African Mythology

A vast and geographically varied continent, Africa is home to a great many cultures and to a thousand or more languages. Although no single set of myths and legends unites this diverse population, different culture groups and regions share some common elements.

Like myths from other parts of the world, those of the African peoples reflect beliefs and values. But while the mythologies of many cultures are carefully preserved relics of ancient times, African myths and legends are still 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. Yet many spring from the continent's own settings, conditions, and history.

Islam religion based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad; religious faith of Muslims

Roots of African Myths and Legends

The Sahara runs from east to west across the widest part of Africa, a vast desert dividing the continent into two main regions. 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 A.D. 300S, and in the 700s, much of the area came under the influence of Islam.

South of the Sahara is the region inhabited by black Africans. Before the modern era, they had relatively little contact with the rest of the world. Islam entered Africa south of the Sahara very slowly, compared with its sweep across North Africa, and Christian missionaries were not very active there until the 1800s. Since then, the spread of Islam and Christianity has weakened the indigenous religions, myths, and legends of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the traditional beliefs have not 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.

Myths and legends developed over thousands of years in Africa south of the Sahara. Among the influences on their development were the mass migrations that took place from time to time. About 7,000 years ago, the ancestors of the Hottentot and the Bushmen 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 myths and legends. 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.

The peoples of Africa did not use written language until modern times. Instead, they possessed rich and complex oral traditions, passing myths, legends, and history from generation to generation in spoken form. In some cultures, professional storytellers—called griots—preserved the oral tradition. Written accounts of African mythology began to appear in the early 1800s, and present-day scholars labor to record the continent's myths and legends before they are lost to time and cultural change.

Main Gods and Spirits

African mythologies include supernatural beings who influence human life. Some of these beings are powerful deities. 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 identify the supreme deity of those faiths with the supreme deity of traditional African religion and mythology

This wooden headrest from Zaire portrays twins, which had a special significance in African mythology. They were thought to represent the balance between opposing forces that existed in the natural world.
This wooden headrest from Zaire portrays twins, which had a special significance in African mythology. They were thought to represent the balance between opposing forces that existed in the natural world.

indigenous native to a certain place

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

African Mythology

African Deities
Deity People and Region Role
Ala Ibo, Nigeria mother goddess, ruler of the underworld, goddess of fertility
Amma Dogon, Mali supreme god
Cagn Bushmen, Southwestern Africa creator god
Eshu Yoruba, Nigeria trickster and messenger god
Katonda Buganda, East Africa creator god, father of the gods, king and judge of the universe
Kibuka Buganda, East Africa war god
Leza Bantu, Central and South Africa creator and sky god
Mujaji Lovedu, South Africa rain goddess
Nyame Ashanti and Akan, Ghana creator god associated with the sun and moon
Ogun Yoruba, West Africa god of war and iron
Olorun Yoruba, West Africa sky god and supreme deity

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 of east central Africa have one of the largest pantheons, with 20 or more deities. Many peoples 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 otherworld 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 physical features such as mountains, rivers, wells, trees, and springs. Nations, peoples, and even small communities may honor local spirits unknown outside their borders.

deity god or goddess

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

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—sometimes called the medicine man or woman or the witch doctor—who leads 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 dwell 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.

Many African groups believe that the spirits of dead ancestors remain near their living descendants to help and protect them—as long as these relatives perform certain ceremonies and pay them due respect. Believing that the spirits of chieftains and other important characters offer strong protection, the Zulu 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 play a leading role in the mythologies of some peoples, especially in East and South Africa. The honored dead—whether 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, 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 Buganda say that the first ancestor was Kintu, who came from the land of the gods and married Nambe, daughter of the king of heaven. The Dinkas 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 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 semidivine.

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

Other legends involve culture heroes who performed great feats or embodied important values. The Soninke people of Ghana in West Africa have an epic song cycle 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 over large portions of West Africa.

Main Types of Myths and Legends

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 generally concerned more 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 cosmologies. 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 people (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.

