One way of examining the values and traditions of a people is to look at their explanations for how the world came to be. These stories make such wonderful tools for analysis because all cultures have some sort of ‘creation’ story. Thus to compare groups of people we may start by looking at their creation mythology. It is important to note that the downfall of comparing mythologies is that in a way it is like comparing apples to oranges. This is because not every myth portrays and explains the same elements.
Five myths from throughout Africa will be mentioned throughout this essay. They are from the Boshongo, Mande, Shilluk, Egyptian, and Yoruba peoples. For a brief description of these myths please see the appendix. Please remember that these myths do not represent the beliefs and stories of all of Africa.
In each of these stories, the tale of creation has been presented with a unique twist. Yet there are several important similarities among the various myths. Besides explaining creation, there is always one major creator. However, in some stories such as that of the Boshongo, the creator had helpers whereas in the Shilluk tale, Juok worked alone. In the Boshongo myth, Bumba creates nine animals and mankind. Then these animals and Bumba's three sons worked together creating everything else. In the Shilluk tale, obviously everything is related somehow because everything shares the same creator. Even in other stories where the creator has helpers, however, all of these helpers were made by the creator and thus everything is still connected.
In all of these stories, mankind is created by a more powerful being. This represents the belief that man had not always inhabited the earth. It also portrays the belief that man is not the most powerful being in existence. Some of the stories make it sound as though mankind's arrival on the planet was almost accidental; for instance Bumba vomited mankind in the Boshongo myth. Other stories, such as the Mande's tale, portray the creation of man as intentional. Those cultures that believe mankind's creation to be intentional are more likely to have a view that the Earth and everything on it are there for their benefit. Whereas those tribes who view their arrival on Earth as more accidental are more likely to believe that they are there to help and benefit the Earth.
In each of these myths, we see that mankind is one of the very last things to be placed on the earth. This implies a common belief that the Earth was not created solely for mankind's use. Both the Boshongo myth and the Egyptian myth make a point of mentioning that mankind was the last thing created. This demonstrates that both feel that all beings are equally important, rather than viewing man as the supreme earthly being (Crystal “African Creation Myths”). They also show a deep relationship between the people and nature.
Another similarity among these stories is the fact that several of the creators are or can be similar to man in appearance. We know that the Yoruba creators Olurun and Obatala had a human form because all men are descendants from these two gods (Crystal, “African Creation Myths”). Although the Egyptian god Re could take on any form he wanted, he chose a human one in order to become the first pharaoh. These cases show that these societies felt similar to their creator. It gives the creator a ‘human friendly’ nature. In the Mande tale, where the creator Mangala does not have a physical form the god has much less influence on the creation of the planet. It is his first creations that do all of the work.
The similarities among the creator and mankind further emphasize the belief found in several of the myths that regardless of physical differences, all men are created equal. For example, the Shilluk's story describes all people being molded in the exact same way just from different parts of the earth. Although the Mande myth does not explain why there are separate races, it does explain why they have two distinct social groups.
The Boshongo people tell us that Bumba vomited “…many men, but only one was white like Bumba” (Leach). This is an interesting statement because although it tells us that Bumba is similar to all men, it also tells us that some men are more similar to Bumba than others. The fact that Bumba is white and the Boshongo people are not leads us to the following conclusion. The whites in this myth are in the minority, but hold most of the power. This means that the Boshongo people do not think that they have a lot of control over the world. Of course, this myth also implies that this power is not necessary.
There are however, several differences among these myths that haven't been mentioned yet. Egypt is the only group who mentions the importance of death. Since Egyptians view life as a cyclic process, they view death as an important part of this cycle. This shows through their creation myth. The Egyptian tale is also the only one that mentions the quality of mercy. It is Re's mercy that prevents mankind from being destroyed for their disobedience (Crystal, “Egyptian Creational Myths”). This fact shows how important the quality of mercy is to these people.
The Mande myth mentions another attribute, hope. This myth tells us that Mangala failed at his first attempt to create the world, but did not give up. This story also explains the cause of mankind's mischievous nature; it is their relation to the chaotic Pemba.
The Shilluk myth is unique because it prioritizes the activities of these people. The first thing Juok gives humans is the body parts necessary to do work. This demonstrates that to them, work is the most important thing.
The Boshongo Myth
(based upon Maria Leach's The Beginning from http://alexm.here.ru:8081/mirrors/www.enteract.com/jwalz/Eliade/051.html)
“West African Cosmogony”
people of southern Mali think that at first Mangala was alone. Although
Mangala did not have a physical form (he was “perceived to be a round,
energetic presence” he was troubled by having matter inside of him.
After removing the matter he tried to turn it into a seed. This first
seed fell apart, but instead of giving up, Mangala decided to try again.
This time, he used two seeds and placed them inside of a womb. The
seeds transformed into fish. One of these fish, Pemba, tried to escape
and in doing so created Earth but almost destroyed the womb. Mangala
used Pemba's brother Farro and salvaged his creation by turning it into
the sun. Farro was turned into a human and populated the Earth with
his followers, which became the horonw. Then another being, Sourakata
came down from the sky and became the first nyamakalaw.
(based upon “Creation Myths” from http://www.dreamscape.com/morgana/ophelia.htm)
story of the Shilluk people of the Nile Region has two parts. The
first part explains that Juok formed the different people of the Earth
from the different types of land he found in their homeland. The
second part deals with the actual formation of the humans. Shilluk
gave the people arms and legs to work with first. He then gave them
eyes to see and mouths to eat with. Finally he gave them ears to
(based upon Ellie Crystal's “Egyptian Creational Myths” http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptcreation.html)
beginning there was only water, but that water was a powerful being called
Nun. Out of Nun came Re. Re was very powerful, if he said the
name of a thing then that thing would come into existence. Re named
gods, goddesses, plants and animals. The very last thing that Re
named was man. Then Re took on a human form in order to rule as the
first pharaoh. In this form, however, Re could age and as he grew
older mankind became disrespectful and disobedient. The gods decided
to punish man and sent Sekhmet, Re's daughter, to destroy them. In
the end, however, Re was merciful towards man and stopped Sekhmet's slaughter.
Re made Osiris the next pharaoh but he was murdered by his brother. Osiris
was then appointed ruler of the underworld and his son was named as the
(based on Ellie Crystal's “African Creation Myths” from http://www.crystalinks.com/africacreation.html)
A long time ago, Olurun lowered a chain from the sky down to the Earth, which at that time was all water. He sent Obatala (either his son or a lesser god) down to Earth with a chicken, some dirt and a palm nut. Obatala used the chicken to spread dirt until there was dry land. Obatala planted the seed and started the first kingdom, Ile-Ife. He was the kingdom's first ruler and all of Yoruba are his descendants.
January 8, 2001.
Crystal, Ellie. “African Creation Myths.” http://www.crystalinks.com/africacreation.html. August 1995.
- - -. “Egyptian Creational Myths.” http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptcreation.html. August 1995.
“Life and Death Under the Pharaohs – the Gods.” http://icvc.imago.com.au/egypt/html/the_gods.html. 1998.
“West African Cosmogony.” http://www.fandm.edu:80/departments/Anthropology/Bastian/ANT269/cosmo.html. 1999.