African Mythology in Context
A vast continent, Africa is home to many cultures and a thousand or more languages. Although no single set of myths and legends unites this diverse population, different cultural groups and regions share some common mythological elements. Like myths from other parts of the world, those of Africa reflect its people's beliefs and values. But while the mythologies of many other cultures no longer play an active role in religious beliefs, African myths and legends function as a meaningful part of everyday life. Some African myths deal with universal themes, such as the origin of the world and the fate of the individual after death. Many more spring from the continent's own environments and history.
Roots of African Myths and Legends The Sahara, avast desert dividing the continent into two main regions, runs from east to west across the widest part of northern Africa. North Africa consists of the Mediterranean coast from Morocco to Egypt and includes the valley of the Nile River as far south as Ethiopia. With strong ties to the Mediterranean and Arab worlds, North Africans felt the influence of Christianity by the 300s ce. In the 700s, much of the area came under the influence of Islam.
Before the modern era, Africans south of the Sahara had relatively litde contact with the rest of the world. Islam spread south past the Sahara very slowly, especially compared with its sweep across North Africa. Christian missionaries were not very active there until the 1800s. Since then, the spread of Islam and Christianity has overshadowed many indigenous (or native) religions, myths, and legends of sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this fact, the traditional beliefs have not completely disappeared. In some places they have blended with new religions from other cultures, so that an African Muslim might combine Islam with the traditional practice of ancestor worship.
Sub-Saharan myths and legends developed over thousands of years. Among the influences on their development were the mass movements of people that took place from time to time. About seven thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Khoisan people, an indigenous African group, began moving from the Sahara toward southern Africa. Five thousand years later, people who spoke Bantu languages began spreading out from Cameroon, on Africa's west coast, until they eventually inhabited much of sub-Saharan Africa. Such migrations caused myths and legends to spread from group to group and led to a mixing of cultural beliefs. The migrations also gave rise to new stories about events in the history of those peoples. For instance, as Bantu groups settled in new homelands, they developed legends to explain the origins of their ruling families and the structure of their societies.
African cultural groups did not use written language until modern times. Instead, they possessed rich and complex oral traditions, passing myths, legends, and histories from generation to generation verbally. In some cultures, professional storytellers, called griots (pronounced GREE-oo), preserved the oral tradition. Written accounts of African mythology began to appear in the early 1800s with the arrival of European explorers and colonizers, and present-day scholars work to record the continent's myths and legends before they are lost to time and cultural change.
Core Deities and Characters
African mythologies include supernatural beings who influence human life. Some of these beings are powerful deities or gods. Others are lesser spirits, such as the spirits of ancestors.
Deities Most African traditional religions have multiple gods, often grouped together in family relationships. Nearly every culture recognizes a supreme god, an all-powerful creator who is usually associated with the sky. Various West African peoples refer to the highest god as Amma or Olorun , while some East Africans use the name Mulungu. Africans who have adopted Christianity or Islam sometimes blend the supreme deity of those faiths with the supreme deity of traditional African religion and mythology.
In most African religions, the supreme god is a distant being no longer involved in day-to-day human life. People rarely call on this deity. Instead, they address lesser gods, many of whom have distinct functions. The Yoruba people of Nigeria, for example, worship a storm god, Shango, who controls thunder and lightning.
The number of gods and goddesses varies from culture to culture. The Buganda people of east-central Africa have twenty or more deities. Many populations regard the earth, sun , and moon as gods. In the Congo River region, the most densely wooded part of Africa, the forest itself is a deity, or else a mysterious other world where spirits dwell.
Spirits African mythology is filled with spirits, invisible beings with powers for good or evil. Spirits are less grand, less powerful, and less like humans than the gods, who often have weaknesses and emotions. Many spirits are associated with geographical features, such as mountains, rivers, wells, trees, and springs. Nations, peoples, and even small communities may honor local spirits unknown beyond their borders.
All humans, animals, and plants have spirits, as do elements, such as water and fire. Some spirits are helpful, others harmful. People may worship spirits and may also try to control them through magical means, usually with the aid of a skilled practitioner or healer, often known as a shaman, who leads them in rituals. People thought to have evil spirits are considered dangerous witches.
