Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 


IN the instances hitherto mentioned, where a rope has been spoken of as the means of reaching the Heaven country, no explanation is offered as to the origin of the rope, or the means by which it became available. There are some stories and legends, possibly older, where the communication is said to be established through the spider's web. When Mulungu was compelled to leave the earth, say the Yaos, he said, I cannot climb a tree (as though that were the obvious way of reaching the sky), and went to call the spider, who " went on high, and returned again and said, 'I have gone on high nicely. . . . You now, Mulungu, go on high.'" That is, we may suppose, he spun his web (the narrator probably did not see why the spider should not be able to do this upward as well as downward) till it reached the sky, and spun another thread coming down. The Subiya also say that Leza ascended to heaven by a spider's thread.

This notion occurs in a tale[1] of, in some respects, much later development. It comes, like those about Kalunga already given, from Angola, and relates to "the son of Kimanaweze." Kimanaweze seems to be a mythical personage, perhaps originally identical with the first man, as, according to Héli Chatelain, " much of what the natives say of him corresponds with what the Amazulu tell of their Unkulunkulu." He figures in more than one folk-tale. The one I am about to give is further remarkable, not merely for personifying the Sun (which, to a certain extent, is done by the Wachaga), but for giving him the Moon as a wife. The Bantu in general speak of the Moon as a man, and say that he has two wives, the Evening Star and the Morning Star, which they do not realize to be one and the same.

The Daughter of the Sun and Moon

Kimanaweze's son, when the time came for him to choose a wife, declared that he would not "marry a woman of the

[1. Chatelain, Folk-tales of Angola, p. 31.]

earth, but must have the daughter of the Sun and Moon. He wrote "a letter of marriage"-a modern touch, no doubt added by the narrator[1]-and cast about for a messenger to take it up to the sky. The little duiker (mbambi) refused, so did the larger antelope, known as soko, the hawk, and the vulture. At last a frog came and offered to carry the letter. The son of Kimanaweze, doubtful of his ability to do this, said, "Begone! Where people of life, who have wings, gave it up dost thou say, 'I will go there But the frog persisted, and was at last sent off, with the threat of a thrashing if he should be unsuccessful. It appears that the Sun and Moon were in the habit of sending their handmaidens down to the earth to draw water, descending and ascending by means of a spider's web. The frog went and hid himself in the well to which they came, and when the first one filled her jar he got into it without being seen, having first placed the letter in. his mouth. The girls went up to heaven, carried their water-jars into the room, and set them down. When they had gone away he came out, produced the letter, laid it on a table, and hid.

After a while "Lord Sun" (Kumbi Mwene) came in, found the letter, and read it. Not knowing what to make of it, he put it away, and said nothing about it. The frog got into an empty water-jar, and was carried down again when the girls went for a fresh supply. The son of Kimanaweze, getting no answer, refused at first to believe that the frog had executed his commission; but, after waiting for some days, he wrote another letter and sent him again. The frog carried it in the same way as before, and the Sun, after reading it, wrote that he would consent, if the suitor came himself, bringing his 'first-present'-the usual gift for opening marriage negotiations. On receiving this the young man wrote another letter, saying that he must wait till told the amount of the 'wooing-present,' or bride-price (kilembu).

He gave this to the frog, along with a sum of money, and it was conveyed as before. This time the Sun consulted his wife, who was quite ready to welcome the mysterious son-in-law.

[1. We often find stories brought up to date in this way.]

