one who divided the cosmos into two parts: the female Earth (Ani) and the male Sky (Igwe). Both reflect Chukwu. Each is in turn divided into two parts by the east-west travel of the (male) Sun and the south-north travel of the (female) Moon, creating not only the four directions but also the four days of the Igbo week. So, as in many cultures of the region, a constantly redoubled binary opposition shapes all levels of life. Villages in the Nike region are spatially and socially divided into upper celestial indigenes and lower earthly immigrants. Some villages extend this into a quadruple division. Even the most abstract expressions of southern Nigerian thought, such as the Ifa divinatory system, are shaped out of the doubled and redoubled combinations of male and female potencies, the father and mother creating the four spirits of the cardinal points, and these children creating the rest of the sixteen primal signs. These three generations, in their further interaction, generate the total of 256 signs, each of which represents some element of reality.
R. S. Rattray, in Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, a survey of indigenous cultures in the interior of modern Ghana, found the identification of the earth with a wife of the celestial supreme being without exception in all ethnic groups of the area, and her cult is central to the religions there. Sacrifices to her at tree shrines (the forest and the earth being identified) punctuate the seasonal calendar. The dead dwell with her. These ethnic groups also have earth priests as the heads of their clans, appointed from the direct descendants of the aboriginal settlers of the region. The legitimacy of kings who have invaded and conquered local peoples rests on their ritualized good relations with the earth priests. Often, however, chieftaincy and priesthood are merged in the same person (as in the case of the Dogon hogon ). There is also a very sharp distinction made between the spirits of the cultivated fields and those of the bush. The Ashanti themselves, with their associated cultures, distinguish between Asase Afwa, earth mother of the cultivated fields, and Asase Yaa, her jealous sister of the underworld.
Many of the myths of these cultures deal with the question of how the wilderness emerged out of the garden of the primal era and came to almost overwhelm the scattered human settlements of the present. For from the beginning God intended for the world to be a tilled garden without bloodshed, work, hunting, or sorrow.
The Bambara (Mali), a Mande people of the western Sudanic region who formerly ruled a vast empire, developed their answer in astonishing detail and profundity. Only the general outlines of their cosmogonic myth may be sketched here because it is complex and exists in many versions. In the beginning, pure consciousness, or nothingness (yo ), sought to know itself. Two mighty efforts at this task in succession formed two androgynous demiurges. The first, Pemba, contained all potentialities in still inchoate form, while the second, Faro, brought these potentialities into clear harmony and realization. Faro designed and created the heavens and the earth and eventually created the first human couple, distinct male and female, to counter the violent and clumsy sexual dualism created by Pemba. Pemba, seeking to rule over all, had planted himself in the earth as the first tree and generated from it a feminine being, the deformed woman Mousso Koroni Koundyé. Thus Pemba wrenched from himself his female half and together with it in bloody and violent intercourse generated all plants and animals. When Faro created humans, Pemba sought to rule them too, especially lusting after the women. Mousso Koroni Koundyé went mad with frustrated longing and jealousy and roamed the wastelands (as she still does), struggling to create life all by herself with the first crude agriculture. She also circumcised and excised all humans she met so that they would share her mutilations and pain, and to spite Pemba she told them his secrets. Thus the initiation cults were founded.
When Mousso Koroni Koundyé was no longer pregnant, she menstruated, thus bequeathing this to women as well. She polluted the earth, creating the true wilderness from this pollution, and then she died, thus introducing death into the world. Faro had to intervene and restore order to the universe; he overcame Pemba and taught the proper ways of farming in order to purify the earth from Mousso Koroni Koundyé. He revealed true speech and culture and reformed the cults. Blacksmiths continue to embody him in the world and, as such, they preside over initiations. Faro dwells in the terrestial and celestial waters, purifying and fertilizing the earth. The purpose of farming and of human domestic and cultural life is to cooperate with Faro in extending purity and divine order throughout the world, regenerating and transforming it.
