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Mythical Creature of Sub-Saharan Africa:

A Look at Legends and Beings from the ‘Dark Continent’

By Tristan BiggsPublished 2 months ago 34 min read

This is a vast region that stretches from the Sahel, the interface between the Sahara Desert and the landscapes that border it, to the tropical rainforests of the Congo, and on to the semi-arid Kalahari and Karoo of the Cape Province in South Africa. It encompasses a complex mix of tribes and peoples, all descendants from ancient empires. The myriad of myths and legends would be far too vast to discuss all of them, so I have chosen a sample from each category, and geographical location.

West Africa:


One would normally associate these bloodthirsty cryptids with European legends, such as those believed to have haunted the likes of Transylvania, so when similar fiends appear in African traditional tales, it may come as somewhat of a surprise. But indeed in West Africa folklore, such beings are said to exist. However there is one distinct difference: Unlike their Northern counterparts - who cannot function in daylight - these creatures actually thrive in it. Not only that, but many of them are active both day and night.

An example of this is the Adze from Togo and Ghana. Traditionally described as a shape-shifting bloodsucker, the Adze can transform itself into a firefly. In this diminutive form, it is said to be able to crawl through a crack in the wall, or even a slightly open window or door, so as to gain access to the home’s inhabitants. Once it has achieved this, it hides itself, waiting for an opportunity to change back into its original form and feed on its victims. More often than not, all that is left is a dried-up corpse once the monster has satisfied its hunger.

Similarly the Ashanti tell of the Obayifo, known to the Dahomey as the Asiman. Although there are similarities, this creature is believed to be far more powerful. Travelling as a ball of light, the being has the power to possess both human and animal alike. Their victims are easily identified because of a strange light that shines from their eyes, mouth, armpits and other bodily orifices. Once possessed, the person will prowl around at night in search of prey. Like the Adze, Obayifo has a preference for children. There is one big difference between them though, and that is that the latter are also believed to cause blight in crops, fruits to whither, and animals to fall ill. Both are extremely malevolent.

The largest of these beasts are the Asonbosam and its relative, the Sasabonsam. Both are described as massive ogre-like beings with iron teeth and claws. They hang from large trees, ready to drop onto their unsuspecting prey. The Sasabonsam has large bat-like wings as well.

Beings from the Lost World:

The tropical rainforests of central Africa, regions such as the Congo and Zaire are home to a legendary and mythical host of cryptids and other monsters. So much so that these have given rise to the belief in a ‘Lost World’ in which dinosaurs and other beings still roam, as if they never went extinct, and that despite the less imaginative Victorian visitors believing that these were mere exaggerations of existing fauna.

Some examples of these are: The ‘Hog-Fish’. Also known as the Ambize Angulo, this benign being is said to be as fat as a hog, and is a provider of lard. A far less friendly creature is the Kongamato, or ‘Breaker of Boats’. This is believed to be a pterosaur with large leathery wings and fierce claws. It is normally black and red in colour. The Ninki Nanka is a cousin to the Northern dragons, and lives in the swamps of Senegal and Gambia. As to its temperament or attitude towards humans, there seems to be a lack of information either way. A distant relative to the legendary Loch Ness Monster, the Mokele-mbembe - ‘The one who stops rivers from flowing’ - is said to be the size of an elephant, and has a long neck and a short tale. It is a resident of Kongo.

By far the most fearsome and largest of these creatures are the ‘Rainbow Serpents’. Also known as the ‘God Serpents’, Damballa and Aiya Weddo are believed to be the mounts of the gods, and participated in the creation of the world. They occur in the legends of the people of Benin, Dahomey and Nigeria. Because of the rise of Voodoo, these beings also occur in the beliefs of the people of the Caribbean as well.

Forest Denisons:

Like Europe, Africa has its fair share of elves, dwarves, gnomes, and other forest and savanna inhabitants. The majority of these are benevolent, or are at worst tricksters, performing acts of mischief rather than out of any malice. There are a few evil exceptions however: Like the Abiku, spoken of among the Yoruba people. These dwarves are known to possess young children, eating and drinking everything the victim consumes, but inevitably resulting in his or her death, after which the Abiku merely moves on to its next victim.

