What is a Tokoloshe?
Well, the first problem is one of spelling – is it Tokoloshe, Tikoloshe, Tokolo or Tokolosh? All of these are accepted, and (for the most part) the name is usually capitalised. It is unusual, except in cases like the Zombie Maskandi, for the plural to be used – this implies that the word was initially a name, a Mephisto or Hermes or Loki, rather than a description like ‘demon’ or ‘imp’.
Linguistically, the root of the word is not apparent – for one, what is interesting is the use of the hard ‘T’, which is fairly unusual in isiZulu. Other than the literal translations offered for the words used above, among which is…
“a fabulous water-sprite or kelpy, supposed to haunt certain rivers, to be very fond of women, to be mischievous to people, and to be used by witches for nefarious purposes, and said to resemble a tiny, hairy dwarf”
(Vilakazi and Doke, s.v.)
… the only related words with the same root are ‘isitokolo’, which is inexplicably a kind of Tsetse fly trap, and ‘utokolo’, which is a contracted form of the full name. There are no verbs with this root, nor any other nouns. Expanding the search to include variant spellings such as ‘thokola’ or ‘thokoloshe’ reveals nothing at all.
So the linguistics don’t help us – but we certainly have enough evidence from other areas, and particularly from people who claim to have seen or known the Tokoloshe. Berglund (1976, page 280) points out a number of interesting things about the ‘Tikoloshe’ – that he was traditionally harmless and mischievous, and “becomes harmful when he is caught by a witch”, and the he “is the most sought after of all the familiars because he can really satisfy (sexually) the hunger of the witches”. The sexual prowess of the Tokoloshe is well noted – Berglund’s informants stated that he “has an exceedingly large male member which, due to its size, has to be carried over the shoulders and around the neck”. In appearance he is “hairy like a pig”, is very short and has a split tongue – of interest here is that he cannot speak before a witch catches him and turns him into a familiar, and she is the one who splits his tongue so that he can speak the language that they understand.
There are many stories about the Tokoloshe, but one in particular adds another interesting dimension to the composite picture of this creature – on uKhozi FM, an isiZulu radio station broadcast from Durban, there was an interview one morning with a man who claimed to have the recipe for ‘seeing’ a Tokoloshe. The recipe ran thus:
First, you must remove the ubuthongo (the sleep) from a dog’s eye, first thing in the morning.
You must then put this sleep in your eye – dogs can see Tokoloshe, and so you must take their power into your own eyes before you can also see him.
Then, it is very importance that you stay far away from the hearth – the Tokoloshe is terribly afraid of fire, and the smell of smoke on your clothes will chase him away immediately.
You will see him in the lonely places, near water.
Seeing Tokoloshe is only the first step, however – there are many imithi which need to be used to strengthen yourself against his magic, and to trap him, and then to keep him.
So, how do these things fit together? What possible explanation can there be?
If you look at the different characteristics of the Tokoloshe, there are broadly two divergent aspects – his hyper-sexuality, and his fear of civilization.
The hyper-sexuality is a common feature of nocturnal demons such as succubi, as well as trickster or magical mythological figures such as Loki and Hermes. It may, in the South African context, be very tempting to trace the stories of Tokoloshe’s sexuality to more real predators, especially in light of one detail – the modern tendency to associate the Tokoloshe with the ‘bricks under the bed’. In modern South African homes, many people still raise their beds using bricks, or empty paint tins, in order to avoid the Tokoloshe’s advances. To anyone aware of the current issues around child abuse and rape in South Africa, these details speak of a fear of being sexually assaulted, as well as the fear of the real person committing the assault – by saying that ‘the Tokoloshe raped me last night’, you are avoiding saying that ‘my uncle raped me’.
However, in light of the fact that the Tokoloshe’s hypersexuality is found in other mythological and folklore figures around the world and across time, it’s probably better if we move away from the immediate context of South Africa and consider the facts a bit more objectively. Folklore figures noted for their prominent sexuality are often associated with fertility, and are equally as often associated with apotropaic (defending against evil) qualities, e.g. Hermes, and his ithyphallic statues used as street signs in ancient Athens. However, the ones who sneak into bedrooms at night, such as the succubi, are usually part of a more complex category of bogeymen – stories told to children to scare them into doing (or not doing, as the case may be) something or other. So the Tokoloshe is probably part fertility figure and part bogeyman.
But the issue of his fear of civilization is an intriguing one – according to many different sources, he only appears in wild places, near water, and at night. This may be an added feature of his bogeyman status, but there are also elements of Pan-type deities in this description. Of interest too is his fear of the smell of smoke from hearth-fires. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around this, but I have a few as-yet-unproven theories about it.
So… what’s the deal with Gcabashe and his oTokoloshe in the courtroom? The simplest explanation would be to say that he is schizophrenic, and hearing the Tokoloshe speaking to him is just his way of explaining the voices in his head. But there is also the possibility that he was indeed bewitched in some way, and that the Tokoloshe is actually real. Maybe he found a dog, first thing in the morning?