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Myth / Songhai Mythology

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Black Crowned Crane, messenger of Harakoy Dikko

During the collapse of the Mali empire in Western Africa, a city-state called Gao broke free from imperial authority. It went on to become the largest and most powerful of the Sahelian empires. The ruling class was composed of a group of people who spoke similar languages now classified as Songhai. The founder of the empire was the famed warrior and sorcerer Sonni Ali Ber. Following the very brief reign of his son Sonni Baru, the Sonni dynasty was succeeded by the Askia dynasty founded by general Askia Mohammed. Askia Mohammed I was one of the greatest statesmen in the history of the Sahel and brought about the golden age of Songhai. Though a devout Muslim himself, he was believed by the Songhai peoples to have been the son of a river spirit and a sorceress.

Owning to the cosmopolitan nature of the Songhai empire and the open grassland lending itself to rapid migrations, the traditional religion of the Songhai is highly syncretic. There exists no well defined boundary between animism, polytheism, Islam, ancestor worship, and sorcery. With each wave of migration (Pygmies, Voltaic farmers, Songhai people, Berbers/Arabs, Mande, Hausa, Frenchmen) new deities were added to the pantheon.


The Songhai universe is composed of the earth ("Ganda" or bottom) and the sky ("Bene" or top). The earth is a disc divided into the bush and inhabited land. All bushes are connected by rivers. Like many sub-saharan African cultures the bush-village dichotomy represents the divide between the civilized & familiar world of the village compared to the chaos & danger of the wilderness. The heavens are split into 7 layers. The creator God dwells in the highest heaven. Most call him Allah or "Irikoy" meaning Our Master. In the 6th heaven lives Ndebi the messenger of God or demiurge, in different regions it is the thunder god Dongo who occupies this place. The 5th heaven is occupied by Abrahamic angels. In the 1st heaven there are the Holle who are the most active deities in the affairs of humans.


The Spirit World

  • Irikoy created angels to watch over mankind and guide them on the right path. It is believed that wizards can see angels and receive advice from them in dreams.

  • Iblis was an angel who rebelled against Allah by refusing to bow for mere humans, and was cast from heaven for this transgression. His followers called "Shaitans" or in english Satans are the demons. It was believed that dark wizards would invoke them for magical powers or other ill gained rewards. In the age of Abraham Iblis climbed the minaret of the house of God, and cried out three times as Abraham called the faithful to prayer. Since then the worshipers of Iblis cannot die until they go on Hajj. They are aware that they will be damned so instead of going on Hajj they visit Mecca, sin, and speak with Iblis. Iblis worshippers try to cheat Hell by attempting to transfer part of their soul to their own children. Iblis was said to have taught man geomancy.

  • Zins (or Djinn in Arabic) are the islamicized local nature spirits of the Songhai. Irikoy originally gave them dominion over the bush. Which they happily divided among themselves and ruled over as genius loci. Zins are very reluctant to leave their territory. Generally capricious, they lack control over their emotions. Their true forms tend to drive normal humans insane or outright kill them, so Irikoy turned them invisible. Zins are extremely long lived but not immortal. Without offerings from humans they wither & perish. Men frequently made marriage alliances with Zins in order to have permission to fish, farm, build, cut trees, and hunt on their territory. Zin can provide men with potion or spell components.

  • The great bulk of Songhai mythology however concerns itself with the Holle deities. The Holle are essentially super humans and stewards of the larger earth. Zins are seen as local managers in contrast. The Holle are immortal and may possess humans to convey messages. Amusingly enough "Holle" means crazies. Over time they became the dominant gods active in the world and took control from the Zin. Depending on the legends the Holle were created before or after mankind. Sometimes they are seen as superior offspring of Adam and Eve. They are divided into seven families of deities altogether numbering around 150.

    • The Tooru (meaning deathless or possibly idols) are the nobles of the spirit world and the Holle especially. They are the main Songhai deities. They are said to have their origin in the city of eternal night, Runkuma near Egypt. After a long journey they arrived in the magical forest of Gariel until moving on after a dispute with the Gandyi/Ganji Bi. The seven main Tooru are Zaberi (Grandfather of the Tooru & god of magic identified with Sonni Ali Ber), Harakoy Dikko (Goddess of the Niger River and mother of the Tooru), Kyirey (God of wisdom and lightning), Musa Nyawri (God of the hunt), Manda Hausakoy (God of blacksmithing), Faran Baru Koda (Child Goddess of Millet), and Dongo (God of Thunder).

