African people have highly constructed myths and legends that explain how the universe or cosmos was created. Found in ancient texts, and more often in the formal oral traditions, these stories are referred to as creation narratives, and they clarify that which is considered mysterious or unknown to man. Although ancient African creation stories vary among the continent's people, they are as old as the continent of Africa. African creation narratives reinforce the people's cultural and spiritual histories. This entry looks at some commonalities among African creation narratives, examines some regional expressions, and briefly discusses what these myths have to say about people.
For hundreds of thousands of years, Africans have transferred knowledge about creation (the origins of the sky, man, plants, animals, and the Earth). Creation has two main components within the African context. The first has to do with the spiritual/religious and mythological aspects of how Africans interpret the origin of the world. The second is related to the scientific data surrounding the connection between the creation of the world and the genesis of mankind. In addition, African creation narratives involve internal and external group explanations. They center on the origins of specific ethnic groups and nations or attempt to explain the existence of the whole of humanity. Africans have played a major role in the global understanding of the concept of creation. In the academic study of African creation, there are distinctions made between spiritual/ religion interpretations and mythology. However, what was once characterized as myth is a central component of the spiritual/religion aspect. African creation systems are composed of cultural components that are central to the foundation of the nation and the state.
In general, Africans believe that the universe was brought into existence by the action of a single God, or a set of Gods, on behalf of the Supreme Being. African creation systems are predicated on a pre- or self-existing entity bringing something into existence out of nothing. Often there was nothing in existence before creation—except the flow of cosmic-spiritual energy emanating from God. This energy flow is the essence of the Supreme Being and is infused in all things on creation.
The idea of creation within the African context is important to understanding the relationship that human beings are having with God and with one another. Thus, the creation events are told through broad (epic) narratives. The primary concepts aiding traditional African Creation epics are (a) the existence of one God, the Supreme Being; (b) intermediate divinities who serve God, the ancestors, and man; (c) ancestral spirits who interact with man and divinities; and (d) natural/elemental spirits.
African ethnic, cultural, and spiritual diversity indicates that creation narratives may be different, but similarities can be distinguished in precolonial Africa. Further, the influence of Islam and Christianity has impacted African creation myths as well as traditional intra- and intercultural exchange as a contributor to the various interpretations of creation with respect to African peoples.
Regional Myths and Legends
In eastern and southern Africa, there are a variety of creation legends. The Kamba in eastern Kenya and northern Tanzania (into southwestern Kenya) believe that the Supreme God, Ngai, created man and that man's ancestors communicate with god. In east South Africa, among the Zulu, the great God, Unkulunkulu, rises from a primordial marshland to go on and create the Earth. The southern African creation stories consistently feature the work of the Supreme Being. The Lozi in Zambia are witness to the creation of Kamura (the first human beings) by Nyambe. Nyambe created everything, including man, his own wife, and mother. In Malawi, God Chuita created the Earth and became aligned with rain and fertility among the Tumbuka people.
In the Congo region, Efile Mokulu, god among the Baluba, not only created the world and mankind—but he gave human beings their heart energy and balanced all of the forces of nature. The Bambuti (BaMbuti) god, Khonvoum, created the world and then made man from the Earth. Further, Bumba, god of the Bushongo, also created the heavens, plants, animals, and human beings.
In northeast Africa and the Sudan, God is consistently self-existing. Among the Dinka in southeastern Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia, the Supreme Being Nhialic was present at the moment of creation. Associated with sky and rain, Nhialic also controls the fate of all living things.
The ancient Egyptians (Kmt) of northeastern Africa have one of the oldest sets of creation narratives in the world. There are many localized beliefs about creation. However, one of the most persistent involves the preexisting primordial waters (the chaos of precreation) in which Ra-Atum rose and created Shu and Telfnut (Air and Moisture). They created Nut and Geb (Sky and Earth), who produced the God pantheon: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nepthys, and Horus-the-Elder. The creation of the Earth out of chaos sets the stage for the drama of good and evil, birth and resurrection among the ancient Egyptians.
In West Africa, particularly in Ghana, the Supreme Being is omnipresent and omniscient. Among the Akan, Brekyerehunuade is the high God who knows everything within the affairs of mankind. In the Ashanti tradition, Nyame, the Supreme Being is married to Goddess Asase Yaa (an Earth goddess). They give birth to the divine children, Bia and Tano. Tano is the father of the divinities within this pantheon. The Fon of Benin recognize Mawu/Lisa, the God who created the world and brought order and balance to it. Mawu/Lisa created plants, animals, and humans, and gives humans everything to be successful in the world.
In Nigeria and Cameroon, the creator, Abassi, and his Goddess wife, Atai, created two human children who were the first people on the Earth. The Igbo (Ibo) of southeastern Nigeria believe that the Great Spirit Chukwu created everything that exists. The Dogon of Mali and Burkino Faso believe that the creator God Amma fashioned the Earth out of clay and populated it with the four ancestral pairs: Arou, Dyon, Ono, and Domnu. In the Yoruba tradition, the Supreme Being, Olorun Oludumare, tasked Oduduwa to create the Earth and take sacred clay and create human beings. In one version of the narrative, Oduduwa accidentally creates the Earth on top of the primordial waters at He Ife, and Obatala goes on to bring humans into being. Important symbol implements of this creation include the metal with which a rooster scratched and expanded the land and the palm seed that provided the plant matter.
Implications for Human Beings
African creation narratives seek to describe divine justice and the rules that human beings should follow. Many African creation narratives strongly feature the idea of infusing God's power energy into the human being and also focus on the theme of destiny and fate of man. African creation narratives also explore the challenges of chaos and the benefits of establishing order. In addition, they initiate the processes of human birth and death by giving cosmic reasons for life and mortality.
Creation myths in Africa are almost always linked to traditional activities of agriculture, technology, or the primacy of nature. In traditional African creation narratives, the God head takes many forms or no form at all. God in Africa works with dieties who often represent aspects of God's personality to accomplish the work of creation. Creation narratives are also concerned with relationships once a firmament is established. These relationships include any combination of man, animal, nature, ancestors, diety, spirits, and the realm of the supernatural.
With the advent of colonialism and imperialism, creation narratives in Africa were often reinterpreted to support political aims. This includes the need to establish territory, gender roles, and the uses of knowledge and information. The extent to which African creation myths have been compromised is not easy to determine. However, the strength of myth and legend remains strong within the continent and in the Black diaspora.
Creations myths associated with African people do not have to be considered ancient or indigenous to the continent to have an impact. For example, in 1878, a southern African American (gulf coast) creation myth explained the different races of man and the power imbalance among them. In one myth, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans were created by God out of clay, whereas Europeans (Frenchmen and Englishmen) were made out of insects. This myth identified the source of European aggression against people of color in North America as a source of animate energy. James Weldon Johnson's 1927 The Creation provides an African American interpetation of how a self-existent God created the Earth and mankind. The Nation of Islam's European origin myth explains racism and racial discrimination against blacks.
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