I have a fascination with the diverse African folklore and superstitions that are widespread across this amazing continent. I often find myself wondering where they stemmed from. It almost always leads me to a scene that I have played out so often, that it makes me believe that it is true.
Have I lived this before?
I can imagine an old chief sitting around a fire on a still night, the milky way bright in the sky and a fire blazing, a pride of lions roaring in the distance, hyenas contemplating nearby in hysterical giggles, and the haunting, far off call of the fiery necked nightjar. Here the chief begins to tell the children a story that they will pass on to our children and grandchildren. Is this how folklores and superstitions began?
Many different tribes with contrasting beliefs scattered far and wide across our country and others, all seem to share similar bird folklores and superstitions.
A bird that has always been completely captivating to me is the Owl. Across the globe, there are all kinds of beliefs on this specific group of birds. In Greek mythology, the Little owl (Athene noctua), is believed to represent the virgin Goddess Athena, the personification of knowledge and wisdom. However, in Africa, the Owl is viewed as a completely different symbol. It has come to be feared by many as it is a representation of illness, bad luck and sometimes even death. Legend has it that the owl is the bird of the Sangomas (traditional healers, sometimes incorrectly referred to as Witch doctors) which they use to send bad omens to others silently in the darkest of nights.
Another bird that has sparked my curiosity is the Hamerkop, that we so often see near rivers and waterholes. This spectacular and most unusual bird is also regarded as a bird of bad omen. If a Hamerkop is seen flying over a village, it is believed to be a very ominous sign, and something bad is bound to happen. A person who dreams of a Hamerkop flying overhead or wading in a river is a sign that evil is approaching and something will happen to the person who was unlucky enough to dream of the bird. In the days when foraging and hunting were the preferred methods for sourcing food, it was an extreme temptation of fate to remove the Hamerkops’ eggs of from their nest. However, this would result in a storm which would ultimately wreak havoc on your home.
Credo Mutwa, one of Africa’s most well-known Sangomas, once told a story of an era before western civilization. He spoke of a time when vultures were respected and honoured by kings across South Africa. This was a time that I often wish I could have been lucky enough to have experienced. Laws were passed by tribesman that ensured the safety of the vulture. As the world has progressed and modernized I feel that less people are told of the stories that were so frequently told in the past. The vulture now is unfortunately not as protected as it once was.
In the past Vultures were the symbol of fertility to many different tribes spread across the land; they were the fertilizers of the earth. If one was lucky enough to find the bones of a vulture that had died of natural causes this was of great value to them; it could enable them to see into the future, it empowered the possessor with clairvoyance. The reason being that vultures are renowned for finding carcasses exclusively by their amazing sense of sight, so this led tribesmen and Sangomas to believe that vultures could see a carcass in the future. However, today vultures’ lives are taken due to this belief, and without the ancient laws of the kings that once ruled, there is no punishment to offenders who have a hunger to see into the future.
Whatever you may or may not believe, it is important for us to respect and value these beliefs of other cultures.
These stories have been passed through many generations, people have grown up believing these folklores. Some may fear the mythology in many of these stories but in many instances they have helped secure some kind of respect for the birds they relate to, and isn’t that what is really important?