An oddly similar answer to the problem of wilderness, as it may be called (the African form of the problem of evil, in a way), is given by the Fali (Cameroon), a people who live far from the Bambara. They believe that the universe is the result of the energies spiraling from two cosmic eggs. One, of the female toad (a water creature, cold and wet), spun to the west, like the sun; the other, of the male tortoise (a creature of dry land) spun to the east. These were twins. Within each egg, the contents turned in the opposite direction from the shell, constituting a kind of intercourse of male seed and female moisture, the twins within each egg. When the eggs touched, they shattered and projected outward two square earths (one black, the other red), each containing a half of all plant and animal life. The Tortoise aligned and joined the two earths so that they stopped spinning and were still. The eastern sector was the human, domesticated world, but the wilderness of the west was ruled by the black dog being, the smith. Descending from heaven the smith had touched down with the dawn in the east and planted the eight main grains in the center of the world. In this he obeyed God, for hunting had been forbidden; but he loved to hunt and eventually ignored God's command. So a drought came, forcing the smith to ascend to heaven. God lowered a new ark containing the seeds of life to the earth, but the evil smith again intervened, cutting the vine stalk and causing the ark to fall into a sterile land where it shattered into four parts (as recounted in an earlier section). So the world now stands, with the wilderness surrounding the habitations of humanity everywhere.
The task of the Fali is to re-create the original harmony of the two eggs and the balances established in the ark. The society is divided into two intermarrying clans—the Tortoise and Toad—and their interrelations must be in accord with the divine plan. Relations between husband and wife are also shaped by this motive. Every house is built so as to duplicate the ark, every village is laid out with this in mind, and the slightest rules of social and political life are structured in terms of the creation myth. Despite the false start given to culture by the evil smith (who continues to govern the wild), human life is directed by the desire to limit the disintegrations of chaos.
A penetrating point made by these myths is that human culture is not only shaped by a divine order or revelation but is also the product of a divine misdirection and perversity. The very cult that humanity celebrates is in part based on falsehood, a falsehood of the spirits. The myth of the Bagre initiation cult, among the LoDagaa, actually stresses this point explicitly several times: present life and even the cult is the product of the lies and tricks of God and the bush spirits. Nonetheless it remains a (generally) effective cult, and to preserve the ancestral beauties of this pitiful human condition, it must continue. The culture hero and trickster myths are illuminated by such unsentimental and unflinching comments.
Cosmic Egg and Primal Word: Theosophical Myths
As the above accounts indicate, many Sudanic and West African religions contain astonishing speculations known only to the higher ranks of the initiated. These speculations must often be called theosophical, for they attempt to describe the inner unfolding of the divine life itself, God's internal history, which is identified often enough with the universe's own coming-to-be. In two long articles Germaine Dieterlen (1955 and 1959) tried to show that a common myth is found throughout the western Sudan, among the peoples of the Niger River and beyond (especially those influenced by the Mande cultures). It involves the evolution of the world from the cosmic egg made by God (this egg may also be likened to an infinitesimal seed of the most ritually important crop). The cosmic egg contains twins, one of which comes out of the egg prematurely (thus making of itself an inauthentic elder brother); this would-be creator makes a bad world in which confusion and passion predominate. To regenerate the world, God sacrifices the younger (but authentically elder) twin, creating out of it an elaborately structured but perfectly harmonious order. Humanity must duplicate this order in all things. These religions give prominence to water spirits and center on fishing and agriculture; hunting is viewed negatively. Some of these cultures equate the cosmic egg to the primal word or speech uttered by God, which progressively unfolds through various stages of vibration into this perceptual universe.
A massive work by Viviana Pâques, L'arbre cosmique, has not only given substance to Dieterlen's claim but has also extended it in surprising directions. The myths outlined by Dieterlen are discovered in a multitude of forms extending from the Niger into the Muslim world of North Africa, preserved as a kind of pagan mystery in secret black brotherhoods, among those brought as slaves into the Muslim world. In the isolated oases of the Sahara, which have gone through millennia of internal development and gradual cultural blending, these myths are held by nonblack societies as well, despite Muslim pressures. For example, on the Fezzan oasis, the pre-Muslim Garamantes lived from prehistoric times, slowly absorbing other peoples (including black Africans from the entire Sudanic savanna) while maintaining their own culture; they were also deeply affected by Egyptian influences and, perhaps shared common Saharan motifs with prehistoric Egyptian societies. Their cosmogony was suggested in the sacrifice of a ram divided into forty-eight parts (made up of two halves, each composed of four times six pieces). This sacrifice, enacted at all personal and seasonal rites, commemorated the primordial sacrifice of the ancestral smith or serpentine water spirit who brought culture to them. The reason for the multiples of four and six is that four was considered male and three female, and the world is woven of the two together. This myth presented the key to the rhythms of the heavenly bodies, the seasons of the year, clothes, territorial structures, political and social divisions, and much else.
