Table Mountain is one of 28 finalists in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition. Seeing that we are fortunate enough to live so close to this amazing mountain, we looked a little deeper into some of the myths and legends associated with it. The myths associated with Table Mountain reveal contrasting relationships to the landscape of Africa’s most famous cape. For instance, the myth of Umlindi Wemingizimu portrays the mountain as a benevolent being whereas the legend of Adamastor depicts the mountain as a hostile agent in an alien landscape.
Contemporary Zulu sage, Credo Mutwa, recalls the myth of Umlindi Wemingizimu wherein Qamata created the world. Qamata was born from the union of sun-god Tixo and earth-goddess Djobela. Nganyaba, the Great Dragon of the Sea, tried to prevent Qamata from forming dry land above the waters that covered the world. During the ensuing struggle Qamata was crippled by the jealous Nganyaba. To aid Qamata with creation, Djobela, produced four gigantic beings to guard the north-, west-, east- and southern extremities of this land, the largest keeping watch in the south. After many fierce battles the giants asked the Great Mother Djobela to turn them into mountains so that they could, even in death, continue to protect the land from the sea-dragon. The greatest giant of all was Umlindi Wemingizimu – the ‘Watcher of the South’, who became Table Mountain.
According to local oral tradition, former residents of District Six also liken the mountain’s profile to that of a sleeping giant, while fishermen from this community still refer to Table Mountain as d’Klipman (The Rock Man). The late Jose Burman, writer and local mountaineer, spoke of the Old Grey Father as the guardian of the portals of Africa. Similarly, the vision of the mountain as a protective force is evident among Muslims, who believe that it is an integral part of the ‘Circle of Islam’ that guards those living within its ring from natural disaster. The Cape Moslems may have introduced the legend of how Devil’s Peak got its name after a duel between a Dutch pirate, Van Hunks, and the devil disguised as a stranger. This popular narrative seems to portray the European as a vagabond-hero willing to sell his soul in order to control the elemental forces of nature in Africa.
In contrast, Cames relates how Adamastor was transformed into a towering mountain in order to protect the Cape from passing sailors who dared ‘discover’ the continent’s mysteries. Cames uses the encounter between Da Gama and Adamastor to convey the struggle between modern man and the classical gods. For him the eventual triumph of man over the gods symbolizes the triumph of the Renaissance over the Middle Ages, humanism over dogmatism. For Cames the Cape is a symbol of a forbidden portal – a crucial threshold between West and East – where Adamastor stood guard over the hidden secrets of nature. For later South African poets like Guy Butler and Roy Campbell, the confrontation between Da Gama and Adamastor is a symbol for western civilization’s struggle against barbarism.
The narratives surrounding the fabulous kingdom and personage of Prester John are linked to the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table, Parzival and the quest for the Holy Grail, and the lost paradise of Shamballah or Monomotapa. Like Marco Polo, Prince Henry the Navigator was inspired by fabulous tales of a black Christian potentate who could prove to be a useful ally in the struggle against the Muslims. Although no such ruler or dominion was ever found in Asia or Africa, it is well worth noting how the literary tradition of Prester John found its historical enactment in an age of Portuguese conquests. At this time Christians hoped the Grail legend would become history, or that thirteenth-century fiction would become fact in the fifteenth century. The early explorers enrolled themselves as knights to enact, both literally and figuratively, the quest for the legendary Terrestrial Paradise (Garden of Earthly Delights) where enlightenment and an everlasting life awaited them.
After sailing down the desolate West African coast (where the barren Namib and Namaqua deserts reminded fearful sailors of the Grail legend’s Waste Land) the Cape seemed like a place of abundance – a lost Garden, East of Eden. Weary after voyages lasting several months these homesick, scurvy-ridden seamen rejoiced at the prospect of sweet water and fresh meat. In a verdant valley below the mountain they found perennial springs and bountiful game, unknown elsewhere on earth. On the summit was a vast mountain plain that later writers associated with Dante’s Paradiso: ‘Upon the top of this promontory [Table Mountain] Nature… hath formed here a great plain, pleasant in situation, which with the fragrant herbs, variety of flowers, and flourishing verdure of all things, seems like a terrestrial paradise’ (Livio Sanuto 1588).
The Portuguese, perhaps to terrify their rivals from sailing to the East Indies, made the voyage round the Cape a matter of far greater danger and peril than it later proved to be (Robinson 1922). Thus, on finding the Portuguese report to be most false after passing the Cape on 18 June 1578, Sir Francis Drake protested against its reputation as the most dangerous cape in the world, proclaiming: ‘This Cape is a most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth’. This statement pitted Elizabethan enlightenment against medieval superstition, the lucrative New World against the fabled Lost Kingdoms.
The Cape was thus seen as a fulfillment of existing concepts and representations of the strange and the familiar, of a far-away place that was ‘wild’ and ‘tamed’ at the same time. It was both the Cabo da Tormentoso (Cape of Storms) and the Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope). Following Harriet Deacon (1996), ‘There could be no Paradise without Purgatory, no Cape of Good Hope without a Cape of Storms’. And we can confirm, the Cape is paradise, with a few storms thrown in once in a while for good measure!