Africa is the second largest continent in the world. The country’s one billion inhabitants speak more than 1,000 languages and practice many ethnic religions. In most African cultures, history and beliefs are explained and passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions and stories.
For example, many stories of African mythology tell about general concepts such as life after death or the birth of the universe, but there are also stories of belief in magic, ancestral spirits, and celestial beings, and there is a whole variety of unusual legends related to African animals.
All these stories of African mythology are not considered part of the past at all; they are part and parcel of the daily lives of many Africans and testify to their principles and beliefs.
1. The Legend of the Emergence of the World by the African Bushongo Tribe
The Bushongo or Songora are an ethnic group living on the Congo River and adjoining territories. The creator god in this part of African mythology is called Bumba.
One day, Bumba felt a terrible pain in his stomach and “spewed out the sun, the moon, and the stars,” thus giving the world light. As the Sun’s rays drained the Earth, sandbanks began to appear on its surface, but there was no life on Earth. Then Bumba, in the same way, produced eight living creatures, which in turn gave life, with some exceptions, to everything else.
They were the leopard, the eagle, the crocodile, the little fish (the progenitor of all other fish), the turtle, the panther, the white heron, the beetle, and the goat. The animals undertook to populate the world, but it is not clear on what principle they did so. From the goat came all horned animals. From the beetle came all insects. From the crocodile came all snakes and iguanas, and the white heron gave life to all birds except the kite.
Then Bumba created three sons. The first son created the white ants. The second son created the plant that gave birth to all vegetation on Earth. Finally, the third son tried to create new creatures, but the only thing he succeeded in was the kite.
2. The Legend of Huwean
In many stories of African mythology, Huweane is the first man on Earth, while in others, he is portrayed as a treacherous deity. He is the creator of the people of Basotho and Bavenda, living in the kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. After the creation of the Earth and the heavens, Huweane wanted to enjoy peace and quiet, proudly admiring his work.
Unfortunately, that was about the same time people learned about stamens and pistils. It was great for them, but all the noise they created was too loud for Huveane. So Huweane ascended to heaven in an unusual way, driving pegs into them and climbing to the top. As he ascended, he removed each peg so that no man would ever follow him.
3. The Bushmen legend of the supreme god Kaanga
The Bushmen, also called Khoi or San, are African nomads.
Part of African mythology that has come down to us from the Bushmen tells us that the supreme god Ka’ang created the world but sent death and destruction after experiencing too much disobedience and hostility. Although he lives in heaven, his invisible spirit still dwells in all living things.
Kaanga’s wife gave birth to a canna (African antelope) in one story. The god raised the cub, but Kaanga’s two sons mistakenly killed it. Kaanga demanded that the blood of the canna be boiled. He scattered the oily residue left after the boiling over the landscape, from which other antelopes and animals emerged. Thus, Kaanga provided the people with animals that they hunt, kill, and eat to this day.
4. Legend of the Akan tribe about the first man on Earth
The Akan (Akan, Akafo, Kambosi, Ton) is an ethnic group mainly representing the population of modern Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. This is what the Akan brought to African mythology.
According to Akan mythology, all humans lived deep underground. One day, seven men, five women, a leopard, and a dog crawled out of a hole made by a giant worm. Looking around, the astonished people were frightened, but Adu Oginae, the first man to make it to the surface, seemed to understand the world and its wonders.
He reassured them and gave them strength by laying his hands on them. Adu Oginaye also took leadership and grouped the men into work parties. He supervised the building of their first shelters until the tree he was chopping fell and killed him.
5. The Zairian legend of Biloko
Biloko is dwarf-like creatures of African mythology believed to roam the lowland rainforests of central Zaire. According to legends, these creatures are restless ancestral spirits who still hold grudges against the world of the living. They jealously guard the forests and the living creatures that inhabit them from the hollow of the trees in which they hide.
Women swoon at the sight of them, and only the bravest hunters can enter these forests and survive. In addition to their hideous appearance: they have no fur, long sharp claws, and toothy jaws that can open wide enough to swallow a man, they also have a tendency to mesmerize and devour all who fall under their spell.
6. The creation myth of the Dogon tribe
The Dogon tribe brought stories to African mythology that, in part, intertwine in surprising ways with modern notions of the cosmos.
The creator of our world was Amma. He once took a huge clay pot and heated it in the hearth to a crisp. Then he wrapped the pot in a sheet of red copper and threw it into the sky.
– You will be the Sun,” said Amma.
Then he took a smaller pot, heated it in the hearth, wrapped it in a sheet of white copper – now called this metal bronze – and threw it into the opposite corner of the sky.
– And you will be the moon,” he said.
Then Amma broke off a piece of the Sun, shattered it, and scattered the pieces across the sky.
– You will be my stars,” he declared. Then, from the lump of clay, Amma made the Earth and told it:
– And you, Mother Earth, will be my wife and the mother of my children.
With these words, he rained upon the Earth for the first time, and out of the ground was born his first-born twin boys. They were similar to the humans Amma had yet to create, but each had a lizard tongue and a snake tail. Their names were Light and Water.
The twins ascended to their father in heaven and, from there, began to admire their beautiful mother.
– Oh, she’s not dressed! – exclaimed light.
– Well, let’s dress her up,” suggested water.
And they grew grass, various grains, and trees, which flourished and multiplied thanks to Water and Light, and soon the nakedness of the Earth was covered. Water and light are still necessary for plants today.
Then the creator-god Amma molded the first man and the first woman from clay, brought them down to Earth, and breathed life into them. All in all, the couple had eight children – two twin boys and two twin girls. It was with them that the people of Dogon began.
And Water and Light once looked down again at their mother Earth, now clothed in green, and decided she needed more outfits.