She solved the question of providing refreshments for the invisible messenger by saying, "We will cook a meal anyhow, and put it on the table where he leaves the letters." This was done, and the frog, when left alone, came out and ate. The letter, which was left along with the food, stated the amount of the bride-price to be "a sack of money." He carried the letter back to the son of Kimanaweze, who spent six days in collecting the necessary amount, and then sent it by the frog with this message: "Soon I shall find a day to bring home my wife." This, however, was more easily said than done, for when his messenger had once more returned he waited twelve days, and then told the frog that he could not find people to fetch the bride. But the frog was equal to the occasion. Again he had himself carried up to the Sun's palace, and, getting out of the water-jar, hid in a corner of the room till after dark, when he came out and went through the house till he found the princess's bed chamber. Seeing that she was fast asleep, he took out one of her eyes without waking her, and then the other.[1] He tied up the eyes in a handkerchief, and went back to his corner in the room where the water-jars were kept. In the morning, when the girl did not appear, her parents came to inquire the reason, and found that she was blind. In their distress they sent two men to consult the diviner, who, after casting lots, said (not having heard from them the reason of their coming), "Disease has brought you; the one who is sick is a woman; the sickness that ails her the eyes. You have come, being sent; you have not come of your own will. I have spoken." The Sun's messengers replied, "Truth. Look now what caused the ailment." He told them that a certain suitor had cast a spell over her, and she would die unless she were sent to him. Therefore they had best hasten on the marriage. The men brought back word to the Sun, who said, "All right. Let us sleep. To-morrow they shall take her down to the earth." Next day, accordingly, he gave orders for the spider to "weave a large cobweb" for sending his daughter down. Meanwhile the frog had gone

[1. The frog's magic powers are implied, if not explicitly stated.]

down as usual in the water-jar and hidden himself in the bottom of the well. When the water-carriers had gone up again he came out and went to the village of the bridegroom and told him that his bride would arrive that day. The young man would not believe him, but he solemnly promised to bring her in the evening, and returned to the well.

After sunset the attendants brought the princess down by way of the stronger cobweb and left her by the well. The frog came out, and told her that he would take her to her husband's house; at the same time he handed back her eyes. They started, and came to the son of Kimanaweze, and the marriage took place. And they lived happy ever after-on earth, for, as the narrator said, "They had all given up going to heaven; who could do it was Mainu the frog."

In its present form, as will have been noticed, this story is strongly coloured by Portuguese influence. The water-carriers, the Sun's house, with its rooms and furniture, the bag of money, all belong to present-day Loanda. But, for all that, the groundwork is essentially African. The frog and the diviner would, by themselves, be sufficient to prove this. (The frog, by the way, is usually a helpful creature in African folklore.) The glaring improbabilities in the story must not be regarded too critically; it is constantly taken for granted, as we shall find when considering the animal stories proper, that any animal may speak and act like a human being-though the frog, in this instance, seems to possess more than ordinary human powers. The specially strong cobweb prepared for the daughter's descent, while the water-carriers had been going up and down every day without difficulty, may have been necessitated by the number of the bride's attendants; but we are not told why they should have returned and left her alone at the foot of the heavenly ladder.'

[1. The people of the Lower Congo have a story about the spider fetching fire from heaven at the request of Nzambi, who is here regarded as the Earth-mother and the daughter (according to R.E. Dennett) of Nzambi Mpungu, the "first father," or the personified sky. (Other authorities insist that everywhere in Africa the relation of sky and earth is that of husband and wife.) He was helped by the tortoise, the woodpecker, the rat, and the sandfly, whom he conveyed up by means of his thread. The story maybe found in Dennett, Folk-lore of the Fjort [Fiote], p.74]

In other cases we find people reaching the Heaven country by climbing a tree, as is done by the mother in the Yao tale of "The Three Women." In the Zulu story[1] of "The Girl and the Cannibals" a brother and sister, escaping from these ogres, climb a tree and reach the Heaven country.

The Heaven-tree

And there is a curious tradition among the Wachaga [2] about a mysterious tree. A girl named Kichalundu went out one day to cut grass. Finding it growing very luxuriantly in a certain place, she stepped on the spot and sank into a quagmire. Her companions took hold of her hands and tried to pull her out, but in vain; she vanished from their sight. They heard her singing, "The ghosts have taken me. Go and tell my father and mother," and they ran to call the parents. The whole countryside gathered about the place, and a diviner advised the father to sacrifice a cow and a sheep. This was done, and they heard the girl's voice again, but growing fainter and fainter, till at last it was silent, and they gave her up for lost. But after a time a tree grew up on the spot where she had disappeared. It went on growing, until at last it reached the sky. The herd-boys, during, the heat of the day, used to drive their cattle into its shade, and themselves climbed up into the spreading branches. One day two of them ventured higher than the rest, and called out, "Can you see us still?" The others answered, "No! Do come down again!" but the two daring fellows refused. "We are going on into the sky to Wuhu, the World Above!" Those were their last words, for they were never seen again. And the tree was called Mdi Msumu," the Story-tree."

