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A few South African Myths and Legends

Van Hunks & The Devil

South African Myths
Jan van Hunks, a Dutch pirate in the early 18th century, retired from his eventful life at sea to live on the slopes of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain. To escape from his wife's sharp tongue he often walked up the mountain where he settled down to smoke his pipe. One day a mysterious stranger approached him and asked the retired pirate to borrow some tobacco. After a bit of bragging, a smoking contest ensued, with the winner's prize a ship full of gold. After several days, Van Hunks finally defeated the stranger, who unfortunately turned out to be the devil. Suddenly, thunder rolled, the clouds closed in and Van Hunks disappeared, leaving behind only a scorched patch of ground. Legend has it that the cloud of tobacco smoke they left became the "table-cloth" - the famous white cloud that spills over Table Mountain when the south-easter blows in summer. When that happens, it is said that Van Hunks and the Devil are at it again.

The Lion's Share

South African Myths
One day the lion, the wolf and the fox went out hunting together. They caught a wild ass, a gazelle and a hare. The lion spoke to the wolf, "Mr. Wolf, you may divide the venison for us today." The wolf said, "I would have thought it best, sire that you should have the ass and my friend the fox should take the hare; as for me, I shall be content to take only the gazelle." On hearing this, the lion was furious. He raised his mighty paw and struck the wolf on the head. The wolf's skull was cracked, so he died. Whereupon the lion spoke to the fox, "Now you may try and divide our meal better." The fox spoke solemnly, "The ass will be your dinner, Sire, the gazelle will be your Majesty's supper and the hare will be your breakfast for tomorrow morning." Surprised, the lion asked him, "When did you learn so much wisdom?" Said the fox, "When I heard the wolf's skull cracking."

The Hole in the Wall

South African Myths
Near Coffee Bay is a prominent rock formation with a big hole in the middle, which has become a symbol for the Xhosa of a great historical tragedy, the "Great Cattle Killing". It is a unique structure with a huge detached cliff that has a giant opening carved through its centre by the waves. The local Xhosa call this place "izi Khaleni", which means "place of thunder". At certain seasons and water conditions (high tide) the waves clap is such a fashion that the concussion can be heard throughout the valley.

A young girl called Nongqawuse had seen a messenger from the realm of the ancestors at a waterhole. She told her uncle Mhlakaza about her vision. As he was an important Xhosa priest, his social rank granted a great impact to the prophecy he derived from his niece's vision. He announced that soldiers who were incarnations of the souls of dead Xhosa warriors, would arrive on the 18th of February over the sea, come onto land through the "Hole in the Wall" and defeat the hated British. But, he continued, the Xhosa had to make a sacrifice to help the warriors by destroying all their cereals and killing all their cattle. After the victory, there would be food in abundance for everybody. The Xhosa followed the instructions in his prophecy and killed their whole stock of cattle. The catastrophe took its course. Thousands of Xhosa starved and the British had an easy time conquering the remaining people.

The Ghost at Cape Town Castle

South African Myths
The Lady in Grey is one of the most often seen ghosts in the Castle. She is often seen with her hands covering her face, as though she is weeping. Sightings of her have also been made at Government House and some people say that there was once a passage linking the Castle and Government House. Recently the skeleton of a woman was found during excavations - perhaps those of the Lady in Grey - as she hasn't been seen since those bones were found! The ghost of Governor Noodt is also thought to haunt the Castle. He was a very strict governor of the Cape and disciplined his soldiers harshly for any wrong-doing. Four soldiers who were caught trying to escape were tried and sentenced to a beating and the deportation to Batavia. Without warning, this sentence was changed to the death sentence by Governor Noodt. Everyone thought that this punishment was far too harsh and very cruel, but van Noodt would not be moved. Just before their execution, their minister visited the four men and they prayed together. The following morning, the governor did not attend the execution, rather keeping to his own rooms. As the last man was being led forward to be hanged, he cursed Governor van Noodt and challenged him to appear before God and answer for what he had done. Then he too was hanged. When the officers went to tell Governor van Noodt that his sentences had been carried out, they found him dead - apparently of a heart attack - in his chair, an expression of fear on his face. It is said that his ghost still prowls the Castle at night.

