Located at the northwestern edge of Africa, Morocco lies only a few miles away from Europe. For centuries, Morocco served as the link between the two continents. Due to this particular geographical location, the country was exposed to a myriad of cultural influences. This included the native Berbers, sub-Saharan African Jews, the Romans, and the Phoenicians. Later on, Morocco was also influenced by the Arabs, after which came the Portuguese, the Spaniards and finally, the French. These various ethnic interactions left a huge mark on the country’s culture, especially Moroccan myths, folklore and legends.
The myths and legends that abound in Moroccan culture are full of tales of magic, stories of love and fear and epic characters. These tales, whose origins are now lost in time, are a mixture of both fact and fiction. The intertwining of Moroccan myths, legends and true stories creates a rich oral tradition.
Moroccan myths and folk tales differ from region to region. The tales from each region are a result of many stories narrated by different tellers, each adding their own elements to the narrative. Moroccan folklore is much like a mosaic. Smaller individual pieces which are beautiful on their own, but make no sense unless they come together, are put together to create a colourful, complete picture. Some of the themes in Moroccan myths are universal. Many of the folktales involve native journeys and wildlife. They carry themes centred on Islam, family and respect as the main virtue.
Aisha Kandisha is a female mythical figure in northern Moroccan folk tales. She is a mythical character who is similar to Jinn but also has a distinct personality of her own. Aisha Kandisha is portrayed as a gorgeous young woman who has the hoofed legs of an animal like a camel or goat. She is said to use her stunning beauty to seduce the local young men and then either drive them insane or kill them. She either lures them with her beauty or by posing as their spouses. According to other versions of the myth, she pretends to be a clueless hitchhiker, waiting for any victim. Many truck drivers claim to have encountered her along the northern region of the country.
According to some researchers, the name ‘Aisha Kandisha’ is of Eastern origin. It is suggested that it was the Phoenician colonies from North Africa who introduced this mythical creature. Later, she blended into Moroccan or Islamic traditions with her wicked nature and connection with water bodies. Researchers also propose that Aisha Kandisha’s consort, associate Hammu Qayyu, could have been inspired by Hammon, the Carthaginian god.
A more recent proposal concerning the origin of Aisha Kandisha is that she was derived from a real historical figure. According to this, her origins lie in a Moroccan countess from el Jadida. It is claimed that the Portuguese murdered her husband and family. Her grief turned her into the frightening figure that she is believed to be today. The countess had helped defeat the Portuguese by seducing their soldiers. The soldiers were later killed by the Moroccan soldiers, lying in wait. Many people believe in her goodness and revere her. They light candles and sacrifice an animal like a goat or rooster.
Other descriptions and peculiarities of her vary according to different regions. This mythical creature is generally believed to live where there is a water source. In Tangier, the natives believe this to be the sea. In Tetouan, it is thought to be the Martil River. Among the Beni Ahsen (an Arabian-Moroccan tribe), it is believed that Aisha Kandisha lives in the Sebou River. In Fes, she lives in the drainage canal.
Aisha Kandisha is said to use her stunning beauty to seduce the local young men and then either drive them insane or kill them. She either lures them with her beauty or by posing as their spouses. Another localized belief about her, such as those of the Beni Ahsen tribe, is that she is afraid of needles and steel knives. The Beni Ahsen also believe that she has a husband or consort named Hammu Qayyu. In the southern regions of the country, including Doukkala, Aisha Kandisha is known as Kharaja.
According to the Buffis, Aisha Kandisha wears black garments and has hoofed feet like those of a camel. She is an extremely ill omen for pregnant women, who are said to miscarry the baby if they see her. Anyone who is possessed by Aisha Kandisha is said to bark or bray like animals. The Buffis also believe that she is only one of the many female jinns with the name Aisha. They believe in many of them, including the Sudanese Aisha and Aisha of the Sea, all considered to be unique entities.
The Cemetery Mule
The tale of the cemetery mule originated from among the native Berber folklore in the Atlas Mountains. According to legend, she is a petrifying beast. As with Aisha Kandisha, her appearance differs according to different regions. According to some natives, she’s nothing but a mule who drags heavy chains behind her. Others believe her to be half-human and half-animal, like the centaurs in Greek mythology.
Legend states that the cemetery mule was originally a newly widowed woman. But before her required mourning period ended, she had an affair with another man. An angered god cursed her and changed her appearance. The curse leads the woman to rest with the dead during the daytime. After the sun sets, she claws her way out while screaming in agony. She then roams around the graveyard, dragging the heavy chains behind her noisily. When dawn arrives again, she returns to her resting place.
The stories surrounding the cemetery mule vary. Some claim that she kills grave robbers and sometimes lures men to climb on her back, whom she then takes back underground and devours. Other versions believe that she has the ability to shapeshift. She would take the shape of a relative and go around knocking on doors, kidnapping men to devour them from her grave. The Berber natives claim that her screams and the sound of her chains can be heard. Men tend to avoid walking by graveyards so as not to fall victim to the cemetery mule.
