A Web Gallery of Contemporary East and South African Paintings
Myths, legends, beliefs and tradional stories from Africa
Jok - concept of the devine
The queen of Ethiopia
to be continued ...
Africa - for us still the unknown continent possesses a several thousands of years old culture. Expressed particularly in myths, legends, fables, in songs and proverbs.
On this page you will find traditional African stories woven around a pantheon of gods and mythical figures but also legends, fables and more general subjects that played a part in African mythology and African life.
Many African peoples regard the earth as a female deity, a mother-goddess who rules all people and is the mother of all creatures. The earth lives and gives birth to ever new generations of beings. She will make the grass grow when heaven gives her rain and if there is no rain, she withdraws into her own depths, waiting for better times to come. Many regions of Africa have to endure a dry season when nothing grows and death reigns. As soon as the new rains, life begins miraculously. Grass sprouts, flowers open and the frogs croak, creeping out of the earth who hid them. Thus the earth conceals life, protects it against desiccation and revives it as soon as better times arrive. Without the gifts of the earth no one lives. Many African peoples believe that the ancestors live in the earth, in houses very similar to the ones they had here, on the surface of the earth. They also own cattle and goats there. Indeed there is a Zulu myth in which people go in search of the milk-lake under the earth, from where the milk is absorbed by the grassroots so that the cows and goats have milk from the earth. Where else could the milk come from? Our own flesh is earth; even the name Adam means 'earth'. All creatures are earth. Fire too, lives in the earth, which sometimes spits it out when in anger. Fire comes out of wood, so it, too, must come from the earth. Wind too, it is believed, comes out of caves in the earth. Thus all four elements come out of the earth. Yet, the earth is seldom worshipped; the libations which are poured down during numerous ceremonies are more addressed to the ancestors than to the earth as a whole. Nevertheless, the earth has a very powerful spirit which rules over our life and death. Sometimes, when she is perturbed, she moves, forests and mountains and all. Unlike man, the animals understand their mother and obey her, although sometimes she will have to punish a disobedient creature.
Jok - concept of the devine
Jok (Nilotic: Kenya, Uganda, Sudan). Jok is one of the most truly African concepts of the divine. It is a word, found with variations in all the Nilotic languages, as Jwok, Juok, Joagh, Joghi or Joogi. lt is not always translated with the same English word, because the dictionary writers had different philosophical ideas themselves, which demonstrates the power of the spirit that we call Jok. Jok is God and the spirits, the gods, the holy ghost, the beings from the other world. It can be vague and precise, good or frightening, beneficent or dangerous, one or a multitude, legion.
If a missionary had chosen the word Jok to denote God in his Bible translation, he would defend the notion that the Nilotes knew the One God. If he had taken another word to mean God, then he might use Jok to mean the 'spirits', or 'gods', or 'devils', thereby embarrassing those missionaries of another denomination who had used Jok to mean 'God'. This might be the origin of the confusion over Jok. This word incorporates all the contradictory ideas of the spiritual beings which in the minds of Europeans must be kept carefully separated. Jok is the unified spirit of God and the gods, personal and impersonal, local and omnipresent.
The Kikuyus are a large tribe. The speak a beautiful Bantu language and have lived on the slopes of Mount Kenya and surrounding districts for a vew long time. The first Kikuyu was called Kikuyu and lived in a village called Kikuyu, which is still there. The word kuyu means 'a fig', and kikuyu is a fig-tree, a fertility symbol in Africa as well as in Asia. Kikuyu had nine daughters, who became the ancestral mothers of the nine major clans of the Kikuyu nation. The Kikuyu word for God is Ngai , which means the Apportioner. Thus during creation, God apportioned his gifts to all the nations of the earth. To the Kikuyus he gave the knowledge of, and the tools for, agriculture, at which the Kikuyus have always excelled. God controls the rain and the thunder, with which he punishes evildoers when necessary. Every person has a spirit, ngoma , which after death becomes a ghost. The ngoma of a murdered man will pursue his murderer until the latter has to come out of hiding and give himself up to the police, which is better than being haunted by a vengeful, persistent spirit. Burial rituals for the elders are executed meticulously, because their spirits are feared; the spirits of lesser members of society are less dangerous. Certain trees are inhabited by spirits which may have to be propitiated with food offerings.
