Kilimanjaro Myths

Thrusting upward from the plains, its snow-capped peaks rising high above the clouds, Kilimanjaro has long been viewed as a symbol, a seat of mythic power, the home of gods and legends alike. For thousands of years, Kili has been captivating the minds of both Tanzanians and visitors. Learn more about myths surrounding Kilimanjaro:

The Maasai refer to Kilimanjaro as ol doinyo naibor, “the white mountain” or ngaje ngai, “the house of God.” They believed Kilimanjaro was protected by evil spirits who would freeze anyone who attempted to ascend it.

The earliest known written reference to Kilimanjaro comes from around 100 AD, when Alexandrian cartographer and mathematician Ptolemy wrote of mysterious lands in the middle of Africa where you could find “man-eating barbarians” and  a “great snow mountain.”

Between the second century and the 19th, only a handful of vague references to Kilimanjaro occur. Remarkably, the western world wasn’t even aware of the existence of Kilimanjaro until 1849, when missionary Johannes Rebmann wrote of a snowy mountain in the heart of Africa. That wasn’t enough to convince some people; Rebmann’s reports were initially rejected as fantasy by the Royal Geographical Society. It wasn’t until 1861, when further expeditions to Kili bore out Rebmann’s claims, that “opinion” of the existence of the mountain, and its snowy peak, changed.

Legends say that the ancient Ethiopian king, Menelik I, was the son of the Queen of Sheba and the biblical king, Solomon. Not only was Menelik I believed to have brought the Ark of the Covenant from his father in Israel to his own dominions in Africa, he allegedly brought back Solomon’s seal ring. Late in life, after a successful conquest of lands to the south, Menelik passed Kilimanjaro on his way back home. He climbed to the top of Kibo, where he suddenly fell ill and died (gotta have that acclimatization time!). His attendants are said to have buried the king in the snowy craters there, high upon the mountain. Legend says that whoever finds the king’s corpse, and takes Solomon’s ring off its finger, will be suffused with Solomon’s wisdom, and Menelik’s bravery.

Though explanations abound, no one is really certain of the origin of the name Kilimanjaro (they can’t even agree on which language it comes from!). We do know, however, where the names of the two highest peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi come from: the Chagga people, who have always lived on and around Kilimanjaro. “Kibo” derives from kipoo, which means “spotted,” a reference to the speckling of black rocks amidst the snow at Kili’s peak. “Mawenzi” comes from kimawenze, which means broken or notched—a reference to Mawenzi’s jagged top.

Perhaps more interesting than the story of where Kibo and Mawenzi got their names is the Chagga myth of why Mawenzi looks so jagged in the first place.

Long ago, Kibo and Mawenzi (who were either brothers or just neighbors), were sitting by their hearths, when Mawenzi saw that his fire had gone out. He went to Kibo and asked for some embers to restart his fire, which Kibo gladly gave him. Mawenzi didn’t pay attention, though, and the by the time he arrived home, the coals had gone out. He went back to Kibo a second time, and Kibo again gave him embers, but again, Mawenzi became distracted, and the coals went out.

When he went back a third time, Kibo gave Mawenzi something else: a serious beating over the head with a club, which is why he’s so jagged (and so much shorter than Kibo) today.

The Chagga also tell tales of a great cave high atop Kilimanjaro where elephants, realizing their time is near, go to die (as a kind of final defiance of poachers seeking their ivory tusks). If you find the cave, you’re allowed to take away a tusk, but you can’t get too greedy; if you waste time trying to find the largest or carry away more than your fair share, the story goes, you’ll be struck blind on the spot.

In 1936, Ernest Hemingway first published the story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in Esquire magazine. One of the tale’s most enduring images is of the corpse of a leopard, frozen, stuck high up on the mountain. Legend has it that a 1926 picture of just such a leopard was what inspired the piece in the first place. In 1952, the book was adapted into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.


Kilimanjaro has inspired men to tell stories, to climb…and to sing, like South African band Juluka did in this 80s throwback.

Just because Kilimanjaro has inspired several works of art, that doesn’t mean all of them were particularly high-brow. The 1986 movie, The Mines of Kilimanjaro features “savages,” a secret diamond mine, a Nazi plot, and a hat that will seem eerily familiar to anyone who has seen an Indiana Jones movie.

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