Probably one of the oldest creatures in folklore, the ogre is one of the terrifying figures that most Moroccan kids would be familiar with. Boukhencha is the Moroccan version of the ogre. While the term simply means a man with a sack or a bag, Moroccans do not hesitate to paint the most hideous picture of the ogre to keep their kids in line. He is depicted as a huge, hideous humanoid figure that mostly feasts on human flesh, particularly those of children. Legend has it that the boukhencha lives in dark, spooky, isolated areas. These include caves, mountains, forests and swamps.
The tales depict the boukhencha as a wandering vagabond, roaming the villages and streets. Children are told that he carries the bag around to kidnap children and take them back to his den and eat them. The boukhencha isn’t the only ogre in Moroccan folktales. Others include Kho-Kho bla and mama ghouls.
Shamharoush is one of the most prominent supernatural creatures believed to exist not just in Moroccan folktales, but in many other cultures too. The belief in these spirits goes back centuries. Beliefs regarding them vary.
Shamharoush is a spirit that can take both human and animal forms. They have the ability to possess humans too. There exist both kind and benevolent spirits and evil, malicious ones too. While this belief is universal, other tales regarding spirits are heavily influenced by various folklore. Some beliefs depict these beings as repulsive creatures who have supernatural powers. They reside in caves, deserts and other out-of-the-way filthy places. According to some, they would never miss a chance to harm humans. They are blamed for any misfortune, bad luck, diseases or even death that befalls humans. Hence, people try to avoid making them angry by reciting religious words.
Before medical science named sleep paralysis as a medical condition, Moroccan natives rendered it something caused by evil spirits. Natives narrate different versions of these demons, known as Boughettat, who paralyze them in their sleep to devour them. One version claims that this malicious spirit is an old man with a hunchback, huge eyes, unkempt hair and hideous sharp teeth. According to another description, the spirit was in the form of an old hag smiling viciously.
Boughettat pays unwanted visits to people in their sleep. According to Moroccan myth, this vicious spirit paralyzes the sleeping victim, climbs on their chest and proceeds to strangle them. The victim is aware of what is happening but is unable to scream, speak or move. During such an episode, the person may hallucinate, feel, or hear things that may not be real. The condition often results in panic and fear.
The legend of Lake of Tislit and Isli
One of the main languages spoken in Morocco in the past was Amazigh. In the Atlas Mountains and certain villages, few of the natives still speak this language. Every single place in Morocco has a deep, meaningful name attached to it in Amazigh. In the town of Imilchil in the Atlas Mountains, there lies two lakes, Isli and Tislit, or the Moroccan Romeo and Juliette. The names arise from a legend that the natives have attributed to the twin lakes. And out of the legend a festival was born too.
The tale is a typical forbidden love story. Centuries ago, a young boy and girl fell in love. The problem was that they belonged to different tribes. The boy belonged to the Ait Brahim tribe, while the girl hailed from the tribe of Ait Ya’za. And to make things even more complicated, those tribes were sworn enemies too. The young couple were unable to stand the separation but, at the same time, unable to disobey their parents. The tribal tradition was and still is a pretty huge deal in Morocco. So the couple were forbidden to get married.
What happened next was the couple cried so much that they wept to death. Their tears were so much so that they combined to form the two lakes. That’s one version of the tale. Another one claims that the tears formed the two lakes and rather than live apart, the couple drowned themselves in the lake. The girl’s lake was named Lake Tislit, which means bride in the Berber language. As for the boy’s lake, it was called Lake Isli, which meant groom. Legend has it that each night, they come out of the lakes to meet each other.
Festival of Marriage
To this day, the twin lakes attract many visitors. But more than anyone, the lakes are a central point for couples, and of course, for the Festival of Marriage. According to legend, it was the parents of the couple who started the festival. The death of their children brought on guilt, and to honour the young couple’s love, they started the Festival of Marriage. Also known as the Betrothal Festival, young couples meet to tie the knot at the location.
The festival is celebrated in September and lasts for three days. It is estimated that around fifty couples tie the knot at the festival each year. Many have also claimed that they met their future partners while visiting the twin lakes. The Marriage Festival is traditional and vibrant, combined with music, dance and songs. Drumming is included too. The colourful costumes, food and drink only add to the festivities. In true tribal and traditional style, young girls are accompanied by their parents. Many proposals take place at the lakes.
Significance of Moroccan myths and legends
The tradition of storytelling in Morocco goes back over a thousand years. Berber tribes and kings ruled the land. The country was growing exponentially from the spice and gold trade. Many cultures and ethnicities mix together. Storytelling was a way of passing on and preserving cultural beliefs, myths and legends. Moreover, it served as a form of entertainment during the long winter nights.
While Moroccan myths do hold significance in the country’s culture, people’s interests have been changing rapidly. Globalisation and technology have influenced them more. Previously, the art of narrating stories was found all over the cities in Morocco. Today, only very few storytelling sessions exist. To keep the storytelling tradition alive, some old merchants have taken it upon themselves to train young apprentices. They teach them the Moroccan myths and legends.
Traditional storytelling, myths and legends aren’t just about the story. They are a window into the country’s past, culture, tradition and heritage. Moroccan myths and legends developed both as a way of teaching the elders and also as a form of entertainment.