Among the traditional elders in Southern Africa, it is said like this: In the very beginning there was only the Creator. The Creator looked upon itself and said, “This is not enough. It is not good for me to be all alone in existence.” And so the Creator cast off a piece of itself and from this piece began to create. The Creator made four Spirits and with its breath gave them life. As each Spirit came to life the Creator named them. “You are Wind,” it said to the first of the creations. The second Spirit was named Sun, as the life-giving breath filled its being. The third Spirit was called Water, and the fourth of the creations was Earth.

When this was done, the Creator said to the four Spirits, “Go out and create as you see fit. Give life as I have given you life, make a home for yourselves and create Keepers who will look after it.” And so each of the four Spirits went out into the darkness and began to create. The Spirit of the Earth created the land as its home. It created mountains, rocks, flat plains and caves. In each of these places a Keeper was placed. “You will be the Keeper of this place, my home,” commanded Earth, as the Spirit Keeper came to life. “All who come here must abide by the laws that you will be given by me.”

While the Spirit of the Earth was busy creating, the other three Spirits were also busy with their own creations. The Spirit of Water created the ocean, the lakes and the rivers. In each of these places, Water placed a Spirit Keeper and commanded them to keep the place in good order. The Spirit of the Wind in its turn created a mighty ocean of air with which it encircled the land that the Earth had created as its home. The Wind also created Keepers of the sky to do its bidding and to maintain the law of the sky. The Spirit of the Sun looked upon the creations of the other three Spirits and said, “I will create a great cooking fire and place it in the sky. With this great fire I will bring light and warmth to the land, the sky and the ocean.”

When the Spirits of the Earth, the Water, the Sun and the Wind were finished, the Keepers set to work to create helpers who would maintain the creations of the four great ones. The Keepers of the land created all the animals and reptiles who would roam the land and help to keep it in good order. They also created all the trees and the grass that grows on the plains. The Keepers of Water created the fish and all the creatures who live in the rivers, the lakes and the sea. The Keepers of the Wind created the birds and even the tiny flying insects for whom the sky would be home. The Keepers of fire brought warmth and life to the world, and brought rain to the land with the fiery power of lightning.

The Great Creator of All Things looked upon the creations and was happy. Its only sadness was that none of its creations ever returned to visit. Then, one day to the Creator’s surprise and joy, the Spirit of Earth came. “You have remembered me!” the Creator cried joyfully. “For this I will reward you with a gift.” The Creator gave the Spirit of Earth a small bundle and said, “Place this deep within your womb; hide it there so that the others cannot see that I have given you a gift; for if they see it they too will want gifts and I have none to give them.” And so the Earth took the bundle and hid it deep within her womb.

The bundle contained the first ancestors of the human being. The ancestors lived within the womb of the Earth and gave birth to children and grandchildren, who in turn gave birth to great-grandchildren, until there were villages of people living deep within the Earth.

There is another story that tells of how, after a very long time, the human ancestors negotiated with the Great Creator of All Things to live on the land, beneath the sky. But this is a very long story that is not to be told here. It is enough to say that, when humans were allowed by the Creator to live on the land, they were told that they must always remember that they are visitors to the land and that their rightful place is in fact deep within the womb of the Earth. “You are to live by the laws that the Keepers of the land will give you,” the Creator told the people sternly.

AMONG THE TRADITIONS of Southern African people, it is said that there are those people who are chosen by the Keepers of the land to hear the law. If you are chosen by the Spirit Keeper of the river, then the Spirit of that river will come to you in your dreams. It will come in the form of a great snake that has hair on its body and the head of a goat. The snake will call you to come to a special place near the river when you awaken. The snake will ask you to bring things that it likes as offerings, such as freshly brewed beer and the meat of a strong black ox. In return the snake will offer water for the people to drink and for their cattle to drink. It will also cause the rain to fall on the land so that the crops are watered. You will be told of the law of the Spirit of Water by the snake – the special rules that must be followed in return for using the water and catching the fish that live in the river.

It was the same for all the other Spirit Keepers of the land when the humans arrived from deep within the Earth. The hills, the forests, the grassy plains – each had a special sacred place where the Keeper lived. It was to this place that the chosen one had to go to hear the law and take offerings in exchange for hunting animals, collecting plants for both medicine and food, and clearing places to build homes and plough fields.

Those who lived long ago knew these laws and lived by them, and all in the world were able to live together peacefully. The elders in Southern Africa who still know the law say that not so long ago there came a time when humans believed that they no longer needed to abide by the laws given to them by the Keepers of the land. Instead they believed that they could make their own laws. They forgot that they were visitors to this place and they forgot the agreement that the first ancestors had made with the Great Creator of All Things. They believed that they could take from the sea, the lakes, the rivers, the grassy plains and the hills. They believed that they could hunt and plough their fields whenever they chose and as they saw fit according to their own laws.

Today, the Spirit Keepers have turned their backs on people and no longer come in the dreams of chosen ones. The Keepers of the grassy plains, the forests and the mountains have told the creatures that live there that this is no longer a good place to live and that they must leave and return to the world of the Spirits where they will be safe from the humans who have forgotten the law. The Keepers of Water have told the rain to stop falling and the lakes to seep away back into the safety of the Earth.

WITH THE LAWS forgotten, the elders warn that humans will soon no longer be able to live in the world. They say that the only hope for the future of human beings on this Earth is to return to the special sacred places where the Keepers live and to ask for the law to be given once more. The laws of the humans must be replaced with the laws of the land, for we must remember that we are not the owners of the land.

The places where the Keepers live are to be found everywhere – in rivers, lakes and waterfalls, on mountains, in caves, and in the forests of the world. If these sacred places are destroyed, the Keepers will leave and the law may be heard no more. There will be no food, no water, and no plants for medicine.

So how can we approach the Keepers when we have not been chosen in our dreams? Near many of these sacred places live Elders who still know the ways of the ancestors. These people know where the places are and how the Keepers may be approached. It is to them we must go for help. We must ask them to tell us how the Keepers may be awakened and how, once again, we may be given the laws by which we must live.

Colin Campbell is a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in South Africa.