Some Sudanic cultures in northern Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali have had the reputation of, in pre-colonial times, offering human sacrifices at crucial times that required enactments of the myth. Virginal girls were preferred, but albinos were also acceptable. The name of the mythic sacrificial victim in southern Tunisia is Israel, suggesting the adaptation of the myth by Berber tribes formerly converted to Judaism. When sacrificed in heaven, Israel, also known as the angel ʿAzraʾel, is reconstituted in the world below as the sacred community of the Twelve Tribes and also as the plan of the cultivated field. More Muslim versions make Israel into the bush-trickster figure, illustrating again the historical adaptations of what is apparently a fundamental Saharan mythic structure. One of the most striking authentically sub-Saharan expressions of these conceptions is the mythology of the Dogon.
Of all cultures in Africa, it is of the Dogon of Mali on which exists the most voluminous and profound data relating to mythic themes. In the first years spent among them, Marcel Griaule and his students merely confirmed the impression of earlier observers that the Dogon possessed a rich ritual but only an impoverished mythology. These alleged characteristics of the Dogon were consistent with other descriptions of African cultures made by Europeans. The cult was pragmatic, directed to the clan ancestors (binu ) and the nature spirits who resided especially in the streams (Nommo). The regional priest who presided over these cults, the hogon, was said to be the descendant of the first ancestral chief, Lébé, who led the people to Dogon territory. The hogon was, in particular, the high priest to Amma, the supreme being, and he had the standing of a chief, governing the region together with the clan elders. In an early work, Dieterlen related one of the few myths collected: in the beginning Amma dwelt with humans and they served him. When a Muslim refused to get him a drink of water, Amma decided to withdraw to heaven; but because a Dogon rushed to serve him, God revealed the present cult, by which he could be reached through his servant spirits, to the Dogon. (As known, myths of this sort, recalling the personal fateful encounters with God in the beginning, are perhaps the most universal of African mythic themes and are shared even by hunter-gatherers such as the central African Pygmies.)
In 1947, however, after fifteen years of fieldwork, Griaule was approached by Ogotemmêli, a blind elder of the Dogon, and rewarded for his many years of service to the people by the revelation of a totally unexpected world of myth, a world accessible only to initiated Dogon men. Griaule recorded this revelation in Conversations with Ogotemmêli. The symbolic depth, complexity, and length of this mythic narrative evoked irresistible parallels to ancient Egyptian mythology and to Christianity. Griaule discovered, for example, that the Muslim-caused withdrawal of God was merely a childish fable; in fact, Amma created the earth in the beginning, in the form of a woman. He cohabited with her to produce the Nommo, who came forth as bisexual twins. Even today the rain and the watery copper rays of the sun are like heaven's semen, generating life throughout the earth. The Nommo, masters of life force and of all wisdom, continue to govern the fertility of the world from their watery residences. Their eight seeds are carried by every human being, shaping sexual procreativity. The first eight ancestors of humanity were produced by the marriage of heaven and earth and nurtured underground by the twin Nommo. However, the first Nommo to be created, Yurugu, had no twin and was not bisexual but male; his frustrated passion for completion (not stopping even at the theft of an ark, or womb of creation, and incest with Mother Earth) threatened to disorder the whole of God's creation. God therefore exiled him to the bush, where he roams still as a jackal, but, oddly, he remains the patron of divination. To cleanse the earth of the pollution introduced by the jackal trickster, God took the last of the eight created Nommo and sacrificed him in heaven; his blood fell upon the earth as a sanctifying rain, and cleansed it, permitting life to continue.
The first human, Lébé, reduplicated the cosmic sacrifice here on earth, for he was swallowed and regurgitated by a Nommo serpent being. Lébé thus established the sacred role of chieftaincy and the cultic importance of sacrifice. Everything in human culture mirrors the primal form of Lébé and the dynamic of sacrifice, which through its transformations restores the world to the ideal form of the ark and its Nommo progenitor. The parts of houses, the sections of a family compound, the layout of a village, and the relations within the clan, all mirror the primal male and female. The female twin to the eighth Nommo still regularly visits the hogon in the shrine, licking him all over in the dead of night so as to regenerate his sacred energies before returning, in serpentine form, to the river. Everything in life is controlled by twinness, by male and female together. The hogon represents the interaction of both of these principles, and that is why he is the chief and high priest.
