Mythology in Africa and the Diaspora

By Michelle

Africa is home to more than a thousand languages, and cultures. It’s no surprise to learn that a continent full of varied geography, a multitude of languages, and so many vibrant cultures has equally varied and vibrant myths. African mythology is full of interesting folklore, networks of unique gods, and colourful creatures and characters. The same can be said for mythology in the diaspora – everywhere from the Caribbean, to South America and the US, elements and aspects of African mythology play key roles in their own mythology.

The mythology of Africa and the diaspora is sustained by oral tradition and oral history, an important part of many African cultures. Oral tradition can be described as passing down ideas and cultural material through speech. These cultural materials can be anything from ideas, knowledge, history, or folktales and myths. Oral tradition in Africa and the diaspora helps to keep their mythology (and by default their history) alive. 

In fact, oral tradition is so crucial to African cultures that an entire profession exists for it. A griot (pronounced gree-oh) is a professional storyteller and historian. Griots originate from West Africa within groups such as Makinde, Hausa, Dagomba, and more. The role of a griot is a highly respected one. They share myths, legends, stories, fables, songs, and history with members of their communities and help keep the histories of their communities alive, since those people will in turn share it with others, particularly their descendants. 

Cultures of storytelling are not only a form of entertainment or a way for communities to connect with their history, but the stories being told – myths and fables – are also more than that. They are a means of sharing and explaining cultural practices, and they show us what values and beliefs cultures have. Myths can be described as old traditional tales usually involving gods and other creatures that are used to explain natural phenomena and events, like sunsets or rain. Fables can be described as stories that have animals as main characters that usually are written to promote a value or moral – they are usually aimed at children.

African myths and fables are also an insight into philosophies, and a way to share and promote values like kindness, consideration, and honesty to children. In fact, one of the easiest ways to expose a child to their culture and teach them about their heritage is to share myths, tales and similar stories from their country or countries of origin! A good example of such tales are Anansi Stories. These are fables and myths originating from Akan Ghanaians involving a trickster spider-god, that we will explore further in this blog. 

African mythology tends to have recurring themes and elements that make it unique to other myths. One theme which is seen in several African cultures, from Nigerian Yoruba culture, to Ghanaian Akan culture and Fon culture in Benin, is the theme of twins and twinship. Twinship is used to explain natural pairings, such as the moon and sun, or day and night. Some cultures such as Yoruba culture and Akan culture celebrate twins, with Akan culture believing they are sacred and Yoruba culture believing that twins can bring wealth, favour, and good fortune. Twins are believed to be protected by Sango, the god of thunder and an Orisha in Yoruba traditional religion.

Interestingly, Yoruba people are responsible for the highest rate of twin birth in the world!

We also find themes of death, the creation of the world, the existence of gods and mythical creatures who influence humanity and human life. A notable theme we find in African mythology is the presence of a trickster character. This character is usually a god, or in some cases a messenger of the gods. Trickster characters are crafty and are always trying to get out of completing tasks or taking shortcuts. They enjoy causing chaos and often operate to serve their own interests. Arguably, a popular example of a trickster character is Anansi the spider-god, originating from Akan mythology. Anansi is usually depicted as a spider (likely because that is a direct translation of his name in the Ghanaian language of Twi) but he is also the god of stories, sharing stories of the gods, existence, and more with humans on earth.

Anansi, his myth, and lore were brought to the diaspora during the Transatlantic Slave Trade by enslaved Africans from Ghana. Anansi stories are still popular stories that continue to be passed down to generations, teaching children the importance of telling the truth, being considerate, and warning against shortcuts. His myth can be found in Caribbean countries such as Jamaica. Another trickster god that can be found in the diaspora as a result of the Slave Trade is Papa Legba, from Benin. His lore is still present in Haiti, brought over by enslaved Africans from Benin. 

It’s important to note that although these gods feature in mythology, they are actually deities that are still worshipped today in Africa and the diaspora. Papa Legba for example is a revered figure known as an Iwa of Haitian Vodou as well as Creole African American Voodoo culture. He is regarded as the intermediary between humans and the other Iwa. He is also worshipped in Benin, where he originates.

Mythical creatures in Africa and the diaspora that feature in this mythology are numerous. From the elusive and anti-social magical dwarves of West and Central-West Africa, cunning witches, to mysterious mermaids across the diaspora. Mythical creatures are deserving of their own piece to explore their behaviours, lore, and relationships with those who believe they exist. They are not confined to the continent. In the Caribbean, creatures such as jumbies and duppies scare humans and wreak havoc in their lives. In St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, there is Papa Bois (whose name comes from French patois, meaning “Father Wood”) who is the half-goat half-man protector of the plants and animals in the forest.

Mythology in Africa and the diaspora is full of a wide range of colourful characters, careful elements,  interesting creatures, and powerful gods who are used to not only explain humanity and our existence, but behaviours, natural phenomena, but also help us to understand philosophies of communities, preserve our cultures, and promote values that are crucial to communities such as consideration, kindness, and honesty. 

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