Like Jupiter, Ngai punishes those who do not keep their oath sworn in his name, by striking them with lightning. It seems that the people also believed that a man's character was decided by God, so that his life, too, was predestined. The Kikuyus have a strong feeling of propriety; they will abstain from whatever they feel is untoward. During the 1920s there was a prophet, Thiga wa Wairumbi , who received direct messages from God for his people.
Numerous myths are told in Africa about its biggest animal, the elephant, whose very size makes it unassailable in nature, except by man, who has weapons and magic to kill it. In the African fables the elephant is always the wise chief who impartially settles disputes among the forest creatures. A hunter in Chad found an elephant skin near Lake Chad and hid it. Soon he saw a lovely big girl crying, because she had lost her good 'clothes'. The hunter promised her new clothes and married her. They had many big children, for the son of an elephant cannot be a dwarf. One bad day when the grainstore was empty, his wife found the elephant skin at the bottom, where the hunter had hidden it. She put it on and went back to the bush to live as an elephant again. Her sons became the ancestors of the clan whose totem was the elephant. They do not have to fear elephants.
A myth of the Kamba in Kenya tells us how elephants originated. A very poor man heard of lvonya-Ngia, 'He that feeds the Poor'. He decided to go and find Ivonya-Ngia but it was a long journey. When he finally arrived, he saw uncounted cattle and sheep, and there, amidst green pastures, was the mansion of Ivonya-Ngia, who received the poor man kindly, perceived his need and ordered his men to give him a hundred sheep and a hundred cows. 'No', said the poor man, 'I want no charity, I want the secret of how to become rich.' Ivonya-Ngia reflected for a while, then took a flask of ointment and gave it to the poor man, saying: 'Rub this on your wife's pointed teeth in her upper jaw, wait until they have grown, then sell them.' The poor man carried out the strange instructions, promising his wife that they would become very rich. After some weeks, the canine teeth began to grow and when they had grown into tusks as long as his arm the man persuaded his wife to let him pull them out. He took them to the market and sold them for a flock of goats. After a few weeks the wife's canine teeth had grown again, becoming even longer than the previous pair, but she would not let her husband touch them. Not only her teeth, but her whole body became bigger and heavier, her skin thick and grey. At last she burst out of the door and walked into the forest, where she lived from then on. She gave birth to her son there, who was also an elephant. From time to time her husband visited her in the forest, but she would not be persuaded to come back, although she did have more healthy children, all elephants. It was the origin of elephants and it explains why elephants are as intelligent as people.
In Southern Africa there is told the tale of the girl who grew up so tall and fat that no man wanted her as a wife because she was accused of witchcraft. She was exiled from her village and wandered into the wilderness on her own. There she met an elephant who began speaking to her politely in good Zulu. She agreed to stay with him and he helped her to find wild cucumbers and other fruits of the forest. She gave birth to four human sons, all very tall and strong, who became the ancestors of the Indhlovu clan of paramount chiefs.
In the African fables, the elephant is usually described as too kind and noble, so that he feels pity even for a wicked character and is badly deceived. The Wachaga in Tanzania relate that the elephant was once a human being but was cheated out of all his limbs except his right arm, which now serves as his trunk. He paid for nobility!
The Ashanti of Ghana relate that an elephant is a human chief from the past. When they find a dead elephant in the forest, they give him a proper chief's burial.