    • The Gandyi/Ganji Koare or "White Bush Spirits" are called such because they are Tuareg in ethnicity. They are descendants of the spirit Hagam of the Tooru who made his home in the northern wilderness. They are serenely devout muslims and largely concern themselves with Islam and keeping watch over their territory. The most belligerent among them was named Serki who was chased out by his father Hagam for constantly seeking battle which resulted in breaking a leg.

    • The Gandyi/Ganji Bi or "Black Bush Spirits" are Voltaic in ethnicity and very numerous. They settled Gariel Forest. The Gandyi Bi are highly selective about who they allow in their land and only accept particular individuals. Close allies to the Zins, they were masters of the soil & it’s humble workers.

    • The Hausa Gandyi/Ganji are based on the Hausa ethnic group of Northern Nigeria, Northern Benin, and Southern Niger. According to legend their ancestor gave birth to the progenitors of two groups: the white and black spirits. Their main occupation is animal husbandry but after the war of the spirits they became open to trade with the other Holle.

    • The Hargey name is derived from a word meaning "cold". And much like corpses they are cold to the touch. They are a clan of evil spirits descended from a graveyard Zin who sired the goddess Nyaberi with Harakoy Dikko. Nyaberi was extremely wicked and was thrown from heaven after attempting to be with her disgusted brother Kyirey. Now a quadriplegic, she shuffled to the realm of her father who taught her witchcraft & soul eating. She bred with the few Zin who would have her and mothered the Hargey. The Hargey delight in terrorizing humans, spirits, and beasts. They lurk in the dark places of the world and graveyards.

    • The Atakurma are not Holle per se. But they are attached to them as a group. Little black dwarves with large heads and buttocks, also with long hair. Some consider them subjects of the Hausa Gandyi. The Atakurma are likely an echo of the pygmies who once lived in a much broader area of Africa than now. Atakurma are allies & shepherds of the wild beasts. They make their homes in termite mounds. Atakurma are probably the most ancient gods in the pantheon.

    • The Hauka are the newcomers to the Songhai pantheon and represent the arrival of western civilization. They are said to have arrived from across the Red Sea. They are considered guests of Dongo just as he was a guest of Harakoy Dikko prior to his adoption. The Hauka are organized similar to very early 20th century western militaries. Each of them symbolizes an archetype from the cruel commander to the laid back truck driver to the good doctor.

  • Ancestor spirits are revered by all families but some achieve such fame they are worshiped by whole tribes or nations. Oftentimes the first priest of a Zin will come to be worshipped himself. It can also be that an ordinary human finds themself mixed up with the affairs of the Holley.