Also from the Yoruba, the Emere are distant cousins to the European elves. They are both extremely beautiful and very powerful, and have the ability to travel between worlds at will. They are kind and benevolent, but will retaliate if threatened or mistreated.

Yumboes are silver-haired white dwarves. They are known to select a specific family and care for it, grieving if any misfortune should befall those under their watchful eye. The diminutive Aziza are tiny and hairy. They are known among the Dahomey, and live in abandoned anthills. They are the purveyors of spiritual advice to hunters, as well as being able to perform ‘White Magic’ - magic that is beneficial to others. They also smoke long clay pipes. And then there is the fairy-like Egbere, who would gladly live in harmony with their human neighbours, provided that no-one tries to steal their most prized possession - their precious sleeping mats. If deprived of this, the Egbere will follow the culprit, weeping and wailing loudly day and night, until the item is returned.

Further notes on the Yumboes: These are ‘Little Folk’ originating from Senegalese folklore, more specifically of the Wolof people. Another name for them is ‘Bakhna Rakhna’ which means ‘Good People’. They are described as having pearly white skin, which is often a sign of a creature being supernatural in African legend. They stand about two to three feet tall and have silver hair, as has been mentioned before. It is perhaps the belief that white skinned beings are supernatural that first allowed European colonists to settle so easily on African soil, a belief that more than likely changed as the interactions between the two races became more and more hostile due to the colonists’ increasing demands for land, and later even slaves.

As has been stated before, Yumboes will select a specific human family to love and take care of. This devotion is so great that, if a family member should perish, the Yumbo caring for it will do all in its power to offer support and sympathy for those who remain. As a form of respect, they are also said to dance on the grave of the deceased.

They live beneath the Paps Hills, so named for their resemblance to female breasts, the archaic word for which is ‘Paps’. For example: “... And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked …” (Luke 11vs27&28 in the Old King James version). These specific hills are situated roughly five kilometres inland from Goree Island.

These Good People come out to dance on some moonlit nights, at which time they feast at large tables, where they are served by partially invisible servants - with only their feet and hands visible. They are known to invite some local residents, and even those passing through on the odd occasion, to join in their celebration. What is of particular interest here is that this belief correlates with those concerning the Ljósálfar or ‘Light Elves’ of Norse mythology

The Wolof say that Yumboes live in a manner that is not that different to humans. Their tiny fishing boats can be seen at night, as the fisherfolk go out to catch the evening meal. They do not light their own fires however, but will steal a burning log from a human’s fire on which to roast their catch. Corn is also one of their favourite foods, and the family that is under their care would do well to leave an offering of corn for their caregivers. Yumboes have a fondness for plum wine as well, and will often over-indulge, after which they are known to become somewhat rowdy, singing loudly and beating on their drums while generally acting in a wild manner.

The Wokulo of Mali are tricksters. They are only about three feet tall, but are immensely strong, able to tackle even the strongest and most skilled wrestlers. Their main vice is that they take pleasure in stealing food, something that is aided by the fact that they are almost invisible. The intentions of the central Congo’s Eloko are far from mere trickery. These hairless beings cover themselves with grass in order to hide from their victims, namely hunters, who they will haunt, and their hapless wives, who they taunt and scare. Once they tire of such games, they often kill and eat their victims.

Perhaps the most impressive, if not the scariest of these forest dwellers is the Yehwe Zogbanu of the Dahomey. This is an ogre-sized humanoid with up to thirty horns on its body and head. They are said to be the most notorious and dangerous humanoid cryptids in the region, and have been known to totally destroy any life form in an entire area in order to satisfy their seemingly insatiable appetites.They are also fiercely territorial, and will not tolerate other hunters of any kind in their territories. So great is their hatred for other hunters that they will hunt down, kill and even devour any that deign to cross their path. They can sense any competition easily using their ‘tremorsense’ like ability - meaning that they are particularly sensitive to vibrations in the ground, and are able to locate their origin - and when they do, the Yehwe Zogbanu will become enraged, and will not stop until the creature is eliminated. Battles between these beasts are particularly ferocious, and only end once the victor has killed, and often devoured the loser.

