Friday, 16 January 2015

Creation Mythology: South & West Africa

Today we are going to explore the creation myths of the people of Southern and Western Africa.  As with East and Central Africa, the mythology of the south and west is varied, differing from tribe to tribe.  Here I will give you five myths from the south and five myths from the west.

The Creation Myths of South Africa

South Africa

South Africa is the mother of various Bantu speaking tribes.  These include the Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Pedi, Ndebele and Tsonga, amongst others.  Let’s take a look at some of the creation myths of South Africa’s tribal people.

The Ndebele tribe of South Africa are one of the smallest groups of people living in South Africa and belong to the larger group Nguni peoples, which include the Zulu, Swazi, and Xhosa tribes.  It is believed that they migrated from Natal in around the 15th or 16th century.  The Ndebele tribe tell the following myth about the origin of death and of how the chameleon got his skin.

Chameleon by RuslanKadiev
Chameleon and First Man

In the beginning, when the Creator was completing his plans for the world, he wished to give the gift of immortality to First Man.
The Creator sent Chameleon to First Man with the message that First Man must drink from a stream that he had blessed with heavenly knowledge.  After doing so, humankind would live forever.
It was many, many days before Chameleon, or ‘Slow Walker’ as he is also known, completed his task.  Chameleon would place one foot in front of the other, then pull it back to ponder on whether he should go forward or backward.  Chameleon would do this two, three, or even four times before eventually taking a step forward.
Travelling in such a manner, it took Chameleon a very, very long time to reach the house of First Man.  When he told him of the Creator’s gift, First Man rushed down to the stream.  But he saw no sign of water, only a dry river bed.
First Man found a damp patch of sand and pressed his lips to it, but no water came.  Next he pressed the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet to the damp sand, but no water would come.  First Man even sucked on damp pebbles, but there was no way he could get enough moisture.  He had lost the gift of immortality.
First Man was angry with Chameleon.  His slowness meant the loss of everlasting life.  In his rage, he killed Chameleon.
To this day, many people still kill chameleons on sight, remembering their loss.  But the Creator took pity on Chameleon and gave him the gift of a skin that could change colour, as if by magic.  This now helps the ‘Slow Walker’ to hide from the people’s wrath.

According to traditional elders in South Africa, the Creator made four Spirits which then completed the task of creation.

Wind Spirit by shaggy6963
The Four Spirits of Creation

In the beginning there was only the Creator.  The Creator looked upon itself and said, ‘This is not enough.  It is not good for me to be all alone in existence.’  And so the Creator cast off a piece of itself and from this piece began to create.  The Creator made four Spirits and with its breath gave them life.  As each Spirit came to life, the Creator named them.  ‘You are Wind,’ it said to the first of the creations.  The second Spirit was named Sun, as the life-giving breath filled its being.  The third Spirit was called Water, and the fourth of the creations was Earth.
When this was done, the Creator said to the four Spirits, ‘Go out and create as you see fit.  Give life as I have given you life, make a home for yourselves and create Keepers who will look after it.’  And so each of the four Spirits went out into the darkness and began to create.  The Spirit of the Earth created the land as its home.  It created
The Sun by satiiiva
mountains, rocks, flat plains, and caves.  In each of these places a Keeper was placed.  ‘You will be the Keeper of this place, my home,’ commanded Earth as the Spirit Keeper came to life.  ‘All who come here must abide by the laws that you will be given by me.’
While the Spirit of the Earth was busy creating, the other three Spirits were also busy with their own creations.  The Spirit of Water created the ocean, the lakes, and the rivers.  In each of these places, Water placed a Spirit Keeper and commanded them to keep the place in good order.  The Spirit of the Wind in its turn created a mighty ocean of air with which it encircled the land that the Earth had created as its home.  The Wind also created Keepers of the sky to do its bidding and to maintain the law of the sky.  The Spirit of the Sun looked upon the creations of the other three Spirits and said, ‘I will create a great cooking fire and place it in the sky.  With this great fire I will bring light and warmth to the land, the sky, and the ocean.’
Water Spirit by Aster-phire
When the Spirits of the Earth, the Water, the Sun, and the Wind were finished, the Keepers set to work to create helpers who would maintain the creations of the four great ones.  The Keepers of the land created all the animals and reptiles who would roam the land and help to keep it in good order.  They also created all the trees and the grass that grows on the plains.  The Keepers of Water created the fish and all the creatures who lie in the rivers, the lakes, and the sea.  The Keepers of the Wind created the birds and even the tiny flying insects for whom the sky would be home.  The Keepers of Fire brought warmth and life to the world, and brought rain to the land with the fiery power of lightning.
Earth Spirit by beyondwonderwall
The Great Creator of All Things looked upon the creations and was happy.  Its only sadness was that none of its creations ever returned to visit.  Then, one day, to the Creator’s surprise and joy, the Spirit of Earth came.  ‘You have remembered me!’ the Creator cried joyfully.  ‘For this I will reward you with a gift.’  The Creator gave the Spirit of Earth a small bundle and said, ‘Place this deep within your womb; hide it there so that the others cannot see that I have given you a gift, for if they see it they too will want gifts and I have none to give them.’  And so Earth took the bundle and hid it deep within her womb.
The bundle contained the first ancestors of the human being.  The ancestors lived within the womb of the Earth and gave birth to children and grandchildren, who in turn gave birth to great-grandchildren, until there were villages of people living deep within the Earth.

