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10 Sub-Saharan African Myths and Legends

Shanea Patterson is a writer based in New York. She's worked with clients like Instacart, Tailwind, Columbia, Esurance, and LifeLock.

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1. Bakuba People

The Bakuba people believe the earth began as an endless expanse of water and darkness and that it is ruled by Mbombo, a great white giant. The legend goes that Mbombo feels a horrible pain in his stomach and vomited the sun, the moon and the stars. Then, the sun shone intensely and the water steamed up in the clouds, which created dry land. Mbombo feels sick again, vomits and out comes trees, people—the first man and woman—the leopard, the anvil, the eagle, the falling star, the firmament, medicine, the monkey Fumu, lightning and numerous other things.

2. The Massai

The Massai people of Kenya believe that the creator made three sons from a tree that split into three pieces. He then sends his three sons out into the world to live in the wild. There, they become the first fathers of their people. The creator gives the Massai father a stick, the Kikuyu father a hoe and the Kamba father a bow and arrow. The stick is used to tend cattle, the hoe to tend land and the bow and arrow to hunt.

3. Zulu Mythology

In Zulu mythology, the creator is called Unkulunkulu and is said to have grown on a reed in the swamp that preceded the earth. According to the myth, human beings had no words. The belief was that all they had to do was think of a desire and that it would then be fulfilled.

The gods don’t create language until a little later. As soon as human beings get the ability to speak, they begin to take issue with each other and have “falling outs.” According to the myth, human beings have taken issue with one another ever since.

4. The Olorun and Olokun

In the legend of Olorun and Olokun, the gods have a competition to determine who’s the most beautiful. The two main contenders are the sky (Olorun or Olodumare) and the water (Olokun). Some versions name Olorun and Olokun husband and wife and the sky represents the male and the oceans and rivers were female. In most versions, however, both are male.

Olorun is the winner of the contest because he proves that Olokun’s beauty is just a reflection of his own beauty. The two gods have a weaving contest in some versions of the story, which Olorun wins. Olorun then creates the land, trees and plants. In some versions of the story, Olorun sends his son, Oduduwa, down to earth with a cockerel, a pigeon and a container full of soil. Oduduwa scatters the soil across the waters and the pigeon and cockerel scatter the soil, creating all of the lands of the world. The legend states that plants and trees are grown from seeds and animals and human beings are molded from clay.

5. The Elephant

Elephants are the largest animal in Africa and make their appearance in numerous African myths and legends. The Elephant is usually depicted as kind, intelligent and trusting animals. One legend tells that at first there was only one man, one elephant and thunder on earth. Thunder is afraid of man because he can turn over in his sleep, which the elephant and the thunder cannot do. Bolting to the sky, thunder warns the elephant to beware of mankind, but the elephant finds it funny because humans are so small compared to elephants.

But the human makes a bow and shoots the elephant with a poison arrow. The elephant lies dying and calls out to the thunder, asking it to take him up into the sky. The thunder says no and reminds the elephant about its earlier warning about man. Then, man goes on to conquer all of the animals in the world.

6. Mawu and Lisa

The Fon people of Benin believe there is great importance in the female deity Mawu and the male deity Lisa. Mawu (representing the moon) and Lisa (representing the sun) are the offspring of the supreme deity Nana Buluku. Mawu is associated with the West and Lisa is associated with the East and together, they created the world and everything in it, in a period of four days.

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The myth purports that the universe and humanity were created on the first day. Mawu and Lisa make the earth habitable for human beings on the second day. Mawu and Lisa then give the humans their senses and language. Lastly, they give the humans the gift of technology on the last day of creation.

7. The Tokoloshe

The Tokoloshe is a mythical creature feared throughout Southern Africa. Sometimes called Tikoloshe or Teikolosha, it is portrayed in many cultures as a zombie-like dwarf. In other cultures, it is portrayed as a worm-like creature with the head of a dog. The Tokoloshe is believed to have a hole in his head and some legends state that his penis is so long that he must sling it over his shoulder. Tokoloshes are believed to be created from dead bodies by shamans.

All cultures that hold the legend agree that these creatures are malevolent and poorly behaved and that they can make themselves invisible by swallowing a pebble. Tokoloshes have super-human strength, but are as small as children. They can kill oxen and destroy crops (or make them poisonous). Seeing a Tokoloshe is considered bad luck and telling someone you’ve seen one is even worse. Some cultures are so afraid of the Tokoloshe that they raise their beds off the ground with bricks in order to stay safe at night.

8. The Malaika

The Malaika, which is the opposite of the Tokoloshe, is a gentle spirit from East Africa that can assume human form. These spirits are created from light and are transparent. They’re also said to sit on the shoulders of humans and whisper advice into their ears, which is always knowledgeable and benevolent. They’re incapable of committing evil acts and they’re similar to the concept of angels, a Western influence.

The Malaika protect humans beings as well as the heavens. If heaven is ever under attack, the Malaika throw rockets at their enemies. On earth, these rockets appear as shooting stars. Death is a type of Malaika in this legend and god usually sends them when it’s time for someone’s soul to ascend into heaven.

9. Ancestors

In many African myths and legends, the ancestors are human spirits that exist after death. Some groups believe that these spirits dwell underground much like the world of the living—except upside down. These groups believe that the spirits sleep during the day and come out at night. Other groups believe the realm of the dead is in the sky. The Bushmen of Africa believe the dead become stars.

Numerous African groups believe that the spirits of dead ancestors remain close by their living relatives or descendants to help protect them, but these relatives must pay them respect by performing certain ceremonies. Some cultures believe that the soul of the dead grandfather, father, or uncle can be reborn in a new baby boy.

10. Twins

Twins appear in many African myths and legends. Some stories state that they are brother and sister who unite in marriage while others purport that they’re two sides of a single being. They’re said to represent the duality—the balance or tension between paired or opposing forces—that are basic to life.

The Bantu people of the Niger and Congo regions consider twins of the opposite sexes a symbol of this duality. Some African people believe that twins are special, almost sacred beings. Mawu and Lisa are thought to be brother and sister twins who became parents to the other gods, who were also born as twins.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Shanea Patterson

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