  • Abduction Is Love: Harakoy Dikko occasionally engages in this on lonely nights. Meynsata was subdued & brought home with a magic collar by Musa Nyame in some tales.
  • Action Girl:
    • Nana Miriam went toe-to-toe with a magical hippopotamus wielding little but her spear and magic charm. She nearly drove hippos to extinction before having mercy on a mother hippo and her foal.
    • Meynsata was a rival to the hero Musa Nyame and assembled an army of female warriors to battle the monstrous Hira. When the other women soiled themselves and fled in terror she gladly confronted it alone. She rescued her father from the clutches of the wild beasts who lured him into their domain with their sorcery. Wielding spear & sword she hewed her way through great numbers of the animals in order to retrieve him, even kicking four elephants into each other.
    • Young Faran Baru Koda slew 100 Gandyi Bi during the war of the spirits.
    • Fatimata held her own in a wrestling match against a Hira which even her famous father Musa Nyame couldn't dispatch.
  • All Amazons Want Hercules: In some tellings Meynsata falls for Musa Nyame after he almost effortlessly slays her quarry and dominates her in a contest of magic.
  • All of the Other Reindeer:
    • Musa Nyame grew up ignorant of who his father was and got bullied for it. Being prophesied as the future king of the Gow but nobody believing it made things worse.
    • Dongo's anger issues created a negative cycle leading to his eventual social isolation. He was starving in the Bush when his adoptive brothers found him.
  • Alternate Company Equivalent: Faro the Mande goddess of the Niger River, heavily associated with copper is the counterpart of Harakoy Dikko who is also the Niger River goddess symbolized with copper.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: This basically sums up the Hargey and their spawn like witches. Nyaberi was known to be evil from the moment she was born.
  • Angry Dance: The Hauka spirits dance much more aggressively than the others when possessing a worshipper and often engage in seemingly self destructive feats.
  • Animorphism: One of the most common magical abilities. Sonni Ali Ber was said to transform himself and his legendary horse Zinzinbadou into vultures. The Zin particularly enjoyed transforming into horned snakes.
  • Annoying Arrows:
    • Sonni Ali Ber was impervious to them in legend.
    • Arrows harmlessly passed through Kyirey during battle.
  • Anti-Hero: Dongo has a hair trigger temper and a long mean streak. Nonetheless he is the god who forces Sadyara the rainbow serpent to release the life-giving rains. And it is he who punishes evildoers with his wrath. Pilgrims invoke Dongo for protection on the long & perilous journey to Mecca.
  • Anything That Moves:
    • Harakoy doesn't discriminate. Songhai, Tuareg, Gurma, Hausa, Graveyard Zin, etc. Often she waits by the banks of the Niger River late at night singing beautiful songs to lure in young men and fulfill her desires in her subaquatic abode.
    • Dongo in different tellings fathered the entire Hauka clan of spirits with his foreign lovers.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: In pagan times this was the objective, becoming an ancestor spirit. Dongo was once said to be an ordinary hunter from Borgu in what's now northern Nigeria and Benin prior to his adoption by the Holle.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • Zirbin Sangay Moyo was a crocodile Zin that would wholesale massacre fishermen for fun.
    • Dongo the Thunder god was characterized by his blind murderous rages. In some accounts he used to be an angel but was thrown out of heaven for his inability to control his temper. He was placed into Ndebi's care but Ndebi wanted nothing to do with his furious tendencies so he allowed the compassionate Harakoy Dikko to adopt him. Dongo often became so angry the saliva from his mouth when he shouted turned to stones and killed anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity.
    • The Zin in general could often be this owing to their overly emotional tendencies.
    • Nyaberi's hobbies include ripping the intestines out of pregnant women while laughing maniacally.
  • Back from the Dead: Dongo restored the people of Marekende village to life after massacring them in a fit of rage because none of their griots could flatter him enough.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Meynsata and Musa Nyame in versions where they are lovers.
  • Benevolent Mage Ruler: To the Songhai pagans, Sonni Ali Ber was this. Faran Maka Bote was one to the Sorko.
  • Berserk Button: Paemuru tried to crush the skull of the marabout Saidu for insulting his uncle Faran Maka.
  • The Berserker: Dongo completely loses himself in battle and shouts incoherently, sending projectiles every which way from just his mouth.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Kyikery is the kindest and most wise of Harakoy Dikko's children. He's stil the god of lightning and readily waged war against the Zin and Gandyi Bi. Even his wicked sister Nyaberi got no mercy from him as he flung her to the earth.