River Tricksters

The rivers of West Africa are teeming with potential dangers. Such as the Ikaki of Nigerian traditional legend. These take the form of a giant tortoise, and lay in wait for a hapless human on which to prey. The Congo is the home of a race of water nymphs - called the Bisimbi Bi Masa - that are so dangerous that even the bravest warrior and most powerful witch doctor fears to tread in their territories.

Other breeds of tricksters, often taking the shape of certain animals, are common to most traditions and cultures world-wide. West Africa is no exception. Indeed the most popular are the Ngofariman, a cunning chimpanzee from Mali, and the famous Ananzi, the spider that originated from Ghana and has gained popularity throughout the Caribbean and USA as a children’s story.

South and East Africa:

This is a region of mighty warriors and epic history. It is home to such people as the Zulus, the Maasai, the Kikuyu, and the Nguni - names the mere mention of which at one time struck fear into the hearts of those who stood in their way. Tales of their wars, and the Great Scattering are of such proportion as to equal those of the famous Northern sagas.These began when various conflicts in the region of the African Great Lakes caused a massive migration of tribes southwards, where they in turn displaced the local communities of Khoi and San that had lived there for centuries before. An example of this is the desolation of the Wa-Kuavi people by the more warlike and powerful Maasai, not to mention the diaspora known in Southern Africa as the Difaqane and Mfanqane, which changed the map of that region irrevocably.

The only remaining evidence of the Wa-Kuavi is mentioned in a journal documenting the travels of two adventurers, Messrs. Jackson and Gedge in 1891, which reads: “... The Wa-Kuavi, who formerly inhabited this plateau (The Mau Escarpment), have been driven forth by the Maasai, but the sites of their kraals can still be recognised by large round patches of very green grass and a certain large species of nettle …”

The scattering of tribes in Southern Africa was largely due to the spread of the Zulu Empire under Shaka, and its influence even spread as far north as present-day Zimbabwe, where Mzilikazi - who either fled the rule of his paramount, or was sent to inhabit part of that country - settled in what became known as Matabeleland.

Given their warrior background, one is bound to ask: What do these mighty people fear? With what creatures do they share this part of the vast continent, and what wondrous beings roam the savannas and woodlands of East and Southern Africa?

Again the answer is: Too many to mention each and every one of them, so I shall sample but a few.

Devilish Spectres:

The people of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique speak of a race of hideous and malevolent spectres collectively known in Swahili as the Shetani. This word is based on the arabic term for a Devil, Shaitan, which is also related to the Hebrew word for the ‘Prosecutor of Sinners’ and servant of Yahweh, Ha-Satan, which was later reduced to Satan, the Judeo-Christian ‘Prince of the Underworld’, and source of all evil.

The Shetani manifest in various forms, all of which are both depraved and terrifying. In their original form, they appear as deformed and frightening humanoids with only a single arm and one eye, situated in the centre of the forehead like that of a Cyclops. The Ukunduka is a vampiric spirit, feeding off sexual energy, and thus robbing people of their potency and enjoyment of the act of sex. The bat-like Popobawa take pleasure in violating their victims in their own beds.

Madagascar too has its fair share of malevolent beings, namely the Angatra. These are said to be the spirits of the forgotten dead. Their anger and bitterness is all that remains after their demise, causing them to haunt burial sites and graveyards. If neglected and unplacated, they transform into the murderous Kinoly, a wraith that roams in rice fields, and on village paths and roads, waiting for victims which they disembowel using their razor sharp claws, as strong and deadly as daggers. These spectres are recognisable by their glowing red eyes.

Spirits and Ghosts:

Not all spiritual entities are evil, however. For example, in Uganda one can come across the relatively harmless Mizimu, the spirit of a villager that still wanders through his or her home village for some reason or another. Although the sight of these phantoms may scare the uninitiated, they will not inflict any harm, nor do they harbour any malice against the living. And then there are the heroic and mighty Balubaale. These are said to be guardian saints, and were once fierce warriors who died defending their tribe, a duty they will continue to perform bravely even from beyond the grave.

