Variations: Groot Slang, Big Snake, Great Snake, Great Snake of the Orange River, Ki-man
The Grootslang, literally “big snake” or “great snake”, dwells in or around the Orange River in the Richtersveld, South Africa, in association with fabulous diamond deposits. Its home may be in the Orange River itself, a pool underneath the King George Cataract, a big rock, or a semi-mythical cave known as the “Wonder Hole” or the “Bottomless Pit”. The cave is said to be the source of the diamonds of South Africa; from there they move down a pipe to the river, which carries them to the sea.
As its name implies, the grootslang is an enormous snake, big enough to take cattle at the water’s edge. It has huge diamonds in its eye-sockets, and its presence exerts an evil influence on all who see it. It is some forty feet long, and leaves a serpentine spoor on muddy river banks that is 1.5 to 3 feet wide. There are never traces of feet associated with the grootslang’s spoor.
Over time the grootslang has accumulated elephantine features. This stems partly from the cryptozoological desire to connect it to the mokele-mbembe and other such surviving dinosaurs, and partly from Rose’s description of it as “huge, like an elephant, with the tail of a serpent”.
Cornell, F. C. (1920) The Glamour of Prospecting. T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London.
Green, L. G. (1948) Where Men Still Dream. Standard Press Ltd., Cape Town.
Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.
The Zankallala is a terrifyingly mighty creature from the folklore of the Hausa people. He is only the size of two clenched fists, but he wields a snake as a walking-stick, a pair of scorpions as spurs, and a swarm of bees as a hat. His mount is a jerboa. Wherever he goes, he is followed by birds that sing his praises and attack his enemies. He is also implied to have supernatural powers.
Even the dodo, the fearsome monster, the Swallower-of-Men, is powerless before the Zankallala. Once a boy was being chased by a dodo along a riverbank, and he came upon the Zankallala.
“Where are you going?” asked the Zankallala. “I’m running away from Dodo”, said the boy. “Stay”, said the creature. “The Dodo will not harm you”. And immediately a silk-cotton tree grew over the Zankallala, and the birds in it sang in praise.
“The Lion is afraid of the Zankallala,
The Hyena is afraid of the Zankallala,
Dodo is afraid of the Zankallala”.
When the dodo caught up with his quarry, he was nonplussed. “Where is my property?” he demanded. But the Zankallala responded impudently, saying “What property have you given me?” This infuriated the dodo. “If you will not give me my prey, then you will be my meal!”
With that the dodo gobbled up the tiny creature, only for the Zankallala to emerge from his stomach, accompanied by the joyous chorus of the birds. Then the dodo ate him again, but the Zankallala came out of his back, telling the birds to continue singing his praises. The third time the dodo swallowed him, the Zankallala emerged from the monster’s head, killing it.
“You may leave in safety”, the Zankallala told the boy, “you have seen that one is stronger than another, you escaped because you met me”.
This tale of a small trickster creature outwitting the dodo is sometimes told with a centipede or hedgehog replacing the Zankallala.
Tremearne, A. J. N. (1913) Hausa Superstitions and Customs. J. Bale and Sons and Danielsson, Ltd., London.
The Namungumi or Nalumgumi, usually translated to “whale”, features in the initiation ceremonies of the Yao people of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
Despite the “whale” designation, the namungumi pictured in the inyago ceremonies has four limbs. There is a stylized and ornamental webbing drawn between the limbs, and there are two knobs marking the juncture of the neck with the forelimbs and tail with the hindlimbs respectively. It has prominent tusks around its head. The entire body is crisscrossed with a complex grid pattern.
The namungumi lives in Lake Malawi. It would surface near a village, and the people could come and carve off chunks of meat from its vast body. This action was painless and the wounds healed immediately. The meat itself tasted different depending on where it came from – some areas on the namungumi’s body produced choice cuts, while others were practically inedible.
As an initiatory figure the namungumi represents water and kinship.
A similar creature, the Liporo of the Anyanja, is not as large. Its habits include killing hippos and tipping canoes. It is believed to be extinct. The Napolo is a similar flood-related water serpent.
Morris, B. (2000) Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography. Berg Publishers, Oxford.
Stannus, H. (1919) The Wayao of Nyasaland. Harvard African Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Thakáne and her two brothers were the children of a Basotho chief. In some versions there is only one brother, Masilo; in some retellings the siblings are orphans, in others their parents are merely distant figures. Either way Thakáne was like a mother to her brothers. She cared for them, made their food, and filled their water jugs. When they had to go to school, it was Thakáne who took them there. When they were circumcised in the traditional grass huts, the mophato, it was Thakáne who took them there and waited on them until the ritual was over and they had rested. It was their sister who brought them the clothes they would wear as men.
