Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tokoloshe

There are a wide variety of spellings for this creature, so I'll just stick with this one.

The Tokoloshe is a mythical creature. I designate it as such because no physical specimens of it have ever been found, catalogued or analysed. Until that happens, I will generously categorise it alongside the sasquatch, yeti and chupacabra as a cryptozoological creature.

I'm not convinced that it even deserves that classification though. I'll explain why a little further on.

The Tokoloshe is frequently described as a vaguely humanoid creature the size of a human child. The precise description varies considerably depending on which version of the story you hear, but generally speaking it's a pretty ugly critter. It's usually described as furry and possesses very large genitals.

It's troublesome and mischievous, and can potentially cause harm to people.

Okay so far. Here's the crazy part.

The tokoloshe is often employed (sometimes created) by witches and wizards for a variety of functions. From personal revenge to sexual favours. It can even turn invisible by swallowing a magic pebble.

Right. So we're talking about a fairy here: a magical being with mystical powers. 

The only way to deal with claims like this sceptically seems to be to separate it into two distinct claims:

  1. There is a small, mischievous, vaguely humanoid creature that inhabits certain parts of Southern Africa that sometimes interferes with and causes trouble for humans in the area.
  2. There is a magical creature employed by witches and wizards to perform a wide variety of strange things. 

Let's deal with them in that order.

Another cryptozoological creature that gets way more press than the Tokoloshe is Bigfoot. A large bipedal ape-like creature inhabiting the forests of North America. There is at least one well documented animal fitting that description that everyone knows lives in those areas. Bears.


A great many alleged Bigfoot sightings are attributable to bears. Could the same be true of the Tokoloshe? Are there any native wildlife that fit the Tokoloshe's description?

Yes there are. Monkeys.


Of course I can't prove that all Tokoloshe sightings are attributable to monkeys. But it seems a likely hypothesis, doesn't it?

So we have two competing hypotheses:
1. There is a previously undocumented ape living in Southern Africa... a well-explored eco-tourism destination.
2. Monkeys.

Both of these hypotheses explain the phenomenon equally well. The first hypothesis requires that we introduce some new ideas to explain the phenomenon, as well as raising questions about how such a creature evaded detection for so long, whereas the second only relies on the misinterpretation of some culturally sensitive eye-witnesses. That doesn't tell us which one is true, but Occam's Razor does tell us which is more likely.

The second claim is more difficult to deal with. The most difficult thing about it is the lack of consistency. In my research, I haven't been able to come across a consistent list of the magical attributes Tokoloshes are supposed to have.

What follows is the best that I've been able to distill from all the conflicting accounts:
  • They can turn invisible - either completely invisible or only to particular people, like adults.
  • They can be summoned or created by witches and wizards to do their bidding.
The first attribute is terribly convenient. How can you prove or disprove the existence of something that's undetectable? You can't. This is, as Pauli said, not even wrong. And of course the proposed mechanism through which they turn invisible is "magic". As soon as magic is invoked, the conversation is over... there's nothing verifiable about magical explanations.

The same goes for the second attribute. It's unverifiable, and therefore not a valid hypothesis.

The entire second claim sounds like prescientific, stone-age superstition and mysticism. I suspect that it's propagated by sangomas and inyangas in order to keep themselves employed. And of course it's protected from public scrutiny under the banner of "culture".

Of course, if you're reading this, you probably don't believe in the Tokoloshe anyway. But I hope I've made a small contribution, so that should you ever find yourself face-to-face with a believer, you'll be able to tell them not to be scared of monkeys.


  1. Hi Owen. Enjoyed your interesting (and thorough) take on the Tokoloshe. I liked the juxtaposition of Occam's Razor with traditional beliefs. That's a good theory about the monkey too. Cheers, Pete

  2. I actually grew up in South Africa and the belief in the tokolosh is widespread with locals, even christianised communities. The best defense against the Tokolosh, is to place your bed on bricks; because he is so small, he will not be able to reach you in the depth of your slumber when he prowls!
    It is a very primitive but rampant superstition.

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