Book Review: African Mythology


Author: Geofrey Parrinder PUBLISHER: Peter Bedrick Books, New York
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1986 (Third Reprint, 1991)
Number of pages: 144″
Reviewed by: Hannington Ochwada.

Literature and stories abound on both the old and new Africa. In fables and gossip, old Africa is portrayed in two different ways, in the positive and the negative. In ancient classical stories and discourses, for instance, it is portrayed as a land where religious inspiration and civilisation came from. The Greeks, Phoenicians and other Mediterranean peoples got the names of their deities and religious practices from ancient Ethiopia via Egypt. Classical writers such as Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny all attest to this.

However, in most European literature since 16th Century the contribution of African culture to World Civilisation is minimised. According to most Eurocentric writers, the origins of human civilization commenced with the dawn of what has been described as the Greek “miracle”. In this view, all world civilisations have their roots in the Hellenic culture, and there can be no other progenitor than this! As a result, African achievements in the arts and sciences are relegated to obscurity. They are presumed to represent primitive and primordial stages of human progress. In this regard, they become useful only in so far as they help illuminate the early stages of western historical development.

Does African Mythology fit in the two conceptions? This well illustrated book discusses the various cultures and beliefs of the people of the continent. It is assumed old Africa south of the Sahara did not possess the skill of writing, expressing itself largely in works of art as a substitute. According to the text, this explains the existence of a diversity of art as a language of expression in the absence of a conventional culture of writing. In African art, therefore, all aspects of life were expressed, including the physical as well as the metaphysical. Thus African art constituted the gateway to understanding the worldview of the various peoples of the continent. The richness of African art and its aesthetic values represent the worldview aspirations and experiences of different peoples and generations. The author also examines the races that make up the people of Africa classifying them as “Negroes” and “Hamites”. This classification was tenable in imperialist literature. However, while anthropologically, it distinguishes African people, it pins racist labels on Africans, assigning Europeans the civilising role while Africans played that of the subordinates.

The racist connotations, notwithstanding, there are several myths recounted in the text including that of the creation of the world which acknowledges the respect Africans had for the Supreme Being and the role God played in their lives.

God was assigned various attributes and his role dramatised in all aspects of their lives. Given this realisation, the Supreme Being and other deities are variously portrayed in art, and especially in the poetry of the African communities. Moreover, oracles and divination, witches and monsters, the secret societies and the role of ancestors, and legends of old Africa all spoke of human relationships with the Supreme Being.

On the relationship between God and humanity, the author explores several myths explaining how this was strained causing God to leave the world. Examples are drawn from west Africa among the Mende of Sierra Leone, Cote d’ Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria.

Also recounted are myths from central and even southern Africa. Together with myths on the first ancestors, the mystery of birth and the origins of death which are prevalent in Africa, the myth of how God left the world to go to his own abode, is probably an attempt to give historical explanations of different peoples. These myths are reinforced by legends of old Africa, for example the Golden Stool, Kintu, the inventor king and his successors among others which emphasize the need to respect centralised authority. Animal fables also abound in African Mythology, generally discussing relationships between individuals. These highlight the experiences of human beings using animal characters. Despite being ridden with Eurocentric cliches, it generally introduces one to the African world. This makes it easier for the reader to understand modern interpretations by African scholars on the same subject.

It is very captivating for the general reader.

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