Death in African mythology

Death in African mythology

The search for an explanation of death is a recurring theme in the mythology of African peoples. Envy, laziness, disobedience or anger of the gods is the most common cause of the emergence of death in the world.

The meaning of death in different African cultures

Khoi villages, South Africa

Between the khoi and san de South Africa life and death are cyclical processes, like the phases of the Moon. Our natural satellite was seen as a protective entity in many ancient cultures. According to a legend, she wanted to send a message to humanity and the hare offered for the task. "Run right now- said the Moon- and tell men that just like me dying and rising, they will too" But the hare changed the message and said:As I die and disappear, you will too" Since then human beings are mortal.

Nandi, Uganda

Another version of this myth is found in the Nandi people of Uganda. Here the dog is sent to give the message. When he arrives, he asks men to feed him and drink, or else they will die. As these made fun of him, the dog exclaimed:Well then they will die, and only the Moon will rise!" In Togo it is said that the dog was sent to ask the gods for the immortality of human beings, but on the way he got distracted asking for food in a house. Meanwhile, the evil frog came forward and asked that the humans die. When the dog arrived before the gods, the frog's wish had already been granted. The Ngoni or Zulu tell a similar story with a chameleon and a lizard.

Galla, Ethiopia

For the Gallo people of Ethiopia, a bird is sent to announce to humanity: “They will be immortal, and when they feel old and sick they should remove their skin to recover their youth" On the way, the bird saw a snake devouring a prey and offered to tell him the message of the gods in exchange for a portion. The deal was finalized and, since then, snakes change their skin and humans die when they reach old age. But the gods punished the birds for this with terrible pain, of those who mourn from the branches of the trees.

All these myths have in common that is the envy, laziness or betrayal of an animal which brought death to the world.

Kivu Lake, Congo

In Lake Kivu, Congo, there is a legend that says that at first the humans were immortal and a god protected them. But one day, taking advantage of his carelessness, Death murdered an old woman and buried her. Some time later the god called all his people and noticed that the old woman was missing. Then they told him that he had died. He immediately ordered that everyone be locked in their homes until Death was captured. They did so, except for an old woman who fled to the Highlands to feel more secure. There Death found her and said “hide me and i will pay you" The old woman accepted and Death possessed her body. When God arrived and understood what happened, he killed the old woman to let Death out, who fled to the village. At that time a young woman who had left her cabin was owned by the entity. Seeing this, God exclaimed: "since humans do not obey me, then suffer the consequences" From that day on, God left Earth and Death walks freely.

Masai, East Africa

The Masai people of East Africa report that at the beginning of time on Earth there was only one man named Kintu, who was immortal. Nge's daughter, the creator of the universe, fell in love with him and asked his father to allow him to become his wife. Nge took Kintu to heaven to perform a series of tests that emerged victorious. Given this, God blessed their union, and gave them farm animals and seeds to work the land. But when he said goodbye, he asked them that once they were gone they should not retrace their steps because their other son - Death - was not happy with the marriage. Once underway, Kintu recalled that he had forgotten the food of the birds and - without hearing his wife's pleas - returned to look for her. Again in heaven, he ran into Death that followed him to Earth. Since then there is death in the world.

This myth is one of the most interesting in the series. In part it resembles the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve, since death bursts in when the primordial couple leaves paradise. But what makes it valuable is the fact that death, sexuality and work have a common origin. Kintu and his wife are the progenitors of all humanity (the Ugandan royal family used to be considered their direct heiress) and at the same time, they are the ones who bring death and agricultural tasks.


Evolutionary biology has discovered that death and sexuality had a common origin: unicellular organisms that reproduce by replication do not die from natural causes; Only when multicellular beings evolved from sexual reproduction is when death began to exist. Freud refers to two impulses that move living beings: Libido and the Death Drive, Eros and Thanatos.

Thus death - which gives meaning to life by becoming aware of its finitude - and sexuality and work - which ensure its continuity - become both sides of the same cosmic cycle.