Why Don’t We Learn More About African Cultures?

Some time ago I stated that the fantasy genre is sometimes a bit too Euro-centric and that we could branch out the genre by pushing towards other frontiers. Even I’m a bit guilty of it at times. So in an attempt to seek out Alternative Mythologies, I’ve given brief glances at Asia and Australia so far. Neither of them are thoroughly covered by my short articles listing only a handful of creatures from their folklore, but I can always go back to them later. Still, having covered the two of those I found myself on a continent that a lot of people know almost nothing about.

Africa: a continent often mistaken for a country by the uneducated. But even for the educated there’s not a whole lot that they can tell you about the culture outside of a few notable examples. We all know of Egypt and a great deal of us know some of the more popular Egyptian gods. But Egypt makes up a tiny fraction of a much larger continent and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in the west that knows about the rest of the cultures there. This leaves one to wonder…

Why The Hell Don’t We Know More About Africa?

There’s a strange relationship most people in the world have with Africa. Whether you believe there was a Garden of Eden or accept the Theory of Evolution, one thing remains perfectly true: we came from Africa. We have found the bones, we have seen the evolution of culture and we know that the earliest people, whatever their origin may have been, came from this one continent. Yet I’d imagine you’d be hard pressed to tell me about any folklore from the continent not related to Egypt or possibly the use of Anansi by people like Neil Gaiman.

But why don’t we know more in general? Some would argue that we in the west have an issue with being oblivious to the outside world. This is too simple of a conclusion because it would mean that we should know as little of Asian cultures that we do of African. Another opinion is that Africa is just too primitive of a place – a stupid assumption seeing as all humans originated there. So I had to dig deeper to figure it out (while also looking for resources on just what I should cover in the next few weeks). After a great deal of examination I found there were some fairly simple reasons that explained quite a bit.

Lack of Huge Empires

The first thing that occurred to me during my research was that I only knew of a handful of major empires/kingdoms to have ever come out of Africa. If you think about it, the mythologies that last the longest are the ones that took over great swaths of the planet and spread their message over a vast distance. People are incredibly familiar with the cultures and history of places that were ruled at some point by giant empires like the Romans, Macedonians or Mongolians. At one point or another, most of Asia, Europe and the Middle East were controlled by a single entity that spanned the distance of several modern day countries. But who ruled most of Africa?

No one, no one ruled most of Africa.

Even the most famous of their empires, Egypt, was a relatively small kingdom in comparison to the rest of their continent and we really only know as much as we do of them thanks to the fact they were eventually conquered by empires spanning out of those other three locations. There were no vast kingdoms that stretched most of the continent like they did over Eurasia. And one would have to wonder, why the hell is that? I know I wondered it myself at first, before common sense slapped me in the face at a high speed.

The truth is, if Australia is the continent that wants to kill things, Africa is the continent that wants to be left the fuck alone. The majority of terrain in Africa is what you would consider “anti-civilization” in no way due to a lack of effort. While Europe and Asia have landscapes that can be quite harsh or imposing, the fact of the matter is that they’re still something you can work with while most of Africa is covered in either this:


Or this:

And because of that, what you find is that most larger civilizations on the continent existed in either places that were right on a water source or sandwiched between the layers of  unforgiving desert or unforgiving jungle. So, correction, maybe I was wrong about no one entity ruling all of Africa.

Because Mother Nature isn’t fucking around.

Oral Traditions

One of the major developments often brought by large countries, governments and empires is the sudden need for those people to transmit information over vast distances. Almost immediately any new conqueror sets about making sure that their new acquisitions can be given the rundown of what their status quo is. For many empires this meant taking their history, culture and records, writing them down, and then sending them out to the masses. The larger your holdings, the more important it becomes that everyone’s on the same page… and that kind of requires pages.

In fact, once again Egypt is the exception that proves the rule. While many African cultures didn’t write down their stories, everyone’s aware that Egypt totally did and literally wrote that shit down in stone so that everyone could have the same frame of reference. This was particularly necessary when the Pharaohs began to pull the same thing that many Asian emperors did and claimed to be either a god or the descendent of gods. So, if you’re going to claim you’re of divine origin, it may help if everyone knows just what divinity you’re talking about.

But if you’re perpetually stuck at the tribal stage because nature has decided you’re only allowed to control what it will let you, you don’t really need to write everything down. We’ve seen this time and again with many places such as Australia and North America where a tribal society passes on their history through oral traditions because the stories always stay within their community. A new story teller can learn the stories, memorize them and then carry on the tradition into the next generation. No one needs to write it down for someone on the outside because there is no “on the outside” for them to worry about.

As a result, a great deal of African lore wasn’t saved in a written form for the rest of the world until Europeans started exploring the continent and began writing down incredibly biased versions of what they were hearing. For instance, despite the fact that many European reports expressed that the majority of Africa was polytheistic, most sources actually indicate that they tended to be monotheistic and that the Europeans just assumed all of these different groups shared the same religion.

Which was probably the least destructive thing they did when they got there

Of course, that brings me to the third issue on this front.

Too Much Variety

So, outside of their few empires, the mythology and religions of Africa were handled in an oral tradition. Because of this lack of a cultural sprawl, something else happened that just blew our minds when we touched base with our ancestral homeland once again – they all had different gods. When the Europeans documented this, due in no small part to a touch of arrogance, they assumed that the native culture was a primitive polytheistic mess. The truth was far more intimidating: there were a lot of monotheistic religions with a lot of different gods and this even extended to the mythology we were familiar with.

You see, one thing that a lot of people don’t often realize about Egyptian mythology is that there were a lot of different sects within Egypt. Like the rest of the continent, each of the smaller parts of the overall kingdom had their own regional god (or gods) which they worshipped. So when the kingdom was united, this resulted in something of a god kit-bash that most of the uninitiated still don’t fully understand. For instance, while you’d find quite a few people who could tell you that Ra was the Egyptian god of the sun, very few would likely be able to tell you that he was also fused with the gods Amun, Atum, and Horus (who was also supposed to be his eye) or that he was temporarily replaced by another sun god, Aten.

Seen here (he’s the circle)

If that sounds confusing and like something that could only happen in a backwater continent like Africa, you’d be wrong because it also happened to Odin for the Norse and is also one of the chief reasons the Hebrew god ended up with so many different names. Essentially, when empires form, gods get merged so everyone gets brought in line and without that forced merger you end up with a baffling number of religions and deities.

So, in an effort to shine some light on the interesting stories of the African continent, I’m going to approach it carefully and break it down a bit more thoroughly than I did with the last two continents. After all, the last time a guy as white as me tried to study the continent they were easily duped by their own presumptions. It’s incredibly easy to look at something and make the wrong assumptions or report something as an accurate story.

I can’t be entirely confident I won’t let one sneak past me. I can only give it my best effort and do my due diligence on what I find. What I can say, for sure, is that I’ll be double-checking if I happen to find anything claiming there’s a black panther god.

Even if he deserves a movie. (Seriously, someone make that)

(I write books. I hope to build an empire with these writings. But if you find me on the street I’m more than willing to tell you the story orally and act out the parts.)

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