Even in modern times, there have been accounts of these valiant beings coming to the aid of soldiers in combat situations in countries such as Zimbabwe during the Bush War (July 1974 to December 1979). In the reports, they were described as ‘Soldiers in White’ that interposed in times when combatants were in great need, or ran the risk of defeat.

In Uganda dwells the tall and beautiful Kakua Kambuzi. Distant cousins to the European Dryads, these beings inhabit the Ugandan forests, filling the air with their perfume that resembles burning incense.

Fiendish Servants and Summoned Beings:

These are not spirits, but take on a more physical, corporeal form. Like the terrifying Impundulu or ‘Lightning Bird’. This denison of the South is usually seen as a black bird, about the size of the average man, and is often in the employ of powerful wizards. It is capable of summoning thunder and lightning on command. But it is in its humanoid form that the Impundulu is at its worst. Appearing as a handsome and seductive young male, it will lure young virgins away from their villages, into secret hideouts, where it satiates its appetite for fresh blood.

Perhaps the most notorious fiend in South African legend, or more specifically in the Zulu tradition, is the Tokoloshe, which can be spelt Tikoloshe, Tikolosh, Tokolotshe, or Thokolose, and is also known as the Hili. It is usually described as an ugly dwarf-like water sprite that can become invisible either by drinking water or swallowing a stone. The Tokoloshe is extremely vindictive and mischievous. At its least harmful, it takes pleasure in scaring children, rather like the so-called Bogeyman in western lore, but this fiend can also be called upon to cause hardship, disease, and even death. The latter is usually arranged by consulting a sangoma or nyanga, and is usually at the behest of a member of the tribe or family that wishes to harm the victim as repayment for some wrongdoing. The creature might be banished by another witchdoctor, or - since the advent of Christianity - the services of an apostolic pastor, both of which have the power only to banish the Tokoloshe from the area. In modern times, the being has been relegated to mere superstition, and even used in a satirical manner to describe an obstacle that needs to be overcome, in a similar way that others would speak of the need to “Face one’s demons”.

There is a theory that the concept of the Tokoloshe first came about as an explanation why villagers would suddenly perish without any explanation, especially in their sleep. One of the fiend’s favourite practices is to take a victim’s life while he or she is sleeping. This can only be prevented by elevating one’s bed from the traditional sleeping mat to a one that is above floor level. A possible scientific reason for this is that, during the bitterly cold winters as are common on the Highveld - where this legend is more prevalent - people would position their mats around a fire that had been set in the centre of the hut. At the time they had no idea that the heat was slowly depleting the oxygen levels around them while increasing the amount of carbon monoxide, which is a heavier gas and thus is situated closer to the ground. Thus, by elevating one’s bed off the floor, one is out of danger from the dreaded Tokoloshe, which - according to tradition - only stood about knee-height.

As feasible as this theory is, however, it does little to explain the Tokoloshe’s other fiendish abilities.As has been mentioned before, this malicious being can be place under someone’s employ in order to make another’s life a misery, or even to kill said person. The ‘client’ will consult a sangoma or nyanga with his or her requests. The witch doctor will then set about summoning a Tokoloshe. The process is gruesome, and entails locating a dead body, piercing it through the eye and into the brain - thus rendering it incapable of thinking for itself - and then shrinking it until it becomes a type of Tokoloshe, ready to do the practitioner’s bidding.

But there is one catch for the ‘client’: He or she must agree to surrender the soul of a loved-one! Not only that, but the client has no power to choose who this unfortunate person is. Once this is agreed to, and whatever payment that might be required is made, the Tokoloshe is released to fulfil its dreadful task. The soul of the person that the entity chooses will only be forfeit months or even years later, but payment will be made nonetheless.

