Welcome to episode 16, and the second episode we’ll be spending exploring the dragons of Africa though the southern part of Africa, to be precise. Anike’s homeland!
Grab your MythsterMap, mark our progress, and let’s get this dragon on the road!
Dragons of Africa Part II Transcript
Jaz: Welcome back to episode sixteen of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales! We are one episode and one blog into Africa and heading south on the continent from the Congo all the way down to South Africa, where our own lovely Anike is from. Hello, Anike!
Anike: Hi, Jaz! And yeah, sunny South Africa is in here. Well, it’s not been so much as sunny as it has been rainy, especially here in the Nama Karoo semi-desert, which spans quite a bit of southern Africa. And I think we might actually find a few dragons in this area.
Jaz: Well, I know I found one real-life dragon in the Karoo and I actually mentioned it in last week’s blog post, so do go and check that out. But as for actual South African mythical dragons, we’re in your territory, why don’t we let you decide where to start.
Anike: Well, seeing as we are travelling downctually, we’ll start with the upper part of the southern half of Africa, and let’s start in the Congo River region with the Nyanga people. They have an epic called Mwindo Epic. As in most good epics, the hero faces off against a dragon-type creature.
Jaz: Right, Mwindo was a classic hero, born to overthrow his father’s rule. Like most heroes, he comes out of the womb walking, talking, and ready to kick butt. So, can you say Gary Stew? Yes, we can!
Anike: It has its appeal.
Jaz: Yeah, sometimes it does. And, I mean, this is ancient mythology and not sort of contemporary literature so we can be a bit more forgiving.
Anike: We can.
Jaz: But anyway, but before he can battle the final boss — his father — he has to defeat some other forces first. The main serpent is the river god, Mukiti. He lived in the deepest part of the river and controlled all of the river’s animals as well as the waters. And people revered him because he granted safe passage to travelers as well as providing water. Not much is said about his appearance except that he can take either serpent or human form.
Anike: In the epic, Mukiti marries Iyangura, Mwindo’s aunt. This is important because in Banyanga life, the chief’s sister would have given him advice about ruling. But Mukiti takes Iyangura — the voice of reason — away. He keeps her trapped in his village while he dwells in the river.
Jaz: When Mwindo’s father tries to kill him as an infant, Mwindo goes to Iyangura for help. He approaches by walking on the river bottom, defeating all of Mukiti’s servants as he passes through the water.
Anike: And when he gets to the shallow water, Mwindo encounters Musoka, Mukiti’s sister. Musoka was the goddess of the calm shallows. She made a dam to stop Mwindo, but he simply burrowed beneath it and continued on.
Jaz: Eventually, Mwindo defeats all of Mukiti’s servants and dries up the river. His spell is so powerful it dries all the water in the land, even the spit in people’s mouths. But his aunt begs him for leniency, so he returns the water, and Mukiti leaves him alone.
Anike: It’s actually one of the few stories where the battle between man and god does not actually end in death, but instead a sort of mutual respecting and understanding circumstance.
Jaz: It is nice to see the gods and humans getting along, even if their relationship is still a bit tense.
Anike: Well, I mean, it did start with them both trying to kill each other.
Jaz: Hmm, yeah, true. So, let’s move onto a story that is even more heartwarming, shall we? Masingi, the healer.
Anike: That is a good one. Masingi the healer is from the Shangaan people in South Africa. According to his story, he lived in a deep hole outside of the village and it was said he could bring anyone back to health. When a man fell ill and could not be revived, his wife asked their five sons to go and fetch Masingi the healer and bring him back.
Jaz: Each boy, starting with the oldest, went to the hole and sang to Masingi. The serpent, hearing the song, gathered his healing herbs and came out, but when the boys saw he was a great serpent, they ran away. When it came time for the youngest son to go, he stood well away from the hole. When Masingi came out, the boy did not run. He wrapped Masingi around him and brought him to the village where the snake healed his father. Masingi stayed in the village for several days and left healing herbs behind in case the father fell ill again. He also said if he is needed, one only has to go to Masingi’s hole and sing his song. What a sweet, helpful serpent!
Anike: He is! I’m loving that we have benevolent and not-so-benevolent dragons in the southern half of Africa.
Jaz: Yeah, yeah!
Anike: But, let’s stay more or less in the area for the next one. The Basotho people of Lesotho and South Africa have the story of Monyohe, who had a human head and a snake’s body. Sound familiar?
Jaz: Oh, just a tiny bit, maybe.
Anike: Well, there are actually quite a few different stories about Monyohe, and they share some common themes, but not always.
Jaz: Well, they do all start in similar ways. A chief had a wife who could not have children. They went to a healer who said he could cure her barrenness and she would have a son, but he would be born in the skin of a snake. So Monyohe was born.
Anike: And, even though he was part snake, his parents loved him very much. But they knew others would be afraid of him, well obviously, so they kept him in their hut where he ate and grew so large he reached the top of the hut even when coiled. They built his own hut and moved him there at night. Monyohe could talk and sing and eat like a man, but he remained in, well, the skin of a snake.
Jaz: And here’s where the stories branch off. In one story, it comes time for Monyohe to marry. His father plans to buy a bride, but Monyohe says he wants to choose his own. He sneaks down to the water hole and finds Senkepeng bathing. He decides he will marry her, but she says he has no arms to hold her and no legs to dance with her, so she won’t marry him. She asks him where his offering of cattle is, but he has only water to give her. She laughs and runs off.
Anike: That’s not very nice. Of course. Well, hurt, Monyohe blocks up all the water and dries the land. A great drought comes. Young men are then sent to look for water, and they find Monyohe in a deep pool. But the snake man will not release the water unless Senkepeng marries him. The young men agree to this and Monyohe returns the water to them.