The Tale of Murile

From the same region of Kilimanjaro comes the story of Murile, who also reached the Upper World, though neither by a rope nor a tree, and also came back.[3]

[1. Callaway, Nursery Tales, pp. 145 and 147

2 Gutmann, Volksbuch, p. 152.

3 Raum, Versuch, p. 307.]

A man and his wife living in the Chaga country had three sons, of whom Murile was the eldest. One day he went out with his mother to dig up maduma,[l] and, noticing a particularly fine tuber among those which were to be put by for seed, he said, " Why, this one is as beautiful as my little brother!" His mother laughed at the notion of comparing a taro tuber with a baby; but he hid the root, and, later, when no one was looking, put it away in a hollow tree and sang a magic song over it. Next day he went to look, and found that the root had turned into a child. After that at every meal he secretly kept back some food, and, when he could do so without being seen, carried it to the tree and fed the baby, which grew and flourished from day to day. But Murile's mother became very anxious when she saw how thin the boy was growing, and she questioned him, but could get no satisfaction. Then one day his younger brothers noticed that when his portion of food was handed to him, instead of eating it at once, he put it aside. They told their mother, and she bade them follow him when he went away after dinner, and see what he did with it. They did so, and saw him feeding the baby in the hollow tree, and came back and told her. She went at once to the spot and strangled the child which was "starving her son."

When Murile came back next day and found the child dead he was overcome with grief. He went home and sat down in the hut, crying bitterly. His mother asked him why he was crying, and he said it was because the smoke hurt his eyes. So she told him to go and sit on the other side of the fireplace. But, as he still wept and complained of the smoke when questioned, they said he had better take his father's stool and sit outside. He picked up the stool, went out into the courtyard, and sat down. Then he said, "Stool, go up on high, as my father's rope does when he hangs up his beehive in the forest!" [2] And the stool rose

[1. A kind of arum (Colocasia), the roots of which are used as food by the Wachaga; the taro of Polynesia.

2 He would throw one end of a rope up so as to pass over a branch, and then fasten it to the beehive, which would then be hauled up into place. These hives (made from the hollowed section of a log) are placed in trees by many East African tribes and left till full of honey, when the bees are smoked out, escaping through a hole made for the purpose in the back of the hive. The Zulus and other South African Bantu appear to content themselves with taking the honey found in hollow trees or holes in the rock, where the wild bees make their nests.]

up with him into the air and stuck fast in the branches of a tree. He repeated the words a second time, and again the stool moved upward. Just then his brothers happened to come out of the hut, and when they saw him they ran back and said to their mother, "Murile is going up into the sky!" She would not believe them. "Why do you tell me your eldest brother has gone up into the sky? Is there any road for him to go up by?" They told her to come and look, and when she saw him in the air she sang:

Mrile, wuya na kunu!
Wuya na kunu, mwanako!
Wuya xa kunu! "

[Murile, come back hither!
Come back hither, my child!
Come back hither!]

But Murile answered, "I shall never comeback, Mother! I shall never come back!"

Then his brothers called him, and received the same answer; his father called him-then his boy-friends, and, last of all, his uncle (washidu, his mother's brother, the nearest relation of all). They could just hear his answer, "I am not coming back, Uncle! I am never coming back!" Then he passed up out of sight.

