Serpent Beings, Sacrificial Brides, Superboy Saviors: Comparative Analysis of African Serpent Lore

Robert Shanafelt


Serpent lore, dragon lore, and related ritual have long been of interest in religious studies, anthropology, and folklore. While works that provide rich ethnographic descriptions of particular cultural contexts are not to be neglected, broader comparative studies are also of value. Here a comparative approach is taken to the investigation of two themes widespread in African cosmic serpent lore: a shape-shifting Serpent Being with dragon-like features who is master controller of the waters and a related myth of a superboy who saves the world by slaying a dragon monster. Comparative analysis of tales from Lesotho indicates that Sotho-Tswana people retained ancient ideas common to other peoples in south and central Africa, and beyond. These two story lines are interpreted in terms of debates about diffusion, common origins, and independent invention. Both cognitive naturalism and inter-societal contact, in different ways, offer explanation of these shared themes.


Serpents, Africa, Ritual, Narrative, Oral tradition, Myth

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