In July 1905, rebellion broke out in the area south of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), against the newly instituted recruitment for compulsory work on the German cotton and sisal plantations . The senior German officer in command, Major Johannes, set out from Dar es Salaam and on 5 August captured Mohoro, where he arrested the two men who were locally regarded as the instigators of the rebellion. They were Zauberer, sorcerers, of the Ikemba tribe and one of them who was known as Bokero, had been selling to his fellow Africans a maji (this word can mean water, sap, juice, any body liquid or vegetable extract) which, he claimed, had been given him by the Snake God to whom he referred as Koleo. (The word koleo literally means 'a pair of tongs', suggesting that this serpent was a python, well known for squeezing its victims to death; the worship of the python is widespread in Africa). Bokero, whose real name was Kinjikitire Ngwale, came from Ngarambi Ruhingo in the Rufiji Valley. He was well known for his magic powers, particularly for his ability to raise the spirits of the dead so that a man could see his own ancestors. Bokero and his colleague were hanged by the Germans. Bokero's last words were that it did not matter, for his dawa had already spread to other parts of the country and with it the spirit of independence. This dawa, the famous maji, was composed of water, matama (sorghum) and perhaps other millet as well as roots and various secret ingredients. It could be sprinkled over a man, or carried on his chest on a string round his neck, in a bottle made from bamboo, or it could be drunk as medicine. In whatever way it was taken, the man who had taken it was supposedly immune to German bullets: they would become muddy, majimaji ( Matschi Matschi ) , before hitting his body, and be harmless. Some women also took it, notably the Jumbess Mkomanira. The rebellion affected almost a quarter of the country and lasted for two years, until the summer of 1907, when the Jumbess Mkomanira was captured and hanged. Over a hundred thousand people died in the war, most of them from starvation. A Swahili poet, Abdul Karim Bin Jamaliddini, wrote an epic on the Majimaji rebellion in Lindi, in which we see the rebellion as a justified rising against the oppressors. It was published in Berlin in 1933, with a translation.
The Yoruba (Nigeria) believe that the success or failure of a man in live depends on the choices he made in heaven before he was born. If a person suddenly becomes rich, they will say that he chose the right future for himself, therefore poor people must be patient because even if they have chosen the right life, it may not have arrived yet. We all need patience. The word ayanmo means 'choice', and kadara means 'divine share for a man'; ipin means 'predestined lot'.
The Yoruba believe that there is a god, Ori, who supervises people's choices in heaven. Literally, ori means 'head' or 'mind', because that is what one chooses before birth. If someone chooses a wise head, i.e. intelligence, wisdom, he will walk easily through life, but if someone chooses a fool's head, he will never succeed anywhere. Ori could be considered as a personal god, a sort of guardian angel who will accompany each of us for life, once chosen. Even the gods have their Ori which directs their personal lives. Both men and gods must consult their sacred divination palm-nuts daily in order to learn what their Ori wishes. In this way, Ori is both an individual and a collective concept, a personal spirit directing each individual's life, and also a god in heaven, who is feared even by Orunmila.
In heaven, there is a curious character called Ajala, a very fallible man whose daily work is fashioning faces (ori) from clay. Sometimes he forgets to bake them properly, so they cannot withstand the long journey to earth prior to the beginning of life; especially in the rainy season the clay might be washed away and there would be a total loss of face!
All traditional African peoples agree that the soul of an individual lives on after death. Some people distinguish more than one spiritual essence living within one person, the life-soul or biospirit which disappears at the moment of definitive death, and the thought-soul which keeps his individual identity even after it is separated from the body. The life-soul can, according to some peoples in Africa and Asia, be separated during a person's life, in times of danger, and be kept hidden in a safe place, so that its owner can be harmed, mortally wounded even, but not killed, as long as his life-soul is safe. When the danger is past, the life-soul can be restored to the body and the person is hale and hearty again. The thought-soul lives on after death, but not for ever, it may gradually die and be forgotten. Souls of little children who died young, those of weak minds and insignificant persons will fade away after some years lingering.
If, however, an individual had a strong personality, a rich and famous man, a mother of many children, a chief, someone who was loved or admired, that soul will live on for many generations. Evil souls, too, may have a long afterlife: witches, sorcerers, the souls with a grudge, who have a score to settle, will wait for their revenge and haunt the living for years.