The stool carried him up till he felt solid ground beneath his feet, and then he looked round and found himself in the Heaven country. He walked on till he came to some people gathering wood. He asked them the way to the Moon-chief's kraal,. and they said, "just pick up some sticks for us, and then we will tell you." He collected a bundle of sticks, and they directed him to go on till he should come to some people cutting grass. He did so, and greeted the grass-cutters when he came to them. They answered his greeting, and when he asked them the way said they would show him if he would help them for a while with their work. So he cut some grass, and they pointed out the road, telling him to go on till he came to some women hoeing. These, again, asked him to help them before they would show him the way, and, in succession, he met with some herd-boys, some women gathering beans, some people reaping millet, others gathering banana-leaves, and girls fetching water-all of them sending him forward with almost the same words. The water-carriers said, "Just go on in this direction till you come to a house where the people are eating." He found the house, and said, "Greeting, house-owners! Please show me the way to the Moon's kraal." They promised to do so if he would sit down and eat with them, which he did. At last by following their instructions he reached his destination, and found the people there eating their food raw. He asked them why they did not use fire to cook with, and found that they did not know what fire was. So he said, "If I prepare nice food for you by means of fire what will you give me?" The Moon-chief said, "We will give you cattle and goats and sheep." Murile told them to bring plenty of wood, and when they came with it he and the chief went behind the house, where the other people could not see them. Murile took his knife and cut two pieces of wood, one flat and the other pointed, and twirled the pointed stick till he got some sparks, with which he lit a bunch of dry grass and so kindled a fire. When it burned up he got the chief to send for some green plantains, which he roasted and offered to him. Then he cooked some meat and various other foods. The Moon-chief was delighted when he tasted them, and at once called all the people to ether, and said to them, "Here is a wonderful doctor come from a far country! We shall have to repay him for his fire." The people asked, "What must be paid to him?" He answered, "Let one man bring a cow, another a goat, another whatever he may have in his storehouse." So they went to fetch all these things. And Murile became a rich man. For he stayed some years at the Moon's great kraal and married wives and had children born to him, and his flocks and herds increased greatly. But in the end a longing for his home came over him. And he thought within himself: " How shall I go home again, unless I send a messenger before me? For I told them I was never coming back, and they must think that I am dead."

He called all the birds together and asked them one by one, If I send you to my home what will you say? " The raven answered, " I shall say, Kuruu! kuruu!" and was rejected. So, in turn, were the hornbill, the hawk, the buzzard, and all the rest, till he came to Njorovil, the mocking-bird, who sang:

"Mrile etsha kilalawu
    Tira ngama.
Mrile etsha kilalawu
    Mdeye mafuda na kiliko!"

[Murile is coming the day after to-morrow,
Missing out to-morrow.
Murile is coming the day after to-morrow.
Keep some fat in the ladle for him! "]

Murile was pleased with this, and told her to go. So she flew down to earth and perched on the gate-post of his father's courtyard and sang her song. His father came out and said, "What thing is crying out there, saying that Murile is coming the day after to-morrow? Why, Murile was lost long ago, and will never come back!" And he drove the bird away. She flew back and told Murile where she had been. But he would not believe her; he told her to go again and bring back his father's stick as a token that she had really gone to his home. So she flew down again, came to the house, and picked up the stick, which was leaning in the doorway. The children in the house saw her, and tried to snatch it from her, but she was too quick for them, and took it back to Murile. Then he said, "Now I will start for home." He took leave of his friends and of his wives, who were to stay with their own people, but his cattle and his boys came with him. It was a long march to the place of descent,[1] and Murile began to grow very tired. There

[1. We are not told how the cattle were to be got down, but probably they had to go clown the slope where the sky joins the earth at the horizon, which would account for the journey being longer than Murile's when he came up by Means of the magic stool!]

was a very fine bull in the herd, who walked beside Murile all the way. Suddenly he spoke and said, " As you are so weary, what will you do for me if I let you ride me? If I take you on my back will you cat my flesh when they kill me? " Murile answered, No! I will never eat you!" So the bull let him get on his back and carried him home. And Murile sang, as he rode along:

Not a hoof nor a horn is wanting!
    Mine are the cattle-hey!
Nought of the goods is wanting;
    Mine are the bairns to-day.
Not a kid of the goats is wanting;
    My flocks are on the way.
Nothing of mine is wanting;
    Murile comes to-day
With his bairns and his cattle-hey!