  • Big Eater:
    • Faran Maka Bote usually had 40 hippos a day. He was angered when the Zin Kibaru allowed only 2 hippos in the river for him to eat. He came to blows when Zin Kibaru used hippopotamuses to eat up all his rice crops (his favorite food). He would drink up an entire pond to quench his thirst.
    • Bamboy and his sister Gargarey split an entire cape buffalo and the former still complained it wasn't enough.
    • The winner is probably the hunter Fabekondaro. He ate walking, sitting, standing, lying down, on his back, and while running. He ate 120 different animals and 120 servings of grains in one sitting.
  • Blood Lust: The Hausa Gandyi were quite fond of drinking blood. Yeah, the early interactions between the Songhai & Hausa weren't too positive.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Dongo and Harakoy Dikko are a platonic example. He had no pity for anyone who didn't care for him, and no mercy for anyone who would hurt her or his adopted sister Faran Baru Koda. Under Harakoy's influence he became less likely to slaughter random people when angered.
  • Cain and Abel: Kelimabe and Kelikelimabe had this dynamic for a while owning to a false rape accusation.
  • Canis Major: Kara-digi-Mao-Fosi-Fasi owned one hundred and twenty dogs larger than horses. The leader of whom was a great black hound named Kunjima Mbana.
  • Canon Immigrant: There's speculation that Dongo is in whole or in part derived from the Yoruba thunder god Shango.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Paemuru freely admitted he was far far worse than Faran Maka.
  • Charm Person: His magical instruments aside, the Zin Kibaru was supernaturally charismatic and won over the Holle with his gift for sweet talk and praise speaking. Harakoy Dikko gifted him with a magnificent axe as a reward for one speech.
  • The Chosen One: Faran Maka Bote as Dongo's first priest. Musa Nyame was this for the Gow people.
  • Continuity Snarl: A mythological given. Especially one where a pagan demiurge joins the ranks of the Abrahamic prophets, medieval warlords become parents of primordial deities, Adam & Eve produce nature spirits, and the rainy season is overseen by multiple gods.
  • Cool Boat: Harakoy Dikko sails the Niger River on a great copper canoe pushed by Zin in various forms.
  • Cool Horse: Zinzinbadou was a magnificent beast.
  • Crippling Castration: Kelimabe chopped off his brother's manhood in a vicious attack after being deceived by his wife into thinking Kelikelimabe raped her.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Runkuma is the city of eternal night where the Tooru find their origin. They flee there for refuge during the war with the Ganji-Bi.
  • Deadly Game: Paemuru played a game with a group of children where he would throw them at a great baobab tree to catch fruits. If they caught a fruit he'd catch them, if they didn't he let them die.
  • Deityof Human Origin: In some tellings, Dongo. The entire ancestor class of spirits was this by default as well.
  • Disabled Deity: Kyirey has only one eye after being shot by one of the Gandyi Bi with an arrow.
  • Divine Birds: The crowned crane or "Kagu" earned this status by relaying information for Harakoy Dikko and her family.
  • Divine Conflict: The Holle vs the Zin, the Gandyi Bi, and the Kurumey wizards.
  • The Dreaded: The citizens of Gao flew into a panic when they learned Paemuru was coming to visit them from Mandinkaland, carving a path of violence along his way.
  • Dual Wielding: Meynsata decimated the bush creatures with a spear in one hand and a sword in the other.
  • Dude Shes Likeina Coma: Nyame was a young girl who fell asleep near a great tree which turned out to be home of the local Zins. One of these Zins possessed and raped her, leaving her with child. Her son was Musa Nyame.
  • Eaten Alive: Wari was the only known Holle to ever truly die. As one of the Gandyi-Bi he protected the son of a dancer from the monstrous lion-eating beast called Isiwey and was devoured.
  • Enfant Terrible: Paemuru was quite fearsome. He spoke before he was born, brought himself into the world, and his birth was accompanied by a great flood of amniotic fluid. He killed other children, their angry parents, and tried to murder a marabout. Even his own mother was frightened of him.
  • Exact Words: Paemuru's mother warned him to have goods ears (listen to people) so he tore off the ears of other boys and wore them as chain earrings. Yes, earrings made of ears.
    • Paemuru's mother told him to have a good head so he decapitated a number of boys just in case one might be the good one.
  • The Exile: Dongo in legends where he's kicked out of his early home for his aggression. The Tooru were driven back to Runkuma during their battles with the Gandyi Bi.
  • Eye Scream: Kyirey the Red caught an arrow with his eye before using his magic to remain immune to arrows.