Ancestors Many Africans believe that human spirits exist after death. According to some groups, these spirits live underground in a world much like that of the living, but upside down. The spirits sleep during the day and come out at night. Other groups place the realm of the dead in the sky. The Bushmen of southern Africa say that the dead become stars.
Still other African groups believe that the spirits of dead ancestors remain near their living descendants to help and protect them as long as these living relatives perform certain ceremonies and pay their ancestors due respect. Believing that the spirits of chieftains and other important people offer strong protection, the Zulu of South Africa hold special ceremonies to bring them into the community. In some cultures, it is said that the soul of a dead grandfather, father, or uncle can be reborn in a new baby boy. Another common belief is that dead souls, particularly those of old men, may return as snakes, which many Africans regard with respect.
Ancestor cults—or groups that worship dead relatives—play a leading role in the mythologies of some peoples, especially in East and South Africa. The honored dead—whether members of the immediate family, the larger clan or kinship group, the community, or the entire culture—become objects of worship and subjects of tales and legends. An example occurs among the Songhai people, who live along the Niger River. They honor Zoa, a wise and protective ancestor who long ago made his son chieftain.
Many groups trace their origins, or the origins of all humans, to first ancestors. The Baganda, the people of Buganda in present-day Uganda, say that the first ancestor was Kin tu, who came from the land of the gods and married Nambi, daughter of the king of heaven. The Dinka of the Sudan speak of Garang and Abuk, the first man and woman, whom God created as tiny clay figures in a pot.
Rulers and Heroes Ancestral kings and heroes may be transformed into minor deities for communities or entire nations. The line between legend and history is often blurred. Some mythic ancestors began as real-life personages whose deeds were exaggerated over time, while others are purely fictional. The Yoruba storm god Shango, for example, may originally have been a living mighty warrior-king.
The Shilluk, who live along the Nile in the Sudan, trace their ancestry to Nyikang, their first king. Later kings were thought to have been Nyikang reborn into new bodies, and the well-being of the nation depended on their health and vigor. The first king of the Zulu was supposed to have been a son of the supreme god. Many African peoples traditionally regarded their rulers as divine or semi-divine.
Other legends involve cultural heroes who did great things or lived their lives according to important values. The Soninke people of Ghana in West Africa have a song cycle—a group of songs performed in a particular order that relate to an underlying theme—called Dausi. In part of it, Gassire's Lute, a hero must choose between his own desires and his duty to society.
The Mandingo people built a large empire in Mali. Their griots recited tales of kings and heroes. Sunjata, a story of magic, warfare, kingship, and fate, is known across large portions of West Africa.
The myths of people living along the Nile and on the fringes of the Sahara, as well as the Bantu around the Niger and Congo Rivers, are more generally concerned with the origins of social institutions, such as clans and kingships, than with cosmic themes, such as the creation of the world. In contrast, the non-Bantu groups of the Niger River area, especially the Dogon, Yoruba, and Bambara, have complex and lengthy tales about the origins of things found in the natural world. Fables, folklore, and legends about tricksters and animals are found in nearly all African cultures.
How Things Came To Be Many myths explain how the world came into existence. The Dogon say that twin pairs of creator spirits or gods called Nummo hatched from a cosmic egg. Other groups also speak of the universe beginning with an egg. People in both southern and northern Africa believe that the world was formed from the body of an enormous snake, sometimes said to span the sky as a rainbow.
The Fon people of Benin tell of Gu, the oldest son of the creator twins Mawu (moon) and Lisa (sun). Gu came to earth in the form of an iron sword and then became a blacksmith. His task was to prepare the world for people. He taught humans how to make tools, which in turn enabled them to grow food and build shelters. The San Bushmen of the south say that creation was the work of a spirit named Dxui, who was alternately a man and many other things, such as a flower, a bird, or a lizard.
Gods and Tricksters Cross the Sea
Between the 1500s and the 1800s, many thousands of Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. Their myths and legends helped shape the black cultures that developed in the Caribbean islands and the United States. The Caribbean religion known as vodun or voodoo, for example, involves the worship of the vodu, meaning “spirit” in the West African language Fon. Enslaved blacks also told traditional stories about the spider Anansi, who was sometimes also depicted as a trickster hare. Anansi came to be called Anancy, and the hare became Brer (Brother) Rabbit, the character who appears in the Uncle Remus animal fables that were collected by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s.