The oldest concept of the place where the dead continue their existence is the forest. The impenetrable depth of the great forests of Africa is the heartland of the spirits and of all magical beings. Where there are steep rocks, the dead reside in deep, dark caves, where their souls flutter about disguised as bats. Below the surface of rivers and lakes is the habitat of many souls. Many others linger on near the graveyards where they were buried. The good souls of the loved ones who have died, the wise parents' souls still accompany their living children and grandchildren.
The Yoruba (Nigeria) believe that each person has at least three spiritual beings. Firstly there is the spirit, emi, literally 'breath', which resides in the lungs and heart and is fed by the wind through the nostrils, just as the fire is fed through the twin openings in the blacksmith's bellows. This emi is the vital force which makes a man live, that is, breathe, rise up, walk, be aware, be active, work, speak, see, hear and make love. There is also the shadow or shade, ojiji, which follows its owner like a dog. When he dies, it awaits his return in heaven. The third is the eleda 'spirit' or ori 'head', also translated as 'guardian soul'; from time to time it has to be 'fed' by sacrifices. At death these spiritual aspects of a person leave the body and wait for him or her in heaven. An individual is expected to return to his clan as a newborn baby. Babatunde, 'Father returns' is a name which is given to a child when it resembles his father's father; Yetunde 'Mother returns' for a girl. Physical resemblances determine the identity of the baby. Before death, the emi-spirit may visit relatives, clan-members who will thus learn in a dream that their kinsman or -woman is going to die soon. Even in daytime, the cold presence of a dying relative may be felt from far away, as if he were close by. The ghosts of those who died in mid-life may go and live in distant towns and assume a quasi-physical existence there. A man who died early in life might even marry, his wife would not even know that her husband was dead already, a mere ghost. When the final hour arrives, the man dies a second time. After death the guardian soul arrives in heaven and confesses to the Supreme God Olorun what it has done on earth. The good souls will then be sent to the Good Heaven, Orun Rere. The souls of the wicked, those who are guilty of theft, murder or cruelty, poisoning, witchcraft or slander, will be sent to Orun Buburu, the Bad Heaven, as punishment.
The Queen of Ethiopia
In the days of King Solomon, three thousand years ago, there lived in Ethiopia a dynasty of queens, who reigned with great wisdom. One queen, the Malika Habashiya or Abyssinian Queen of old legends, had a dream in which she held a kid in her lap. On waking up she found herself pregnant and in due course she gave birth to a baby daughter. But alas! The child had one goat's foot. When the queen died, Princess Goat's Foot succeeded her, since she had no other children. One day she heard of King Solomon and his great wisdom, so she wrote him a letter announcing her arrival at his court. She was hoping that his great knowledge might enable him to cure her foot but she did not mention that. The King, however, always knew in advance what was going to happen, so, in front of his new palace he had a large pool dug, so that all his visitors had to rinse their feet before arriving. When the Queen of Abyssinia arrived, she had to raise her skirt before wading through the pond, so that the King could see her legs, one normal and one caprine. In the pond was a piece of ironwood which was placed there on the King's orders. When the Queen's cloven foot hit it, she was cured. When she stepped out of the water, she noticed that she had two human feet. She was now a very attractive woman and Solomon fell in love with her. She wanted to go home, having achieved her purpose, but Solomon persuaded her to stay. He proposed marriage, but she refused. However, Solomon knew the answer to that too. He gave some orders to his servants and an hour later the cook served a very spicy meal. That night the Queen felt very thirsty but there was no water in the palace. The pond had been drained and the servants told her that only the King had water, so she had to go and beg Solomon for water in his bedroom.
There is a version of the tale which says that she had agreed to marry King Solomon only if she took something vital from him. She therefore stole into his bedroom like a thief, hoping to find water without waking him. However, Solomon was wide awake like every man in love. As she was drinking from his water jar, she felt his hand holding hers in the dark, while the King's voice asked: 'Is water not vital, my dear Queen?' She had to agree to marry him there and then, but the next day she insisted on going home. Solomon gave her a ring, saying: 'When you have a son, send him to me when he is grown up, and I will give him half my kingdom.' The Queen of Ethiopia took the ring and travelled back by boat along the Red Sea.
