Tokoloshe is originally a Zulu word that can be written as “Tikolôsj” (Zulu) Tikoloshe, Tokkolosh, Tokeloshe, Tokkelossie (Afrikaans) or even Tjikolosi. There is no easy or direct translation as it seems to be used to describe a single creature as well as a group of different creatures. According to various websites it is sometimes called a Hili, Uhlakanyana or Gilikango (unsubstantiated).
Over time “Tokoloshe” has become the title of several creatures from African mythology. However, the one that we are focusing on here is the one that seems to have been the first to have the name. This is The Tokoloshe: a horned malevolent dwarf that is half-man half-spirit. References to this mystical creature date back to before 1700.
“The Tokoloshe is believed to be a dwarf-like male creature with pronounced sexual characteristics“. Source: Theodore Petrus, anthropology researcher and lecturer at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. (Research conducted between 2005 and 2008)
According to one source the name “Tikolôsj” means “Bag Carrier” in Zulu and refers to the huge scrotum of the Tokoloshe. Another reference cites that none can beat the Tokoloshe when it comes to sexual prowess and no man living or dead can challenge him in this way.
The following is from a report from April 2009 posted in a Zimbabwean news website:
Although awareness of this unpleasant being is widespread amongst almost all African & Southern African cultures it probably originated with the Zulu and Xhosa people of South Africa.
Some of the creatures that are sometimes referred to as a Tokoloshe include:
- A small furry creature that seems to be a particularly fierce hybrid of a Ferret, Fox (Jackal) and a Rock Hyrax. It is this version of the Tokoloshe that was recently featured in a television programme Destination Truth: Mamlambo and the Tokeloshe (2007) and is known for biting off the toes of sleepers. In reality this creature they describe is far more likely to be the Mngwa.
- A snake-like creature or worm with that has a dog’s head and golden tongue known for destroying crops. Again this is far more likely to be based on the Shongololo (Ukushonga) or African millipede which is considered to also be the embodiment of an evil spirit.
- A smaller version of Yeti or Bigfoot described as the size of a child but completely covered in hair so that only its eyes can be seen with strong hands that can strangle a victim in his or her sleep. Also a sexual predator. It has very many of the same characteristics of the Tokoloshe we are focusing on in this article and may be the same creature. (Tokoloshe will apparently rap themselves in hairy cloaks.) In reality this creature they describe is far more likely to be the Agogwe.
- A water-sprite very similar in description to a gremlin from the film by the same name. Said to pull unwary passersby into the water.
- A bear-like creature – probably based on the Legend of the Nandi Bear.
Tokoloshe News Scan Photo
In a sense all these creatures are “spirits-beings” and African writer and shaman (sangoma) Credo Mutwa gets around the problem by simply claiming that the Tokoloshe can take many forms. In a sense he is correct because while there are many spirits they only really get given names when they are in our world. While all of these may be Tokoloshe – they are not The Tokoloshe of this article.
Much of the descriptive information found on Wikipedia, and therefore many other websites, is actually based on two articles and a fantasy book that the author openly acknowledges is a product of his imagination. The first is an interview with Credo Mutwa that covers everything from grey aliens to sexual encounters with spirit beings that he openly claims made his manhood swell to an enormous size.
“Let someone tell me, why is it that after I had been mated to that strange creature, in that strange place, my organ of manhood swelled horribly, and for many years after that I couldn’t make love to an ordinary woman, properly.”
Naturally, there have recently been a number of challenges to the accuracy and authenticity of Credo Mutwa’s writings. However – He is a remarkable man and may even be right.
The second source is a study that relates to the fears of young girls by Nhlanhla Mkhize, who refers to the creature as being elf-like and covered in hair or scales.
It is true that many people in Africa are still reluctant to discuss the Tokoloshe as many believe that even using his name will call him to you and naturally trouble will follow. This is very similar to the way that J. K. Rowling author of the very succesful “Harry Potter” books introduced the concept of “He Who Must Not Be Named” to refer to the dark wizard Voldemort.
This is what we know and what we discovered. (We’ve tried to stick to the most consistent description) The Tokoloshe is a most often a dwarf of approximately 3.5ft in height. He is always male and has sizable genitals. (In some cases his manhood is so long that he can carry it slung over his shoulder) He is often stocky in build with a potbelly that is said to develop from his taste for sorghum beer and sour milk. Some descriptions claim that he also has two animal horns that protrude from the side of his head. He favours being barefoot and his feet and legs are said to be hairy although this should not be confused with fur. His eyes are said to be red and capable of seeing as well in the dark as during the day. His fingernails are said to be sharp and strong. Although he is ugly to men he can cast a spell to make himself handsome to women.
