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
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.
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
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
|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.
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.
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 .