Themes In African Creation Stories
Like all cultures, African cultures inevitably had to deal with the issue of "How did we get here?" To answer this pressing question, the people invented stories that reflect the values, morals, and norms of their individual societies. When one examines these stories, one can gain insight into what these cultures were like.
"An African Cosmogony" tells of how the world was created through a powerful being named Bumba, who regurgitates the sun, moon, stars, and the first nine living creatures. One of the values that appears in this story is the responsibility of each person to do his fair share for the community. Each of the nine animals plays its role by creating more creatures to populate the world. For example, the small fish, Yo, brings forth the world's fish, while the beetle creates insects. This theme is further exemplified by the three sons of Bumba, who each try to do their part to complete the earth. However, one learns that one should not try to do more than one is capable of, as Chedi Bumba does, or the results will not be favorable.
Bumba also makes it clear that those whose behavior is detrimental to the community have no place in the community. For instance, Tsetse, lightning, is chased away for being a trouble-maker. Bumba sums up this sense of community by saying, "Behold these wonders. They belong to you." The earth is both the property and responsibility of every creature. Lastly, the respect each person should have for the dead is shown through the ants, created by Nyonye Ngana. These creatures "went searching for black earth in the depths of the world and covered the barren sands to bury and honor their creator."
"An African Story of the Creation of Man" takes a much different approach to explaining the origin of humankind. It tells of how the creator Juok molded each race from the colored clay of that region. Juok then provided humans with the things necessary to fully enjoy and appreciate life. Among these gifts were two legs, arms, ears, eyes and a mouth. This story depicts the perfection of humans in the sense that they are fully equipped with everything needed for practical purposes. It serves to make people value what they have and their ability to perform many tasks.
The regurgitation theme is continued in "Egyptian Cosmogony and Theogony." In this story, the creator, Khepri, plans and forms every being himself, and spits them out of his stomach. He spits out She and Tefnut, who are considered gods themselves. Eventually, Khepri unites these gods with himself, and weeps for joy, and it is from these tears that humans arise. The theme of communal development above individual success is seen here, as it was in "An African Cosmogony." Tefnut, Shu, and Khepri forsake their individual power for the good of creating a supreme being that could better create more things.
The motif of creating the ideal human body as seen in "An African Story of the Creation of Man," is prominent here as well. For example, when Khepri spits out Shu and Tefnut, his eye follows them. Khepri then replaces his eye, but when the two other gods return with the eye, Khepri must find a new place for this original eye. The solution is to make it his brain, which he calls "the Brilliant One."
"The First Human Beings, Their Sons, and Amazon Daughters," a Kabyl tale of creation, is similar to the biblical "Genesis" in that the world starts out with just one male and one female. They live underground, and eventually find each other and mate, having fifty sons and fifty daughters. Not knowing what to do with them all, the parents send them away; women to the north, men to the east. The two groups decide to ascend to the surface, and a scuffle ensues because of an altercation between a "wild male" and a "bold female." In the heat of battle, the two groups suddenly become overcome with passion, and mate. They marry and the women move into the men's houses, for the women had not built any.
This story is much different than what one would expect, for it does not depict the value Africans place on family. It is unlikely that parents would shun their children, even if there were too many to care for, since Africans greatly value their families. This tale does support the idea of male superiority, for it is the males that build the houses and are placed on top during the described sex act.
In summary, when one examines several African tales of creation, one can clearly see that no one story is representative of the values of all African ethnic groups. Many stories convey the value of family and community over the individual, but this is not a universal ideal. Many tell of how the human from became so suitable for life, while others concentrate on how human social interaction developed. Overall, these stories reflect the values, morals, and norms of only those ethnic groups from which they came.
Frobenius, Leo and Fox, Douglas C., African Genesis. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1937.