  • Everything's Better with Rainbows: Subverted like many cases in African mythologies. Sadyara is the rainbow serpent and belongs to the class of Hargey spirits. He is the master of ponds and waterholes. It is thought that he blocks the rain and funnels it into his own waterholes instead of sharing it with the world. He is known to mercilessly kill any mortals unfortunate enough to be around when he emerges from a pond prior to the rain.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: The Hargey, literally in the name.
  • False Rape Accusation: Kelimabe's wife lusted after his handsome younger brother Kelikelimabe and accused him of rape when he resisted her advances.
  • The Fatalist: The Songhai believed that everyone is subject to the fate allotted to them. But one could at least try to steer or cope with it through divination.
  • Femme Fatale: The Cape buffalo who transformed herself into a beautiful woman to lure Kamankiri into a trap.
  • Food God: Faran Baru Koda courtesy of being the goddess of millet.
  • Forced Transformation:
    • Zirbin Sangay Moyo got this treatment from Harakoy Dikko. Transformed into a chunk of iron, and made into a spear by Faran Maka Bote.
    • The priestess Hadiza transformed her unfortunate lover into a sheep so she wouldn't be found out by her community of celibate holy women. She tied up loose ends by sharing him as lunch with everyone.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: A given considering the incomprehensible glory of the spirits.
  • Fright Deathtrap: Main hunting tactic of witches. Witches appear to humans on lonely nights as abandoned babies, armless men, two headed donkeys, and headless donkeys. If a human interacts with them they are seized by a sudden blind primal terror which frightens their soul out of their body for the witch to claim.
  • Heal It with Water: Dongo spat magic water from the ritual vessel on the victims of his lightning to bring them back to life.
  • Heaven Above: Several of them. Denizens ranging from angels to demigods to big G God.
  • Heinous Hyena: The Hyena of Djenne was the scourge of the middle Niger River Valley. She claimed hundreds of lives, ravaging entire towns & villages. Armies couldn't bring her down. So they hired the fabled Gow hunters to do the job.
  • Hell: Several. The first hell is more like purgatory where Allah decides if you really deserve it or not. The second hell is for Jews since they're closest to Islam. Hell three is for Christians. Hell four is for Buddhists & Hindus. Hell five is for atheists. The Sixth hell is for the children of Iblis. The worst rung of hell is meant for the children of Munakufa the discord demon: I.E. antisocial criminals like murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. that ruin society.
  • Herbivoresare Friendly: Averted with prejudice. Cape Buffalo actively stalk and kill humans on their territory. Hippopotamuses are more bloodthirsty than crocodiles or lions. Elephants hold grudges against individual humans. These animals figure as antagonists much more often than predators do.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Sonni Ali Ber was upgraded from merciless conqueror to Tooru deity.
  • Ima Humanitarian: Witches have their origin from this.
  • Immortal Immaturity: Faran Baru Koda by virtue of being a literal child. Dongo behaves more like a delinquent teenager than the leader of the pantheon, even referred to himself as a good boy to his new family occasionally.
  • Immortality Promiscuity:
    • Even discounting her revolving door of marriages, Harakoy Dikko has many demigods with her mortal consorts.
    • Dongo's fury is matched only by his virility.
  • Intangible Man: One of Kyirey's tricks. Sonni Ali Ber supposedly gave this power to his soldiers.
  • Interspecies Romance: Every so often an animal may shapeshift to marry a human. This is the origin of a number of clan totems.
  • Invisible to Normals: Spirits can't be seen normally.
  • Making a Splash: Harakoy Dikko's chief ability along with her riparian servants.
  • Monster Progenitor: Nyaberi birthed many of the evil spirits and monsters who haunted the Songhai world.
  • Mother Goddess: Harakoy Dikko was the gracious protector of humans and marine life. Nyaberi was the great and terrible earth mother in contrast.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Paemuru by adulthood could be mistaken for a mountain.
    • Awodia was big enough to reach the clouds.
    • Faran Maka was described as a giant himself in some tales.
  • Put Their Heads Together: Paemuru was pursued by angry Mandinkas on his way to Gao and he killed twenty of them by smashing their heads together, terrifying the rest.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: The marabout Saidu revealed to Paemuru that nobody ever gives prayers for his uncle Faran Maka's soul because he was an alcohol drinking heathen that did sorcery with his "pagan drugs". He called Faran Maka a bad man to Paemuru's face.
  • Walking the Earth: After Paemuru tried to kill Saidu and failed, the latter fled to Gao where he gathered muslims to pray against the vicious giant. Allah cursed Paemuru to leave Gao and wander the earth.