Africa is the cradle of humanity, the place where the first hominids evolved and from which species like ours, Homo sapiens , departed to colonize the rest of the world. A land of great wealth and history, yet today it is the one with the highest levels of poverty and hunger in the world.
There are many countries that are part of this continent, many tribes and many stories that all of them have been telling since ancient times to explain their world. That is why throughout this article we will see this cultural richness, making a small selection of ten African myths and legends from different regions and tribes .
A dozen great African legends
Below we leave you with a series of ten of the stories, myths and legends that we can find throughout the extensive African geography, many of them referring to elements of nature, the stars and geographical elements.
1. The creation of the world
Almost every culture on earth has at some time imagined some possible explanation based on their beliefs that tries to make sense of how the world appeared . The different cultures present in Africa are no exception. In fact, there are many legends that different tribes and local cultures have been elaborating about it, among which in this article we will see one: that of the Boshongo.
Legend has it that in the beginning there was only darkness and water, besides the creator god Bumba. The latter was in the strictest solitude. One day the god noticed a great pain in his stomach and quite a lot of nausea, after which he vomited. This vomit was the Sun, and from it came the light. Also, from its heat, areas of dry land emerged. The great Bumba again became nauseous, this time expelling the moon and stars. In a third discomfort he vomited the leopard, the crocodile, the lightning, the heron, the kid, the beetle, the turtle, the eagle, the fish and the human being .
After that, the gods born of Bumba and of him committed themselves to finish the work of their father, helping to form the rest of the things of the universe. Only the lightning was problematic and erratic, something that made the deity decide to lock him up and send him to heaven. Since its lack left the human being without the power to make fire, the god himself taught humanity to generate it through the use of wood .
2. The appearance of man at the hands of Mukulu
Human beings have often wondered how the world in which they live appeared, but they have also asked themselves more specifically how they came to be in it. In this sense, there are legends that speak more concretely about his creation, in a way that reminds us in some way of our evolution. This is the case with the myth or legend of Muluku, god of the Makua and the Banayi, and the creation of man.
The legend says that the great god Muluku, after creating the world, decided to create a species that could enjoy and take care of his work . The deity dug two holes in the ground, from which the first man and the first woman would be born. Muluku being also an agricultural god, he taught them to cultivate and care for the fields so that they could feed themselves and live independently. But although they initially followed the god’s instructions, the couple ended up ignoring them and abandoning the care of the world.
Little by little the plants were dying, to the point that the fields became deserted. Thoughtful, the god called a couple of monkeys and gave them the same knowledge. While the first couple of humans had been wasting their time, the apes took care and built a house and a sown field .
In the face of this, the god made a decision: to remove the monkeys’ tails and put them on the couple, who would be transformed into apes. In turn, the monkeys, now tailless, would become human. And it is from the latter that the rest of humanity is descended.
3. The legend of Lake Antañavo
A third African legend, on this occasion of the ancient Antankarana of Madagascar, tells us how one of the lakes of their region, the Antañavo, appeared, which is considered sacred and whose waters must never touch the body .
Legend has it that in the beginning there was no such thing as Lake Antañavo, but instead there was a prosperous town. In that place lived a couple who a few months ago had had a baby. One day, when night fell, the baby broke down and cried. His mother tried to calm him down by all means, but nothing had any effect. Finally, she decided to go for a walk with the child, reaching a tree under which women ground rice during the day. Once seated and under the night breeze, the baby calmed down and fell asleep.
The woman tried to return home with the child, but on the way the little boy broke down again to cry. The mother returned to the same place as before, under the tree, and again her son became calm. When she tried to go home again, the same situation was repeated. And this happened several more times. Finally the young mother, tired, made the decision to sleep under the tree . But just as she was about to do so, all at once, the whole village disappeared, and the whole area sank into the water as far as the mother and her baby were concerned.
After that, the mother ran to tell what had happened to the neighboring villages, which began to consider the place as sacred . They say that the crocodiles that populate Lake Antañavo are the souls of the ancient inhabitants of the village.
4. The legend of Seetetelané
Another traditional African story is that of Seetetelané, which is a short story that offers us a moral that indicates the need to respect others and the contributions they make to our lives. It is also a warning to avoid drunkenness and to avoid throwing away everything we have achieved out of mere arrogance.
