Pantheons of the Past in the Present: A Reading List of Modern African Books Based on Mythology
Wole Talabi Recommends Namina Forna, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, and More
Every society, civilization and culture has mythologies and cosmologies; they make up a corpus of ancient and sacred narratives that help give meaning to the world. Passed down through generations, myths educate and clarify our place in a world full of things and forces that are larger than us.
At their most simplistic level, myths explain the historical, psychological, and the natural world – but they can also elevate these things, imbuing them with new significance or making them divine which helps give a sense of order to a chaotic world.
Most importantly, myths are where we first learn the power of storytelling. As Ben Okri so eloquently put it, “The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans…they wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight.”
What we call mythology today can overlap with an active religion or belief system in some communities, with adherents and believers to various degrees of devotion. This is especially true in many parts of Africa, where there are many rich traditions of storytelling and mythmaking that have long been an integral part several cultures—with roles like the Sarungano or Griot or Jeli dedicated to the purpose.
Mythologies are important in understanding the past of a society, but they can also be useful for analyzing and the present and projecting the future. Especially in fantasy fiction where these myths can be retold, reimagined, remixed, and taken as inspiration to tell stories for modern audiences.
When writing my fantasy novel Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon, I took inspiration from Yoruba mythology, from the pantheon of gods, which I reimagined as a modern corporation trading in faith. But I also had this reimagined pantheon interact with other mythological figures from all over the world, to mirror the impact of globalization on modern society. This is one of my favorite uses of myth-inspired fantasy literature—to critique aspects of our modern world.
Below is a reading list of books by African authors that take inspiration from mythology to tell sophisticated fantasy stories for a modern audience using very different approaches.
Namina Forna, The Gilded Ones
Set in the fictional secondary world kingdom of Otera which requires all sixteen-year-old girls to subject themselves to a blood-letting ritual to prove their purity, this YA story takes inspiration from West African mythology and history, as well as events from its more recent history like the Sierra Leone Civil War, culminating in a powerful feminist narrative. It follows Deka, who bleeds the gold of demons yet cannot die. She is forced to choose between fighting for the emperor or torture. She enlists and eventually gets sucked into a larger plot involving the emperor himself.
Forna takes a thoughtful, feminist approach to constructing a remixed mythology for her world based on the female-forward elements of several West African mythologies (there are references to Mami Wata, Woyengi, etc.) and the result is a nuanced, socially conscious book full of action and with a lot to say about the way modern society treats women.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu
The story of Kintu, whose action in a moment of anger unleashes a curse that plagues his family for generations, is essential reading. Makumbi blends oral tradition, retellings of myth, folktale, and history with ecclesiastical elements to tell the story of one cursed family through two hundred and fifty years.
Somewhere between historical fantasy and a historical literary fiction, it’s a heady and engaging novel exploring the power of belief. The long lens of the book which goes from the early history of the Buganda kingdom to the birth of modern Uganda frames all its mythological elements with a modern edge.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa, David Mogo: Godhunter
There are many ways to use mythology as inspiration. David Mogo: Godhunter does it loud and proud and with technicolor flair much like the way I do in my own novel Shigidi And The Brass Head Of Obalufon. This godpunk/ urban fantasy story follows the eponymous David, a sharp and cynical demi-god living with the Babalawo that adopted him after his mother’s disappearance. He takes odd jobs for people plagued by the supernatural. When he takes a high-profile job for a local sorcerer, it ignites three-part story with consistently escalating stakes.
This novel reimagines the pantheon of gods from Yoruba, Edo, and Igbo mythologies in a new context to deliver an action-packed novel that is as delightful and dangerous as the streets of Lagos where it largely takes place.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi
A pillar of African literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o work has always leaned on the mythic and speculative but this, his first venture into retelling myth in epic verse, is spectacular. Possibly because it was written first in Gĩkũyũ before being translated by the author himself, this origin story told in flowing verse narration tells the tale of the Perfect Nine—the ten daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi—who become the mothers of the ten Gĩkũyũ clans of Kenya. As their parents try to select the right partner for each daughter from a pool of ninety-nine suitors, we are treated to an adventurous journey to the Mountain of the Moon.
But Ngũgĩ doesn’t just recount the myth; he retells it from a feminist perspective, alive with history and culture and Kenyan customary practices, in the tradition of those very first bards and griots who intimately knew the power of story. Grafting modernity onto myth, ancient history onto contemporary memory, and feminist power onto the etiological myth of the Gĩkũyũ people, The Perfect Nine does more the just retell the myth but does something brand new with it.
Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ, Dazzling
The immensely talented Emelụmadụ’s first book is a coming-of-age story about two girls: Ozeomena, chosen by a spirit to be the first woman initiated into the magical Leopard Society and thus connected to the goddess, Idemili; and Treasure, whose father has recently passed away and who has made a bond with a spirit. Their stories converge at a boarding school where girls have been going missing.
Dazzling powerfully draws upon Igbo mythology, spirituality, and storytelling tradition to tell the story of these girls and use it to illustrate so much about modern Nigeria society—a world of contrasts existing side by side. Christianity and traditional beliefs shaken together and running over. Large differences between social classes (reflected in the changing voice from each girl’s perspective). And so much more. All of which is reinforced using Igbo mythology to deliver a personal, modern story about children learning to carry the burden of inheritance.
Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon by Wole Talabi is available via DAW Books.