But Thakáne’s brothers did not accept her choice of clothing. Only items made from the skin of a Nanabolele would do. They wanted shields of nanabolele hide, and shoes of nanabolele leather, and clothing of nanabolele skin, and hats cut from nanabolele, and spears tied up with strips of nanabolele. They refused to leave the mophato until their request was fulfilled.
It was a tall order. The nanaboleles, they who shine in the night, were horrid, reptilian creatures that live underwater and underground. They glow in the darkness, giving off light like the moon and stars do. They were deadly predators. Surely there was some mistake! “Why do you ask the impossible?” asked Thakáne. “Where am I supposed to find nanabolele skin? Where? Ná?” But her brothers would not be swayed, declaring that it became them, as the sons of a chief, to wear nanabolele skins.
So Thakáne set out, knowing that if their father was around, he would have done the same. It fell upon her to accomplish the task in his stead. She set off with oxen, beer calabashes, sweetcorn balls, and a large retinue in search of the nanaboleles. She sang as she went:
My brothers won’t leave the mophato, nanabolele!
They want shields of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And shoes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And clothes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And hats they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!
And spears they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!”
When Thakáne sang, the waters of the nearby stream parted, and a little frog hopped out. “Kuruu! Keep going!” it told her. Thakáne kept going from river to river, following the directions given by frog after frog, until at last she came upon the widest and deepest river yet. She sang her song, but nothing responded. Then she tossed some meat in, followed by an entire pack ox, but nothing happened.
Finally, the waters stirred, and an old woman stepped out, greeting Thakáne and inviting her to come in with her. Thakáne followed the old woman into the river, followed by her company. To her surprise, there was an entire river under the water, dry and breathable. But there was nobody there. It was empty and silent as the grave.
“Where are all the people, Grandmother?” said Thakáne to her guide. “Alas”, said the old woman. “The nanaboleles have eaten them, adults, children, cattle, sheep, dogs, chickens, everything! Only I was allowed to live, I am too old and tough to eat, so they make me do their work for them”. “Yo wheh!” said Thakáne. “We are truly in danger then”. But the old woman bade them hide, leading them into a deep hole which she covered with reeds.
It wasn’t long after Thakáne and her friends had hidden that the nanabolele returned to the village, sounding like a huge herd of oxen. The creatures glowed, shining like the moon and the stars, but they did not sleep, instead sniffing around intently. “We smell people!” they snarled. But they found nothing, and eventually tired and went to sleep.
That was the opportunity Thakáne had been waiting for. She and her companions emerged from hiding and, singling out the biggest nanabolele, quickly slaughtered it before it could wake up the others. Then they flayed it in silence and prepared to leave.
Before they left, the old woman gave Thakáne a pebble. “The nanabolele will follow you. When you see a red dust cloud against the sky, that will be them on your trail. This pebble will save you from them…”
Sure enough, dawn had barely broken when Thakáne saw the cloud of red dust. The nanaboleles were in pursuit! Thakáne quickly dropped the pebble on the ground, and it grew, becoming an enormous mountain that she and her friends climbed. They took refuge at the top, while the nanaboleles exhausted themselves trying to climb it. Then, as the reptiles lay catching their breath, the mountain shrank, Thakáne picked up the pebble, and the chase continued.
Thus it went on for several days, with the nanaboleles catching up only to be worn out by the pebble-mountain. But when Thakáne reached her home, she called upon all the dogs of the village to attack the nanaboleles. The creatures, terrified, turned tail and ran back to their abandoned village under the river.
There was only one thing left to do. The nanabolele skin which gives off light in the dark was cut and prepared into items of clothing and armor and weapons, and Thakáne herself took them to her brothers in the mophato.
Nobody else had seen such wondrous items, and Thakáne’s brothers rewarded her handsomely, giving her a hundred head of cattle.
Dorson, R. M. (1972) African Folklore. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, New York.
Jacottet, E. (1908) The Treasury of Ba-Suto Lore. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.
Postma, M. (1974) Tales from the Basotho. University of Texas Press, Austin.
The single reference to the Makalala comes from an account written by Fischer, who attributes it to the Wasegua or Wasequa of Tanzania. These people live some 8-9 days’ journey inland from Zanzibar, with Fischer hearing of the makalala during a stay in Bagamojo and a visit to the Nguru Mountains. Fischer’s observations were summarized and repeated by Marschall under the title “Problematic bird”.
A makalala is an enormous bird, standing taller than an ostrich, with very long legs. Its head and beak are those of a bird of prey. Its wings end in plates of a compact, horny substance, which make a lot of noise when struck against each other – hence its name, which means “noisemaker”. It is a powerful flyer and feeds on carrion.
For all its size, a makalala is a very skittish, shy bird. The only way to come close enough to kill it is to feign death, and when the makalala approaches, the hunter can spring to life and knock it down.
