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1868 (pub): Abatwa: Microscopic Menace of Zulu Africa

The Abatwa of Africa are a legendary race of miniscule hunters originally told of by the Zulus as being a menace in their territories; but in the past few decades the tales told of these beings in English language media has greatly changed.

        The first publication of the tale of the Abatwa was in 1868 in Henri Callaway's Nursery Tales, Traditions, and Histories of the Zulus. The stories in Callaway's book were collected directly from Zulu storytellers, and then presented both in a transliteration of the original Zulu language and translated into English... so it was as close as Callaway was able to get to bringing his readers directly in contact with the Zulu storytellers. Allow me to sum up the tale of the Abatwa, as told in Calloway's book.

The Dreadfulness of the Abatwa

        The Abatwa are extremely small men; they "go under the grass, and sleep in anthills." They travel in the mist and live in the upcountry in the rocks; and they have no village. They are wholly nomadic, and kill large animals with poisoned arrows; and when they've killed an animal, they eat every piece of it leaving nothing behind. If an area has no more animals to hunt, the Abatwa gather together and ride on a horse's back single-file from neck to tail to go look for better hunting grounds... and if they don't find something, they eat the horse.

        The Abatwa represent a great danger to the Zulu because they are armed with poisoned arrows which caused uncontrollable bleeding... which is why an Umutwa (the proper name for a single Abatwa) can hunt and kill large animals, but also makes a single Abatwa arrow deadly to a full sized Zulu. So Zulu had to be careful in how they treated any Abatwa they might encounter, and there was one major point the Zulu had to keep in mind: Abatwa hated being told or reminded they were tiny. Any indication from a Zulu that they felt an Umutwa was small would instantly result in the Zulu being shot and killed!

        For this reason, the Zulu have adapted the rather unusual greeting of "I saw you!" when encountering any Abatwa. If the tiny warrior then asks the Zulu where he saw them from, the Zulu needs to answer in a way that implies a great size to the miniscule threat, such as "I saw you from that mountain over there."

        Such a greeting only works, however, if the Umutwa is somehow seen or detected; the true dreadfulness of the Abatwa comes from the very fact that their size makes them almost invisible in most circumstances. An Umutwa could shoot and kill a Zulu who nearly stepped on him without the Zulu ever seeing the being that has killed them... an attacking animal or a murderous man could be faced and dealt with, but the possiblity of being killed in a way that cannot be reacted to, that ignores your personal strengths and capabilities, is truly dreadful. This worry prevents sleep and rest, for the only comfort is too avoid the territory of the Abatwa altogether.

Origins of the Legend

        In his book, Callaway points out a very important fact... that the name "Abatwa" is not only a descriptor for the monstrous miniscule men, but also the name used by the Zulu to talk about a neighboring tribe. This neighboring tribe of Bushmen have an avergae height of just four feet, compared to the Zulu tribe's average of over six feet; so Calloway felt that the Zulu tales of the tiny Abatwa were probably stories formed from initial encounters with their smaller neighbors. There is outside support for this idea, as it turns out.

        In a 1915 edition of the journal MAN, a correspondent named Mervyn W.H. Beech wrote in with a tale he had been told two years earlier while visiting East Africa. Having been told that, if you dug low enough, pieces of pottery would be found that the Kikuyu tribe (whom he was visiting) had not made... these pieces were to be found in areas that were cleared of forests for cultivation. Beech was naturally curious as to who had made the pottery. The elders of the tribe told him the pottery had been made by an ancient people called the Gumba, who had occupied the area in the past after displacing a race of cannibal dwarves called Maithoachiana. A further inquiry about this story was made to some elders in the Fort Hall district of the same land by the District Commisioner, and he sent back the following interesting details:

        "The Maithoachiana appear to be a variety of earth-gnomes with many of the usual attributes: they are rich, very fierce, very touchy, e.g., if you meet one and ask him who his father is he will spear you; or if he asks you where you caught sight of him first, unless you say that you had seen him from afar, he will kill you, the inference being, I suppose, that you have seen what he was doing, burying treasure, &c. This is only a guess on my part.

        "Like earth-gnomes in most folklore, they are skilled in the art of iron-working. They originally lived round this part (i.e., south of Mount Kenia), but they were driven out by another legendary people called the 'Gumba,' who dwelt in caves dug in the earth, and who disappeared one night after teaching the Kikuyu the art of smelting. Another account says that they lived in the earth themselves. It is a Kikuyu insult to say 'You are the son of a Maithoachiana.'"