Once upon a time there was a man of great poverty who had to hunt mice to survive and who lacked practically everything, his clothes being woven from the skins of the animals he hunted and often being cold and hungry. He had no family or partner either, and spent his time hunting or drinking .
One day, while hunting mice, he found a huge ostrich egg that he thought of eating later. He took it home and hid it there before going back to look for more food. When he returned, having only found two rodents, he found something truly unexpected: he had a table set and prepared with lamb meat and bread. The man, seeing the food, wondered if he had married without knowing it.
At that moment a beautiful woman came out of the ostrich egg and introduced herself as Seetetelané . The woman indicated that she would remain with him as his wife, but warned him never to call her the daughter of the ostrich egg or she would fade away and never return. The hunter promised not to drink again to avoid calling her that.
They spent their days together and happy, until one day the woman asked him if he would like to be a tribal chief and possess all kinds of wealth, slaves and animals. The hunter asked her if he could provide them, to which Seetetelané laughed and with a blow of his foot opened the floor, leaving a large caravan with all kinds of goods, servants, slaves and animals.
In addition, the woman made him see that he had become young and that his clothes were warm and valuable. The house, too, had been transformed from a hut into a stone home filled with furs.
Time passed and the hunter played the leader for a while, until in a celebration the man began to drink. Because of this he began to behave aggressively , which Seetetelané tried to calm him down. But he pushed her and insulted her, calling her the daughter of an ostrich egg.
That same night, the hunter felt cold, and when he woke up he saw that there was nothing left but his old hut. He was no longer a leader, he had no animals or servants, nor were his clothes warm. And he no longer had Seetetelané. The man regretted what he had done and said. A few days later, partly because he had grown accustomed to a better standard of living, the man became ill and died.
5. The legend of the tree of history
Some of the African legends tell of events such as disappearances, once attributed to time travel. One example is in Tanzania, where the Chagga people tell the legend of the tree of history.
Legend has it that once a young woman left with her friends to pick herbs. Trying to access an area where there seemed to be a lot of them, the girl fell into a muddy area, in which she ended up sinking completely despite her friends’ attempts to get her out. After that, they ran to the village in order to bring the news to the parents.
They, in desperation, asked the rest of the village for help, all going to the place where the girl had disappeared. There they followed the recommendation of a wise old man who recommended that they sacrifice a sheep and a cow. This resulted in everyone being able to hear the girl’s voice, which became more and more distant, until they could no longer hear it.
Some time later, in that same place a large tree would start to grow, which was often used by cattle keepers to protect themselves from the heat of the sun. Two young men climbed that same tree one day, and before they disappeared they shouted to their companions that it was taking them to a world before the present. This is why the tree is known as the Tree of History.
6. The legend of Anansi and the spread of wisdom
In most cultures, knowledge and experience have been deeply respected elements that are linked to leadership and respect, as well as knowing what to do in times of need. In this sense there is a legendary character called Anansi, who is responsible for the fact that wisdom is part of everyone and that no one owns it completely.
The legend says that there was once a wise man in the shape of a spider who observed that humanity was at least irresponsible and cruel . Seeing this, the sage made the decision to gather all the wisdom in a single jar and keep it in a safe place. To do so, he decided to enclose this knowledge in the crown of the tallest tree in the world. However, climbing was made very difficult as the being had to hold the jar while advancing through the tree.
Anansi was getting more and more frustrated, not being able to climb the tree with the jug on her head as it was in her way. However, her son, seeing her situation, asked her why she was not carrying it tied to her back. Anansi realized that her son was right, and in the surprise of finding more wisdom than she had accumulated, she dropped the jar. It crashed and broke on the ground, from which a storm spread it to the rest of the world .
Wisdom then spread throughout the world, reaching all mankind. That is why no one is capable of having absolute wisdom but we all have the capacity to recognize it and exercise it.
7. The legend Ayana and the spirit of the tree
The people who have left us have been and are of great importance in our lives, marking us hard. Some cultures establish the possibility of contacting those who have already passed away. An example of this is found in the legend of Ayana and the spirit of the tree.
Legend has it that once upon a time there was a young girl named Ayana who had lost her mother, and although she was sweet and good, she only had an absent father as company, a harassing stepmother. The girl went every day to the cemetery to talk to her mother, whom she heard softly . One day, next to her mother’s grave she saw a small tree, which over time grew until it bore fruit. His mother’s voice sounded at that moment, indicating that he should eat them.