The Kalahari Bushmen, also known as the San, Saan, or Bazarwa are hunter-gatherers who have territory in Botswana, Nambia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.  They are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of South Africa, where they have lived for at least 20,000 years.  Here we find a creation story which tells of how people and animals once lived beneath the surface of the Earth with the Lord of Life, known as Kaang or Kang.

We Could Live in Caves by ArtofTrent
Kaang Creates the World Above

It was the golden age, an age of happiness, when there was no quarrelling or warfare and everything was bathed in a light which did not come from the sun.  Then Kaang decided to make a more wonderful world above ground.
He created a great tree whose branches stretched out across the whole world.  Under its roots he made a passageway down to the place where people and animals were living comfortably together.  Then he led the first man up to the surface, followed by the first woman, and then all the people.  After that he brought up the animals, who rushed out eagerly, and some of them swarmed up into the branches of the tree.
Kaang gave them all instructions.  They were to continue to live together peacefully, people and animals.  He gave especially firm instructions to the people not to build fires.  If they built fires evil would come.  They promised and he left them to their lives, moving away but continuing to watch over them.
Fire in the Night
In their underground world it had always been mysteriously light, but above ground the sun set and it grew dark.  The people were frightened because they could not see what was happening and, lacking the fur the animals wore, the humans felt cold.  Someone suggested building a fire to give light and heat, forgetting Kaang’s warning.  But the fire frightened the animals, who ran away to live in mountains and caves, and people and animals lost the ability to talk to one another.  People and animals now lead lives of mutual suspicion and antagonism and there is no more peace.

The Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa, with an estimated 10-11 million people living in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and smaller numbers living in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.  They are believed to descend from a chief from the Congo area and are said to have migrated south in the 16th century.  The Zulu people tell the following creation myth of the sky-god Umvelinqangi and the ancestor Unkulunkulu.  Some versions have it that the supreme god is Unkulunkulu rather than Umvelinqangi.

Unkulunkulu by FrancisWarhol*
People of the Reeds

In the beginning there was a large swamp in the lands to the North, called Uhlanga.  In this swamp there grew many types of reeds and rushes, each with its own colour.
One morning the sky-god Umvelinqangi descended from heaven and married Uhlanga.  Out of this vast valley he ‘broke off’ many reeds of different colours and made them into people.  He made them in pairs, a man and a woman he made from every type of reed.  These original people were all called Unkulunkulu ‘ancestor’.  Each pair became the parents of a tribe of human beings, each tribe having its own colour, just as one finds stems and stalks in different shades of brown.  So, the people of this Earth were created from waterplants, which grew up from the valley with which Umvelinqangi lived in creative union.  Each nation was born from the wet earth, and every Unkulunkulu brought his own medicine, i.e. his won secret charm of life.

