Indombe

indombe

Indombe is fire, Indombe is life, Indombe is motherhood, Indombe is a slave to the power of death. She is an enormous copper snake over three feet wide, and several miles in length, and she makes her home in the trees of the Congo. Her cupreous body glows red with internal heat; she is immeasurably old, associated with the sun and the sunset in particular. Her tale is mysterious and metaphorical, and her ancestry is probably Semitic.

Itonde, hero and creator figure of the Congo, had been sent on a bizarre errand. His sister-in-law was pregnant, and she had developed a craving for snakes, so Itonde and his brother Lofale went into the forest to find them. There they saw Indombe coiled in a tree, shining bright as the sun. “Great Indombe”, said Itonde, “come down and let us talk together”. As Indombe refused to leave her perch, Itonde started chanting: “Indombe of the Bakongo, come down so I may carry you!” The giant snake was furious. “How dare you try to bewitch me?” she roared, causing her flames to flare and illuminate the entire forest. She then put her red-hot head on Itonde’s shoulder, severely burning him and leaving him for dead.

Fortunately for Itonde he was the owner of a magic bell, and he rang it, immediately recovering from his injuries. He did not want Indombe to gain the advantage of nightfall, so he captured the sun itself. Indombe next tried to constrict him, but Itonde kept ringing his bell, causing him to grow taller and stronger while the snake weakened.

It was in this state that Itonde triumphantly carried Indombe back to his village. He set her down outside the entrance of the village, and Indombe immediately coiled around the village and swallowed every last man, woman, and child. “You monster!” cried Itonde. “I’ll kill you, cut you up, and eat you!” Itonde produced his enchanted machete, and Indombe, seeing her death approaching, warned the hero. “If you kill me, eat me all today; you will not survive if you leave a single piece”. She was then promptly decapitated, cut into slices, and fried in oil. Itonde ate every piece, but left the inedible head, putting it under his bed.

Next morning, he awake to the horrifying discovery that Indombe was still there – but was now a ghost! “I told you eat all of me” she explained, “so now I return as a spirit, to aid you and show you a good place to live”. The spectral copper snake led Itonde to her village, a beautiful, disease-free location for future generations. Itonde then found out that Lofale was dead, killed by Indombe; but he could not avenge himself on a ghost, so he sought out a man in the forest. His quarry tried to hide by transforming into the first sugar-cane, but Itonde found and killed him as an expiatory sacrifice, discovering sugar-cane in the process.

“This village shall be yours because you are a strong fighter”, said Indombe. “Your name shall now be Ilelangonda. Farewell to you all”. With that the ghostly snake coiled up, jumped into the river, and disappeared.

References

Knappert, J. (1971) Myths and Legends of the Congo. Heinemann Educational Books, London.

Impundulu

Variations: Lightning-bird, Intakezulu; Chimungu; Ingqungqulu (Bateleur), Insingizi (Ground Hornbill), Inyoni Yezulu (Bird of Heaven), Isivolovolo (White-necked Fish Eagle), Izulu (Sky)

impundulu

The Lightning-bird, spirit of storms and clouds, takes a number of forms in southern Africa. Several familiar birds are associated with storms: the ground hornbill, the hamerkop, the bateleur, various birds of prey. The Amandebele refer to both the “bird of heaven” and the white-necked fish eagle as Isivolovolo, which flies at great altitude and whose droppings are potent magical ingredients. To the Baronga it is a hawk called Chimungu, which buries itself in the ground with every stroke of lightning. The Tumbuka lightning-bird is black with a curling tail like that of a rooster, scars people with its claws, and leaves little scarlet insects behind after a storm. In Buziba it is a whole flock of glittering red birds whose flashing feathers cause lightning and their wingbeats thunder.

The Impundulu or Intakezulu of the Xhosa is probably the best-known of the lightning-birds. It may appear as a human, but only women can see it in its true form, which is white with red wings, red legs, and a short red tail. Various remains have been identified as belonging to an impundulu, including a ground hornbill’s skull, a dead wandering albatross, a cattle egret, a peacock’s tail feather, and a strange avian skull with the penguinlike lower mandible protruding beyond the upper mandible. The last is not identified, but the description leaves little doubt that the African skimmer Rynchops flavirostris is to blame. Altocumulus clouds have also been identified as impundulu.

The beating of the impundulu’s wings causes thunder, although it only starts thundering after the appearance of the large mushrooms in the wet season. Lightning is caused by an impundulu rushing to the earth to lay a single large egg underground. These eggs must be found and destroyed by shamans before they hatch, lest more impundulus be brought into the world. Throwing assagais into the air also helps dissuade impundulus from landing.