Griaule and his students found in these astonishing myths a complete key to Dogon culture, governing even the smallest details of everyday life. However, as it turned out, there are grades of initiation in Dogon culture, and as the years passed Griaule was introduced to deeper and deeper levels. He discovered that the universe did not actually first emerge from the marriage of Heaven and Earth, as so many other African religions held, but that there was an evolution from a cosmic egg or seed, similar to the fonio seed, which is the center of so much of the agricultural ritual of the Dogon. This egg contained four twinned couples, the quintessential elements of creation. The distorted nature of Yurugu was due to his premature attempt to break out of the cosmic egg before his brothers and sisters and to make of the placental egg itself (the universal matrix) his female consort—in short, to rule the universe. To restore the disturbed harmony of the cosmos, God permitted it to be expanded via the ark into this earth. Thus by building houses and villages and plowing their fields on the model of the cosmic egg or ark, humanity regenerates the harmonies of creation. This can only be done through knowledge of the initiatic truths; wisdom and serene insight are necessary to save or sanctify the world properly. This alone is the proper service of God.
In his last, posthumously published, magnum opus on Dogon mythology (written with Dieterlen), Le renard pâle, Griaule revealed that the cosmic egg was not the deepest secret of creation. Beyond that the wisest Dogon taught the mysteries of the primal word spoken by Amma, from which the entire universe emanated and which the universe reproduces. The egg may be taken as a symbolism of this deeper process. The primordial word or utterance is, in fact, Amma (God). It has, when truly spoken, eight syllables or cosmic vibrations, which became the twinned Nommo. All things echo these eight vibrations: there are eight kinds of insects, plants, animals, parts of houses and of human bodies, musical tones and modes, dialects of the Dogon language, and so on. Language—and consciousness itself—is the pivot of the universe. The wisest Dogon cultivate a meditative silence, attuning themselves to the divine utterance, which continues to be spoken and to generate the universe and all details in it. Yurugu, whose true name is Ogo, whose true animal form is that of the pale fox (not the jackal)—and who is also linked to the spider—actually serves God in ceaselessly transforming things and introducing change; this brings the universe nearer to perfection. The primal sacrifice of the youngest Nommo is part of the same process. In short, the myths of lower levels of initiation are all taken up again in this most esoteric version and subsumed under it as later, more materialized stages in the cosmic history.
Because the deepest wisdom centers on speech and its vibrations within the cosmic consciousness, Dogon sages developed the essentials of a script. Each of the first eight Nommo vibrations, for example, could be represented by a shape, rather similar in form to the Arabic letters. Dogon elders could show how these flowing shapes branched, diversified, and took material form as all the actual things of this world, stage by stage. In effect, this so-called illiterate culture had a form of writing. The priests would trace words into the foundations of altars and houses before building any further; the words contained the essence, of which the material things were the less perfect form.
Ironically, the most archaic and universally distributed types of mythic themes are preserved by the Dogon as childish folk tales or exoteric, ad hoc, and topical tales (as in the story of the Muslim and God's withdrawal). Each successive level of esotericism concerns a more recent cultural synthesis. The most esoteric myths evidently represent a response to the challenge of literate civilization, but unlike the topical and episodic response on the exoteric folk level, this response is thoroughly thought through and integrated with the entirety of Dogon culture by its sages. Each challenge is treated as a kind of revelation of deeper metaphysical realities guiding the universe, demanding a whole cultural response instead of a fragmentary one. The Dogon elders have been in the forefront of harmonious and constructive change, contrary to the European view of them as unchanging conservatives. The deep functional and spiritual relevance of myth and worldview could hardly be demonstrated more dramatically than in this process.
Some good, if rather superficial, surveys of African mythology are Alice Werner's "African Mythology," in volume 7 of The Mythology of All Races (Boston, 1925), pp. 105–359, and Geoffrey Parrinder's African Mythology, 2d ed. (London, 1982). Another survey to consider is Edwin W. Smith's African Ideas of God (London, 1961). Briefer, but reflecting more current French scholarship, and arranged by culture areas rather than topically, and so, more contextual and historical, is Roger Bastide's "Africa: Magic and Symbolism," in Larousse World Mythology, edited by Pierre Grimal (New York, 1965), pp. 519–545.
Excellent regional anthologies are Myths and Legends of the Congo, edited by Jan Knappert (Nairobi, Kenya, 1971), and Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933; London, 1968) by Alice Werner, who also offers comments in topically arranged chapters. The studies of nine cultures in African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde (London, 1954), give a good insight into the role of myth in African worldviews.