So he came home. And his father and mother ran out to meet him and anointed him with mutton-fat, as is the custom when a loved one comes home from distant parts. And his brothers and every one rejoiced and wondered greatly when they saw the cattle. But he showed his father the great bull that had carried him, and said, "This bull must be fed and cared for till he is old. And even if you kill him when he is old I will never eat of his flesh." So they lived quite happily for a time.

But when the bull had become very old Murile's father slaughtered him. The mother foolishly thought it such a pity that her son, who had always taken so much trouble over the beast, should have none of the beef when every one else was eating it. So she took a piece of fat and hid it in a pot. When she knew that all the meat was finished she ground some grain and cooked the fat with the meal and gave it to her son. As soon as he had tasted it the fat spoke and said to him, "Do you dare to eat me, who carried you on my back? You shall be eaten, as you are eating me!"

Then Murile sang: "O my mother, I said to you, 'Do not give me to eat of the bull's flesh!'" He took a second taste, and his foot sank into the ground. He sang the same words again, and then ate up the food his mother had given him. As soon as he had swallowed it he sank down and disappeared.

Other people who tell the story simply say, "He died." Be that as it may, that was the end of him.

The inhabitants of the Moon country, according to this legend, were very much like the earth-dwellers, except that they seem to have been less advanced in culture, having no knowledge of cooking or of fire. I have not come across any other reference to the Moon-chief, or his kraal, though, as already stated, the Bantu in general, when they think about the matter at all, describe the Moon as a man, like the Arabs and our Saxon forefathers.[1] In Nyasaland they give names to the Moon's two wives: the Evening Star is Chekechani, a poor housekeeper, who, during the fortnight he spends with her, starves him till he pines away to nothing. Puikani, the Morning Star, brings him back to life,[2] and feeds him up till he becomes quite round at the end of the month. The Giryama, in Kenya, call the planet Venus "the Moon's wife," but no one seems to have recorded any story connected with this expression.

Tailed Heaven-folk

The Ronga notion, too, as we have seen, appears to be that the dwellers above the sky are not very different from those beneath it. But we find here and there (so far only in detached fragments) traces of belief in a race of Heaven dwellers distinct from ordinary mortals. For instance, they are sometimes said to have tails. One clan of the Wachaga claims that its ancestor fell from the sky during a rainstorm. He belonged to a race called the Wakyambi, living in the sky, "far above the sun," and having tails. This ancestor, finding himself among tailless beings, and feeling ashamed of his peculiar appearance, secretly cut off his tail; consequently his descendants have none. Another legend says

[1. The Wasu, in Pare (south-east of Kilimanjaro), are an exception: they say that the sun is the father and the moon the mother of mankind.

2 At new moon they say, mwezi wafa, " the moon is dead."]

that once upon a time a man and a woman came down from the sky on a cloud and lighted on the hill Molama, in Machame. In the morning the inhabitants of the place found them standing there, and saw that they had tails like cows. When asked where they came from they answered, "God has sent us down on a cloud. We are looking for a place to live in." The people replied, "If you want to live with us you must have your tails cut off." They consented, and settled in that place, whither their descendants still come to sacrifice. It is said that cattle were sent down to them from the sky; they found them standing in front of their hut on the second morning.

The Wasu, the neighbours of the Wachaga on the southeast, speak of certain tailed beings inhabiting the clouds. Their nature is not very clear, but they are said to be always at war with the "good old people "-the ghosts of the human dead. "Sometimes," says a missionary long resident in Pare,[1] "they are held to be kind spirits who give people cattle, sometimes evil beings who bring disaster." It would probably be nearer the mark to say that, like ordinary human ghosts, they are beneficent or the reverse, according to their state of mind and the behaviour of the living.

Some of the Congo tribes, also, believe in the existence of 'Cloud folk' having tails. It is probable that if we could get at the folklore of all the tribes intervening between these two widely separated localities we should find the same notion everywhere. Outside the Bantu area the Lang'o, in the region of the Upper Nile (who, like the Wachaga, say that the first human pair had tails), and the Ewe, in West Africa, have traditions to the same effect, and something not very different comes out in the folk-tales of the Masai.