Impundulus are vampiric, sucking human blood until their victims die. They will also carry off unprotected children. Milk is another substance impundulus are fond of, and poisoned milk can be used to exterminate them. Witches are believed to have impundulus who do their dirty work, sending them out to kill men; the fat of an impundulu can also be used in sorcery. Impundulus in human form will impregnate women, and their children will be birds. Tuberculosis is caused by an impundulu sucking away sufferers’ breath, and goes by the same name in West Pondoland.

A person with a nosebleed can be described: wanyiwa yimpundulu, “he has been sucked by impundulu”. Another proverb, “he/she has caught the chicken of impundulu”, refers to one having a stroke of good luck.

In more modern times impundulu has become the name of an electric tram-car.

References

Cook, P. A. W. (1931) Social Organisation and Ceremonial Institutions of the Bomvana. Juta and Co. Ltd., Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Godfrey, R. (1941) Bird-lore of the Eastern Cape Province. Bantu Studies, Monograph Series, No. 2, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Werner, A. (1968) Myths and legends of the Bantu. Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., London.

Usilosimapundu

Variations: Ugungqu-kubantwana, Ugunqu-kubantwana

Usilosimapundu

Usilosimapundu, “the rugose beast” or “the nodulated beast”, is a creature of superlatives. There are hills and mountains on his vast body, with rivers on one side, highlands on another, forests on the next, highlands and cliffs on other sides; he is so large that it is winter on one side of him and summer on the other. Two enormous trees, the Imidoni, serve as Usilosimapundu’s officers and servants. Usilosimapundu’s head is a huge rock, with eyes and a broad red mouth. He is a swallower, like many oversized African creatures, but also a force of nature, a personification of landslides and earthquakes.

The sorceress-princess Umkxakaza-wakogingqwayo (“Rattler of weapons of the place of the rolling of the slain”) was promised a great many cattle by her father the king, and the land was scoured for the finest livestock available. Unfortunately the very best cattle proved to be the property of Usilosimapundu. “Take them now”, he warned the soldiers, “but do not expect to get away with it”.

Umkxakaza was greatly pleased by her gift, and Usilosimapundu’s threat was forgotten as the years went by. That is, until the day the earth shook, and Usilosimapundu came to Umkxakaza’s doorstep. Two leaves detached from the Imidoni and took human form before heading for Umkxakaza and ordering her to do their bidding. They forced her to help prepare food for Usilosimapundu to eat – and eat he did, swallowing up everything in town. Finally Usilosimapundu had Umkxakaza climb onto his back, and he lumbered away with his trophy.

Of course, Umkxakaza’s father sent his armies to retrieve his daughter, but what good were the weapons of man against a living continent? Their spears landed in rocks, grass, ponds, trees – none of them had any effect on Usilosimapundu. Umkxakaza’s mother was the only one who continued to follow Usilosimapundu, and the beast obligingly gave her maize and sugarcane to eat while she hurried behind him, but eventually even the queen had to give up. She kissed Umkxakaza, weeping, bidding her to go in peace.

Usilosimapundu dropped Umkxakaza off in a fully furnished cave. “Your father spoiled me by taking my cattle”, he said, “so now I have spoiled him. He will never see you again”. With that Usilosimapundu left and was not seen again.

That was far from the end of Umkxakaza’s adventures, as she was abducted by the Amadhlungundhlebe half-men who fattened her up for eating. She escaped those new captors by summoning a storm, and made her way back to her father’s town, where she was greeted with joy and celebration.

Usilosimapundu has a female counterpart in Ugungqu-kubantwana, the mother of animals. Her name refers to the sound she makes when moving – gungqu, gungqu – rather like that made by a heavy wagon on a bumpy road.

References

Callaway, C. (1868) Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus. Trübner and Co., London.

Khodumodumo

Variations: Kholomodumo, Modumo o Moholo, Khamapa, Kammapa, Khanyapa

Khodumodumo

The swallowing monster of the Basuto people of South Africa and Lesotho is called Khodumodumo. The name of Khodumodumo is an archaic Sesotho term, most likely meaning “great noise”, although Hichens refers to the “gaping-mouthed bush monster”. Modern Sesotho often makes it into kholomodumo. Its synonym and possible ancestor is Kammapa, a giant river python. Khodumodumo’s amorphous appearance is undefined, and it is vast in size. It has multiple sharp tongues which it uses as weapons.

