”Written byRuan Groenewald
This is the Drakensberg and this is where mythology hides in every cave, stream, meadow and mountain top.
The road was covered in mist and we could barely see a few feet in front of us. To one side the mountain stretched high, piercing the heavens with their stony tops. To the other, a gorge so deep you could seemingly fall forever and not reach the valley floor below. And here we found ourselves in a small metal box in-between heaven and hell.
“Can you hear that? The rumble of the dragons nearby.” – my father said as I peered out the window with wide eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the massive creatures. This is the Drakensberg and this is where mythology hides in every cave, stream, meadow and mountain top.
On the highveld of South Africa, close to where I grew up in Johannesburg is said to be the exact origin of mankind, Maropeng – the cradle of Humankind. Fast forward a few million years and man has made every corner of this country his home. From the snow-covered mountains of Lesotho to the lush jungles of the Eastern Cape and even the scorching deserts of the Kalahari. With this movement, humans made sense of their new surroundings and the unexplainable phenomenon’s around them by telling stories, tales and myths of their gods and the creatures they inhabit these lands with.
“With this movement, humans made sense of their new surroundings and the unexplainable phenomenon’s around them by telling stories, tales and myths of their gods and the creatures they inhabit these lands with.”
We start our journey in the far north of the Northern Cape where one of many Khoekhoen and /Xam legends have their origin. These people were the first true storytellers of this land. Enter the Great Water Serpent of Augrabies. This massive snake has been depicted in Khoisan rock drawings for thousands of years and is believed to live in the depths of the raging Augrabies waterfall on the border between South Africa and Namibia however, depictions of the snake have been found all along the Orange River which originates in the Drakensberg and flows through much of South Africa. It is said that if you fall under the snakes’ spell, enchanted by an enormous jewel on its head and shimmering scales, you will be pulled underwater into the churning froth and be lost forever.
Not all African Mythology is about wicked creatures and monsters. The first people of this land who found solitude in the deserts all over Southern Africa had countless tales about their beautiful gods. This is the San Peoples tale of Rain and her Son:
Rain married the man who created the earth, he was called Flame. Together they had 3 beautiful daughters and a curious son named Son-eid.
When the eldest daughter grew up, she wished to see the world below and travel the earth.
Her parents let her go and soon she fell in love and married a strong and handsome hunter and decided to stay in the mortal world.
When the other children came of age they too wanted to travel the earth below, but Rain didn’t want them to go as she was scared they would leave forever.
An acquaintance to the gods, Hyena, told Rain and Flame that he will look after the children and assured their safety.
Rain reluctantly agreed, and off to earth the children went with Hyena as guardian.
But Hyena was sly and wanted the beautiful girls for himself.
One day Son-eid was sitting in a field and caught a little red bird and concealed it under his cloak.
The children soon passed a village full of good people and bad people and were invited to spend the night there. That night, Hyena told Son-eid to sleep in another hut and that he would sleep with the two daughters.
“It is said that if you fall under the snakes’ spell, enchanted by an enormous jewel on its head and shimmering scales, you will be pulled underwater into the churning froth and be lost forever.”
In the night Hyena gathered the bad people from the village and set the hut Son-eid had been sleeping in on fire, but before he died, he released the little red bird and it flew straight to the boy’s mother, Rain.
“Son-eid is dead” sang the bird.
A little while later the people of the village saw a great black storm approaching fast, and around its middle was a rainbow.
Lightning struck the earth with great fury targeting Hyena and bad people and struck them dead.
A mighty voice roared out of the cloud: “Do not ever again kill the Children of the Sky.”
And ever since then, the KhoiSan have feared the rainbow, and throw stones at hyenas.
Although South Africa has a rich history of African storytelling with many native cultures, tribes, languages and beliefs, there are also mythology and myth that was brought to the country with colonial expansion. With the Cape playing host to Dutch and English occupation close to 400 years ago, some myths and legends were exchanged on the docks and in the pubs with the tale of the Devil and Van Hunks being a local favourite. Legend has it that Jan van Hunks, a retired seafarer, was smoking a pipe in his house on the slopes of Table Mountain when his wife finally had enough of the stench of smoke in their home. Furious, she told him to go smoke outside and so he went for a walk up the mountain to smoke his pipe in peace. As he sat and smoked his pipe, a strange figure appeared wearing a hat and cloak and challenged Van Hunks to a pipe-smoking contest. Van Hunks and the stranger puffed away and created an enormous cloud of smoke that covered the entire mountain. A sudden gust of wind blew the strangers’ hat off his head and Van Hunks was surprised to find that he was smoking with non-other than the Devil himself. The outcome of the contest and the fate of Van Hunks and the Devil is still debated today, but when the cloud rolls in over Devil’s peak we can assume that they are still puffing away at their pipes.
So next time you explore a cave, think of the tales and myths shared within those walls of gods and creatures of old.
We all have a story to tell.
What is yours?
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