It is said that he still dresses in a traditional manner similar to the clothes worn by witchdoctors or tribal chiefs and favours a cloak made of leopard skin although he will wrap himself in the skin of baboon if he is cold. He often wears a necklace of beads, stones, feathers and other magical objects that he has acquired during his life. It is common for him to carry a club (knobkerrie) made of a hard wood and to conceal a knife in his clothes. Around his waist you will find a pouch in which he keeps a strange potion with unknown properties.
He is usually a very unpleasant character and his tricks can range from mischief to acts of violence and savage cruelty. He likes to visit women who are alone at night to have intercourse with them. Sometimes he is invited but just as often he is not.
However, there are also accounts of his generosity although these are rare. There is the story of a woman whose husband had died and she had no help to sow the crops or fix her home so as to be safe from the wild beasts. For seven nights she put out beer and milk which was always drunk and on the eighth day she found a Tokoloshe sitting on the step. He rubbed his stomach and thanked her for the beer and milk and asked what she needed doing. She told him politely but he went away and she was disappointed at his laziness. However, when she woke the following day the house and fence were mended and all the crops sown. She put out beer and milk again that night but it remained untouched.
Where do these creatures come from? The most commonly held belief is that they are “fully” spirit demons that can be summoned from the “other world” by witchdoctors or, on occasions, they simply choose to visit our world out of lust and a desire to cause mischief.
A second belief is that they are recreated out of the dead bodies of people and animals, given life and forced to serve the witchdoctor that created them. (This is from other websites and we have no memory of this explanation from when we lived in Africa. In addition it sounds as if it has been borrowed from Haitian Voodoo rather than African Mythology although the two are interlinked.)
A third origin is the one we heard in the 1970’s. It was a story told by an African maid who was told it by her great grandmother. It was originally much longer and more detailed than remembered but here are the essentials.
“There was once a beautiful maiden that was so lovely that all who saw her admired her. Still, for all her loveliness she was wild, full of mischief and at times cruel to those around her. In due course she married an older man but soon became bored with his company. One day while he was away visiting a nearby Kraal she noticed a stranger sitting on the kopje (hill) behind the village. Taking a large pot of her husband’s finest beer she went to him and offered him the drink for he was young and handsome and she could see that he was strong and more a man than any other she had met before. In this she was correct for he was a great Sangoma from the other world journeying to meet his brothers. The woman was pleasant and the beer cold from sweating in the grass basket and so the Sangoma drank and presently became drunk. While in this state the woman seduced him and after he had fallen asleep she left. When he woke he remembered nothing of the event except for a pleasant dream and went his way. Sometime later the woman gave birth to a boy who from the day of his coming was strong and handsome.
As the years passed the child quickly became a man but unions between this world and the other are rarely without mishap for it soon became clear that the boy was different. He had great strength, magical abilities and a will to lead others but he was also lustful, cruel, savage and vain. Although just a man he visited many huts. One day the men of the village decided that they should rid themselves of this problem and together they captured and beat him until his bones were broken then tied him to a tree deep in the forest for the pleasure of the wild animals. The pain he endured was terrible and finally the echoes of his screams reached the ears of his true father in the “other world” who came to see what the noise was about.
The great witchdoctor and teacher of all others at once recognised his son and freed him but was dismayed by both the damage to the young man’s body and the wickedness of his soul. The Witchdoctor tried to take his son back to the other world but was resisted. The young man pleaded for healing and a chance for vengeance – a chance to remain in this world. Seeing that his son was already lost to him the witchdoctor agreed and healed him as best he could but the result was a dwarf of great ugliness. Seeing that he had created a monster the Witchdoctor cast a great spell and lay commands upon the creature. To what was left of his son he said: “You were created from the act of seduction and so you will forever be a seducer of women.” As he spoke the dwarf’s manhood grew to an alarming size. “Because it was beer and milk that that created temptation you will forever crave these foods. Because you are half spirit you will have magic but not without limits.” He then picked up the horns of an antelope and pressed them to his son’s head where they fastened themselves as if he had been born with them. “This is so that none shall confuse you with an ordinary man and because the men beat you I will say that you may beat any man that calls you without cause or even stands in your way.” So saying he gave over a knobkerrie (club) of the hardest wood and the gift of even greater strength. “But … because of the wickedness in your heart you are forbidden from going where you are not called by the wickedness of people. You shall only ever make sons and they will appear as you do so that all people will always recognise you and your tribe of descendants. And … because I am your father and I have saved your life you will always come when I summon you or any of my brothers do the same.” Thinking that his son would reject these terms he asked for agreement which his son gave without hesitation. Realising that he truly no longer had a son he said: “I call you Tokoloshe – Avenging Spirit – and any that speak your name beware.” He then used a hot iron to remove the boys heart which still contained good and it turned into a bird that flew away.
The Tokoloshe then returned to the village and carried out his need for vengeance with carnal passion and unbridled savagery but it was not enough and the hunger persisted and so it would forever. In time he had sons and they had sons and so the tribe of the Tokoloshe grew until every kraal (village) in the world has one hiding in the darkness just waiting to be called by the wickedness of those that cannot control their desires.”