In due course she gave birth to a son whom she called David, after his father's father. When he came of age, his mother sent him to King Solomon, with numerous presents. When David entered Solomon's court, he noticed an empty chair next to the King's and sat down on it. Solomon asked him: 'What have you come for, handsome young man?' He replied: 'I am David of Ethiopia I have come to ask you for half of your kingdom, and here is the ring which you gave my mother.' Solomon embraced him when he recognized his ring, and spoke: 'So be it. I will give you Africa, which is half my kingdom.' According to the legend, the King was in his right to do so for God had given him the whole world as his realm. No one knew at that time how big Africa really was.
Mythical hero of the Swahili and Pokomo peoples of eastern Kenya. Historians have endeavoured to place Liongo in the chronology of the history of the Kenya Coast, as early as 1200 or as late as 1600. A large number of Swahili poems are attributed to Liongo, many of them popular wedding songs which are still performed at weddings, accompanied by special dancing, the so-called gungu dances, after the rhythm. Even the myth of Liongo is fragmentary and not a coherent story. Liongo was born in one of seven towns on the Kenya Coast which all claim the honour of being the great poet's cradle. He was exceptionally strong and as tall as a giant. He could not be wounded by any weapon, but when a needle was thrust into his navel, he would die; fortunately only he and his mother, whose name was Mbwasho, knew this. Liongo was King of Ozi and Ungwana in the Tana Delta, and of Shanga on Faza (Pate Island). He was passed over for the succession to the throne of Pate, which went to his cousin Ahmad (Hemedi), probably its first Islamic ruler. It seems that the advent of Islam caused the changeover from matrilinear to patrilinear succession. King (Sultan) Ahmad tried to get rid of Liongo and had him chained and gaoled. By means of a long and self-laudatory song, the refrain of which was sung by the crowds outside the prison, Liongo caused enough noise to file through his shackles without being heard by the guards. As soon as they saw him unchained, they fled, for he was a formidable man. He escaped to the mainland, where he lived with the Watwa, the forest-dwellers. Each episode of this saga is marked with a song, which has been preserved. He learned to perfect his sureness of hand with bow and arrow, so that he later won an archery contest organised by the king to entrap him, and escaped again. Little is known about Liongo's successful battles against the Galla (Wagala), whose king decided to offer him his own daughter in marriage so as to tie the hero to his own family. With her Liongo had a son who later betrayed and killed his father.
Suk (Western Kenya)
The Suk once had a great reputation as fierce warriors, beating even the dreaded Maasai-Samburu in c. 1850. The Suk are the first branch of the Kalenjin family of tribes to leave their original homeland of Mount Elgon's slopes. Originally only hunters, the Suk now herd cattle in Kerio Valley, living in peace with their neighbours if they can.
They believe in God, whom they call Tororut, offering him animal sacrifices. God's son is called Ilat; he has to fetch water for his father in Heaven. When he spills it, it rains on earth (ilat means 'rain'). Tororut's blessing must be invoked at least once a year for the crops and the cattle. An ox is selected by the priest, tusin, to be slaughtered; he rubs its blood on the chests of the participants, all men. In times of drought, famine or epidemic, similar rituals are necessary, to propitiate God. Personal illness is blamed on Oi, the spirit of disease, who may be expelled by emptying the sick man's house, after which the priest casts the evil spirit out, since it has nothing left to lurk behind inside. Tororut has a wife, the Pleiades, and a brother, Asis, the Sun-god. Tororut's wife Seta has three children, Ilat, 'Rai', Arawa, 'Moon', and Topoh, the 'Evening Star'. The appearance of the Pleiades marks the beginning of the planting season.
After death, a man's spirit may travel in the shape of a snake. In the bush, snakes may be killed, but if a snake enters a house, it must be given milk and meat since it is the spirit of an ancestor who can intercede with God on behalf of the living, in order to avert disease and other disasters. After death an old man or woman would be buried in his or her own hut, after which the descendants would move house; this was no hardship, since they were nomads anyway. Death 'infects' a house. The bereaved shave their heads, but when the New Moon appears, mourning ceases.