Madagascar is home to a whole race of bloodthirsty entities as well. The tall, long-legged Mpakafo, otherwise known as the Mpakara - the former meaning ‘Heart taker’ and the latter ‘Blood Drinker' - are pale skinned and particularly dangerous if encountered. They have a slightly smaller known as the Vazimba, which is recognisable - apart from its smaller stature - by its elongated face and disproportionately thick lips, behind which are hidden razor-sharp teeth and long fangs, making it resemble to traditional image given to European vampires. The Ramaga is the greatest of all Madagascan vampires, whose duty it is to partake of blood that was spilt by members of the royal family, whether in battle or by accident. These vampiric nobles were originally human servants of the ruling class, and over the ages - due to their peculiar practise - have become, not only vampires, but mighty wizards too. The other bloodsuckers in Madagascar are their servants and subjects, and are sent out to do the Ramaga’s bidding.

Man Eaters and Powerful Telepaths:

There are a number of beings that are devourers of human flesh. The Aigamucha resembles a human, except that the eyes are in the soles of their feet. This means that they hunt for their prey blind, using their keen senses of smell and hearing. Once they have located a prospective meal, they approach walking on their hands. Then there is the Hai-Uri, which also appear at first to be human, although somewhat diminutive, until one realises that they have only one leg and a single arm.

The powerful and telepathic Kalonoro are native to Madagascar. These dwarf-like beings have their feet backwards, which makes them also impossible to track. Their attitude towards humanity, however, is neutral as long as they are allowed to live their lives without interference. Much like the tiny Abatwa, who originated in Central Africa, but have spread throughout the Southern sub-continent. They are nomadic, and dwell among blades of grass or near anthills, and are largely well disposed towards their human neighbours, who would do well to avoid trampling on them. This will cause them to hunt the offender relentlessly until they find the culprit. They might be miniscule, but their arrows carry a deadly poison with which they can hunt down even the largest of prey, and they will not think twice about using them to exact punishment upon whoever deigns to step on their kin.

The Hunt:

In some tribal customs, it is considered a rite of passage to go out and hunt some of the monsters that terrorise the villagers. Those who succeed are considered heroes. The river-dwelling Mamlambo is considered a prize for any who dare to face this 18 metre brute. It has the body of a fish, the neck of a serpent and short legs,and it glows green in the dark. In some tales, this beast is a shapeshifter that can take on a form similar to that of the Western Mermaid. In this disguise, she can seduce unsuspecting young men to a watery death. Tales of her murderous activity have been reported as recently as 1997. Between the months of January and April of that year, nine deaths were attributed to the Mamlambo. In other traditions, the Mamlambo is considered more than just some reptilian river menace, but as a deity, and the hunters’ task is to either appease or subdue her, in order that she will not claim any of the villagers as prey.

The Ikanyamba inhabits a very specific waterfall near modern-day Pietermaritzburg, known as the Howick Falls. In fact the Zulu name for these falls - which is KwaNogqaza - actually means ‘Place of the Tall One’, which describes the stature of the being that is said to dwell behind them. It is not known exactly how tall the creature is, but the consensus is that it is a huge serpent with the head of a horse. It is most active in the summer months, and if angered can cause devastating storms in the area. Again, those who seek the being out will do so to make sure that it is not enraged, for if slain, who knows what chaos might befall those responsible?

The Ilomba is the giant serpent that lives in the rivers of Zambia and Tanzania. It appears in the mythology of the Lozi people, and is said to have extremely destructive powers and habits. It is also created by a particularly deranged or displeased witch doctor, who has to cut off one of his fingers as an ingredient for his creation. Once in existence, the Ilomba is capable of binding its life force with its creator, thus giving him the same powers that it possesses. This monster cannot be destroyed by a normal hunter, and requires the services of another practitioner of the arts to bring about its demise.

Another quarry that resides in the rivers of Tanzania is the giant perch called the Pamba, which grows to such an enormous size that it is capable of swallowing an entire canoe with its crew whole. This is not to be confused with the Ovambo deity that shares the same name, but is said to be the Creator and Sustainer of Life. There is a saying among these people - who inhabit the Northern parts of Namibia - that: “As the mother of pots is the clay from a hole in the ground, so the Mother of all people is god (or in this case goddess)”.

