Myths are the stories that define a culture. They tell of the creation or beginning of the world; of deities and their relations with humans; and of the values, heroes, and histories of a group or society. Cosmological myths—those about the origin, structure, or purpose of the universe—reveal a culture’s ideas about the universe. With the passage of time, myths may develop into legends or folk tales. They begin, however, as sacred stories, often intertwined with religious belief. In North Africa, where Islam has been the dominant religion for centuries, mythology is filled with Islamic elements. In sub-Saharan Africa, mythology reflects the great diversity of beliefs and cultural traditions that can be found in the region.

Africa: Mythology

Egyptian Mythology

The oldest known mythology in Africa is that of ancient EGYPT. In other parts of the continent, mythologies still form the basis for rituals, stories, and literature. Ancient Egyptian mythology, however, is no longer part of any living culture, and our knowledge of it comes only from documents and inscriptions that are thousands of years old.

Ancient Egyptian mythology included a large pantheon of national, regional, and local gods and goddesses. Priests and worshippers devoted to individual deities tended temples regarded as the dwelling places of the gods and goddesses. Many deities were associated with particular animals. The god Horus, for example, was frequently portrayed with the head of a falcon, and the goddess Sekhmet was shown as a lioness or a cat-headed woman.

One group of Egyptian myths concerns the creation of the world and of the gods. In some versions the gods are born from the sweat of the creator spirit, while humans emerge from the creator’s tears. Other myths deal with the cycle of day and night. According to these stories, day begins with the birth of the sun god, who crosses the sky in a boat. Each night the sun god travels through the underworld, or land of the dead, where various enemies oppose him, trying to prevent the sun from rising again the next day.

Among the most widely told Egyptian myths were those about the god Osiris, his sister-wife Isis, and their son Horus. Isis’s magical restoration of Osiris, who was cruelly butchered by his brother Set, is a mythical treatment of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Battles between Set and Horus, who sought to avenge his father’s death, depict the struggle between good and evil. In the end, Osiris travels to the underworld to judge the dead and deal out punishment and reward to souls in the afterlife, an idea that was central to the religious belief of the ancient Egyptians.

Islamic Mythology

North Africa and areas of East and West Africa have been deeply influenced by Islam. The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, is the primary source of Islamic mythology about creation and the afterlife. Muhammad, the Arab prophet who founded Islam in the A.D. 600s, became the focus of many legends, as did members of his family. As these legends and traditions grew, they incorporated elements from the mythology and folklore of the various regions that adopted Islam.

A monotheistic faith, Islam does not have a pantheon of deities but does include various supernatural beings, such as angels and demons. Less powerful than demons or angels, but still more powerful than humans, are fire or air spirits called jinn, who appear in many North African folk tales. A jinn (or genie) may be good or evil. Although jinn are tricky and mischievous, many tales tell of people gaining power over jinn and forcing them to carry out their wishes.

Mythological Themes

Africa has a multitude of mythological traditions that developed over thousands of years. Sometimes these traditions have become mixed with elements introduced from outside the continent, such as Islam or Christianity. Even many Muslim and Christian Africans, for example, still hold to the traditional African belief that the spirits of ancestors continue to be part of the community. Until modern times, the myths of sub-Saharan Africa were part of an ORAL TRADITION that passed beliefs and information from generation to generation within each community through the spoken word. Africans have illustrated mythological stories in carvings of wood, ivory, and clay and have acted them out in DANCE.

Among the themes commonly found in African mythology are creation, the idea of a lost paradise, heroes who bring civilization to humans, and the arrival of death in the world. African mythologies contain many deities. Although a creator deity often reigns supreme over the others, he or she may be remote from the world and unconcerned with its daily happenings, leaving humans to interact with lesser gods. In addition to the deities, the universe is filled with spirits, supernatural beings that are either good or evil. People, animals, plants, elements such as fire and water, and landforms such as mountains and rivers may all possess spirits that must be treated with the proper respect to prevent them from doing harm. Magicians and diviners are thought to control these spirits.

Tricksters and Animals

The trickster is a mischievous figure that appears in various forms in African myths and legends. Fond of pranks, sometimes helpful, and sometimes causing harm, the trickster is also quick-witted and usually able to get out of trouble. In African tales, the trickster is often a small, helpless creature, such as a spider or a rabbit, who fools larger and more powerful animals. One African trickster story, for example, tells how Rabbit tricked Elephant and Hippopotamus into tugging on opposite ends of a rope, each thinking that Rabbit was on the other end. Their strenuous game cleared a field so that Rabbit could plant his crops.

Animals are characters in many sub-Saharan myths, often symbolizing human qualities or aspects of African cosmologies. In CONGO (KINSHASA), for example, animals called pangolins—a type of scaly anteater—have great symbolic significance. Though scaled like fish, pangolins have legs and climb trees like animals. Like humans, they give birth to one infant at a time. Some African peoples see these creatures as a symbol of the union of the different cosmic realms of earth and sky.

Another animal with symbolic importance in sub-Saharan Africa is the leopard, which is widely associated with kingship. While Europeans may regard the lion as the “king of beasts,” Africans place the smaller but more cunning and ferocious leopard in that role. Animals also appear in numerous African fables, many of which teach some moral lesson.

Color has important symbolic meanings as well in African mythology and cosmology. Societies throughout the continent recognize white, black, and red as the three primary colors. White typically represents enlightenment, good fortune, and purity. Red is the color of blood and symbolizes heat, energy, and violent change. Black stands for hidden or secret knowledge—either helpful wisdom and insight or dangerous magic. Color symbolism adds a dimension of meaning to many myths. Stories of the Luba people of Congo tell about the wise hero Mbidi Kiluwe, who is “black like the night,” and his opponent, a red-skinned serpent named Nkongolo Mwamba. (See also Art, Divination and Oracles, Masks and Masquerades, Religion and Ritual, Spirit Possession, Vodun, Witchcraft and Sorcery.)