(This is the story as told to one of us years ago. He has done his best to record it accurately but it apparently it seemed much longer (and more passionate) when he first heard it. If any reader knows the full tale then please send it to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. In particular the characters had names which he just can’t remember.)
Unfortunately much of the history and memories of the African people where handed-down as part of an oral tradition that has left very little recorded in writing. (When compared to Europe) A few colonists from the west did do their best to record what little they could the new colonial authorities made little or no attempt to create records as they were far more concerned with disseminating their own beliefs and religion. It also suited them that the indigenous people had no “evidence” to refer to. The result is twofold. Firstly, there are often gaps in many of the stories and histories. Secondly, as cultures merged – sometimes forcibly – the stories fused or split becoming new tales in the process. It is only recently that a serious attempt is being made to reconstruct the pre-colonial history and beliefs of Africa.
With every new generation the belief in the “Other World” diminishes and fear of the Tokoloshe recedes but for many Africans still alive today they have no doubt that he exists. However, it is also fully possible the fear of the Tokoloshe is exaggerated somewhat – it depends on who you speak to.
For years the white community in South Africa and noticed that their maids tended to raise their beds by placing three bricks under each leg. The “belief” that was circulated amongst the “Whites” was that this was to stop the Tokoloshe getting into bed with them because it was now too high for him to reach. This practice is still continued to this day in some places.
However, given that he is an immensely strong and somewhat magical creature this always seemed like too little protection too late. It may be a classic misunderstanding. The maids did raise their beds but for two different reasons. Firstly, it made it much harder for snakes to get under the sheets and secondly it meant they could store their travelling trunks underneath. (In fairness, snakes were sometimes referred to as Tokoloshe and maids rooms very cramped).
However, the two women we spoke too both said it was protection from the Tokoloshe. We asked how this worked and they answered first with the point about height but also made it clear that by putting themselves out of reach they were “telling” any passing Tokoloshe that he was “Not Invited”. We also got the impression that there was at one time “peer-pressure” to do this. It’s a bit like a woman not wearing short skirts in case people think she’s easy.
This is some of the folklore surround the Tokoloshe:
- Witchdoctors (Sangoma) have the power to summon and banish a Tokoloshe.
- When summoned, Tokoloshe are usually used to inflict harm on others although a witch doctor may summon a Tokoloshe in order have a servant or a messenger.
- Lonely women sometimes put beer and sour milk outside their doors to attract a Tokoloshe as a lover. If he visits then the woman should speak softly and never look him in the eyes or he will become angry and violent.
- Some believe that he visits unfaithful wives, and others believe that he will visit women that are neglected by their husbands.
- A wandering Tokoloshe general amuses himself by small random acts of mischief and by seducing women. If he has the opportunity he will enter any females bedroom and have sex with her while she sleeps.
- Any child conceived by the Tokoloshe will be born of natural appearance but at the age of seven will stop growing and run away to find his father and assume his role as a Tokoloshe.
- Tokoloshe age fast and rapidly assume the appearance of middle age although it said they can then live for hundreds of years.
- He is a wonderful teller of stories if he can be persuaded top do so but do not fall asleep while he telling them or he can become insulted and take his revenge. There is a story of a man who wanted to know the wisdom of the Tokoloshe and agreed to listen to his tale. The Tokoloshe spoke for three days without rest and although the man resisted sleep he was never the same again and from then on would always fall asleep when he shouldn’t.
- Tokoloshe will sometimes challenge men to fight with the promise that he will teach them magic if they win. If they lose then the Tokoloshe may take away something that is important to the man – perhaps his life. The men almost never win.
- The Tokoloshe never forgets how happy he was a child before he became what he is and is often kind to children and will play with them. Adults that suspect that a child is secretly friends with a Tokoloshe will try and have it banished in case it becomes too attached to the child and steals it away. The only time a Tokoloshe will disobey an order from a Sangoma that has summoned it is if it is ordered to kill a child (and then not always). Parents can tell if a child has been playing with a Tokoloshe because the boy or girl will often have many scratches from the Tokoloshe’s sharp fingernails.
- Men will sometimes try and call up a Tokoloshe to teach a disobedient wife a lesson. However, as often as not, the Tokoloshe may punish the man.
- It is said that he can make himself invisible by putting a pebble in his mouth.
- There is a belief that the people that see the Tokoloshe are then forbidden from talking about him. In particular, he is often invisible to men but should they see him he will almost always give them a beating.
- Sprinkling salt around your bed and house is supposed to offer protection from a visit. This may be a European tradition that has been adopted by the people of Africa.
Several attempts have been made to explain the real origin of the belief in the Tokoloshe. Some of these include … It’s an excuse invented by women to explain adultery; it’s a Vervet monkey standing on its hind legs or even, it’s a species of water-baboon that is now extinct. Perhaps it is what it is and always has been – A Tokoloshe!