It is unfortunate that myths are no longer are understood as “true stories”, but have instead been assigned the value of fantasy and unreality. Ancient cultures told stories to explain the mystery of the world they experienced. These myths explained natural phenomena and were also practical prohibitions to protect people from harm.
For Africa’s own Khoisan peoples, the sun and the moon were gods. Faces of a supreme deity. The cycle of religious observance was, therefore, carefully adjusted according to the cycles of the moon. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century observers in the Cape Colony noted the importance of ritual dances and prayers during the full moon each month. Khoisan legends and myths also refer to a “trickster” god, who could transform himself into animal or human forms, and who could die and be reborn many times over. The praying mantis, a predatory insect with large eyes and other features characteristic of animal predators, figures in San myths and folktales in a role similar to the clever fox in European folktales. Khoisan herdboys still use mantises to “divine” the location of lost animals, and in Afrikaans, the mantis is referred to as “the Hottentot’s god.”
Another trickster in Bantu folklore is Tokoloshe or Tikoloshe as his name appears in various forms in Sub-Saharan Africa. Originally a fertility figure (he carries his large manhood slung over his shoulder) this mischievous dwarf has been blamed for all kinds of malevolence.
He is most famous for stealing the souls of sleeping people and to this day many African people will not sleep on the floor. As further insurance they elevate their beds on bricks so that the short Tokoloshe will not see them sleeping above his eye level.
In an interesting nexus of science and mythology, this bed raising ritual coincides with the migration of people from rural huts and homesteads to cities like Johannesburg for industrial work. These newcomers encountered coal for the first time, replacing the wood as fuel for cooking and heating. No one knew at the time that coal fires can produce 20% more deadly carbon monoxide than burning wood. Carbon monoxide is heavier than oxygen and an open coal fire indoors creates a deadly layer of floor level gas that will kill anyone sleeping there. And so enters Tokoloshe, the soul stealer who superstitiously was blamed for these floor deaths. Ironically the word superstition derives from Latin which means to “stand over”, which Tokoloshe did as he stole the souls asleep on the floor.
When city dwelling traditional Africans elevated their beds however, they took themselves out of harms way by sleeping above the carbon monoxide zone on the floor. A scientific solution implemented through mythology.
Imitating the television series Mythbusters it seems that the myth of elevating one’s bed to avoid the soul reaping Tokoloshe is a true story.
The same is true for many of our religious narratives. They are absolutely true. They may just not have happened in the way we narrate them.