Once Khodumodumo went about swallowing every living thing in its path, man and beast alike, lumbering through towns and villages and engulfing their inhabitants. Only one pregnant woman survived, as she had been hiding on a manure heap, and the ashes masked her appearance and scent. Eventually the bloated Khodumodumo dragged itself off and wedged its massive body in a mountain pass.

Eventually the woman gave birth to a baby boy, and went off to fetch some manure powder to lie on, as tradition dictates. She returned to find her son fully grown, dressed in skins, with divining beads around his neck, and armed with assagais. “Where is my son?” she asked, marveling at the heroic figure in front of her. “I am your son, Senkatana”, he said. “Mother, where is the rest of the village?” “Alas, Khodumodumo ate them all”, she lamented. “And the cattle?” “The cattle too”. “And the dogs?” “The dogs too”. “And the poultry?” “The poultry too”.

Senkatana demanded that his mother show him where the beast had gone to. “See the big hill in the pass?” she said. “That is Khodumodumo”. Despite his mother’s warnings, Senkatana went to face Khodumodumo alone. When it saw him, it opened its mouth wide and tried to spear him with its tongues, but Senkatana chopped them off one by one. He circled around the beast, which was too fat to turn around and face him, and stabbed it with his assagais until it was dead.

He then started to cut open Khodumodumo, but had to avoid cutting the people imprisoned inside. His first cut accidentally injured a man, and then he had to avoid stabbing a cow, a goat, a dog, and a hen before he could finally release Khodumodumo’s victims. Senkatana then went on to become a great chief, but the man he had inadvertently stabbed continued to bear a grudge. The resentful man and others jealous of the hero attempted to assassinate him multiple times, until Senkatana, weary of the hatred of mankind, allowed himself to be killed.

References

Hichens, W. (1937) African Mystery Beasts. Discovery (Dec): 369-373.

Jacottet, E. (1888) Légendes et contes Bassoutos. Revue des Traditions Populaires, v. 3, Maisonneuve et Ch. Leclerc, Paris.

Werner, A. (1968) Myths and legends of the Bantu. Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., London.

Isiququmadevu

Variations: Usiququmadevu (flattering); Isikqukqumadevu, Usikqukqumadevu; Unomabunge; O’gaul’-iminga; O-nsiba-zimakqembe

Isiququmadevu

When Untombinde, the king’s daughter, set out for the mythical Ilulange River, she took with her two hundred maidens to be her escorts. She was determined to bathe in one of its pools despite her parents’ warnings of dire consequences. Once there, she and her handmaidens undressed and played in the water, but when they came back out their clothes, their beautiful bracelets and jewels and finery were all gone. Isiququmadevu had taken them.

Isiququmadevu, “Smelly Whiskers”, is a mountainous “swallowing monster” from Bantu and Zulu folklore. She is bearded, bloated, hairless, and squatting, with an enormous mouth capable of engulfing entire villages. Other clues as to her appearance are given in her many epithets, which include Unomabunge (“Mother of Beetles”), O’gaul’-iminga (“Feller of Lofty Thorn-trees”), and O-nsiba-zimakqembe (“She Whose Feathers are Long and Broad”).

Naturally the royal cortège was mortified, and entreated the isiququmadevu to return their belongings. “Untombinde, the king’s daughter, brought us here, she is to blame”. One by one they recuperated their effects, until Untombinde was left. “Beseech Usiququmadevu”, they told her, using a more personal and flattering name for the monster. But Untombinde – perhaps miffed by her companions’ accusations – refused. “I am the king’s daughter”, she said haughtily, “and I will never entreat the isiququmadevu”. Whereupon the monster seized her and took her into the pool.

King Usikulumi despaired for his daughter, fearing she was lost forever, and ordered his troops to slay the isiququmadevu. But the monster hauled herself onto the bank, and swallowed the entire army in one gulp. She then followed their trail back to the village, and swallowed the men, the women, the children, the dogs, the cattle, every living thing she found there.

Among her victims were two adorable twin children whose father was the only villager who escaped the isiququmadevu’s attack. He resolved to kill the creature, arming himself with his assagai and following her back into the woods. First he met a herd of buffaloes. “Where has Usiququmadevu gone? She has taken my children”. Acknowledging his plight, the buffaloes told him he was on the right track with a “forward, forward!” Next he met some leopards and an elephant, who advised him to keep on going. Finally he found the isiququmadevu herself, replete and squatting. “I seek Usiququmadevu, who has taken my children!” he announced. “Forward, forward!” said the isiququmadevu, but the man was not as dimwitted as she had hoped, and he stabbed her with his spear until she died. Then all her victims climbed out, none the worse for wear, with Untombinde, defiant and proud, coming out last.

