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The Tokoloshe

The Tokoloshe is NOT Why Beds are Raised on Bricks


I discussed some aspects of the tokoloshe legend in the article The Tokoloshe. Certainly, at least in the recent past, servants in South Africa often raised their beds on bricks. Some people say that this is, or was, done for protection against the tokoloshe. Wikipedia is often the first port of call for researchers but its explanation for the tokoloshe, and for why black South Africans originally raised their beds on bricks, is ingenious but erroneous. Although the author might not be a white South African, the article actually perpetuates a WHITE South African myth about the tokoloshe.

tokoloshe  (c) DJT
Sketch of a tokoloshe.

According to the Wikipedia article at the time that I am writing, the tokoloshe entered folklore as an explanation for why some people died in their sleep during cold Highveld winters. (This actually contradicts the first sentence of the article, which correctly states that the tokoloshe is a water sprite. This anomaly is probably the result of someone editing the original article.) The Wikipedia article goes on to state that the deaths were caused by gas poisoning because indoor fires reduced the amount of oxygen in the dwellings, causing heavier, and toxic, carbon dioxide to build up near the ground. The carbon dioxide, according to the article, was personified by the tokoloshe and it was found that people who slept in raised beds did not die inexplicably.

The Wikipedia explanation, both for the beginning of the tokoloshe legend and for why black South Africans started raising their beds, is intelligent and worthy of consideration. However, it is certainly incorrect, for a variety of reasons:

  1. As the article itself points out, the tokoloshe is a water sprite. A being invented to explain gas poisoning would not have to be associated with water.

  2. There is no evidence that the legend of the tokoloshe originated on the Highveld. Ethnologists appear to associate the tokoloshe especially with Xhosa mythology, although it does also feature prominently in the folklore of the Highveld Sotho. However, I am unfamiliar with ethnological arguments, so I shall not rely on this point.

  3. There is no evidence that people sleeping on the floors of traditional dwellings, which were far from airtight, were particularly prone to carbon dioxide poisoning. Traditional dwellings could be very smoky but as smoke rises, firefighters actually recommend getting as close to the ground as possible. Besides, wood fires produce carbon monoxide, which causes far, far more deaths than carbon dioxide poisoning, and carbon monoxide is slightly LIGHTER than air, so raised beds would be no protection. Even in poorly ventilated servants quarters, where beds really were often raised by placing one or more bricks under each leg, carbon monoxide poisoning would be the main danger by far.

  4. There is no evidence that indigenous South Africans slept higher than the ground before adopting European style beds. This practice was not common in traditional areas until well into the twentieth century, and the tokoloshe legend existed long before that. The following was published in 1888:
    "Among the Fingoes there is a belief in the existence of an elf, whom they call Tikoloshe or Hili, ..."
    The author, A. Brigg, left South Africa in 1882.

    Shangana-Tsonga bedroom  (c) DJT
    Traditional South African sleeping arrangements.

    The above shows those of the Shangana-Tsonga, who slept on mats on the ground with carved wooden pillows, as shown at the bottom left of the photo. The raised area was actually used to give valuable possessions some protection against termites, etc.

  5. Given that they had been sleeping on the floors of their homes, why would indigenous South Africans decide that even European style beds were not high enough to escape the tokoloshe, and raise them even higher, on bricks?

  6. In the past, indigenous South Africans often lacked European style education but they were NOT STUPID! Descriptions of tokoloshes suggest that they have sturdy, anthropoid bodies, so they should have no difficulty in climbing onto beds, regardless of whether the beds are raised on bricks. There is nothing in Southern African folklore or spiritual belief implying that normal bricks have any magical protective power. Incidentally, the author I.D. du Plessis recorded the case of a tokoloshe (he spelled it thokolosi) that climbed cupboards and jumped onto tables.

  7. The REAL reason that the beds were raised on bricks is proof of the ingenuity of the servants, who were motivated by logic, not superstition. In the early 1970s, my family's maid raised her bed on bricks. I had heard from my white school friends and my mother's white friends that servants did it for protection against the tokoloshe. I spoke to the maid about it, as I wanted to know why she thought that tokoloshes could not climb up. To my surprise, SHE DID NOT KNOW about any belief that beds were raised so that the sleepers would be safe from tokoloshes. She did, however, have a perfectly simple and sensible explanation: MAIDS RAISED THEIR BEDS ON BRICKS SO THAT THEIR SUITCASES COULD FIT UNDERNEATH!

The notion that servants raised their beds on bricks so that they would be safe from tokoloshes was originally the speculation of their white South African employers, not the belief of the servants themselves.

Of course, ideas diffuse between communities and cultures. If someone who believes in the tokoloshe hears, even from his or her white employer, that raising beds on bricks keeps people safe from that goblin, that someone could have an additional incentive for raising his or her bed. Muti sellers and sangomas also have a financial motive for encouraging any superstition, and that is another way by which the myth could spread from white people to black people. Also bear in mind that not all muti dealers are black, e.g. the Indian-owned muti shops of Johannesburg's Diagonal Street. (See the article The Real Diagon Alley on ghostsafari.com.)

However, if young black South Africans really have started to believe that their grandmothers raised their beds on bricks to keep themselves safe from the tokoloshe, I particularly blame the media, especially a series of scurrilous cartoons in the Madam and Eve daily comic strip (of which, I admit, I am a fan).

Young South Africans, rest assured, your grandmothers may not have had European style educations but they were NOT STUPID! Even if they believed in the tokoloshe, they knew that raising their beds on bricks would not protect them. They raised their beds on bricks as an INGENIOUS OPTIMIZATION OF THE USE OF SPACE in cramped sleeping quarters.

More About the Tokoloshe

You can read more about the tokoloshe in my articles The Tokoloshe and Are Tokoloshes Melon Heads?
and on the website www.vanhunks.com: Van Hunks on the Tokoloshe.




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