Two Roads Overcame the Hyena

South African Myths
A very hungry hyena went out on the Tanzanian plains to hunt for food. He came to a branch in the bush road where the two paths veered off in different directions. He saw two goats caught in the thickets at the far end of the two different paths. With his mouth watering in anticipation, he decided that his left leg would follow the left path and his right leg the right path. As the two paths continued to veer in different directions he tried to follow them both at once. Finally he split in two. As the well-known African proverb says: Two roads overcame the hyena.

The Milky Way

South African Myths
A strong-willed girl became so angry when her mother would not give her any of a delicious roasted root that she grabbed the roasting roots from the fire and threw the roots and ashes into the sky, where the red and white roots now glow as red and white stars, and the ashes are the Milky Way. And there the road is to this day. Some people call it the Milky Way; some call it the Stars' Road, but no matter what you call it, it is the path made by a young girl many, many years ago, who threw the bright sparks of her fire high up into the sky to make a road in the darkness.

The Sun

South African Myths
The Sun was once a man who made it day when he raised his arms, for a powerful light shone from his armpits. But as he grew old and slept too long, the people grew cold. Children crept up on him, and threw him into the sky, where he became round and has stayed warm and bright ever since. Some believed that after sunset the sun traveled back to the east over the top of the sky, and that the stars are small holes which let the light through. Others said that the sun is eaten each night by a crocodile, and that it emerges from the crocodile each morning. According to a Naron bushman, the Sun turned into a rhinoceros at sunset, which was killed and eaten by the people in the west. They then throw the shoulder blade towards the east, where it turns into an animal again and starts to rise.

The Origin of Death

South African Myths
The Moon, it is said, sent once an Insect to Men, saying, "Go thou to Men, and tell them, 'As I die, and dying live, so ye shall also die, and dying live.'" The Insect started with the message, but whilst on his way was overtaken by the Hare, who asked: "On what errand art thou bound? "The Insect answered: "I am sent by the Moon to Men, to tell them that as she dies, and dying lives, they also shall die, and dying live." The Hare said, "As thou art an awkward runner, let me go" (to take the message). With these words he ran off, and when he reached Men, he said, "I am sent by the Moon to tell you, 'As I die, and dying perish, in the same manner ye shall also die and come wholly to an end."' Then the Hare returned to the Moon, and told her what he had said to Men. The Moon reproached him angrily, saying, "Darest thou tell the people a thing which I have not said? With these words she took up a piece of wood, and struck him on the nose. Since that day the Hare's nose is slit.

The White Man and Snake

South African Myths
A white man, it is said, met Snake upon whom a large stone had fallen and covered her so that she could not rise. The White Man lifted the stone off Snake, but when he had done so, she wanted to bite him. The White Man said, " Stop! let us both go first to some wise people." They went to Hyena, and the White Man asked him, "Is it right that Snake should want to bite me, when I helped her as she lay under a stone and could not rise?" Hyena (who thought he would get his share of the White Man's body) said, "If you were bitten what would it matter?" Then Snake wanted to bite him, but the White Man said again, "Wait a little, and let us go to other wise people, that I may hear whether this is right." They went and met Jackal. The White Man said to Jackal, "Is it right for Snake to want to bite me, when I lifted up the stone which lay upon her?" Jackal replied, "I do not believe that Snake could be covered by a stone so she could not rise. Unless I saw it with my two eyes, I would not believe it. Therefore, come let us go and see the place where you say it happened whether it can be true." They went, and arrived at the place where it had happened. Jackal said, "Snake, lie down, and let thyself be covered." Snake did so, and the White Man covered her with the stone; but although she exerted herself very much, she could not rise. Then the White Man wanted again to release Snake, but Jackal interfered, and said, "Do not lift the stone. She wanted to bite you, therefore she may rise by herself." Then they both went away and left Snake under the stone.

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