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Tokoloshe


Tokoloshes are creatures from Zulu/Xhosa mythology. They have a special place in South African folklore, somewhere between a bogey and a gremlin, for they are mischievous little imps who relish chaos and pain.

South African oral tradition is rich in cautionary tales of the Tokoloshe. In such tales, tokoloshes are blamed for everything, from bad and unpredictable weather, to car crashes and house fires. More recently, however, with the grow of urban population and increased migration to cities, acts of violence, mostly those perpetrated against children and women, have become the focus of most tokoloshe's stories.


Older tales, however, present the tokoloshe in a different light, not a kinder one but one closer to the natural world. This oral recounts describe the tokoloshe as a dwarf-like water sprite that can become invisible by drinking water, a power that allows it to spread evil unobstructed. In this version, tokoloshes are the perpetrators of their master's will, called upon by wicked people to cause trouble for others, playing a role similar to the familiars of European witches. At its least harmful, a tokoloshe can be used to scare children into behaving better, but its power extends to causing illness and even death upon the victim.


A common thread among old and new tokoloshe's stories is that these creatures like darkness, attacking when their victim sleeps, which is said to be a part of the reason why, nowadays, many people in the Zulu culture sleeps with their beds raised off the floor. A superstition further reinforced by the belief that tokoloshes are small and bad climbers, hence a few bricks under the bed's legs or a couple of boards raising the mattress, are sure ways to avoid being bitten by a tokoloshe when sleeping.


Another version of the tokoloshe's origins and nature is that this imp is more a mix between Frankenstein's monster and a zombie, created by South African shamans who have been offended by someone. To create a tokoloshe, a shaman or sorcerer would join parts of dead bodies to form a small human-like figure. Once finished, the shaman would pierce the tokoloshe's skull with a red-hot poker or rod, gifting the creature with new life and some magic powers. In Zulu magic, heat power is among the strongest forces in nature, so by poking a hole with a heated instrument, the shaman infuses the tokoloche with some of that power. As protection, the eyes of a tolokoshe would have been gouged, so that it could never revel against its creator. The lack of eyes, however, is not a problem for them, as tokoloshes use their other senses to find their way around without difficulty. A reason why, some believe tokoloshes may posses a sort of sixth-sense that allows them to see the world beyond the physical.

The zombie-like body of a tokoloshe is always withered and often dark gray or charcoal black, with a distended belly and short crooked legs.


In most cases, the only way to get rid of a tokoloshe for good is by calling in a sangoma (a highly respected healer among the Zulu) for she is the only one powerful enough to banish it from the area.


While not commonly featured in fiction, there are a few fantasy writers that had incorporated tokoloshes into their stories. Most notably, Andrew Salomon's Tokoloshe Song (2014) tells the story of Richard and Lun, a human and a tokoloshe, who join forces to defeat an assassin with a books fetish. Interestingly, in this book, the tokoloshes are portrayed as misunderstood creatures who are good at hart but forced to do evil by unscrupulous masters.


References:

-Fordred-Green, L., 2000. Tokoloshe tales: reflections on the cultural politics of journalism in South Africa. Current Anthropology, 41(5), pp.701-712.

-Scholtz, P., 2004. Tales of the Tokoloshe. Struik.


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