Context: I heard about the Tokoloshe from my friend who lived in South Africa for two years. His mom is also a professor of South African Art.
The Tokoloshe is a small and terrifying creature that seriously messes with your ability to have a restful night’s sleep. Tokoloshes are a creature from Zulu mythology that inhabit South Africa.
Tokoloshe are described physically in many ways, though a constant seems to be their small size. Sometimes they are described as small humanoid creatures and other times they are described as more primate-like.
These creatures are often malevolent and quite dangerous. They are said to crawl into sleeping people’s rooms and cause all kinds of havoc — from simply scaring them all the way to choking them to death with their long, bony fingers. It seems to particularly enjoy scaring children, often leaving them with long scratches on their bodies. One way to keep the Tokoloshe at bay is to put bricks beneath the legs of one’s bed. This will put them out of reach, and hopefully out of harm’s way, of the Tokoloshe.
As mentioned above, raised beds are an important way to combat the Tokoloshe. Traditionally, many South Africans in areas rife with Tokoloshe myths slept on grass mats encircling a warm, wood fire that would keep them warm during the bitter winter nights. However, sometimes healthy people would inexplicably be found dead come morning.
There is a theory that sleeping close to the fire in their homes may have depleted the oxygen levels and filled the home with carbon dioxide. As it is heavier than pure air, it would sink to the bottom of the home where people slept. Thus, seemingly healthy people and sometimes entire families would be found dead. A parallel was found between elevated sleepers and a lack of death so the Tokoloshe was told as a story forewarning those who slept close to the ground (and the fire). While it might not be an actual malevolent creature, what kept away a Tokoloshe would also keep away death from carbon monoxide.
This is a fascinating example of the use of folklore to create tangible changes in the lifestyles of people. Although the Tokoloshe might not actually exist, the introduction of this creature in Zulu mythology ultimately resulted in a positive impact on communities who believe in it. It has saved people from becoming ill and has prevented deaths, as well as indirectly educated children about the potential dangers of sleeping close to a fire indoors. Even people outside of the intended audience of believers of Zulu mythology can benefit from the knowledge that the Tokoloshe exists in case they find themselves sleeping near a fire source within an enclosed area, and I am sure I will keep this in mind if I encounter a similar situation.