Odds and Dead Ends: The changing legend of the Tokoloshe

It seems that, even with just a quick look on IMDb, the South African monster of the Tokoloshe (pronounced, as far as I understand it, as toe-kohl-osh) has hit a nerve. There are six films (of varying lengths) with the monster in its name released in the past ten years, and a 1965 film (dir Peter Prowse) to boot. Many might know of the creature from the 2018 film The Tokoloshe (dir Jerome Pikwane), which has already been reviewed on HorrorAddicts.net. However, I’d never gone in and looked at the creature’s origins, myths, and back story. So let me share with you what I’ve learned, and I hope you find it interesting, too.

            The Tokoloshe (or Tikiloshe, Tokolotshe, and various other names), is a small, imp-like creature from Bantu legend, usually dwelling in watery locations such as ponds or lakes. Its size might be similar to a brownie, if you are familiar with that creature from Scottish legend. It’s grey and scrawny, ugly, has long fingers, and because of this, one might put bricks under the feet of a bed to hoist the bed out of reach.

            A tokoloshe are usually creatures summoned in order to wreak havoc, or enact a deliberate revenge on someone, a bit like the plot of Pumpkinhead (1988, dir Stan Winston), but with a much smaller monster. However it typically comes out a fit of jealousy of some kind though, so not exactly the same kind of vengeance. It is most often noted to be summoned by a witch or witch doctor, and has often been linked with ideas of vengeance for infidelity. Part of the summoning involves driving a rod through its head, so it is often depicted with a hole in its skull. It has been said often to like and live with women, and sometimes to sleep with them. A story related in the following article explains how a woman dreams of a white man coming to make love to her, and her friends saying that it is a tokoloshe; ‘jealous people want to derail her good fortunes and this handsome white guy is how they will do it.’ https://www.news24.com/citypress/trending/how-to-get-rid-of-the-tokoloshe-20180827

            If one wishes to expel the monster, typically a shaman or priest from whichever corresponding belief system works for the tormented one, is brought in to perform a ritual, and so drive out the creature and send it back again to where it came from.

            This all sounds very familiar to the kinds of folk stories we all hear, almost regardless of where you come from. These myths and legends have similar traits throughout the world because many of them are designed as morality tales, or ways of explaining the world around us. Urban legends take exactly the same kind of idea; lessons dressed up as stories. ‘Don’t stay out late at night or the ghost with the hooked hand will get you. I know, because it really happened one night…’ Stories telling kids about water monsters are just ways to tell them not to play too near fast-flowing rapids.

            But each legend particular to an area comes with unique cultural connotations and connections. Just as many times a horror movie only works because of the culture it comes from, these myths and legends often manifest unconscious fears within that culture. There’s a reason why Gojira (dir Ishirō Honda, 1954), despite being directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (dir Eugène Lourié, 1953), which was in turn inspired by the Ray Bradbury short story, The Foghorn (1951), had the lizard king spewing atomic breath. It was created as an allegory for Japan’s fears of atomic tests and nuclear weapons. Remember that this isn’t even a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

            Therefore some have theorised that the Tokoloshe’s specifics may come from aspects of South African culture. One site outlines a common theory that its development may be a result of traditional South African homes having central fires and that in the night, carbon dioxide might accumulate and sink to the bottom of the room (being denser than air), killing sleepers. Anyone higher up had a higher chance of survival, hence the bricks under the bed. The link to the site for those interested is here: https://www.astonishinglegends.com/astonishing-legends/2019/2/16/the-tokoloshe.

            Phumlani S Langa, in the article from earlier (link will also be at the end) claims to have spoken with a sangoma (a spiritual healer) on how to get rid of a tokoloshe. What I find interesting in here goes back to the earlier point of it being a ‘white man’ whom the individual speaking mentions. Later Langa says that ‘he assures me that these beings can come for Caucasians too. Maybe you’ll dream of sex with a black person…’

            Attention is drawn to the specifically interracial aspect of the monstrous visitation, coming in the guise of a different race to seduce. I’m not wanting to go too heavy with my speculation, but perhaps this might indicate a lasting influence of Apartheid and other moments in South African history, where racial issues and intolerances controlled every aspect of people’s lives. It’s possible there was this dynamic before, but perhaps it has been reinforced by recent South African history. I think it would be hard to see an attribute this specific in my current home of Wales, for instance. Maybe an English person would dream of someone speaking Welsh, but that’s about it.

            Incidentally, the 2018 Tokoloshe film deals specifically with a black woman and a white male, doubling the impact with gender issues to go with the racial aspects. Could the mythology of the Tokoloshe be morphing over time, aspects of it evolving in response to the changing cultural conditions of its country?

            It’s certainly possible. The article ‘Tokoloshe Tales: Reflections on the Cultural Politics of Journalism in South Africa’ by Lesley Fordred-Green discusses supernatural events that had been described in the country in the 1990’s, and the specific political elements of how they were reported. Fordred-Green mentions in relation to a supposed tokoloshe sighting at a mixed-race school that…

“Anthropological studies of supernatural phenomena argue that they mediate social tensions (see Niehaus 1995 in particular); it is entirely conceivable that the screaming exodus of pupils was manifesting deep-rooted fears that black pupils had brought Zulu spirits with them.” (p.705)

            So we finish up with a monster that isn’t just in the distant past of South African folklore but is actively in the modern day, perhaps changing in cultural significance and specific attributes based on what’s happening in the world at the time. This should come as no surprise to us; the horror genre in fiction and film, for example, has been constantly morphing and mutating based on social issues for the past few hundred years. The tokoloshe is socially and culturally relevant, still in the minds of many, and evolving all the time. It’s interesting, intriguing, and, I think, proof that folklore is far more relevant than many give it credit for.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: kjudgemental

Links to sources and other sites

2 thoughts on “Odds and Dead Ends: The changing legend of the Tokoloshe

  1. That’s a really neat analysis of the Tokoloshe myth! It makes sense how myths change over time, including myths based on a people’s fears. When the sources of the the fear changes in a society the myth changes with it to reflect that society’s current fears. I need to try to check out some of these horror films based on the Tokoloshe myth.


  2. Pingback: Black Horror Movies | HorrorAddicts.net

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