Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dungeonspiration: African Mythology

A few years ago, looking for something new and different to spark my creativity, I picked up a book called Essential African Mythology: Stories That Changed the World, by Ngangar Mbitu and Ranchor Prime.  While I had a few books on 'World Mythology,' I never had read one on Africa specifically.

It's not like siting down to a book on Greek Mythology.  There is no Bullfinchian or Hamiltonian categorization or pigeonholing.  Africa is vast, with immense diversity of culture and human genetics.  It kind of makes Europe look like a inbred hillbilly. The book, aside from the introduction, is simply stories.  No family trees, no taxonomy, and there has been no apparent analysis and 'bending' of the stories to form some sort of Aesopic lesson.  The presentation is quite nice, actually.

The book includes stories and myth from the people and regions of Alur, Hausa, Swahili, Yoruba, Nigeria, Mozambique, Zaire, Taganyika, Bantu, Dahomey, Malozi, Wakaranga, Fang, Bini, Nupe, Wapangwa, Kono, and even more.  It has various origin myths, trickster tales, proverbs, cautionary tales, and hero myths.  There is plenty of material here to get you thinking in whole different ways about world creation and adventures.

Fun Factiod #938
As I was preparing to write this post, I decided to look up the Afican Mythos section of Deities and Demigods, becasue I couldn't remember anything about it.  I was in for a shock. 

Did you ever notice that Deities and Demigods never touched on Sub-Saharan Africa?  At all?  D&D was a huge influence on my life, and helped spur interests in history, archaeology, architecture, and a host of other things.  I wonder if the inclusion of an African Mythos section would have sent me off exploring African myths at a younger age.

I don't mean to imply that the creators of Deities and Demigods were racists.  I have no clue, but I seriously doubt it.  But what I do know is that we are a product of our culture, and that we value some stories more than others, and heck, haven't even heard of certain stories because of our cultural blinders.  I find it's good for me to expand out of my comfort zone and delve into the foreign - because seeing things from different viewpoints can be so enlightening.

So go take a look at other myths and stories - those outside of the classic European (or where-ever the heck you or your ancestors are from) mold - and get inspired. To whet your appetite, here is a table of contents from Essential African Mythology: Stories That Changed the World:

Chapter One: Myths of Origin and Extinction
  • Doondari and Gueno
  • Sa and Alatangana
  • How Humans Were Scattered
  • King Kitamba and Queen Muhongo
  • The Chameleon and the Lizard
  • The Dog and the Toad
  • The Bag of Mystic Powers (you could make this one the basis for a whole campaign)
  • The Sheep God (one of my favorites because it is so frikkin strange)
  • The Two Brothers
  • Stories of Obatala
  • The Distant Sky
  • Tortoises, Humans, and Stones
  • The Quarrel Between Earth and Sky
  • Fam, the First Man
  • Nyambe and Kamunu
Chapter Two: The Elements and Celestial Powers
  • Father Moon
  • Morning and Evening
  • The Sun, the Moon and the Creation of Fish
  • Thunder and Lightning
  • A Daughter-in-law for Kimanaweze
  • The Discovery of Fire
  • A Home for the Sun and the Moon
  • The Fruit of Generosity
Chapter Three: Gods and Spirits
  • Spirits of the Bush
  • The Rock Spirit and the Child
  • The Bird Spirit
  • The Origin of Night and Day
  • The Underwater World
  • The Country Under the Earth
  • Chapter Four: Animals and Humans
  • The Beautiful Hind
  • The Hunter's Secret
  • The Leopard and the Boy
  • Mokele
  • Chichinguane and Chipfalamfula
Chapter Five: Folk Stores
  • Blaming it on Adam
  • The Snake Bite
  • A Quarrel Between Friends
  • The Jealous King
  • The Reward of Envy
  • The Suspect
  • The King's Magic Drum
  • How To Find Suffering
  • The Girl Who Wanted Dawn's Dress
  • Chief Liongo
Chapter Six: Fables
  • The Antelope in the Moon
  • Tortoise and the Palm Tree
  • How Tortoise Grew a Tail
  • Tortoise Swears an Oath
  • Tortoise and Babarinsa's Daughters
  • Tortoise's Last Journey
  • A Lesson for the Bat
  • How the Cat Came to Live with People
  • Frog Inherits the Kingdom

- Ark


  1. I would suspect that part of the reason for not including African mythos might be that, at the time the D&DG was written, it wasn't as easy to get information on African myths as it is now. It's most likely just a product of the time. I remember throughout elementary school, whenever we studied mythology, it was always in the context of Greek and Egyptian myths, and was tied to learning about these two civilizations as part of world history.