Chiefs of the Wasegua wear makalala skulls as helmets. Fischer also saw in Zanzibar a baleen-like object tapering from 20 cm to 1.5 cm, and with a thickness of 0.5 cm, but did not believe at the time that it came from a bird.
Fischer, G. A. (1878) Briefliche Reiseberichte aus Ost-Afrika, III. Journal für Ornithologie, XXVI(6), pp. 268-297.
Marschall, C. (1879) Comptes-rendus zoologiques. Bulletin de la Société Philomathique de Paris, 7(3), pp. 169-181.
The hyena was known to the ancients under several names. The term hyaina (Greek) and hyaena (Latin) almost certainly refer to the smaller and more familiar striped hyena. The more exotic Corocotta is probably the spotted hyena, especially considering its vocal qualities and prowess at hunting. Then there are other terms that may refer to hyenas such as the glanos, the chaus, and the thōs, the last of which is probably a jackal, civet, or hunting dog.
Much of what is said about the corocotta is shared with the hyena, and even Greek and Roman authors seem uncertain as to whether or not it is seprate from the hyena. Translators of classical texts have also chosen to retain “corocotta” as a unique word, or simply replace it with hyena. Further muddying the waters is the emergence of the derivative leucrocotta, which gained features of the hyena/corocotta through this confusion and passed on its own features (such as a lion-hyena ancestry and single bones for teeth) to the corocotta.
What is known is that the corocotta is unfamiliar, hailing from far-flung lands – either Ethiopia or India, depending on the author (the regions were used interchangeably). If it is indeed African, the word corocotta may be a Libyan or Ethiopian word for the hyena. Lassen (cited by McCrindle) saw in Ctesias an Indian origin to the corocotta, and derives its name from the Sanskrit kroshtuka, “jackal”. The name has since then been applied to the spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta.
Ctesias says that the corocotta is also known as the cynolycus (“dog-wolf”). It is found in Ethiopia and is incredibly strong. It can mimic human voices, calling people out by name at night and killing them when they come out in response. It is as brave as a lion, as fast as a horse, as strong as a bull, and cannot be fought with steel weapons.
Agatharchides says it is a fierce and powerful creature that lives in Ethiopia. It can crush bones with its jaws. The corocotta can also mimic human speech, and it uses this ability to lure humans out at night so it can kill them. Agatharchides rejects this.
Pliny says that the corocotta is the offspring of a dog and a wolf. It can crush anything with its teeth, and anything it eats is immediately digested and passed through its body. It is Ethiopian. Elsewhere further powers are attributed to the hyena or crocuta: it changes sex every other year, its neck is an extension of its spine, it can imitate human speech and vomiting sounds, it digs up graves, its shadow strikes dogs dumb, it paralyzes other living things by circling around them three times, and it has a thousand variations in eye color.
Aelian separates the hyena and the corocotta. The hyena roams around cattle pens by night and imitates the sound of vomiting, attracting dogs which are promptly killed and eaten. But the corocotta is even craftier. Aelian says that it listens to woodcutters calling each other by name and the words they say, then it imitates their voices, calling out to its victim and withdrawing before calling again. It continues this game of cat-and-mouse until its prey has been tempted far away from their friends, whereupon the corocotta pounces and kills them. Aelian admits that “the story may be fabulous”.
Dio Cassius reports that Severius had a corocotta imported from India to be slain in the games in AD 202. It had never been seen in Rome before.
By the time the crocotta and leucrocotta had reached medieval Europe, the similarity of their descriptions, combined with the leucrocotta’s more memorable physical features, caused them to combine. The MS Bodley 764 bestiary adds a mention of the crocote at the end of the hyena entry, describing it as a hybrid of lion and hyena with a single bone replacing its teeth (both features of the leucrocotta). It imitates human voices and is always found in the same place. The leucrota, on the other hand, is given a complete entry of its own which is fairly faithful to its original account.
Albertus Magnus refers to the “cyrocrothes”, which is the corocotta with the single tooth-bone of the leucrocotta, and the “leucrocotham”. It is further corrupted in the Ortus Sanitatis, which includes both the “cirotrochea” and the “leucrocuta”.
Topsell divides his Hyena entry to cover the varieties of hyena. In addition to the hyena proper, he provides additional hyenas including the papio (baboon), the mantichora, and the crocuta. The crocuta has become the same as the leucrocuta; it is an Ethiopian cross between a lioness and a hyena, with its teeth replaced by a single bone in each jaw. It imitates men’s voices and can break and digest anything.
Ludolphus is clear that the hyena or crocuta (by now they are one and the same, and refer to what we would now call the spotted hyena) is the most voracious of all Ethiopian beasts, preying upon men in the day as well as at night, and digging down the walls of houses and stables. It is speckled with black and white spots.