The young woman enjoyed the taste, and decided to take some to her father and stepmother. The latter demanded to know where she got the fruit, as she wanted it for herself. Ayana took it, but the tree kept its branches away from the woman and only allowed the girl to touch it. This caused the stepmother to order her husband to cut down the tree.
After that, the girl continued to see her mother’s grave, from which she saw another day a pumpkin with an impressive taste growing. It had a nectar that reminded Ayana of her mother’s affection. But one day the stepmother saw it and followed her, and after tasting the nectar and understanding why the girl was so happy the last few days she decided to destroy it .
Another day and once she had discovered the destruction of the pumpkin, Ayana discovered the presence of a stream with similar characteristics. This time the stepmother covered the river with soil. The girl decided to leave the grave for fear that her stepmother would destroy it.
The years passed and the girl became a woman, with whom another young man fell in love, to whom she corresponded. However, the stepmother demanded that the young man prove himself worthy of Ayana, for which she ordered him to hunt twelve buffaloes .
Ayana told the story to her boyfriend, who decided to go and see the tree, and there after seeing the remains of the cut tree. She asked Araya’s mother for permission to get married, which was granted and which the young man noticed as a feeling of approval and well-being when he picked up the wood: the approval of his future wife’s mother.
From the wood of the tree the young man made a bow , which helped him to bring down the twelve animals. Thus, Araya and her husband were able to get married regardless of the stepmother’s opinion.
8. The legend of the baobab
Pride and arrogance is a quality that can be expensive, and this is also true in the mentality of some African peoples. That is why there is an African legend that refers to the effects of arrogance and that explains the shape of one of the most famous African trees: the baobab.
The legend says that the baobab tree was considered the most beautiful tree on the planet, to the point that all beings admired it. Even the gods marveled at its beauty, so much so that they even gave it an enormous life expectancy.
As time went by, the tree grew more and more proud of itself, blocking the sunlight for other trees and beings. He said that in no time it would rise to the height of the gods themselves . The gods, once the branches of the tree were close to his home, were furious at the vanity and arrogance of the vegetable. Furious, they condemned the tree to grow in reverse: its flower would grow underground, while only its roots would give way to the air. That is why these trees now look so special and abnormal compared to the rest.
9. The origin of death
Not only are there legends linked to life and creation, but African peoples also have legends linked to destruction and death. An example of these is found in the following Zulu legend .
The legend says that after the creation of man, he did not know if his life was going to have an end or not. The creator deity Unkulunkulo decided at first to grant him immortality. To bring the news to man he sent the great chameleon Unawabu, who carried the news that mankind would not die . However, this being, on his way, stopped to eat and began to take longer than expected to deliver the message.
The deity expected the human being to thank him for the gift of immortality he had just given them, but since the message had not yet been received, the humans did nothing. Not knowing that the cause was ignorance and thinking that humanity was ungrateful, the god changed his mind: from then on the human being would be mortal and would end up dying. He sent the lizard Intulo to carry the message, which acted quickly to fulfill its mission. That is why we are mortal and destined to die.
10. The legend of Bamako
The last of the African legends explained here will be directed to the legend that explains the origin of the Moon.
The legend says that at the beginning of time the Earth was accompanied only by the Sun , which when it went down left the world in the most absolute darkness, something that favoured pillaging. One day, in the village where the beautiful and gentle Bamako lived, there was an attack on her village during the night, taking advantage of the darkness.
The villagers tried to defend themselves, but they could not see and slowly began to fall in the successive attacks. Bamako was deeply concerned about this situation.
One day, the god N’Togini appeared to him in a dream. He told Bamako that her son Djambé had been in love with her for a long time , and promised her that if she agreed to marry him he would take her to heaven and she could light up the night to avoid attacks like the one that happened. The woman accepted and asked for instructions. The god told her that at sunset she should climb the biggest rock next to the river and throw herself into it, as well as assuring her that she should not have since her future husband would be there to raise her to the heavens.
Bamako did her part, and as her husband, the Sun, had promised her, he raised her into the heavens with him and transformed her into the Moon. Thanks to her, the villagers were able to fight and defeat their attackers
- Lynch, P.A. & Roberts, J. (2010). African Mythology A to Z. Chelsea House Publishers.
- Yosvany, V. (2016). Myths, tales and legends of Africa. Editorial Verbum