Africans know they depend on trees for firewood, without which their wives cannot cook their food. In some areas the goats can climb trees to eat the green leaves. The leopard lurks in a leafy tree to fall upon the Lonely traveller at night, and vipers do the same in Uganda. In some trees the bees make their nest where they store honey. Every big tree has a spirit. Some trees house many spirits. Whether a tree is a spirit or is inhabited by a spirit is not an easy question. The people will say: The tree has a spirit, or: in the tree there is a spirit. The spirit has a voice which the careful listener can hear and even understand if he knows the language of the spirits. This voice has to be preserved carefully by the drum maker. The boat-maker too, wants to keep the spirit of the tree in the wood so that it will protect the boatman against drowning in the treacherous rivers, when the tree has become a boat. The appearance changes, the spirit remains. Together in a forest, the trees have a collective spirit, powerful enough to be revered as a god.
Trees can be tricky. With their roots they can trip up the unsuspecting traveller, who will often believe that his enemy bewitched the root to do that. Thorny branches have the same function. In Namibia there is a tree that is believed to eat people: it catches them with its branches, opens its bark and swallows them up. Inside the tree, the victim can be heard singing a goodbye song to their relatives and friends. Only the Woodpecker can save them, for it possesses magic powers. For a fee, it will open the tree with its sharp bill. A man in Zaire was married to a tree. It gave birth to his children, a healthy boy and a girl who were human but knew the spirits of the forest and so became famous herbalists, for it is the doctors who need the trees for their medicines.
The sunbirds are two golden birds, which were found among the ruins of Zimbabwe about a century ago by one of the first explorers. They were probably discovered in the remains of a building which may have been the sun-temple of the ancient Bantu religion of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. These birds which form a pair, represent, it appears, two swallows, whose high and swift flight is praised by many poets of the old Bantu tradition, and about which the story-tellers relate that they can fly better even than the eagle.
The swallows, as is well known, are migrating birds. They arrive in southern Africa from Europe around the beginning of October, when spring is at its most beautiful and thousands of flowers are blooming. The sun is on its way up. The myth of the Shona people relates that the sunbirds belonged originally to the goddess Dzivaguru, the goddess of the earth, of the darkness of night, and of the rain clouds, of the pools and streams. The rainy season begins usually also in October, or later, when the gods are displeased.
We cannot live without sunshine, nor can we live without rain, yet we cannot have them at the same time, for rain and sunshine do not normally descend together. The great goddess Dzivaguru, whose name seems to mean Great Sun, ruled both heaven and earth in what may have been the oldest form of the Bantu religion, i.e. the religion of the peoples who speak Bantu languages. They have many myths in which the first man and woman on earth lived in darkness because the sun had not yet been discovered. The sun, the primal source of light, has to be captured so that people may have light to live by. The secret of the sun is that its light penetrates even in the darkest room, just as a swallow can fly through a house before anyone can catch it. Nosenga caught the sunbirds in his trap, and so day broke.
Malaika (East Africa)
A good spirit sent from heaven to help people. It can assume human form. The Malaika love people and will work for their benefit. God created them specially so that they might keep people on the straight path by sitting on their right shoulders and whispering in their ears what they should do or not do. The Malaika receive no food, because praying to God is their food. They have been created from the Light, Gods first creation, so they are entirely transparent and cannot even think evil, let alone do it. They always obey God, who will send an angel whenever he wishes to help a human being in distress. Normally angels are invisible, but once God sent the Angel Mikail to defeat a very powerful evil spirit. Mikail appeared in his full heavenly glory which was so dazzling that Karina was defeated by merely seeing him. She looked like an old woman after that encounter. Once Jiburili showed himself in his real form: standing astride the earth, his feet suspended above opposite horizons, he towered above the clouds. The angels are constantly guarding heaven against the attacks of the shaitani by throwing rockets (shihabu) at them, which we see as falling stars. Death too, is a malaika, who serves God by taking the souls of those God has decided must die now. He may also send angels to do battle against his enemies the unbelievers. The malaika wa vita, the Fighting Angels, will drop burning stones on the enemies.