It may be that the hyena of the ancients was the striped hyena, while the corocotta was the spotted hyena, or vice versa. The imitation of human speech seems a clear allusion to the spotted or laughing hyena’s vocalizations. Despite that, the Palestrina Nile Mosaic identifies a striped creature as a corocotta; spotted animals are labeled as examples of the mysterious thōs.
Finally, a notable Spanish bandit was known as Corocotta. This may be a complete coincidence.
Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ball, V. (1885) On the Identification of the Animals and Plants of India. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, II(6), pp 302-346
Barber, R. (1993) Bestiary. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
Borges, J. L.; trans. di Giovanni, N. T. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Vintage Classics, Random House, London.
Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.
Brottman, M. (2012) Hyena. Reaktion Books, London.
Ctesias, McCrindle, J. W. trans. (1882) Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian. Thacker, Spink & Co., Calcutta; B. E. S. Press, Bombay; Trubner and Co., London.
Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.
Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.
Ludolphus, J. (1684) A New History of Ethiopia. Samuel Smith, London.
Magnus, A. (1920) De Animalibus Libri XXVI. Aschendorffschen Verlagbuchhandlung, Münster.
Pliny; Holland, P. trans. (1847) Pliny’s Natural History. George Barclay, Castle Street, Leicester Square.Robin, P. A. (1936) Animal Lore in English Literature. John Murray, London.
Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.
Unknown. (1538) Ortus Sanitatis. Joannes de Cereto de Tridino.
An Ebigane, in the folklore of the Fang of Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea, is an ambiguous monster that can be animal or human in form, or a mix of both. It commonly appears in legends and sagas sung by mvett players.
One such heroic tale, told by Tsira Ndong Ndoutoume, tells of the hero Mefoumou Mba Foumou. When faced with a bridge made of twisted, knotted pythons, he pulled a mouse out of his satchel and spat on its head. The mouse grew in size, its ears spread out like the petals of an enormous flower, its head sprouted horns, its legs lengthened and its claws sharpened, while its great tail stretched out behind it. Now armed with sharp fangs and claws and great bat-like wings, it had become an ebigane, something like a cross between a bat, a buffalo, and a vampire.
Mefoumou Mba took a red paste crayon and drew a red mark on the ebigane’s head from the base of its skull to the tip of its nose. Then he directed its attention to the pythons. “There is enough meat there to feed you for at least two years. To work!”
The ebigane flapped its ears loudly, whinnied, and took heavily to the air, circling around like a bird of prey before diving on the bridge. It seized one python in its claws and teeth and, after overcoming its prey’s resistance, carried it off to Mount Bèghlé to devour at its leisure.
Ndong Ndoutoume, T. (1993) Le Mvett: L’homme, la mort et l’immortalité. L’Harmattan, Paris.
The Funkwe is a colossal snake from the folklore of the Lambas of Zambia. It is approximately eighty miles in length and has a tail like that of a fish. These serpents live at the sources of the Kafulafuta and Itabwa rivers, coiled up in holes deep beneath the surface.
When a funkwe wants fish to be abundant, it starts swimming downstream, followed by schools of fish. Eventually its head reaches the great Kafue river while its tail is still at the source of the Kafulafuta – a span of eighty miles. It returns from the big river and brings the big fish with it.
Doke, C. M. (1931) The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia. George G. Harrap and Company Ltd., London.
A serpent lives at the foot of Victoria Falls – at least, that’s what Dr. Livingstone presumed. Barotse folklore holds that this monster, the Chipique, came from the ocean, traveling over a thousand miles to rest at the falls.
The chipique rules the river by night, and it is unsafe to approach Victoria Falls during that time. Thirty feet in length, the chipique can easily grab a canoe and immobilize it. Its head is small and slate-grey, while its serpentine, heavy body winds in black coils.
Eyewitnesses include Mr. V. Pare, who saw the chipique in 1925. It reared and disappeared into a cave.
Green, L. G. (1956) There’s a Secret Hid Away. Howard Timmins, Cape Town.
Melland gives chipekwe as referring to a one-tusked elephant in the Kaonde language of Zambia. This is probably irrelevant.
The Chipekwe is a massive, allegedly reptilian, pachyderm-slaying creature found around and in Lake Bangweulu in Zambia. Most encounters consist of unrecognizable spoors, or the noise of some large animal splashing through the water.
A chipekwe has a hairless, smooth, dark body and a single smooth horn, white as polished ivory. Chipekwes do not take well to humans invading their territory. Canoes are destroyed and their occupants are killed. Hippos fare no better – the chipekwe kills them by tearing their throats out. At least one chipekwe is known to have been slain in the Luapula, brought down by the same large harpoons used for hippo hunting.
All of the above could very well be exaggerated references to one-tusked elephants. This is probably relevant.
Mackal, R. (1987) A living dinosaur? E. J. Brill, New York.
Melland, F. H. (1923) In Witch-bound Africa. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.