In another isiququmadevu story, it is Usitungusobenthle, a young woman who had been abducted by pigeons to be their queen, who brings about the creature’s demise. She returns to her village after escaping her captors only to find it empty, with the isiququmadevu sleeping nearby. She cut it open with a knife, and released all its victims.

Another princess, Uluthlazase, actually stood up to an isiququmadevu and tried to wrest her clothes from the monster. She held on so firmly that the isiququmadevu could not remove her, and the two fought each other to a stalemate. When it left to get assistance from other isiququmadevu, Uluthlazase collected her effects and wisely escaped.

References

Callaway, C. (1868) Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus. Trübner and Co., London.

Koopman, A. (2002) Zulu Names. University of Natal.

Werner, A. (1968) Myths and legends of the Bantu. Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., London.

Rukh

Variations: Rokh, Rukhkh, Roc, Ruc; Griffon, Griffin, Gryphon

Rukh

The lineage of the Rukh (or, less correctly, Roc) is an ancient and venerable one, with tales of enormous birds stretching back into ancient Egypt. Generally believed to live in Madagascar (or possibly at the top of Mount Qaf), it is another iteration of the Arabian ‘Anqa, the Persian Simurgh, and the Indian Garuda and Cyena. The name rukh itself may have come about by a corruption of simurgh, which in turn came from cyena.

There is little defining the appearance of the rukh; it is a gigantic bird of prey, but what exactly that entails has varied from artist to artist. The only indisputable feature is that it is enormous. A rukh is as big as the storyteller needs it to be, leading to accounts of a hatchling rukh with wings a thousand fathoms (over 1800 meters) in length!

Rukhs are uncontested predators capable of feeding on the largest and most dangerous land animals. They have a particular fondness for giant serpents, elephants, and karkadanns or rhinoceroses. Sindbad observed that when a karkadann spears an elephant on its horn, the elephant’s fat runs into the rhino’s eyes and blinds it; a rukh will then swoop down and carry both combatants off to feed its chicks. Rukhs also appear to have some degree of intelligence, using boulders to smash prey.

The best-known interactions with rukhs were those of Sindbad the Sailor, who encountered them on his second and fifth voyages. The first time around, Sindbad found himself alone on a deserted island – not an uncommon occurrence in his life – and discovered a strange white dome, some fifty paces in circumference. As he pondered what the structure might be, the sky darkened as a huge rukh appeared. The dome was none other than its egg. Fortunately for Sindbad, it showed no interest in him as it sat on the egg and dozed off, and Sindbad tied himself to its leg with his turban, figuring that it might fly him to more civilized lands. In time the rukh awoke, screeched, and took off on the most terrifying ride of Sindbad’s life. When it finally landed he untied himself as fast as he could and ran for cover, while the rukh busied itself seizing a giant serpent in its talons and flying off with its prey.

Sindbad’s fifth voyage was even more catastrophic. This time, Sindbad’s crew went ashore without him and found the white dome of a rukh’s egg. Despite Sindbad’s warnings, they broke the egg and killed the chick inside. As they butchered the chick, the two parent rukhs appeared, their angry calls louder than thunder. When the sailors tried to flee in their ship, the birds returned with enormous boulders in their talons. The male’s rock narrowly missed the ship, but the female scored a direct hit, sinking the vessel. All sailors on board died with the exception of Sindbad, who drifted off towards further adventures.

In the tale of Aladdin, the evil necromancer attempts to convince Aladdin to demand a rukh egg to hang from the ceiling, a request which infuriates the genie. “You want me to hang our Liege Lady for your pleasure?” he roared, before informing them that such a wicked request could only have come from their enemy. In this case the author combined the rukh with the ineffably pure and holy simurgh.

Abd al-Rahman the Maghrebi, who had travelled far and wide across the world, obtained a rukh chick’s feather quill capable of holding a goatskin’s worth of water. He and his companions obtained it from a rukh chick that they cut out of an egg a hundred cubits long. The parent rukh flew after them and dropped a rock on their ship, but unlike Sindbad’s crew they successfully avoided it and went on their way. All those who had eaten the baby rukh’s flesh remained youthful and never grew old.