Whether, as one writer has suggested, these myths imply some dim race-memory of an ape ancestry our knowledge is not sufficient to decide; the general trend of Bantu thought (as shown in stories about baboons, for instance) would seem to negative such a conclusion. One might also ask whether the custom among some primitive tribes of

[1. Dannholz, Im Banne des Geisterglaubens, P. 24.]

wearing an artificial tail (as the principal, if not the sole, article of dress) could be the origin or the result of the tradition.

The Celestial Bellman

Murile-who reversed the action of Prometheus in bringing fire to, not from, heaven-is a somewhat mysterious figure, perhaps surviving from some forgotten mythology which, if recovered, would bridge some gaps in his story. There is a queer, fragmentary legend[1] about a person called Mrule, "the stranger from the sky," who may or may not have been originally the same as Murile. He had only one leg, and of the rest of his body only half was like a man; the other side was covered with grass.[2] He first alighted among the Masai (probably in the steppe to the north-west of Kilimanjaro), and went on thence to "our hill-country," ascending the mountain at Shira, hopping on his one leg. He was unable to speak. If he met anyone he only made a sound like mremrem. So it is hardly surprising that the people fled before him and barricaded themselves in their huts. He wandered on from place to place, and could get food nowhere. When he came to a homestead the inmates would call to him through their barred doors to go away. Naturally displeased, he found his way to the chief's place, but was not more kindly received there.[3] Then at last he spoke:

I am Mrule!
If ye reject me here below
Back to heaven I must go!

It was high noon, with the sun just overhead. He sprang into the air, rose straight up towards the sun, and was never seen on earth again.

[1. Gutmann, Volksbuch, p.150.

2 We shall meet with these half-men everywhere; they will be fully discussed in Chapter XIII. The grass growing out of one side is curious. I do not remember anything like it elsewhere, except in Zulu accounts of the Inkosazana, a strange being described as the Queen of Heaven, and in those of certain mysterious monsters. The half-men usually have nothing on their non-human side, or else it is made of wax.

3 One is reminded of a story by Mr H. W. Nevinson-one hopes not true-of an unfortunate Negro sailor shipwrecked on the Norfolk coast.]

But not long after this the chief fell into the fire, burning himself badly. His people consulted the diviners, who answered, You have sinned against Mrule. You all said, 'He will bring ill-luck to the country if we take him in. Who ever saw a being with one leg?' And the chief never asked him, What brings you here?' Because no one asked him anything he went away. But he is surely a great healer." Thus spoke the diviners. But all this time tortoises had been collecting in the plain. They gathered themselves into a long procession and came marching up to the chief's homestead, where they arranged themselves in a circle round the spot from which Mrule had ascended. And their leader chanted:

"Propitiate, propitiate, and, when ye have done so, asperse!"

The diviners interpreted this saying to the chief, and he at once sent for a black cow which had lately calved, a sheep, and the "water of expiation." They sacrificed the cow and the sheep, made a cut in the neck of the tortoise-chief, and took a drop of blood from him. Then they mixed this with the blood of the sacrifices and the water, and sprinkled the chief with it-also the whole of the ground within the circle of tortoises. So the curse was lifted, the tortoises went their way into the plain, and the chief recovered from his injuries.

In quite recent times a legend has grown up out of one of those rumours which arise no one knows how. "It was after the first white men had come into our country."[1] One day at noon a man appeared, floating in the air. He was light-complexioned, and held a bell in either hand. And he cried, with a loud voice:

Pay that thou owest to thy brother!
Hast thou a beast of his, give it back!
Hast thou a goat of his, give it back!
    Thus saith the King.
Let every stranger in the land return to his own home;
Every child held in pawn shall go free to his father's house.
Cease from violence; break the spear!
    Thus saith the King."

[1. The first European to reach Chaga was Rebmann, in 1848.]

At sunset he was seen again. Sometimes he appeared in one place, sometimes in another; but he never touched the earth. The chief of Moshi (was this the famous Mandara, properly called Rindi?) ordered his men to keep a look-out for him. They sat and stared at the sky till the cool of the evening drove them indoors. But they never saw him more.

Next: Chapter VI: The Ghosts and the Ghost Country