It seems that the Kongamato, once native to Gambia and Senegal has also migrated to Southern Africa, bringing with it the reputation as the ‘Breaker of Boats’. Any hunter capable of facing this monster would immediately be praised for his skills and prowess. Apparently they now live in Zambia and Angola as well.

The Khoikhoi of Namibia tell of a giant that goes by the name of Ga-Gorib. It is said that he will try to trick anyone who enters his desert domain to throw a stone at his forehead while he sits on the edge of a big hole in the ground. Alas, any who accept the challenge will meet their own death, as the stone will bounce off the monster’s thick skull, and strike the one who threw it. However there is an account of the mythical hero of the Khoikhoi, who goes by the name of Heitsi-eibib, who - upon meeting Ga-Gorib - refused to fall for his trickery, and instead moved behind his opponent, hitting him on the back of his head with a stone. Ga-Gorib was taken by surprise. He lost his balance and fell into the deep hole himself.

Heitsi-eibib is himself an interesting character of Khoi folklore: Although widely acclaimed as a hero of mythic proportions, he is also often seen as somewhat of a trickster and a shapeshifter, a trait that often lends itself to rather deviant methods and practices. One particular tale explains why he is often depicted, either as a small child or a grown man. This is allegedly because he once was an adult, but after he had sexual relations with his own mother, he was punished by being forced to become a child once more. Even as an adult, Heitsi-eibib is said to take on many forms, depending on the tale that is being told. Although he is purely mythical, Heitsi-eibib has many tombs, in the form of cairns, dotted around Namibian and even parts of South Africa.

On the plains of Zimbabwe, one might encounter the ‘African’ or ‘Plains Yeti’, or as this being is locally called, the Ogo. This cryptid stands up to two and a half metres (8 feet) tall, and is covered in thick dark brown fur. Only the very fortunate will be able to come across the Ndzundzu, or Zebra Unicorn, or even the Nyarvirazi. Only be sure not to mistake this were-lioness as a wild beast, because she is actually the bewitched daughter of a powerful tribal leader in the area, and will return to her natural form as a beautiful woman once she has tasted fresh meat. Anyone who harms her will naturally incur the wrath of her father however.

Slaying the Madagascan Tompandrano, a gargantuan crocodile, whose massive head glows in the dark, will provide the hunter with a legendary shield made of its almost impenetrable scales. Equipped with this, the hero would be able to face the most feared and fiercest of Southern African monsters: The giant Grootslang! This is the Dragon of the sub-continent, and grows up to 15 metres (50 feet) long. As is the case with all dragonkin, the Grootslang has an insatiable appetite for treasure, in his case diamonds. This is why he is found in certain areas of South Africa and Namibia, where these precious stones are most plentiful. Naturally any hunter who successfully slays one of these massive reptiles will not only be considered a hero, but will be a very wealthy one at that. Alas, this will not be an easy task! Indeed many have tried and have lost everything in the attempt, for - again like the rest of his kin - Grootslang will guard his horde jealously and at all cost.

The River Guardian:

No discussion about Southern African mythology would be complete without a visit to the mighty Zambezi River, for there one may encounter the Tonga legend, Nyami-nyami. This denison is also known as the Zambezi River God, or the Snake Spirit of the Zambezi, and is revered by the Tonga people for protecting them and providing sustenance through difficult times. It is perhaps worthwhile noticing that the Zambezi River has never stopped flowing in living memory. Although there are seasonal fluctuations, this mighty river remains flowing throughout the year, even in times of drought.

Proof of this is the fact that, despite fake news that was circulated in 2020 and 2021, the famous Victoria Falls - so named by Doctor David Livingstone, although the local Lozi tribe gave them the name Mozi-ao-Tunya, which means ‘The Smoke that Thunders - have never dried up. Again there are noticeable differences in the extent of the torrent that rushes into the deep gorge below the falls, but the only change would most likely be that, at the peak of the raining season, one would be unable to even see the bottom of the ravine, whereas during the dry season, operators offer tourists the thrill of rafting through the massive rapids that flow out of it. The spray that emits from these falls have created its own rainforest on the far bank, the likes of which have never been seen anywhere else in the region, Zimbabwe being known for its bushveld and savannas.