The Shona tribe are Zimbabwe’s largest indigenous group, numbering around 9 million.  They can be found in Zimbabwe, Botswana and southern Mozambique in South Africa.  According to the Shona, the Supreme Being is Mwari.  Mwari is both male and female.  The female aspect of their creator ‘is merged in the pool with its darkness and mystery; this is the god of below.  The male aspect of Mwari manifests himself in lightning or in a shooting star and is ‘owner of the skies, the god of light, the father of creation… this is the god above.’  Mwari is the god of fertility and is also known as Dzivaguru, meaning great pool, as he is the bringer of rain.

Mwari and his Creation, Musikavanhu

Mwari put his creation, Musikavanhu, into a deep sleep and the let him drop from the sky.  While he fell, Musikavanhu awoke and, in the distance, saw a white stone which was also dropping from the sky at great speed.  Musikavanhu fell softly onto the stone, and the first spot his feet touched softened and emitted water.  Musikavanhu, bored, began to wander about.  When night fell, he sat
Musikavanhu, Artist Unknown
down near the stone from which God had spoken, and slept.  In a dream, he saw the birds in the air, and many animals on the earth that were jumping from stone to stone.  When Musikavanhu awoke, he was surprised to see that all he had just dreamt had become reality.  God told Musikavanhu what he was allowed to eat, and what food was forbidden.  He was free to eat vegetables and fruit from trees, but not to kill and eat animals.  Nor were the animals allowed to eat each other.  One day, while Musikavanhu slept, a snake crept over his loins and left its marks.  When he woke up, he was overcome by a strange feeling; he had trouble breathing and his penis moved like a snake.  A voice told him to go to the pool and the pain would pass.  On his way there, he saw a beautiful young woman sitting on a stone near the pool.  She looked like him, but she could neither speak nor move.  Again Musikavanhu heard a voice.  It told him to touch the woman with his hand.  He did, and the young woman came to life.  A snake moved across her loins too and she was overcome by the same emotions as Musikavanhu.  The voice spoke and told Musikavanhu to be kind to his wife and to all the animals too.  He was also told to set aside one day a month for the honor of God.  When Musikavanhu had completed the tasks set by God, he had to return to heaven.  Before he left, Musikavanhu told his children to observe the laws of God or that same God would punish them.

The Creation Myths of Western Africa

West Africa

West Africa is home to many tribes, some of which date back thousands of years.  These include the Ashanti, Fulani, Dogon, Yoruba, Mande, and Fon tribes.  Let’s take a look at some of their creation myths.
The Yoruba are one of the three largest ethnic groups of Nigeria, with smaller groups being found in Benin and northern Togo.  Their supreme being is Olorun and he is assisted by a number of beings called orishas.