Myths from across Africa also tell how death came into the world. Some relate that the supreme god meant for humans to be immortal, meaning they would live forever; however, through an unlucky mistake, they received death instead of eternal life. One story tells of a god who told a cautious chameleon to carry the news of eternal life to earth. In that story, a faster lizard with news of death arrives first. The Mende people of Sierra Leone say that a toad with the message “Death has come” overtakes a dog with the message “Life has come” because the dog stops to eat along the way.
Other myths explain that death came into the world because people or animals angered the gods. The Nuer people of the Sudan blame death on a hyena who cut the rope that connected heaven and earth. Their neighbors, the Dinka, say that a greedy woman, not satisfied with the grain the high god gave her, planted more grain. She hit the god in the eye with her hoe, and he cut the connecting rope. A tale told by the Luhya people of present-day Kenya relates that a chameleon cursed people with death because a man broke the laws of hospitality by refusing to share his food with the chameleon.
Twins Many African peoples regard twins as special, almost sacred, beings. Twins represent the duality—the tension or balance between paired or opposing forces—that is basic to life. Some groups, such as the non-Bantu peoples of the Niger and Congo regions, believe that twins of opposite sexes are symbols of this duality.
Twins appear in many African myths and legends. In some stories, they are brother and sister who unite in marriage. In others, they seem to be two sides of a single being. The supreme god of the Fon people of West Africa is Mawu-Lisa, usually described as brother and sister twins who became the parents of all the other gods, also born as twins.
Trickster and Animal Fables Many African myths feature a trickster. The trickster may be a god, an animal, or a human being. His pranks and mischief cause trouble among gods, among humans, or between gods and humans.
West Africans tell many tales of a wandering trickster spirit known as Eshu among the Yoruba and Legba among the Fon. This trickster is associated with change and with quarrels. In some accounts, he is the messenger between the human world and the supreme god.
Animal tricksters are often small, helpless creatures who manage to outwit bigger and fiercer animals. Anansi , the spider trickster of the Ashanti people, is known throughout West and Central Africa. Tortoises and hares also appear as tricksters. In one such tale, the hare tricks a hippopotamus and an elephant into clearing a field for him.
Other stories about animals show them helping humans. The San Bushmen say that a sacred praying mantis gave them words and fire, and the Bambara people of Mali say that an antelope taught them how to farm. A popular form of entertainment involves sharing animal fables, stories about talking animals with human characteristics. Many of these fables offer imaginative explanations for features of the natural world, such as why bats hang with their heads downward or why leopards have spots.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the more common themes throughout African mythology is the focus on ancestors. There is a reciprocal relationship between the dead ancestors and the living community. As long as the community continues to revere and respect the dead ancestor, the ancestor will protect the community. The rituals of ancestor worship assured that cultures without a written language or texts could remember their history through their ancestors and pass down that history from generation to generation.
Another theme in African mythology is the presence of animals who interact with humans. These animals may be responsible for creating the world, such as in the myth of the rainbow snake. They may also be the teachers who helped humans create societies and cultures. The praying mantis of the San people, for example, taught them how to use words and fire; and the Bambara credit the antelope with teaching them how to farm.
The references in African mythology to animals as co-creators of human societies reinforce the view of humans and nature as being interconnected.
African Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although the myths of various African cultures have existed primarily in oral form, there are some notable exceptions. Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus books collect many of the modified West African tales that were shared among slaves in the early United States. Made popular in the late 1880s when they were first published, the books have been criticized in more recent years for being patronizing and racist. In 1946, the Walt Disney Company created an animated film consisting of several of the tales, titled Song of the South.
Children's author Gerald McDermott has also created books based on various African mythological tales, including Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (1972) and Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa (1992). African mythology also plays a central role in the contemporary fantasy novel Anansi Boys (2005) by Neil Gaiman.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
African mythology is made up of many different stories taken from many different tribes and cultures across the continent. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research one of the cultures or tribes mentioned above, such as the Yoruba, the San, or the Baganda. Where do they live? What are some other important aspects of their society? Try to locate at least one myth from this culture that has not already been mentioned.
"African Mythology." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/african-mythology
"African Mythology." U*X*L Encyclopedia of World Mythology. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/african-mythology
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