The 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.
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 others), 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 creator, 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 natural world.
In traditional Bantu religions, anyway, God is far and detached from earth and mankind. As a consequence, very few religious practices, if any, are intended to worship him. 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.
While in 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 the origin of certain human groups, rather than all of humanity. For example, most Bantu peoples that coexist with bushmen do not include these in their creation myths (i.e., bushmen are considered a part of the eternal universe rather than a part of mankind).
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 God gives 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 until there's 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 Kilimanjaro have 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. These fables are often very close in both structure and purpose to those of the western tradition, to the point that scholars have sometimes hypotesized that Aesop himself (who was purportedly a slave from Ethiopia) may have been inspired by African fables.
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 of 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.
- 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 Afrika, "God bless Africa".
- Patricia Ann Lynch, African Mythology A to Z, Infobase Publishing.
- Alice Werner, Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933). Available online here .