    I never once had a segment of history class on sub-Sahara African history, which is sad, but again, it's a product of the times. All of my history classes focused on the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, and then jumped right to Greece, Rome, and then Europe, and finally the U.S.

    There was no talk of Africa, Asia, or South America.

  2. I have been interested in that lack for a while. One cool dragon article was in #122. I stats up some African monsters like half wax men and such.

  3. hmmm... Those are some pretty interesting facts. :)

  4. By the way, I was looking for that story I mentioned in relation to your hobbit-tale the other week. No dice. I heard it on a BBC radio-program about a year ago. The (media-)story was about the Moroccan storytelling tradition, if I'm not mistaken.

    The baseline was a king and his advisor. The advisor only said, "it is good," regardless of the king's misfortune. In the end, the sum of the unfortunate chain of events was that the king did not get eaten by cannibals (or some such), and the advisor was proven right. Hence he was the wisest of all the king's advisers.

    If I manage to dig it up, I'll be sure to let you know.

    Also, about non-mainstream myths, perhaps I should do a post on Sami folklore at some point. I'll male a note of that, I think.

  5. In addition to African mythology, I recommend some good African fantasy that draws on it: the works of Charles Saunders.

  6. I'll second Theodric's suggestion of Charles Saunders. Imaro is a good read.

  7. There were a few articles spread over two or three issues of Dragon back in the mid-90s that discussed running a D&D campaign based on African culture and mythology. My own personal Holy Grail of untapped fantasy awesomeness is India--if ever there was a "real life" model for D&D-style fantasy, ancient India is it.

    Also, Ranchor Prime is one of the most awesome names I've seen in a good long while.

  8. I want to say "+1" to what sirlarkins said, but then I feel like that's giving Google free advertising. :)

    But, YES!!!!! India. I just don't get why it's been ignored by the RPG community for this long.

    I have an India-inspired country in my campaign world and I've scoured through what little RPG resources are available, but none of them seem to be the right fit. If you go on Amazon and search for something like "India RPG Resources" or something like that, you'll find a list that someone put together. It includes such diverse elements as old Expert D&D Modules X4 and X5, Module B7 "Rahasia", and a few others.

    A few years ago, somebody did a d20 (it might have even been for Pathfinder) PDF book on India that I bought, but I was pretty disappointed.

    It's like - I don't want a history book. I want the fun, fantasy, inspiration stuff from mythology, like a short, but still detailed, explanation of their thoughts on magic, fighting styles, religion, nobility, monsters, etc.

    Most resources I've seen seem to dwell on the caste system and on Hinduism and that's it, like there's nothing else there.

  9. @Martin R. Thomas - Yeah, back in high school they'd just hand us Edith Hamilton's Mythology then make us read Medea out loud and be done with it. :) History, in general, was not covered very well. Europe didn't exist before Greece, or after 1492. Some dudes on horses were in Asia. The great people of Africa invented something by losing wax. Australia was where they talk funny. And that was about it. We spent YEARS of study on Texas though. :) Luckily though, I liked to supplement my education at home.

    @Telecanter - Thanks for the pointer. I'll have to look for that issue. Sounds vaguely familiar.

    @Zombie - Facts and facts. Just like parts are parts.

    @Harald - Thanks for the info on the Moroccan story. And I'd love to hear about the Sami. The only think I really know about them is that they are very cold.

    @Theodric the Obscure & Joseph Browning - I'll have to investigate Charles Saunders then!

    @sirlarkins & Martin - India is indeed awesome. I know it's stories more from spiritual exploration, rather than data mining, so I'd have to screw on my head a bit differently - but dang, yeah, you don't want to mess with Kali. :) One thing that might have been a stumbling block for using Hindu 'mythology' in gaming supplements is that this 'mythology' is still a living religion with around a billion adherents. Case in point - the Xena episode containing Lord Krishna and the outrage in the Hindu community that followed. But that, as Mako says, is another story. :)

    - Ark

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  11. Sorry for the double-post. Made a typo.

    Anyway - @Arkhein and @Sirlarkins - if you're interested, I just made a post on my blog about Fantasy India Gaming Resources. I'd love to hear what you guys have to add to the list that I may have forgotten.

    The post is here