– What are you doing? – Amma asked his children.
– Weaving Mama a skirt of reeds and bushes – let her wear it,” they explained. Their father sat down beside them and watched with interest as they worked. And all three were talking quietly. And no one noticed that as they wove the reeds and green branches together, Water and Light created a breeze that carried the words of their conversation down to the Earth. People heard the words and understood them, for they were the speech of the gods. People began to use the words to explain themselves to each other, and the human language was born.
7. The Creation Myth of the Yoruba Tribe
Part of the African mythology of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo (Yorubaland) takes the primordial formless water chaos as their starting point.
In the beginning, the world was a shapeless watery Chaos; there was no land or sea, but only a solid barren swamp. Above it, in the heavens, dwelt the Supreme Being, Olorun, and with him, other gods, including Orisha Nla, called the Great God. Olorun called Orisha Nla to him and commanded him to create the world.
It was time to create the solid ground, and Olorun gave Orisha Nla a snail shell filled with magic Earth, a dove, and a chicken with five fingers to do so. Orisha Nla went down to Chaos and began to arrange it. He threw the magic Earth into a small hole. The dove and the hen began to dig through the magic Earth and dug until the land was finally separated from the sea.
When Orisha Nla returned to Olorun to report back on the work done, Olorun sent the chameleon to check. The chameleon reported that things were going well, and Olorun, satisfied with the work of Orisha Nla, sent him to finish his work. The first place that emerged on Earth is known as Ife, which means “wide” in Yoruba. Then Ile, meaning “home,” was added to it. Today the city of Ife-Ile is considered by the Yoruba people to be the most sacred.
The creation of the Earth lasted four days. On the fifth day, Orisha Nla rested from his labors. The Yoruba usually work for four consecutive days and rest on the fifth day to commemorate the creation of the world.
Orisha Nla returned to the Earth to plant trees again, including the first oil palm. Olorun rained from heaven to water the seeds, and a huge forest grew.
In heaven, Olorun began to create the first people. Orisha Nla molded their forms from the Earth, but only Olorun, the Supreme Being, could breathe life into them. Orisha Nla hid in Olorun’s workshop to watch it happen. But Olorun found out about it and put Orisha Nla into a deep sleep, so only Olorun knows the secret of reviving the body. To this day, Orisha Nla makes new human bodies through the father and mother of the future newborn, but it is Olorun who breathes life into them.
Kalunga is a character of African mythology, widespread among the peoples of West Tropical Africa.
In Angolan myth, death is explained as follows: heartbroken after the death of his beloved wife Muhungu, Chief Kitamba ordered his men not to speak or eat until she came back to life. The tribal elders asked the medicine man to bring the queen from Kalunga (the world of the dead). The healer ordered all the villagers to wash with infused herbs and, soon after, descended into the world of the dead with his son.
Following the road leading to the world of the dead, he soon met the queen. She showed him Kalunga-ngombe, the ruler of the world of the dead, and explained that, eventually, he would devour everyone. She also pointed out a dark figure in chains, the spirit of the chief Kitamba, who was destined to die soon.
After giving him a burial bracelet as proof of their meeting, the queen sent the medicine man back, telling him that no one who went to Kalunga could leave there and that he must not eat any food in the world of the dead and must not speak of Kitamba’s impending death. Otherwise, he himself and his son would be forced to remain in the world of the dead. When he returned, he showed the bracelet to Kitamba, and Kitamba confirmed that it was indeed a Muhungu bracelet.
9. Myths of the Spider God Anansi
The adventures of Anansi, the famous trickster god of West Africa, are described in hundreds of stories of African mythology. He is usually depicted as a spider, and the stories about him are mostly about his attempts to trick people into stealing or doing something immoral that will bring him some kind of benefit. These attempts usually end in complete failure, teaching his listeners various life lessons.
One account tells of how he tried to collect all the wisdom of the world into a pot for himself. When he succeeded, he tried to hide the pot at the top of a tree where no one could find it. He tied the pot to his belly and tried to climb the tree, but he climbed too slowly, slipping and losing his grip.
His son, who was watching him, finally asked him why he didn’t tie the pot on his back to make it easier for him to climb. As soon as he realized his son’s ingenuity, the pot slipped and fell to the ground. Wisdom fell out, and a sudden downpour washed it into the river and from there into the waters of the ocean, so now everyone has some wisdom.
10. The mysterious Queen of Sheba
We know about the Queen of Sheba from various sources, including the Bible and the Koran. Whether she was a regent queen or the consort of a reigning king remains unknown. Her full name is never mentioned, but most scholars believe that her kingdom may have been in the Ethiopian region. The royal family of Ethiopia claims that they are direct descendants of the child born to the queen by King Solomon. In their legends, the queen’s name is Makeda.
According to Kebra Negast, the king invited Makeda to a ceremonial feast where spicy food was specially served. Because she was staying the night, she asked King Solomon to swear that he would not rape her. He said he would not take anything from her if she did not take anything from him.
Unfortunately, at night she was thirsty, woke up, and reached for the water that was by her bedside. The king appeared, reminding her of her promise, for water was the most precious of all earthly goods. The queen took the water and drank it, releasing the king from his promise.
African mythology has been shaped by an oral tradition, developed in the context of incessant migration, and therefore the legends have been passed down from generation to generation without encountering barriers.
African mythology is often difficult to interpret precisely, and an outsider would not understand very much, but for the natives, the cult is primarily practical knowledge. And so it continues to this day, as evidenced, for example, by the constant veneration of the baobab, a powerful tree symbolizing strength and community, used for clothing, fuel, and other household items, as well as serving as a place of assembly. It could be said that Africans live practically in the shadow of their legends.