Jaz: When it comes time to collect Senkepeng, she runs from Monyohe. Instead of being mad at this, Monyohe is amused and inspired by the chase. She does several tricks such as leaving her beads behind for him to collect or singing until he dances so much he ties himself into knots. Finally, one village helps her by burying knives in the ground. These knives split Monyohe’s belly, and a beautiful, strong man steps from the skin. Senkepeng immediately falls in love and they are married.
Anike: Oh, that’s not shallow at all.
Jaz: No, no.
Anike: Not shallow. But in the other version, the love interest is called Maliane. She is a rude child and runs away from home. While in the wilderness she learns manners from the animals and an old woman. Eventually she returns to the village and eats a meal with Monyohe’s parents. They decide she is such a well-behaved girl that she will marry their son. When she sees him curled in his hut, she runs away as well, returning to her home village. But once she’s there, a great thirst overcomes her.
Jaz: Her parents give her water, but nothing will quench her thirst. They take her to the watering hole, but Manyohe is there and refuses to leave. She’s too terrified to approach the water and drink with the snake-man there. They call the healer, who lures then Manyohe out with meat, but as he emerges he sheds his skin, becoming, yet again, a beautiful man.
Anike: And, of course, they fall in love and get married.
Jaz: Of course. Hmm. How about we go north again, back to the Congo River Basin and talk about the Mokele-mbembe.
Anike: Koji can’t resist her cryptids, so she was a bit excited when she came across Mokele-mbembe as a potential dino-cryptid living in the Congo River Basin. Unfortunately, the research made the story sad and actually a bit infuriating.
Jaz: First, why don’t we start with a description.
Anike: Good idea.
Jaz: Mokele-mbembe is supposed to be a huge, long-necked dinosaur that lives in the river banks and marshlands. Basically a vague sauropod, but instead of being an herbivore, it feeds on elephants, hippos, and other large animals. It sounds like a solid cryptid story to me.
Anike: It does. And most cryptid stories, interestingly, have two potential origins. The first are born out of local legends. These are generally our favorites.
Anike: The second form is when an outsider comes to visit and tries to explain something they’ve seen. While not as great as a local legend, these can still be a pretty interesting way of seeing the layering of cultural explanation. A good example would be drakon indikos.
Jaz: Right. But Mokele-mbembe takes this a step further. In 1909 Carl Hagenbeck published Beasts and Men, in which he claimed to have heard about a creature described by natives as “half elephant, half dragon.” Except later sources then say Hagenbeck, a known showman, was probably taking advantage of the dinosaur craze and the misinformed idea that Africa was less biologically developed than the rest of the world. In other words, people thought that Africa was a wilderness caught back in time. Now, we know this is nonsense. But it goes to show how some cryptid stories can come not from simple cultural misunderstandings, but from imperialism and willful ignorance. So… yeah, don’t do that.
Anike: Yeah. We really can’t leave our Mythsters on that note, can we?
Jaz: No, I suppose not. What else do we have?
Anike: I think I have just the thing and you’ll find it pretty interesting.
Anike: It is another story from the Basotho people of Lesotho and South Africa. The Basuto people had another dragon-like being called the nanabolele. These looked somewhat like crocodiles that glowed in the moonlight. They traveled in a great cloud of red dust and were super fierce. They took down entire villages, eating the people and sinking the villages below their lake.
Jaz: That does sound fierce! So, there’s a few variations on this story, in which the chief is alive or not and had one son or two. Either way, the chief did have a daughter, Thakane, and at least one son. When the son was circumcised, he refused to leave the circumcision hut unless he was given a shield, clothes, shoes, and a spear made of nanabolele skin. Young men were supposed to leave the training hut in their finest, and the son thought since he was the son of a chief, he should have something better than everyone else.
Anike: Well, I’m not surprised. Thakane, with nothing else to do, set out to actually go out to slay a nanabolele. She traveled until she found their lake, and in there, an old woman came out and told Thakane that the nanabolele had taken her village, leaving only herself alive. The old woman agreed to help Thakane. Together they went to the empty village under the water and the old woman buried Thakane in a deep hole. The nanabolele returned from hunting, well, and smelled Thakane, but the old woman distracted them until, when they were tired from searching, they fell asleep.
Jaz: The old woman helped Thakane choose the biggest nanabolele, which they skinned. She then sent Thakane off with a stone, which would grow into a mountain when Thakane sat on it. The nanabolele chased Thakane, but when they got too close, she would simply sit on the mountain until they went away. Eventually they got too tired and left her. She was able to bring the nanabolele skin back to her brother and have the fine clothes made from it. In return, he gifted her hundreds of cattle.
Anike: I feel like that’s as good a place to leave off as any.
Jaz: Fierce princess who wins hundreds of cattle? Sure, that sounds like a great stopping point.
Anike: Right? So, next week we’ll have one more blog about the African dragons and then we are off to… where again?
Jaz: Let’s check the map. I do believe we’re going north, up to… oh, there it is. Eastern Europe.
Anike: Right! Well, then I’ll meet you there.
- Mwindo Epic Myth of Africa Part II
- Mwindo: The “Little-one-just-born-he-walked”
- Dragons of Fame: Masingi
- Tales from the Basotho
- African Tales
- Dragons of Fame: Monyohe
- Misreading the Mokele-Mbembe (the Mokele-Mbembe, Part 1)
- Mokele-Mbembe: The Search for a Living Dinosaur
- Mokele-mbembe Wiki
- The treasury of Ba-suto lore; being original Se-suto texts, with a literal English translation and notes
- Thákane: Dragon-slaying South African Princess
Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License