Olorun by Kriizi
Obatala and the Golden Chain 

In the beginning there was only the sky above, and water and marshland below.  The all-powerful, supreme god Olorun ruled the sky, and the goddess Olokun ruled what was below.  It was another god, Obatala, who thought that something more should be done.  After reflecting on the situation, Obatale went to Olorun and asked for permission to create dry land so all manner of creatures might live upon it.  Olorun gave him permission and he sought the advice of Orunmila, who was the eldest son of Olorun and the god of prophecy.  Obatala was told that he would need a golden chain which was long enough to reach below; a snail shell filled with baobab powder and sand; palm nuts; maize; and the egg, which contained the personalities of all orishas (spirits which reflect one of the manifestations of God in the Yoruba religion), all of which he was to carry in a bag.  All of the gods gave what gold they had, while Orunmila supplied the items for the bag.  When all was ready, Obatala hung the chain from a corner of the sky, placed the bag over his shoulder, and
Obatala Artist Unkmown
started to climb down.  When he reached the end of the chain he saw that he still have further to go.  From high above he heard Orunmila instruct him to pour the sand from the snail’s shell and to break the egg to free Sankofa (in this case, a bird).  Obatala did as he was told to, pouring out the sand and shattering the egg.  Upon landing, the bird began to scratch and scatter the sand and, wherever the sand landed, it formed dry land, with the larger piles becoming hills and the smaller piles becoming valleys.  Obatala jumped to a hill and named it Ife.  Then he began to plant palm nuts and watched them grow to maturity in only seconds.  Months passed and Obatala grew bored with the routine.  He decided to create other beings like himself to keep him company.  Digging into the sand, Obatala soon reached clay which he began to mold into figures.  Time passed and Obatale grew tired.  He took a break, making wine from a nearby palm tree.  He drank a bowl, then another, then another.  Then, not realizing how intoxicated the wine had made him, Obatala returned to his task but the figures he created were misshapen and imperfect.  But Obatala was unaware of their imperfection and called for Olorun to breathe life into the clay figures.  It wasn’t until the following day that Obatala realized his mistake.  He swore to never drink again and promised to care for those who were deformed, becoming Protector of the Deformed.  Obatala’s creations built huts, much as their creator had, and thrived.  The other gods were pleased with what Obatala had done and visited the new land often, all but Olokun, who ruled all below the sky.

The Fulani of Mali, also known as the Fula or Fulbe, can be found throughout Africa, although they predominantly inhabit West Africa.  They tell the following poem of creation which involves their supreme god Doondari.

A Drop of Milk by MarcGC
How the World Was Created From A Drop of Milk

At the beginning there was a huge drop of milk.
Then Doondari came and he created the stone.
Then the stone created iron;
And iron created fire;
And fire created water;
And water created air.
Then Doondari descended the second time.  And he took the five elements
And he shaped them into man.
But man was proud.
Then Doondari created blindness and blindness defeated man.
But when blindness became too proud,
Doondari created sleep, and sleep defeated blindness;
But when sleep became too proud,
Doondari created worry, and worry defeated sleep;
But when worry became too proud,
Doondari created death, and death defeated worry.
But when death became too proud,
Doodari descended for the third time,
And he came as Gueno, the eternal one,
And Gueno defeated death.

According to the Fon people of Dahomey, Benin, the creator is Mawu-Lisa, a god with two faces.  The first face is Mawu, a woman, whose eyes are the moon; the second face is Lisa, a man, whose eyes are the sun.  Mawu is the ruler of the night, where Lisa is the ruler of the day.  To aid the god in its creation of the world is Aido-Hwedo, the serpent, who is a twinned male-female form, with one half living in the sky and the other half living in the sea.

When Mawu was making the world, Aido-Hwedo, the rainbow serpent, was her servant.  It is said that he came into existence with the first man and woman, Adanhu and Yewa.  Aido-Hwedo carried Mawu in his mouth wherever she wanted to go, which is why the Earth curves and winds: it was carved from the sinuous movements of the serpent.  Wherever they rested there are now mountains, which are the excrement of Aido-Hwedo.  It is for this reason that great riches (metals) can now be found within the mountain today.
When Mawu finished her work of creation, she saw that she had made too many things: too many trees, too many mountains, too much of everything.  The Earth could not bear the weight.  So she told Aido-Hwedo to coil himself into a circle beneath the Earth, to support it.  Aido-Hwedo does not like heat, so Mawu made the cold sea as a home for him.  When the Earth chafes him, Aido-Hwedo shifts, and causes earthquakes.  He eats iron bars, forged for him by red monkeys that live beneath the sea, and when the iron runs out, Aido-Hwedo will begin to starve.  In desperation he will gnaw through his own tail.  He will convulse, and the Earth and all its burdens will tip into the sea.

The Dogon can be found in Mali and are believed to be of Egyptian descent. They tell the following creation myth about their one true god, Amma, and spirits called Nummo, who are referred to as serpents and, sometimes, water spirits.