Interesting books devoted to the myths of particular cultures include Axel-Ivar Berglund's Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism (London, 1976); Daniel P. Biebuyck's studies of the hero epics of the Nyanga of Zaire, The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic) (Berkeley, Calif., 1969) and Hero and Chief: Epic Literature from the Banyanga, Zaire Republic (Berkeley, Calif., 1978); Jack Goody's The Myth of the Bagre (Oxford, 1972); Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli, translated by Robert Redfield (London, 1965), and Le renard pâle (Paris, 1965); Melville J. Herskovits's Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom, 2 vols. (New York, 1938); E. Bolaji Idowu's Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief (London, 1962); Randall M. Packard's Chiefship and Cosmology (Bloomington, Ind., 1981); R. S. Rattray's Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland (London, 1932); Percy Amaury Talbot's The Peoples of Southern Nigeria (London, 1926); and Roy Willis's A State in the Making: Myth, History and Social Transformation in Pre-Colonial Ufipa (Bloomington, Ind., 1981).
Comparative and analytical studies of African mythology have been pursued especially by French and German scholars. A brilliant structuralist analysis of the myths of central Bantu-speaking peoples is Luc de Heusch's The Drunken King, or The Origin of the State (Bloomington, Ind., 1982); de Heusch extends his analysis to political myths of Rwandan kings and to southern African myths and rites in Mythes et rites bantous, vol. 2, Rois nés d'un coeur de vache (Paris, 1982). Particularly valuable for an understanding of West African mythology is Germaine Dieterlen's Les âmes des Dogon (Paris, 1941); her two articles in Journal de la Société des Africanistes concerning the common mythic structure found throughout the western Sudanic region, "Mythe et organisation au Soudan Français," vol. 25, nos. 1–2 (1955): 39–76, and "Mythe et organisation sociale en Afrique occidentale," vol. 29, nos. 1–2 (1959): 119–138, are also useful. Viviana Pâques's work L'arbre cosmique dans la pensée populaire et dans la vie quotidienne du Nord-ouest Africain (Paris, 1964), uses Dieterlen's analysis and applies it in interesting ways to a wider geographical region.
Somewhat outdated but still very informative historical and comparative analyses of African creation myths are two works by Hermann Baumann, Schöpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Völker (Berlin, 1936) and Das Doppelte Geschlecht (Berlin, 1955); the latter work surveys mythologies of other continents as well. Harry Tegnaeus's Le Héros civilisateur (Stockholm, 1950) concerns African culture heroes. Robert D. Pelton's The Trickster in West Africa (Berkeley, Calif., 1980) takes a phenomenological approach and primarily discusses the Ashanti, Yoruba Fon, and Dogon tricksters. Jürgen Zwernemann's Die Erde in Vorstellungswelt und Kultpraktiken der sudanischen Völker (Berlin, 1968) deals with the image of the earth mother and the earth spirits in Sudanic myth and cult, with a brief survey of other African cultures as well. Jacqueline Roumeguère-Eberhardt's Pensée et société africaines (Paris, 1963) links Sudanic and southern African myths and cultures in a fascinating study of serpent myths, initiation rites, and cosmology. A good discussion of the role of the serpent, and of other symbolic creatures, in African mythologies can be found in Bohumil Holas's Les dieux d'Afrique noire (Paris, 1968). Holas is also an authority on the esoteric myths of a number of the cultures of the Ivory Coast and Guinea, such as the Bété; these are discussed as well.
An elaborate analysis of African myths concerning the origin of death, focusing on specific themes or traits and their geographical dispersion, is Hans Abrahamsson's The Origin of Death (Uppsala, Sweden, 1951). Valuable discussions of hero myths and legends are contained in Isadore Okpewho's The Epic in Africa (New York, 1979) and Myth in Africa (London, 1983). The latter work, graced with an excellent bibliography, is really a methodological study; despite its name it does not study the myths of Africa but instead reviews modern theories of myth and African folklore, advancing its own approach using examples from African mythology. It is particularly helpful in discussing the roles and uses of myth in modern African literature and general culture.
Pemberton, John, III, and Funso Afolayan. Yoruba Sacred Kingship: A Power Like That of the Gods. Washington, D.C., 1996.
Ray, Benjamin. Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda. New York, 1991.
Verboven, Dirk. A Paxiological Approach to Ritual Analysis: The Sigi of the Dogon. Ghent, Belgium, 1986.
Evan M. Zuesse (1987)