Ibn Battuta saw a rukh soaring over the China Seas. It was sufficiently far away to be mistaken for a flying mountain, and he and his companions were thankful that it did not notice them.

Marco Polo had the opportunity to observe rukhs on Madagascar; he believed them to be griffons, and specified that they were not half lion and half bird as he was led to believe, but simply enormous eagles. They had wings 30 paces long with feathers 12 paces long, and would pick up elephants and carry them into the air, dropping them onto the ground from great heights and feeding on the pulverized remains. A rukh feather was brought as a gift to the Great Khan, who was greatly pleased with it.

The rukh is not to be confused with al-Marwazi’s camel-like urine-spouting animal of the same name, described as zabraq by al-Mas’udi and as phalmant by Bochart. This grounded rukh may also be related to the rook chess piece, but both are far removed from the giant raptor.

The giant elephant bird Aepyornis of Madagascar, or its remains, was feasibly the origin of the rukh. It was, however, flightless, harmless, and non-elephantivorous. The rukh feathers that circulated as curiosities during the Middle Ages were fronds from the Madagascan Raphia vinifera palms.

References

Adler, M. N. (1907) The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Oxford University Press, London.

Bianconi, G. G. (1862) Degli scritti di Marco Polo e dell’uccello ruc da lui menzionato. Tipi Gamberini e Parmeggiani, Bologna.

Burton, R. F. (1885) The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, vol. V. Burton Club, London.

Burton, R. F. (1887) Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, vol. III. Kamashastra Society, London.

Casartelli, L. C. (1891) Cyena-Simurgh-Roc: Un Chapitre d’Evolution Mythologique et Philologique. Compte Rendu du Congres Scientifique International des Catholiques, Alphonse Picard, Paris.

al-Damiri, K. (1891) Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra. Al-Matba’ah al-Khayriyah, Cairo.

Golénischeff, W. (1906) Le Papyrus No. 1115 de l’Ermitage Impérial. Recueil de Travaux Relatifs a la Philologie et a l’Archéologie Egyptiennes et Assyriennes, v. 12, pp. 73-112.

Kruk, R. (2001) Of Rukhs and Rooks, Camels and Castles. Oriens, vol. 36, pp. 288-298.

Payne, J. (1901) The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, vol. V. Herat, London.

Yule, C. B. (1875) The Book of Ser Marco Polo. John Murray, London.

Devouring Gourd

Variations: Devouring Pumpkin; Sala Fruit (possibly)

Swallowing Gourd final

Not all swallowing monsters are animals. In Bantu folklore, gourds and pumpkins have the potential to grow into vast, devouring creatures. Such plants usually grow where evil sorcerers or ogres were slain.

The devouring gourd of Usambara was discovered by a group of little boys at play. “Look at how big that gourd is getting!” said one of the boys. To their surprise, the gourd responded. “If you pluck me, I’ll pluck you!” it said. The boys ran home and told their mother, who refused to believe them. But their sisters insisted on seeing the large gourd, and when they were taken to it, they said as their brothers had, “Look at how big that gourd is getting!” This time the gourd did not respond, and the girls went home to complain about their brothers being liars.

As the gourd was not plucked, it continued to grow. Eventually it became the size of a house, uprooted itself, and went about swallowing everyone in the village. After consuming everyone within reach, it rolled into a lake.

Only one woman had survived the gourd’s rampage, and she was pregnant. When her son was born, they lived together in the ruins of the village. When the son got around to asking where his father was, his mother told him “He was swallowed by a gourd, which is now in the lake”. The son decided to avenge his father, and went out to the lake where he could see the gourd’s ears sticking out of the water, and he proceeded to taunt the vegetable. “Gourd, come out!” he yelled. “Gourd, come out!” Annoyed and enraged, the gourd hauled itself out of the lake, but the boy was ready for it, and fired a volley of arrows into it. The tenth arrow killed it, and it died with a roar that could be heard all the way to Vuga. The boy cut it open with a knife, released the villagers unharmed, and went on to become a great leader of his people.

Gourds are not the only plants that devour and kill people. Another carnivorous plant, a pumpkin, grew over the burial location of an evil shapeshifting porcupine. It repeated everything that was said to it, and when an axe was brought to destroy it, it proceeded to swallow everyone. The poisonous Sala fruits of the Ronga have arms and legs, and wield spears ands shields.

References

Knappert, J. (1977) Bantu myths and other tales. E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Werner, A. (1968) Myths and legends of the Bantu. Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., London.