Bantu mythology is the system of myths and legends of the Bantu
peoples of Africa. Although
Bantu peoples account for several hundred
different ethnic groups, there is a high degree of homogeneity in
Bantu cultures and mythologies, just as in Bantu languages. The
phrase "Bantu mythology" usually refers to the common, recurring
themes that are found in all or most Bantu cultures.
7 See also
All Bantus traditionally believe in a supreme God. The nature of God
is often only vaguely defined, although he may be associated with the
Sun, or the oldest of all ancestors, or have other specifications.
Most names of
God include the Bantu particle ng (nk), that is related
to the sky; some examples are
Mulungu (Yao people and others), Mungu
(Swahili people), Unkulunkulu (Zulu people),
Ruhanga (Nyoro and
Ngai (some other groups). In many traditions, in fact,
God is supposed to live in the skies, much like in western mythologies
and religions; there are also traditions that locate
God on some high
mountain (as in Greek mythology), for example the Kirinyaga mountain
for Kikuyu people.
There are several Bantu myths that are intended to explain, or that
elaborate on, the distance between
God and men, i.e., the sky and the
earth. In many Bantu creation myths the sky and the earth used to be
closer to each other, and were separated by
God because of some
disturbance caused by men. For example, there's a Bantu myth of God
being disturbed by the pestles handled by women, that would hit His
belly when raised up, and another one where
God is offended by the
smoke of man-made fires. There are also myths about men trying to
climb up to God's place (e.g., by climbing up a very high tree, or up
a dangling rope).
God is almost never described as the Creator of all things, as in most
Bantu mythologies the universe is eternal and has no beginning.
Animals are also a part of this eternal universe. While not its
God is intimately related to the universe; animals are
sometimes referred to as "His people", and in some of the myths about
God moving away from men (for example, the one mentioned above about
the smoke of man-made fires) it is clear that God's discontent with
men has to do with their habit of manipulating and corrupting the
In traditional Bantu religions, anyway,
God is high above the earth.
All religious practices are intended to worship God. This traditional
attitude of Bantu belief systems has been modified, to various degrees
and in various ways, by the advent of
Christianity (or Islam), as the
God of Christians and Muslims has been equated to the Bantu supreme
God. Mungu has thus become a
God that cares about humanity and that it
makes sense to worship and pray to.
Bantu mythology the universe and the animals are eternal, so
that there are no creation myths about their origin, the opposite
holds for mankind. In many Bantu myths, the first man was born from a
plant: for example, he came from a bamboo stem in Zulu, and from a
"Omumborombonga" tree in Herero mythology. Other traditions have the
first men come out of a cave or a hole in the ground. People that
mainly live on cattle farming usually believe that men and cattle
appeared on earth together.
It can be noted that, as is the case with many mythologies, Bantu
mythologies about the creation of man are often limited to describing
their own origins, rather than those of all of humanity. For example,
Bantu peoples that coexist with bushmen do not include these in
their creation myths (i.e., bushmen are considered, like animals, to
be a part of the eternal universe rather than a part of mankind - this
could partially explain why, ten or fifteen years ago, rebel forces in
eastern Congo were reported to practice cannibalism on pygmies).
The chameleon is a herald of eternal life in many Bantu mythologies
Most Bantu cultures share a common myth about the origin of death,
involving a chameleon. According to this myth,
God sent the chameleon
to announce to men that they would never die. The chameleon went on
his mission, but he walked slowly and stopped along the way to eat.
Some time after the chameleon had left, a lizard went to announce to
men that they would die. Being much quicker than the chameleon, the
lizard arrived first, thus establishing the mortal nature of man. As a
consequence of this myth, both chameleons and lizards are often
considered bad omens in Bantu cultures.
Depending on local traditions, there are different explanations for
the "double message" of the chameleon and lizard. In some cases, God
sends both the chameleon and the lizard, with their respective omens,
intentionally committing mankind's destiny to the outcome of their
race. In some other cases, the lizard eavesdrops the orders
to the chameleon, and chooses to bring the opposite message out of
envy. In still other cultures, after having sent the chameleon, God
changes his mind as a consequence of the bad behaviour of mankind.