Thus it is that Nyami-nyami is held in such high regard. Legend has it that he used to live in the middle of the Zambezi River in the vicinity of the modern-day Kariba Dam with his wife. As a couple, they were given the title of ‘God and Goddess of the Underworld’. When the dam was still under construction, Nyami-nyami became enraged because he was separated from his spouse, and was attributed with being the cause of the many floods and other misfortunes that caused the deaths of many construction workers at the time. Far from relinquishing their role as guardians of all life along the Zambezi, this mighty pair has taken residence at the bottom of the aforementioned Victoria Falls, which is why - even today - the raft tour operators still offer prayers to appease them before allowing the adventure to commence.

The San People and Their Gods:

Before concluding, I feel that it is appropriate to discuss the beliefs and mythology of Southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants: The San - otherwise known as the Bushmen. Firstly let it be noted that much of the pronunciation in the San language contains sounds that are not represented by the standard English alphabet. Also much of their beliefs and folklore has been lost due to the influence of Christianity and Westernisation on their customs. In this section, we will take a look at the subject under the following headings: Deities and Mythical Creatures; Trance; and Rock Art.

Deities and Mythical Creatures:

In the |Xam (the word uses a double ‘Click’ sound at the start) tradition, they pray to the Sun and Moon. There are various myths pertaining to the stars as well, such as the one that says that a shooting star signifies the ascension of a soul into the Spirit World after death. To simplify things, I am not going to use the San words for their mythical creatures, and will rather stick to the actual animal as much as possible. The first being is the Mantis, who is described as a shapeshifter, and is husband to the Dassie (or Rock Hyrax). Together they adopted the Porcupine. They also had a son, who became the White-Tailed Mongoose (Hespertida ichneumon)

There seems to be some dispute as to the lineage of the Mongoose mentioned above, because other sources state that he is the offspring of a carnivorous cryptid by the name of /Kammang-a, and whose mother is the Porcupine, whose San name is !Xo.

In other legends, there are the two brothers-in-law who are always fighting one another, using lightning and causing the calamitous storms that often rage from the East. Their names are: Kgagara and !Haunu.

The word !Xu - an adaptation of the Khoi-khoi word !Khub, meaning ‘Rich Man’ or ‘Master’ - was adopted into the San language to describe the Christian god. The concept of personal wealth and being a ‘Master’ over others is foreign to traditional San people, because they used to live in extended family groups in which each member was equal both in status and responsibility, with the exception of the young children that is. The adoption of this word is largely due to the early Christian missionaries using it to explain the idea of ‘The Lord’. Later this word was replaced with the term Jul-huan, which has been misrepresented in certain historical accounts as describing the ‘Bushman Creator’


One of the pivotal aspects of San spirituality is the Trance. This enables the group Shaman - for want of a better word - access to the Spirit World, which according to tradition, is the source of all knowledge and wisdom. The first part of the initiation into the Trance state is the hunt for a ‘Spirit Animal’, the fat from which is used symbolically as a rite of passage, to be consumed by the initiate. The most common spirit animal for this purpose is the Eland, who is said to have special powers, but other animals can also be used, such as the Giraffe, Kudu, or Hartebees.

A vital component of San spirituality is what is known as the ‘Great Dance’, or ‘Trance Dance’.On a specific night, the clan gathers around a central fire, and the women begin to chant while clapping hands rhythmically/ The men then start to dance around the fire, their movements becoming more and more frantic as the dance progresses. At any given time, one or more of the dancers will collapse to the ground in a state of trance, and is carried out of the circle. Investigations into this phenomenon reveals that only the recently initiated shaman may use hallucinogenic substances to aid in entering into this altered state of consciousness, where as the more experienced individuals are able to do so without any help at all.

Scientists and psychologists state that the trance is the result of a number of factors, such as the rhythmic dancing, sensory deprivation; exhaustion; prolonged and intense concentration, among others that can cause syncope (fainting), and even migraines. Both of these would in turn cause the shaman to experience an altered state of consciousness.