The Dogon say that the stars were created from pellets of earth flung out into space by the one true god, Amma.  The sun and moon were created by a process much like that of making pottery, which was the first known invention of god.  The sun is like a pot that has been fired until it is white-hot, then surrounded by a spiral of copper with eight turns.  To create the Earth, Amma squeezed a lump of clay in his hand and threw it away from himself in the same manner as he did the stars.  The clay spread to the north and to the south (the top and the bottom) in a movement that was horizontal.  By nature, the Earth is female.  Looking at it flat and considering the cardinal points of the compass as her appendages, it is like a woman lying on her back with her arms and legs spread.  The anthill is her female organ.  In the course of time, Amma tried to fertilize her, but this flawed union between god and Earth created only one being, the jackal, which became the symbol of disorder and the difficulties of god.  Later, having overcome the difficulty, god had intercourse with the Earth again, this time successfully.  Water, which is the divine seed, entered the womb of the Earth and resulted in the birth of twins.  Two beings were formed, which god created like water.  They were green in colour and were half human, half serpent.  Their bodies were green and sleek all over and shiny like
Nommo of Sirius (Dogon Creation Myth) © Corbin Kosak 2014
the surface of the water.  These spirits were called Nummo, and they were born perfect.  They had eight members, and their member was eight, which is also the symbol of speech.  They were of divine essence, which is the life force of the world, and is water.  The name Nummo is synonymous in the Dogon language with the word for water.  To the Dogon, Nummo is water, and the Nummon pair is present in all water – whether it is drinking water, water of the river, or water of the storm.

The Mande people can be found throughout West Africa, although they are primarily located on the savannah plateau of western Sudan.  Their creation myth tells of Mangala and the trickster Pemba.  The myth can be considered an example of a world egg, creation from chaos myth which begins as an ex nihilo myth.

The Cosmic Egg by armawolf
Mangala and Pemba 

Before the Earth was created there was Mangala, and he was alone.  Inside Mangala there were four divisions and each one represented the four days of the week, the four elements, and the four directions.  He also carried two sets of twins inside him.  But Mangala soon grew tired of holding all of these things inside him, so he put it all inside a seed.  The seed was his creation of the world, but the seed wasn’t strong enough and split apart.  Mangala was dissatisfied with this world he had created and he quickly destroyed it.
Mangala decided to try again, this time with two sets of twin seeds.  He planted these inside an egg-shaped womb where they gestated.  Mangala continued to add twin seeds to the egg-shaped womb until there were eight sets of seeds.  Inside the womb, the seeds transformed into fish and the words Mangala had made was successful.
But while Mangala tried to keep his creation perfect, it was not to be.  One of the male twins tried to escape to egg.  He was Pemba and he was the chaos.  Pemba as a trickster, and his first trick was to steal a piece of the womb’s placenta, which he threw down, creating the earth.  Then Pemba tried to refertilize the remainder of the womb, committing incest against his mother, who was the womb.
Something had to be done to save Mangala’s creation, so he took Farro, who was Pemba’s brother, castrated him and then killed him, before bringing him back to life.  Then, Mangala took the placental and transformed it into the sun.  Since that time Pemba has been associated with darkness and the night.  Farro became a human and Mangala taught him the language of creation so he might defeat Pemba.  Farro and his twins came to the Earth and married one another, becoming the horonw.
It was then that Sourakate came from the sky, carrying the sacred drum, hammer, and the sacrificed skull of Farro.  Sourakate played the drum and sang for the first rains to come.  This being was able to control nature and he taught these skills to Farro and his followers.  Sourakate is the origin of the nyamakalaw.

 That's all for today.  Next time

Useful Resources

Resurgence & Ecologist (Creation Story by Collin Campbell)
First Light: A History of Creation Myths from Gilgamesh to the God Particleby G. R. Evans
Bantu Myths and Other Tales edited by Jan Knappert
Creation Stories: Africana Library – Cornell University by J. KirbyJr 
The Origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths by Ulli Beier
DK: Eyewitness Companions – Mythology by Philip Wilkinson & NeilPhilip
The Science of the Dogon: Decoding the African Mystery Tradition byLaird Scranton
West Africa Cosmogony: Origin Myths of Mande & Yoruba by Neil Lewis

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