Every child who has ever read Aesop’s fables knows that the crow is smart but arrogant, the fox is sly but easily flattered, and the hare seriously needs to work on his time management. In many cultures, animals in folklore stand in for common human types, and certain animals reliably play a certain role: the clever trickster, the foolish oaf, or the cruel tyrant.
East African folklore is no different; in Tanzanian mythology, the following animals tend to get typecast:
The Hare = The Trickster
Trickster figures are a staple of folklore traditions all over the world; there’s something both instructive and viscerally satisfying about seeing a smaller, weaker, but cleverer creature defeat a strong (but gullible) opponent.
In East Africa, the hare fills this role, using his wits to not only defeat, but often to humiliate his opponents. Morally ambiguous, he might help another figure in the tale…or he may just be out to help himself. Occasionally, jackals stand in for hares in a similar role.
The Crocodile = Vicious and Violent
In East African stories, a crocodile is sort of like Chekhov’s famous gun: if you see one early on, expect it to go off (violently) by the end of the tale.
Symbols of destruction and cruelty, crocodiles are defined most by their selfishness. They may act nicely towards another animal in a story, but never without a self-serving motive.
The Hyena = Greedy & Shortsighted
Hyenas have long been (unjustly) reviled as scavengers, viewed in the west as foul grave-robbers and in East Africa as the helpmeets of witches.
Unsurprisingly, they rarely win in folktales. Though they’re often seen as clever, their greediness will get in the way, and their attempts at instant gratification often backfire spectacularly. Think of them as the Wile E. Coyotes of East Africa: just a little too smart for their own good.
The Lion = The Oppressor
They call him the king of the beasts, and like kings in fairy tales, the lion is often imperious, demanding that other animals pay him tributes, terrorizing villages, or otherwise throwing his (royal) weight around.
…which is why he’s often a particularly satisfying target for Hare’s schemes!
Enjoy our retelling of a classic East African fable in which Hare pulls the wool over Lion’s eyes!
The Elephant = An Easy Dupe
In reality, elephants’ intelligence is truly astounding; their capacity for reason, empathy, and long-term memory have all been well documented.
In East African folklore, however, their massive size and lumbering gait get them cast in the role of resident oaf. Hare often tricks simple, passive Elephant, even though Elephant has rarely done anything to deserve it.
Birds = Man’s Link to the Animals
In several African folktales, men speak directly to the animals in the story, but occasionally, they need help fixing their own problems.
That’s where birds come in. Whether they’re delivering helpful hints in a time of trouble, serving as a sort of guardian spirit, or acting as a go-between for two individuals who can’t communicate otherwise (one party might be imprisoned, say), birds are there to smooth the way for us.
Trust us on that one; a little bird told us.
Illustrations from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Zanzibar Tales