Myths from across Africa tell how death came into the world. The supreme god meant for humans to be immortal, but through an unlucky mistake, they received death instead of eternal life. Some stories relate that the god told a cautious chameleon to carry the news of eternal life to earth, but a faster lizard with news of death arrived 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.

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, West African gods. Enslaved blacks also told traditional stories about the spider Anansi and the trickster hare. Anansi came to be called Anancy, and the har 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.

epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

cosmology set of ideas about the origin, history, and structure of the universe trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples

immortal able to live forever

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 Dinkas 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 Luyia people 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.

Tricksters 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 as Legba among the Fon. This trickster is associated with change and with quarrels; in some accounts, he is the messenger between the 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 agriculture. A popular form of entertainment is the animal fable, a story about talking animals with human characteristics. Many fables offer imaginative explanations of features of the natural world, such as why bats hang with their heads downward or why leopards have spots.

See also Ala ; Amma ; Anansi ; Animals in Mythology ; Brer Rabbit ; Cagn ; Eshu ; Ile-Ife ; Katonda ; Kibuka ; Lebe ; Leza ; Mujaji ; Mulungu ; Mwindo ; Nummo ; ; Ogun ; Olorun ; Sunjata ; Tricksters .

Also read article about African Mythology from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Estee Culbreth
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 24, 2006 @ 11:11 am
"South of the Sahara is the region inhabited by black Africans".

This is a misleading statement. Ancient Africa (including North Africa) was "black" all over. It wasn't until the invasions of the Romans, Persians and Arabs that the demographics changed. Those white- skinned people portrayed in movies as North Africans were not there in large enough numbers in ancient times for you to imply that North Africa was a land inhabited by non-black peoples. By ancient I mean 6,000 years+ in the past. Since you are writing about African mythology, you would do well to not base the "Roots of African Myths and Legends" on sociopolitical situations that are relatively recent given the massive scope of African history.
eneze christopher
Report this comment as inappropriate
Sep 24, 2008 @ 11:11 am
put the history of some villages and their local grovernment
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jan 10, 2009 @ 5:17 pm
It is misinformation spread like this which is why the world is so messed up today. History and what is what always seems to be narrated by European descended people that clearly have no overstanding of what African culture actually is and where it comes from. It would be more relevent if when writing about African "Mythology" Europeans , non black people made it clear that their article/writinigs are coming from the perspective of a EUROPEAN/NON AFRICAN. As an african this article nonsense.
"The peoples of Africa did not use written language until modern times." ???
This is utter nonsense , we had written language since before Europeans were even in Existence .
Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 28, 2010 @ 3:03 am
Hi. Do you know of a spirit by the name of Zoonta Shaka Shaka Shaka?
David Franklin
Report this comment as inappropriate
Feb 5, 2011 @ 4:16 pm
@ Estee Culbreth:

There have been black people in North Africa for an immensely long time. And some of the genes present in North Africa did arrive with the Romans, the Vandals, the Greeks, the Arabs.

But the fundamental characteristics of the contemporary North African populations are ancient. Some of their genes have come from black Africa, and some from the Mediterranean, but they have been mixed together for an immensely long time - long before any of the "white" peoples you mentioned set foot in North Africa. The Uan Muhuggiag mummy and the Tassil-n-Ajjer rock paintings are two pieces of evidence pointing to the ancient origins of these populations.

Their modern descendants are known as Berbers, Tuaregs, Copts. Some of them (Egyptians for example) identify as Arabs. But genetically they're the same North African people.

They're the people who built ancient Egypt, and the Garamantes cities. They're the people who developed the Tifinagh script and hieroglyphics (from which our alphabet and many other descend).

They're not black, and they're not white. But they are African, and they have been for a very long time.

@O. Wow. I did not realise that any humans had written language 36 000 years ago. Because that's when modern humans first arrived in Europe. Even assuming it took those first African-descended populations a while to become "European", whites have been around a long time. You might want to rethink what you said.
Yes, I do know about the writing systems you are referring to. They were used almost exclusively by izangoma (amagqirha or whatever the local name for a traditional healer/shaman is). They were not used to record myths, history, public records, letters, poetry or the like.

