The idea of the Bushman has been around in popular literature and in African folklore for a very long time. In reality, there are actual African Bushmen who have survived in small fragmented groups across the Center and Southern parts of the African continent. They do not all speak the same language, and they exist in constant threat from more developed African groups and nations which have taken the land that the Bushmen have needed for their primitive hunting and gathering society to operate. The Bushmen have a varied folklore tradition, and while they do not all share the same traditions and common stories; they do have a great deal of commonality. Unlike American groups which have been developing folklore that emphasizes individual morality (Bronner, 1990), the Bushmen use folklore to bring together tribes that may be separated by distance and tradition.
The Bushmen live in very close connection with their surroundings. They have few manmade institutions, and they subsist with a primitive economy that is based on hunting rather than on agriculture. Because of this connection with the land and with nature, they are particularly sensitive about wildlife. Their folklore reflects their deep connection with the animals that surround them, and their fascination with natural life. Most of their stories are morality fables, and very few involve only humans. Animals are typically anthromorphisized and given human names and features. The animals often are the antagonists of the people, such as the stories about the lions.
Lions pose a very real threat to Bushmen, they are predators who kill the cattle and larger animals the Bushmen require for subsistence, and they are responsible for eating several of the tribesmen each year. Lions often appear in Bushman folklore as the party that is vanquished in the end. In one story, a Lioness adopts human children but is defeated by the wile of the children who are able to escape and bring punishment upon the lion. The lions are seen as predators, but not particularly clever ones. Other animals often beat the lions in contests of skill.
Others of the stories use natural phenomena such as the sun and the moon. All the stars are said to have once been men of the Early Race, and so were all the animals. The Sun was an old man that had a giant glowing armpit that lit up the entire Earth whenever the sun held up its arm. In this story, the humans of the Early Race were able to throw the sun up into the sky to light the whole world. Instead of the sun being perceived as some kind of religious institution that is worth of worship, it is instead a byproduct of human ingenuity and recognition of the special qualities in the Early People.
The moon is another man from the Early Race, but one that is the arch rival of the sun. Every time the moon comes out, it is running in front of the sun who cuts it with his knife. After the sun is done cutting the moon down, only its backbone is left. The moon retreats and slowly regrows its body, but it does the same foolish confrontation again with the beginning of the next lunar cycle. Bushman folklore does not have an idea of Gods or of higher beings, although the idea of the Early Race is somewhat similar to gods in that the Early Race is believed to have supernatural abilities and intelligence beyond that of the modern day Bushmen.
The Bushmen only offer up prayers to the sun and the moon who represent the only kind of life after death that is mentioned in Bushman culture. It is odd to think that the afterlife for the Bushmen contains such horrific conflict as a constant struggle of cutting and hiding, but the idea that the moon is able to be reborn after being slain every night is something that is reassuring to the Bushmen.
Rain and Water also have an important position in Bushman folklore, being the two elements that inspire much of the respect and fear of the Bushmen. They believe that the rain has the power to change humans into animals, and there is an entire category of warning stories to children that tell of disobedient youth who are turned into frogs, snakes, and other loathsome creatures by the will of the rain. The rain also is represented by a powerful bull in some of the stories; it caused chaos in the land until it was shot by the Early Race. Within Bushmen society, witch doctors still pay homage to this bull through the symbolic act of leading a bull across the land in order to make the rain fall.
There is no real mystical border between the power of nature and the animals. Rain is addressed in the same way that animals such as the lions are. In each fable of the Bushmen, the origins of animals and natural phenomena are explained as first being one of the Early Race. The Early Race, or First Bushman, are given a very mythical character, but their similarity to the current Bushman is also emphasized. The Early Race are often attacked by some foreign tribe, and they use their wits and cunning to outsmart the attackers. According to some scholars, the Early Race might actually be the accumulated traditions and history of real Bushmen society, but with the identities of the individuals lost since the occurrences of events and their actions ascribed to the Early Race instead.
The folklore of the Bushmen is simultaneously miraculous and mundane. It attempts to explain events and natural phenomena by giving a nearly supernatural character to the ancestors of the Bushmen while also giving the Bushmen a sense of reassurance by speaking of life after death. The Early Race may be a mythical construct, or it could be the combined history of earlier generations of Bushmen who recorded their history orally and attributed events to the mythical Early Race.
Simon J. Bronner. Piled Higher & Deeper: the Folklore of Campus Life. August House, 1990.