This state characteristically takes place in three phases: In the first stage, the person would experience hallucinations in the form of geometric shapes such as zig-zags, dots and chevrons, as well as flecks and ‘U’ shapes, all of which are commonly found in San rock art, which is usually thought to be the result of the ‘Visions’ that present themselves to the artist while in the Trance state. They are generally the result of images generated within the eye itself, or what are known as entoptic phenomena.The second phase is the one in which the brain begins to attempt to make sense of these phenomena. This is done by trying to equate these shapes with everyday sights. For example: A zig-zag shape could be seen as a snake or serpent. Thus these abstract forms begin to take on more recognisable figures. In the final stage, the shaman is then able to immerse himself into this world of abstract images, and becomes part of the experience.

It is while in this immersive state that the shaman may remove himself from the clan, and find a secluded place - normally a small cave or crevice - upon which he will attempt to portray the visions he has seen while in Trance. These paintings include animals and people in a natural setting, as well as creatures, monsters, and what are known as ‘Therianthropes’’. The last term describes people or animals that have transformed to take on the shape of hybrids, such as part human part animal. One only has to think of such beings as Pan and his kin known either as fauns or satyrs, or the larger and more majestic centaur, or even the terrifying werewolf and other lycanthropes to see that, once again, the presence of part-human Therianthropes seems a common thread in much of the folklore world-wide. Such images even appear in the art of the Australian aborigines, such as the Rainbow Serpent.

Rock Art:

Examples of this art form can be found on rock surfaces and in caves from the sandstones of Kwazulu Natal, the Free State, and North Eastern Cape as well as the Table Mountain sandstones of the Southern and Western Cape, to the granites of Mpumalanga, the Waterberg, and as far North as Zimbabwe. Some of the most famous rock art is found in Namibia at such sites as Spitzkoppe, Brandberg and Twyfelfontein.

There were once many more sites where San art could be seen, but these have been destroyed, largely by those who sought to enhance them by coating the rock face with oil, and alas in doing so, causing the pigments to become absorbed by the oil, with the result that they disappeared within a relatively short period.

Some San rock art is estimated to be as old as dating back to 5000 years ago, and was created by using natural pigments, taken from clays, minerals, charcoal and even bird droppings, often mixed with the blood of an Eland, in order to obtain the desired colours. This is thought to be why their palettes consisted mainly of reds, browns, yellows and ochres, all of which were made from clay pigments. White was also derived from clays, but also by using bird droppings, while black was obtained either from manganese or by using charcoal.

Apart from the Therianthropic images spoken of previously, the artwork often depicted scenes of conflict and even war, which became more prevalent as the San butted heads with the tribes that were fleeing Central Africa. There are of course also scenes of people hunting various animals, the more common being the eland, grey rhebok and hartebees. One of the more interesting images is that of the Swallow, often depicted as a Therianthrope. This is thought to be significant because the swallow bird is believed to be a sort of medium that connected the shaman with the Spirit World.


This region of Africa is vast, and its mythology rich and diverse. But perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries from this study is the number of beings and cryptids that have relations both in Europe and Asia,and indeed around the world.

As a recap, the concept of the Therianthrope is common in Western folklore, from satyrs and centaurs to werewolves, and in San tradition we find a similar theme in many of the rock paintings. Still with the San, the worship of the Sun and the Moon is present in both European and South American cultures - namely the Inca, Maya and Aztec nations. The notorious Grootslang is comparable to the dragons of Europe and Asia, not to mention the Amaroca and Kitari spoken of in the traditional tales of various Andean peoples in South America. Then there are the Ndzundzu and Ogo of Zimbabwe, again finding their kin in Europe. And so the list goes on.

One then has to ask the question: Are we really so different? Or is this another reason for us to find common ground, rather than concentrating so much on our differences. I am aware that many have made the effort to remove the ideas of racial differentiation from their own minds, but surely the more we study the different cultures, their traditions and their histories - without any form of bias or prejudice - the more we will find reason and inspiration to stand as one.


About the Creator

Tristan Biggs

I was born in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and currently live in South Africa. From an early age, I seemed to have a knack for poetry. I have written a number of stories, poems, and several novels, ranging from fantasy to non fiction.

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