But hey. Europeans were illiterate till they adapted a Middle Eastern writing system about 3000 years ago, and that can be traced back to (African) hieroglyphics.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Apr 22, 2011 @ 4:04 am
I wish to express my appreciation for the elaborate nature you explained the topical issues about African Mythology. As a student of Religiuos and Cultural studies, I would appreciate more information and related articles especially as it concerns myths, legends, sacrifices and cultural practices of the African people over the ages. In the interest of my class members, I want to arrange for research partnership with you. kindly notify me of the procedures and possible fees.
Thank you for being there.
John Obot
Department of Curriculum Studies, Educational Management/Planning (Religious/Cultural Studies),
Faculty of Education,
University Of Uyo,
Report this comment as inappropriate
Sep 1, 2011 @ 5:05 am
ONG'O: (Batembo-D R Congo/South Kivu) is the eternal God, uncreated but creator of all things. He is powerful than all spirits and forces.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jul 24, 2012 @ 4:04 am
I found this article fascinating. Thank you for writing it.

Would prefer it if the term "black" wasn't used as a description of people though. It always appeared childish to me to refer to a type of people by their colour.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Nov 17, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
The comments by some are very well stated and historically correct. But what is even more amazing (and ironic) is that if you go back as far as science and archeology can go, every human being was basically "black" or of dark complexion. There were no whites, Asians, or latino people in the beginning. The root of civilization as currently proved through science by DNA and archeology by the oldest digs thus far discovered was the "black" race.

And even though he was not perfect in his analysis, Darwin and Gregory Mendel were able to provide and explanation for this paradox.

Prior to the continents on the planet splitting from one main land mass the dark complected or black humans travelled from what was then and later to become the African continent and they migrated in other directions then when the land masses over time split apart these early travelers were trapped and could not return to their point of origin. And nature in order to ensure their survival in cold and often overcast climatic extremes worked to make the physical changes we see today such as changes in body shapes, musculature, physical features and skin color, eye color and other factors to the extent that these off spring of earlier African pioneers became different in appearance from the parent group and evolved into different races from the original black or African family. And nature did this so these displaced cousins could adapt to their new and different surroundings. That is why during the recent world wide genome project that so many humans of different races were found to have African DNA/RNA which was to only remaining evidence of their human family origins which were black African.

And as we continue to inter-marry and more bi-racial children are born into the world and contribute to world society we will continue to evolve, but the black family is still the origin of all as many have always suspected.

If one had the ability to travel through time from beginning to end we would see many miraculous things indeed. And then race would no longer be a consideration, only that we were truly one human family with the need to help, love and support each other as we always should have through time.
Report this comment as inappropriate
May 28, 2014 @ 1:13 pm
Not all people started off black. The bible which is the oldest book of mankind list the sons of noah as ham, whose oldest son was cush who settled in africa, put, who settled in ethiopia, and mizram who settled in egypt, and cannan who settle in jerusalem or palestine area today. ( cannan being under a curse, and who was also white), is no more, the syrian nation of abrahams children wiped them out of existence or intermarred with them. this is the race of black people. sham another son of noah, was the father of the oriental people, Japhet another son of noah, is the father of the white race of people, who as you say may have gotten charistics from the lands they settlred in. but these are where the 3 races of mankind came from, there was no other.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jul 21, 2014 @ 5:17 pm
James: Nature is not a sentient being. I am sure some changes were processes of evolution, but research has shown us that more often than not any change to DNA is a mutation and depending on the severity of that mutation a human would be able to continue living or would die. Mutations, like albinism, are not caused or produced by environmental changes.

Barbara Gillard: As devout a Christian you may be, you are sincerely lacking in real world facts. Don't be a sheeple, do your homework.

David Franklin: Modern humans did not arrive in Europe 36,000 years ago -- only the large albino clans that migrated from Asia did. Humans have always populated the world and as evidenced by bloody history no matter where you look nations will destroy others and build on top off what's left. That's what the albino clans did to those humans already living in Europe.
Report this comment as inappropriate
Mar 11, 2015 @ 4:04 am
what are the reasons why myths may help us learn about Africa indigenous religion

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: