This unit focuses on myths. It defines myths, delving into its place in African communication. It also presents some examples of myths drawing from some geopolitical zones in Nigeria to enhance students understanding of myths.


At the end of this unit study, should be able to:

  1. Define myths
  2. Discuss communication functions and features of myths
  3. Have a better understanding of myths across Nigerian geopolitical zones Outline myths in their communities


3.1 What is a Myth?

According to first Timothy chapter four verse seven, “Have nothing to do with godless myths…” (Holy Bible,1999:1206). In the olden days, Africans did not have a central place where power was concentrated. They believed that whatever force that saved them and kept them was their god. They relied mostly on their gods and not man or military might. They always ran up to and consulted their gods whenever the need arose such as in the times of war, threat of a wild animal in the community, cases of barrenness, theft and unforeseen events. The gods were seen as possessing supernatural powers beyond human reasoning.

Myths are told in various African cultures to describe how people lived, their culture, belief, consequences of actions taken and so on. Many African myths were on the gods of their lands. In general, the gods of the land that were worshipped in Africa as their deities are surrounded by myths. So, a myth is a pre-historic cultural attempt at answering some questions posed by supernatural and natural in creation. It gives an account of the deeds of supernatural beings, revealed ceratin aspects of reality and history of things that came to pass at the beginning of creation. They were religious stories

According to Oreh (1980) a myth is a fiction i.e. an untrue story, that tries to provide interpretation to some aspects of our world. Although, a myth commonly referred to as something untrue has been defined differently by different scholars. Presenting a short summary of sundry scholarly ideas about what a myth means, Robert W. Brockway, in his book Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse defined a myth as follows:

Myths are stories, usually, about gods and other supernatural beings (Frye). They are often stories of origins, how the world and everything in it came to be i…. They are usually strongly structured and their meanings are only discerned by linguistic analysis (Lévi-Strauss). Sometimes they are public
dreams which, like private dreams, emerge from the unconscious mind (Freud). Indeed, they often reveal the archetypes of the collective unconscious (Jung). They are symbolic and metaphorical (Cassirer). They orient people to the metaphysical dimension, explain the origins and nature
of cosmos, validate social issues, and, on the psychological plane, address themselves to the innermost depths of the psyche (Campbell). Some of them are explanatory, being prescientific attempts to interpret the natural world (Frazer). As such, they are usually functional and are the science of primitive peoples (Malinowski). Often, they are enacted in rituals (Hooke). 
Religious myths are sacred histories (Eliade), and distinguished from the profane (Durkheim). But, being semiotic expressions (Saussure), they are a

“disease of language” (Müller). They are both individual and social in scope, but they are first and foremost stories (Kirk) (“Myth and Legend from Ancient Times to the Space Age”).

Again, according to “Myth and Legend from Ancient Times to the Space Age”, citing a book Folklore, Myth, and Legends: A World Perspective written by a lady, Donna Rosenberg, A myth is a sacred story from the past. It may explain the origin of the universe and of life, or it may express its culture’s moral values in human terms. Myths concern the powers who control the human world and the relationship between those powers and human beings. Although myths are religious in their origin and function, they may also be the earliest form of history, science, or philosophy…

3.2 The Communication Functions and Features of Myths

According to Oreh (1980), myths explain creation and geographical phenomena. Explaining further, he mentioned witchcraft, magic and other supernatural beings as vehicles of extolling conformity to social norms.
Myths explain the unexplainable such as the creation of the earth, the moon and sun, the sky and people. Myths are considered to be based on truth, as people perceive the truth of these things in ancient times. It is a story from ancient times especially a story that was told to explain supernatural events or to describe the early history of a people. Such myths as practised in Africa are what some Africans believe in, but were not in existence or were false.

“Therefore, even the lover of myth is in a sense a philosopher, for myth is composed of wonders.” — Aristotle(“Myth and Legend from Ancient Times to the Space Age”)

3.3 Some Examples of Myths

This section presents some examples of myths in Africa. It should be stated here, however, that myths are many and inexhaustible.The ones presented were drawn across Nigerian geopolitical zones.

3.3.1 Some Examples of Myths from other Parts of Africa

AN EGYTPTIAN MYTHRe was known as the sun-god and the creator of ancient Egypt. He took on many forms, each depending on where he was. Usually Re was portrayed with a hawk head, wearing a fiery disk like the Sun on his head. In the underworld, the god took the form of a ram-head. Re was the creator of our world. In the beginning of time, an egg rose from the water. Once out of his shell, Re had two children who became the atmosphere and clouds. They in turn had more children, Geb and Nut, who became the Earth and the stars. They in turn had two sons, Seth and Osiris, the father of Horus. Re cried one day, and humans were made from his tears. He also created the four seasons for the Nile, a very important river in Egypt. Re combines with Horus to form Re-Harakhte, god of the Sun and the heavens (http://www.windows.ucar.edu/cgi-bin/tour_def/mythology/ra_sun.html) 

WEST AFRICAN MYTHLiza was the Sun-god to Fon people of West Africa. His sister was the Moon god, Mawu. The two were twins, but were also lovers. Together, they created the universe with the help of the cosmic serpent, Da. It is said that Liza used his son, Gu to shape the world. Gu was the divine tool in the shape of an iron sword. He taught the people many different crafts, including ironworking. Liza was also the god of heat, work and strength. Mawu was the goddess of night and motherhood (http://www.windows.ucar.edu/cgi-bin/tour_def/mythology/ra_sun.html).

3.3.2 Some Examples of Myths from Nigeria

Kalabari/Bonny/Ahoada (Rivers & Bayelsa States)

a)Why The Rivers do not Cross their Boundaries According to the aged people from the riverine area, the reason rivers always obey an invisible line goes back to the treaty between the python, ordum, the river goddess owu, and the man they called Madola. In those ancient times, there lived a man called Madola. He was tall, handsome and intelligent. He was a great fisherman but he was poor. Most times he spent or gave away his wares to people whom he felt deserved more than he did. Because of this, he could not acquire the wealth needed to marry his sweetheart, Nonubari.

Also at that time the rivers had no boundaries and could move from one place to the other without restrictions at the detriment of the land dwellers who often lost lives and property in the process. The sea queen, Owu, at that period was in search for a husband to rule by her side. She needed a human husband because she felt none of the suitors from the other world was good enough for her. She visited many men and refused them until she met Madola. One night, was overwhelmed and wanted to put on the light to see him that she could choose to be his husband. But the love she felt for Nonubari was so strong that he refused her. Owu told him he had no choice but to accept her and told him of the many advantages that would come to him. She told him that she would give him great wealth and fame. With all these benefits, Madola accepted her offer. Then she offered him menji bi owu that is “water from the spirits” to drink to enable him to come near her. That night they made love amidst a thunderstorm.

The next morning Madola woke up to find himself in a great palace that seemed to be underwater. Owu, came to him and told him that the palace would be his home for six months of the year. For six months, Madola lived with Owu. After the time

had elapsed, Madola was returned with a great fame. His people welcomed him and Nonubari’s parents gave him their daughter to marry. As long as he was not under water and could create an excuse for disappearing for six months, being human Madola thought he could still marry Nonubari and still be married to Owu. With this he married Nonubari.

After six months, Owu sent ordum to collect Madola. Nonubari was surprised to see her husband gone for six months. After six months he appeared with more wealth. Nonubari was shocked to see the wealth and asked him of the source and to where he had gone. Madola told her he had gone to ijo land to trade and look at his businesses. This became a pattern and went on for a long time. Meanwhile, Owu had decided to keep Madola full time with her in her water kingdom because she could no longer be sure of his faithfulness to her. Ordum, the python who was Owu most trusted servant heard of this plan and told Madola. He promised to help him but in return would take his family and make them live with him on land. That night, Ordum stole some sacred water and obo thread and gave to Madola. He told him to drink the water that would reverse his body so that he would no longer be allowed into water kingdom and Owu could not come near him so that he did not defile her. The thread was to be used to draw a line down the beach on the first patch of sand he stopped on to create a boundary between Owu’s kingdom and land. This Madola did as he stepped on land. He then hurried to his house, packed his things and left with his wife in a great hurry.

Owu was livid when she heard of Madola’s escape. She searched her kingdom and found out what the python, Ordum, had done. She banished him and his family from the kingdom. Then she directed her waters to go and find Madola and destroy him. On reaching the shore the waters could not pass the obo thread Madola had placed there. All they could do was to go back in anger, unable to get Madola and unable to go back to report Owu.

That is why waters of the sea do not pass a particular line on the shore and are always violent when man goes beyond that shore line. That is also why the python is revered and worshiped in the riverine areas.

b) The Myth of Ikenga

The people of the Degema, Ahoada and the Igbo land share a myth about the Ikenga. The Ikenga is a symbol of strength, unity and authority.

The Ikenga, came about when a certain man in Igbo land, Chiaka, went on a journey to find help for his people who were being raided by their powerful Nupe and Itsekiri neighbours. During that period, young men and women of the town were being sold to slavery even by their families. The town traditions and gods were no longer honoured and feasts no longer observed. Igbinoba, the tyrant king came on the throne and this added to the chaos of the towns.

Chiaka had gone to a very powerful dibia (herbalist) swho lived for away from Igbinoba’s rule to ask for a solution to the town’s problem. After the consultation of the gods, Chiaka was directed to cross the seven hills of Ani, to search for the Ikenga and the rightful king of the throne. Ikenga fell into treacherous hands because it gave unlimited supernatural power to whoever held it.

After enduring many days and nights of cold, hunger, thirst and being half- blind, Chiaka entered into the hills of Ani. Here he was subjected to many tests and many riddles by different spirits, and he passed the tests which he passed. Entering the cave, he found an earthen staff which was the Ikenga. As he muttered some incantations and chewed some leaves to enable him retrieve the staff from its position, the dibia who had helped him with the journey appeared to him. Lo and behold, it was none other than the late King, Eze Nwabuisi. He explained that the power of the Ikenga was so strong that if not handed to the next king rightfully the keeper’s soul still remained on earth to protect it. He then showed Chiaka where he had hidden the prince and bade him goodbye. Before Chiaka’s going, the late king warned Chiaka that after touching the Ikenga he would die in seven days. Resilent and determined to die for good, Chiaka found the prince and installed him as king. The power of the Ikenga was so strong and its symbol respected that the warriors in the community found it easy to overthrow the tyrant.

On the evening of the sixth day, the prince was called to Chiaka’s presence and told about the mystery of the Ikenga and all its power. After this Chiaka stepped into the palace obi and with force threw the Ikenga into the ground before him and declared that the Ikenga would never leave the fireplace in the obi, and thus would continue to protect the land and all in it as long as fairness reigned. But in time of tragedy or tyranny it would disappear to Ani’s Hills waiting for the hero whose hands are clean to bring it back. On this Chiaka went back to his house. On the seventh day he was nowhere to be found but the feathers on his cap were found on the Ikenga.

The myth about the Ikenga seems to be true because during the a war in their land, enemies were destroyed in the heartland where the Ikenga was thrown into the ground by the fleeing natives who cursed them with it.The Ikenga does not leave the land and the fireplace of the traditional Igbo till day as they say it protects and preserves their lives.

c) The Myth of Emel (Hippopotamus) from Aboh Delta State

Emel is a water animal which is highly respected by the natives of Aboh who see the animal as a small ‘god’. Hence, they pay homage to it. This is so because this animal, Emel, called the hippopotamus in English, once rescued the lives of the warriors of Aboh and its captured slaves during the period of confusion that arose as to how to cross to the other side of the river. It was this animal, a deity, with its thick black skin that helped them to cross to the other side of the river. Unknown to them, they thought it was a fallen tree and so, sought to know what kind of tree in order to make a decree that no one was to fell it again as it had saved them in the time of trouble. But to their greatest surprise, the animal shook itself, submerged itself and never came out again. That single action filled the warriors with awe and gratitude, resulting in their making a decree, that henceforth, no one should kill a hippopotamus from generation to generation. However, if anyone killed it, the person would face severe consequences and would have to bury it amidst celebration and singing of praise songs in order to avoid calamity befalling such a person and his descendants.

d) Myth of the Owner of the Best Clay from Isoko in Delta State

Obaovhen made the first man and woman out of clay. On that account, the title “owner of the best clay” was conferred on him; and because he kneaded the clay himself, he then is called “The deity who kneads clay.”

Obaovhen forms the child in the mother’s womb and woman who desires to become a mother addresses her prayers to him while albinism and congenital deformities are regarded as his handwork. Some either punish, some neglect towards him on part of the parents, or remind his worshippers of his power. He is also styled “protector of the town gates”, and in this capacity, is represented as mounted on a horse and armed with a spear.
Obaovhen determines the guilt or innocence of accused person. It consist of a hollow cylinder of wood, about 3 ½ feet in length and 2 feet in diameter, one end of it covered is placed on the head of the accused, who kneels on the ground, holding it firmly on his head with a hand on each side. The God being then involved by the spirits causes the cylinder to rock backward, forward and finally to fall to the ground.

If it should fall forward the accused is innocent or backward guilty. They add that when a child has served for a year or two and grown too big for the cylinder, he is put to death, in other that the secret may be preserved and is succeeded by another, who in turn, undergoes the same fate but all this is mere conjecture.

e)The Myth of Umalokun among the Itsekiris in Delta State

It is believed that under the river in the coastal areas, that there is a spiritual being (Umalokun) who watches over the people and influences their daily lives. It is greatly feared and seen as their gaurdian.

f) A Myth from the Ibo Speaking area of Delta State

There is this story that had always been told at Ukala Okute, Oshimili north Local Government Area of Delta State. Up till this day, it still remains that there is no storey building of any sort in the village not because the people are poor, but in fact, they boast of wealthy and influential people, but because they have been made to believe that the first person to erect a storey building in the village will pay dearly with his/her life. It is sad to note that the so called rich men of the land are chicken-hearted to dare this superstitious belief as they could only display their influence on the quality of the building material and not in the “height”.

g)The Monkey Myth from Akwa-Ibom and Cross River States

The people of Itam Local Government area in Akwa Ibom State are forbidden to consciously taste or eat monkey anywhere in the world. The penalty for disobedience is death. The story as it was told was that a pregnant woman who was working in her farm went into labour and it was a mysterious monkey who helped the woman in the process of labour. After safe deliver,y the monkey wrapped the baby with the piece of the woman wrapper and protected her and the baby until she regained her strength to walk home. After the woman had narrate the story of her experience with the monkey the people decided to appreciate the monkey’s goodness by declaring that eating of monkey was a taboo in the village.


The highlight of this unit is that a myth is a history of what came to pass in the beginning and expresses elements of truth in African belief system because it narrates a sacred history. So, it may be concluded that myths are ancient traditional stories of gods. Essentially, they are accounts of the deeds of supernatural beings and offer explanations of same fact or phenomenon. The examples of myths from different parts of Nigeria presented above reveal that myths are common in different parts of Nigeria and they are useful tools in explaining the unexplainable.
This unit dealt with myths. It explored the concept of myth, looked at its
communication functions and features. It zeroed in on some examples of myths drawn from some geopolitical zones in Nigeria. It is hoped the examples would enhance students understanding of myths.

Self Assessment Exercise

  1. Visit your community and find out about myths
  2. Outline at least five myths about your community.


  1.  What is a myth?
  2.  What are the communication functions of myths?
  3.  Drawing from your culture, write about a myth


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