The study of African myths will serve to illustrate the colorful heritage of a unique continent while providing the students with an enhanced view of its culture. The study of the myths and legends is intended to highlight the way in which the people share a close bond with the elements of nature. The continent is teeming with an abundance of animal life and vegetation. Nature stands as the foundation upon which the people of Africa build their villages, towns and communities. Elements of nature can be found in the countries’ indigenous religions where God, man and nature are fused; nature is vital to survival as it is from nature that the individuals take their foods and water supplies; animals serve as means of transportation, laborers and food. The African people maintain a high reverence for all things natural. As part of the desire to give praise and thanks to the natural elements, the people of Africa immortalize nature through myths and legends. Each myth is designed to entertain the listeners while providing them with a history lesson of sorts as well as moral instruction.
After the students are exposed to these various stories they will be more familiar with African terminology and some of the history of Africa. We know that primitive man was born in Africa millions of years ago but we do not really know anything about the way in which the earliest people thought. We can only guess from the growth of languages in historical times and from some religions. The myths of Africa passed down from long, long ago gave us an ancient view of reality.
Knowing religion and laws through myths and oral tradition is an integral part of the learning that can be derived from this unit. Most peoples in tropical and southern Africa accept the idea of a “high God,” or rather, a sky god who is often associated with thunder or lightening. The earth, the sun and the moon, are the most prominent gods; the sea gods are worshipped among the western tribes. These are the good gods, although the sun sometimes has a double: it causes life but also drought and so death. Earth is always a female deity who favors those who worship her but metes out inexorable punishment to the disobedient and neglectful. The forest is a mysterious deity, elusive and whimsical. the forest contains almost everything its inhabitants need: fruit, game, wood for burning as well as making tools and furniture, bark for clothes, leaves for vegetables, lianas for the rope and for snares, roots and juices for medicine and strong drink.
The study of the African myths will aid the students in understanding why the myths employ a lot of magic animals. People from every country have wondered about the origins of animals, and in Africa which has such an immense variety of wildlife, there are many stories that explain different characteristics and origins. An example of this is Tanzania, where the giraffe is the national emblem, a story is told that after god had exalted all the animals, he asked each one if they had a special wish. The giraffe said, “Lord, my wish is to have wisdom.: “Well spoken,” God answered, “and so you will never speak, for talkative people are fools, but silence is wisdom.”
That is why the giraffe sees and hears everything, but never makes a noise.
Many African people believed that everything in nature had a spirit. Some spirits were strong and powerful like the strong-willed mind of a great chief or a killer lion. Some were weaker, more diffused, like the spirits of the trees. The basic idea behind this is power. Students will learn to identify the animals or trees that are considered powerful and compare it to the Mayan myths or other classic myths that they have studied previously. These myths often reoccur.
Students readings will be part of a discussion of their reactions in terms of the relevance of this study in their lives. For example, with African myths we know that many aspects of nature we meet have certain powers. A lion, a snake, lightening and a river can kill people, so they must have very strong spirits. In English too, we use the word “spirit” in the sense of “energy” and we know today that trees, animals, lightening and rivers do have certain amounts of energy which scientists see as mechanical force—but which many people see as religious.
Learning from stories with moral lessons is important in this study for two reasons. First of all there are lessons inherent in nature told in legends that are true and cannot be argued, and second of all, the giving of advice through stories is the most potent form of convincing at any time in history. Fables are stories with a moral lesson at the end. They are a way of saying things in an indirect manner—through them problems can be talked about without directly offending anyone and advice given in an amusing and memorable way. In present day Africa, this function of the fable is still very much alive, and there are thousands of them.
Africa had great kingdoms, warriors and empires such as those of Benin, the Yoruba, and the Ashanti and the mysterious civilizations of ancient Zimbabwe, Askum and Meroe; but most communities were composed of a chief, his wives and their children. Gradually, retainers would cluster around the compound of the chief. There would be the farmlands and the builders.
History is learned in an indirect way too through stories from the people who have lived in a particular culture. Students who are beginning an understanding of the events that happened in Africa through their myths will connect to the realities of the continent’s history. Students can reflect, through any country’s stories, how one learns the history of that culture.