There’s a reason Africa has fascinated travellers, storytellers, and filmmakers from all over the world — it’s full of tales and mysteries that are begging to be revealed. From the societies of ancient Egypt, to the legendary Zulu, all the way to the modern-day Vodun practices of west Africa, every part of the continent has a story to tell. Here are 12 mysterious and mystifying legends from African folklore that will tickle your imagination and maybe even leave you scratching your head.
Those living near the rainforest in central Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) believed that dwarf-like, evil spirits called Biloko live in hollowed out trees. Legend has it these are ancestor spirits that are angry at the living. They have mouths that open wide enough to swallow a person hole, and can entrance anyone who crosses paths with them. Some legends have it the Biloko has a strong force over women.
According to South African folklore—particularly within the Basotho and Bavenda people—Huveane created all humans. Some believe he was a human himself who intended on living on earth, but he became irritated when people learned how to, um, make more humans on their own. So he built a ladder to the sky, climbed up it, removing steps behind him along the way, and disappeared.
The Zambezi River God
The Zambezi River is the fourth-largest river system in Africa and many believe it to be ruled by a dragon-like creature in African folkore. One fable holds that the Zambezi River God was displeased with a dam being built by the Batonga people—a group of people who lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for hundreds of years. In the 1950s the god collapsed the dam, killing several Botanga people. The survivors spent several days searching for the dead bodies, but with no success. Finally, after offering up a sacrifice of a slaughtered calf to the Zambezi River God, the Botanga people found the dead bodies of their lost loved ones on the shore.
The nomadic Bushmen groups called Khoi or San traditionally led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They believe that the animals they hunt were created out of the blood of the son of Kaang—a god they believed created all humanity. In one tale of African folklore, Kaang’s wife gave birth to an antelope, but Kaang’s other sons accidentally killed the antelope. Kaang ordered his antelope-child’s blood be boiled and spread all over the land, and out of it sprouted more animals.
According to the Akan people who live in the Gulf of Guinea, the first humans who ever existed lived deep in the earth. One day, the humans crawled out of a hole, and found themselves on the surface of earth. Adu Ogynaie was the first person to crawl out of the hole, and he calmed the others, who came out terrified. He taught them how to build homes and take care of themselves, before he was crushed by a tree and died.
The Queen of Sheba
The royal family in Ethiopia claims to be direct descendants of the Queen of Sheba. In their folklore, her name was Makeda. Legend has it that Makeda (Sheba) had a kingdom in Ethiopia and she and king Solomon had a child together. From that child descended the royal family in Ethiopia. The story has it that Solomon invited Makeda to stay at his home one night after a feast, and he promised he would not make love to Makeda if she didn’t take anything from him. Makeda ended up taking a glass of water from Solomon’s home and the rest is history.
According to West African folklore, Anansi is something of a mischievous but unintelligent god. Usually depicted as a spider, he likes to trick people into doing bad things for him, like steal or lie, but his plans go awry. Tales of Anansi are used to teach morals, and one such tale maintains that Anansi stole all the wisdom from all the world, and put it in a pot that he meant to hide at the top of a tree. He wasn’t yet wise enough to know how to lug the pot up the tree though, and it fell to the ground, and spread throughout the land.
Magical female hippopotami
Several African countries maintain that female hippopotami have god-like powers. Ancient Egyptians worshipped Tawaret—a hippopotamus and goddess of fertility and childbirth. The Mozambicans tell a story of a mother who left her endangered child in the care of a mother hippopotamus. The hippo would take the child under water with her during the day, keeping him alive, and during the night would bring the child to the shore so he could nurse with his mother.
Shape-shifting male hippopotami
According to Malian legend, male hippopotami are shape shifting, evil creatures. One legend maintains that one such creature began eating all the crops in a village, and a young hero named Fara Maka attempted to kill the best with spears and killer hounds. Nothing worked until finally, a spell performed by Fara Maka’s wife stopped the beast.
According to Angolan folklore, Kalunga is the world of the dead, where everyone descends after they die. Kakunga-ngombe is the lord of the underworld who devours people after they die. When someone is soon to die, a shadowy figure representing his spirit is chained up in Kalunga.
The Lovedu Rain Queens
The Lovedu people settled in what is today the Limpopo Province in 1500. This is the only African tribe still ruled be a monarch. The successor to the monarch is trained for years for this position, and goes by the title of Modjadji. This queen is supposedly an incarnation of the rain goddess, and her moods and emotions affect the weather. According to legend, she can bring storms down on the enemies of the Lovedu, or bring their crops rain. When a queen turns 60, she is expected to commit suicide by poison, after which her possessions and secret spells are passed onto her successor.
How the zebra got his stripes
This one’s a little lighter. African folklore has it that there used to be a selfish baboon that was a self-proclaimed lord of water at a time when water was hard to come by. The baboon would guard water and not let anyone drink from it. One day, a zebra came and fought the baboon for access to the water. The zebra kicked the baboon onto some rocks, where he scraped his bottom, giving all baboons after him that bare patch on their bottoms. The zebra stumbled through a fire at the end of the fight, and was left with black scorch marks on his formerly all white coat.
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