Missionaries have often adapted the myth of the chameleon to
evangelize Bantu Africans; the chameleon, who brings the good news of
eternal life to mankind, is thus equated to Jesus Christ.
In most African cultures, including Bantu cultures, veneration of the
dead plays a prominent role. The spirits of the dead are believed to
linger around and influence the world of the living. This spiritual
existence is usually not considered eternal; the spirits of the dead
live on as long as there is someone who remembers them. As a
consequence, kings and heroes, who are celebrated by oral tradition,
live for centuries, while the spirit of common people may vanish in
the turn of a few generations.
The dead communicate with the living in different ways; for example,
they talk to them in dreams, send omens, or can be addressed by
specially gifted seers. If they take any visible shape, it is often
that of some animal (most likely a snake, a bird or a mantis).
The living, through clairvoyants and seers, may address the dead in
order to receive advice or ask for favours. If a spirit takes offence
in something done by a living person, he may cause illness or
misfortune to that person; in that case, a clairvoyant may help that
person to amend his mistake and pacify the angry dead. Catastrophes,
such as famine or war, may be the consequence of serious misbehavior
of the whole community.
As is the case with other mythologies, Bantu cultures often locate the
world of the dead underground. Many Bantu cultures have myths and
legends about living people that somehow manages to enter the world of
the dead (kuzimi in Swahili); this may happen by chance to someone who
is trying to hunt a porcupine or other animal inside its burrow. Some
legends are about heroes who willingly enter the underground world in
some kind of quest; examples are Mpobe (in
Baganda mythology) and
Uncama (Zulu mythology).
While Bantu cultures also believe in other spirits than those of the
dead (for example, spirits of nature such as "Mwenembago", "the lord
of the forest", in
Zaramo mythology), these play a much lesser role.
In many cases, they were originally spirit of dead people.
One finds here and there traces of belief in a race of Heaven dwellers
distinct from ordinary mortals. For instance, they are sometimes said
to have tails.
Bantu mythologies often include monsters, referred to as amazimu in
isiZulu and madimo, madimu, zimwi in other languages. In English
translations of Bantu legends these words are often translated into
"ogre", as one of the most distinctive traits of such monsters is that
of being man-eaters. They can sometimes take on the appearance of men
or animals (for example, the
Chaga living by the
tales of a monster with leopard looks) and sometimes can cast spells
on men and transform them into animals. A specific type of monsters is
that of raised, mutilated dead (bearing a surface resemblance to
western culture's zombies) such as the umkovu of Zulu tradition and
the ndondocha of the Yao people.
The traditional culture of most
Bantu peoples includes several fables
about personified, talking animals.
The prominent character of Bantu fables is the hare, a symbol of skill
and cunning. Its main antagonist is the sneaky and deceptive hyena.
Lion and elephant usually represent brute force. Even more clever than
the hare is the turtle, who beats its enemies with its patience and
strong will. This symbology is, of course, subject to local
variations. In areas where the hare is unknown (for example, along the
Congo River), its role is often taken by the antelope. In Sotho
culture the hare is replaced by a jackal, maybe due to the influence
Khoisan culture, where the jackal is also a symbol of astuteness
while the hare is seen as stupid. Zulus have stories about hares, but
in some cases the ferret takes on the role of the smart protagonist.
The popular internet conspiracy theory about "reptilians" possibly has
had its origin in those beliefs, as a contemporary sangoma named Credo
Mutwa allegedly claimed many Africans believe in their existence.
^ See Werner, chapt. 1
^ See Lynch, p. xi
^ Mungu is in fact the standard translation of "God" used in Swahili;
for example, in Swahili Bible. The anthem of
Tanzania is Mungu ibariki
God bless Africa".
Patricia Ann Lynch, African Mythology A to Z, Infobase Publishing.
Alice Werner, Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933). Available online