        Beech stated that the references might well actually have been to either the Bushmen or Pygmies, or both. Note the line "unless you say that you had seen him from afar, he will kill you..." which is a repeat of the habit of telling the Abatwa that you saw them from afar to prevent their anger. It seems likely that both the tale of the Maithoachiana and the tales of the Abatwa are based on first encounters between tall and short tribes in Africa, with each story taking on it's own local aspects over time.

        So much for the original legend of the Abatwa... but, like so many stories from other cultures, the representation of the legend has been changed greatly in its interaction with English language media, becoming something -- or somethings -- very different from the original African stories.

Modern Rewrites

        For around eighty years, the tale of the Abatwa as Calloway published it was discussed off and on in Anthropology and Folklore journals and books, generally in its connection to the Bushmen of the same name, and to the relations of natives of Africa to the Pygmies and Bushmen in various parts of the country. Then the whole story was re-written and marketed to the public at large.

        The earliest I've traced the re-write so far is to the 1987 book, Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were, by Michael Page & Robert Ingpen. In just two paragraphs, this book creates a whole new creature called Abatwa that is only partially related back to the original legend. It's worth quoting, because it's been very influential since:

        "Abatwa: The tiniest creatures in human form, who live in the anthills of southern Africa. Sightings are rare because the Abatwa are the shyest and most elusive of all creatures in human form. When they do reveal themselves, it is only to children under four years old, wizards, or pregnant women. A woman in the seventh month of pregnancy who sees an Abatwa male knows that she will give birth to a boy.

        "The Abatwa are perfect miniatures of African tribespeople and they maintain a clan and family structure similar to that of the tribes, but they are not a warlike race and they never seek dominance over the ants with which they share their quarters. They live by foraging for food among the roots of grasses and other plants."

As you can see, all that survives of the original Abatwa legend (and possibly all the authors actually knew about Abatwa) was Calloway's first description of the size of these beings, that they "go under the grass, and sleep in anthills." Whether the remainder is an invention of Page & Ingpen, or whether they got this variant tale from another source, is still up for debate (and I'll keep digging).

        Besides the obvious differences, notice the subtle differences that have been added as well: for example, in Calloway's original tales it is never explicitly stated that the Abatwa regularly live in anthills... it's possible that the storyteller's statement about Abatwa sleeping in anthills was only meant as an example of how incredibly small they were. Also, the original tales only implied males of the Abatwa race had been encountered, since they were only ever seen hunting, a male activity... and given their otherwise inhuman traits, it does not necessarily follow that the Zulu believed there were females among the tiny hunters.

        What seems to have happened is that someone -- be it Page & Ingpen, or be it a writer before them -- simply knew that Abatwa were little people in Africa, and therefore assigned them a new story that assumed they were a type of fairy, as in the legends of the little people told in Europe. As a brief comparison with the original tales shows though, this is an entirely new story; and woe be unto anyone running into a real Abatwa expecting them to be friendly! Oh, and just in case this identification with European fairy lore wasn't made obvious enough, in 1999 the extremely questionable book A Natural History of the Unnatural World1, simply listed the Abatwa as a "South African race of fairies." In the glossary, the book repeats the "fact" that Abatwa are only visible to children under four, wizards, and pregnant women.

The Explosion

        While the legend of the Abatwa was re-written in 1987, this wasn't generally noted until sometime in October, 2004... when a Wikipedia article was posted that was essentially the same as the variant legend above:

"In South African mythology, Abatwa are tiny humans said to be able to hide beneath a blade of grass and to be able to ride ants. They can only be seen by the very young, by magicians, and by pregnant women. If a pregnant woman in her seventh month of pregnancy sees a male abatwa it is said that she will give birth to a boy."

This particular Wikipedia article was later replaced with an article about the tribe of Bushmen actually addressed as the Abatwa, and all reference to the legendary monster is now gone; but the damage had already been done. An untold number of websites and books took the basic description from Wikipedia, and republished it as the "correct" idea of the Abatwa, assuming it was verified information2... even though Wikipedia identified the article as a "stub," which means a brief entry with no sources, not to be trusted on face value. After that, even more websites and books took the story from the earlier copiers, until there were sites and books with the variant tale that had no idea where the original information came from. In addition, a few of these books and websites also threw in their own new details3; but none of this represents the original, actual, legend of the Abatwa.

        So just remember: if you ever happen to run into an Abatwa in the Zulu territories, don't mistake them for creatures that are shy with a peaceful nature... just tell them you saw them from a long way off, and that their great size has motivated you to run away!