Ancient African Folklore

African folklore, like the folklore of most ancient civilizations, is carried on through oral tradition. Many African folktales, legends, fables, and stories are thousands of years old.

Unlike nowadays, where stories can be recorded in audio and text, stories could only be recorded 2000 years ago if they were passed down by word-of-mouth.

Kente cloth patterns

The Importance of Ancient African Folklore

The importance of folktales in African cultures has helped to keep the oral tradition of storytelling alive; in Africa today, there are many employed storytellers who continue the traditional method of sharing folktales with crowds of people, reciting the words only from memory. Unlike other ancient civilizations (such as those found in Egypt and Rome,) African folktales are not just spiritual stories.

This means that African folktales did not always have religious importance. It’s not very common to see nonreligious folktales in other ancient cultures, and this helps to set the African tradition of storytelling apart from the crowd.

Animals play a key role in African folklore. Animals were often personified – given human qualities – in African legends, and many famous stories which use this technique (such as The Tortoise and the Birds, or The Lion’s Whisker) are still popular today.

These stories, which are often referred to as ‘fables,’ are intended to tell us something about the world, and usually give an insight into the ways humans think and behave.

In the fable “The Tortoise and the Birds,” the moral of the story is that one should be respectful towards someone who does them a favor; while in the fable “The Lion’s Whisker,” the message is that a person shouldn’t look for a magic solution to their problems, and should instead work to fix them using their own skills and abilities.

The morals taught in these stories are important because they teach us about the philosophy of Ancient Africa, and show us how the people may have thought and felt about things. The importance of nature in these stories also shows us the African peoples’ deep connection with the earth.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

The Tortoise and the Hare

One of the world’s most famous stories, “the Tortoise and the Hare,” actually has its roots in an African folktale. In this story, a hare and a tortoise compete in a race. Because the hare is so much faster than the tortoise, it’s sure that it’ll win – however, because the hare is so certain that there’s no way it can lose, it decides to take a nap halfway through.

While the hero sleeps, the tortoise catches up and overtakes him. The tortoise goes on to win the race. This story teaches us two lessons; firstly, that “slow and steady wins the race,” and secondly, that “pride comes before the fall” – in other words, it was the hare’s own arrogance that caused him to lose the race.

This story is very popularly taught to children, and its roots in African folklore help to show us the kind of messages that African legends and fables were built to teach.

Having a good understanding of African folklore is critical to having a good understanding of Ancient African society in general – because Africa is so vast, and filled with so many different peoples, tribes, nations, and empires, the folktales which spread across the continent are one of the continent’s only unifying factors (i.e, something which connects everybody).

African folktales were retold across the continent in many different languages and could spread from the north end to the south as people traveled and shared their wisdom. Understanding what the African people valued – and what they were taught to value – is crucial to being able to analyze other parts of African history.

Perhaps reading some of the most famous African folktales would be a good way to imagine what the African people valued.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

Facts about Ancient African folklore:

  • Ancient African folklore was passed on by oral tradition.
  • The importance of folktales in African culture has helped to keep the oral tradition of storytelling alive.
  • Unlike other ancient civilizations, African folktales are not just spiritual stories.
  • The folktales of Africa were intended to teach listeners something about the world.
  • Animals play a key role in African folklore.
  • Animals were often personified – given human qualities – in African legends.
  • One of the world’s most famous fables, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” has its roots in Ancient Africa.
  • Having a good understanding of Ancient African Folklore is important because it gives us an insight into the philosophy (worldview) of the continent.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

Q&A:

How was folklore recorded in Ancient Africa?

– By oral tradition – passed on from generation to generation.
Why was folklore important to Ancient African society?

– It kept the oral tradition of storytelling alive, and spread philosophy from one end of the continent to another.

Briefly describe the importance of animals in Ancient African folklore.

– They were often the main characters of African folktales, and were “personified” (given human qualities) to help teach listeners about the world.

Name a folktale which comes from Ancient Africa/has Ancient African origins.

– The Tortoise and the Hare/The Tortoise and the Birds/The Lion’s Whisker.