Mama Afrika: South Africa's Pagan Spirit
North is South, Winter is Summer and widdershins is deosil. The South African experience of Paganism is topsy-turvy compared to our Northern brothers and sisters; but much like the Afrikaans saying, “ŉ boer maak ŉ plan,” Pagan South Africans make do with what they have and make it their own.
Africa's Ant Riders
Astride his ‘stead’ he majestically sits; chest puffed, shoulders back and head held proud. He is of the Abatwa and he would look down on you even though his ‘stead’ is an ant and his height is matched with that of a fat pea. Some would group him with the realm of faery, but the Abatwa are proud little warriors and you would caution to ever call an Abatwa small.
Found in Zulu mythology, the Abatwa are humans who look just like the Zulu peoples, with one exception- they are so small they can ride ants and hide under a blade of grass. In Zulu folklore it is believed that when the nature spirit Vash’Nok cried, his tears fell to the earth; and at the moment those tears touched the ground, they erupted into the Abatwa peoples.
Just like the ants they ride, the Abatwa are believed to live largely underground in tunnels that reach deep into the earth. The complex twists and turns of their subterranean homes echo prideful nature and everything from the walls to the floor is lavishly decorated with seed mosaics and paintings. But it is believed that they don’t inhabit these homes forever and that they are more nomadic in nature.
The Abatwa rely on hunting for their primary food source. When they travel it is rumoured that an entire tribe can fit upon one horse, one Abatwa sitting behind another all the way from the horse’s neck to its tail. It is by this mode of transportation that they hunt, following game and killing it. And much like the ants they also ride, the entire tribe will devour every last morsel of the kill before moving on to the next hunt. However, they have been known to forage for seeds between hunts to satisfy their hunger.
Being highly skilled warriors and hunters regardless of their diminutive size, they make use of tiny spears and poison-laced arrows. The Abatwa don’t restrict the use of their weapons to game only though. If one of their ant-like mounds is disturbed by naughty children or you happen to offend one, an Abatwa won’t hesitate to fire arrows on you. Thankfully the poison of their arrows is only enough to kill small game, so at worst you can expect a nasty crop of boils where you’ve been struck; but some legends say that their arrows can indeed be fatal to humans.
So crossing paths with an Abatwa could mean the difference between life and a nasty prick from their arrows. While they may be peaceful and relatively shy, they are easily offended; even just looking down at them is an insult to the Abatwa and the discovered Abatwa will ask you, “From where did you first see me?” To save yourself and the situation it is best to stroke their plump egos by replying, “from that mountain far off in the distance,” or, “from miles out to sea”. Either answer will reassure the offended Abatwa that their stature is so great, it is visible from lengthy distances.
But not everyone may find an Abatwa. In Zulu folklore it is said that children younger than four and magicians can see an Abatwa. That special sight is also extended to pregnant women, who were granted to know the sex of their unborn child by an Abatwa. And sometimes, on very occasions, an Abatwa may reveal themselves to human men so they can share their intimate knowledge of the land with them.
The Abatwa may be brave and small and proud, but like so many mythical creatures there is an aspect of them that could be based in reality. When the Nguni peoples migrated from Central Africa to what is now the region of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa to form the Zulu tribes, they encountered the indigenous San tribes. The San people are short in stature and are hunter gathers who rely on bows and arrows to catch game, sometimes lacing arrows with venoms and poisons. It could be that the fledgling Zulu tribes were reminded of a similar, short-statured tribe in Central Africa, the Batwa tribe, in the appearance of the San peoples, and as such called them ‘Abatwa’. What is not certain though is whether the legend of the ant riders was born of this, or whether it is a legend that is far older. What is sure is that the story of these little people has become a part of South African folklore and is here to stay. So next time you see an anthill, you may want to think twice about disturbing its inhabitants lest you find an Abatwa and his poison arrows.
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