Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT] | Annotated Tale

This book was proofed and edited by volunteers in 2020. Please see the notes for each tale for credit to the individual proofers. Thanks to everyone who contributed!

Setuli; or, The King of the Birds

A Swazi Tale


MANY, many years ago there lived a poor man, named Setuli, who was deaf and dumb. He had never been able to speak, or understand anything but signs from his birth, and was despised by all his brothers and sisters.


Although he was the son of a powerful Chief, no one so much as looked at him, and he could never hope to win a bride or have a home of his own. He had but one friend, an elder brother, who gave him food and shelter, and was always kind to him. This brother was already old, and was known as a great magician; he knew the properties of every herb, and the wonderful powers posessed by birds and beasts. When he went to search for magic roots he always took Setuli with him, for he found his eyes were quicker than those of any man in the country-side, and his fingers more deft.


One day in Spring, when the first rains had fallen and green shoots were showing among the dry grass, the two brothers went out to gather roots as usual. They travelled far into the mountains till they reached a narrow valley full of trees just bursting into leaf. A clear stream ran down one side among great boulders, ferns were just uncurling their early fronds, and in sheltered nooks big scarlet daisies shone like tiny suns. The old magician and Setuli set to work at once, for here many rare plants flourished. They had been at work an hour or more when a swarm of beautiful black birds with long waving tails came towards them, flying in a zigzag course. They settled on the low bushes, swinging up and down on the branches, and balancing their long tails.


The two brothers both looked up, and in a grave voice the old magician said to the birds, “Sakobulas, [1] we go to sleep and we get up as we used to do.” This was the magic greeting they expected. I cannot tell you what it meant, but when the sakobulas heard it, they flew away quite satisfied. The two brothers went on digging, and moved farther up the stream. Then a great swam of dear little rooibekkies [2] suddenly appeared, tiny little brown birds with pink breasts and bright red bills. They fluttered all round, chattering gaily.


The old magician again looked up. “Mantsiane,” [3] said he, “we go to sleep and we get up as we used to do;” and the rooibekkies flew away quite satisfied. Then the two brothers went on digging again, and worked for a long time. All at once there rushed upon them an immense flight of the most beautiful birds, shining from head to foot with glorious yellow plumage. Round their necks showed a ring of velvety black, and there were black feathers in their wings.


“Follow us up! Follow us up!” they cried to the two brothers. “These are orioles,” said the old magician; “without doubt some great adventure is before us.” He signed to his brother to leave the roots and follow the birds.


They travelled over the mountains for three days and three nights, following the golden birds. On the morning of the fourth day the birds led them down a steep mountain-side to a deep green valley through which ran a wide stream. The birds followed the stream till they came to a deep clear pool under the shadow of great trees. It was very cool and very still. Tall reeds and big white lilies grew all round the water's edge, and over the pool itself were hundreds of water-lilies, white and purple.


The golden birds turned to the magician and said, “Bring your brother here and tell him on no account to be afraid, no matter what may happen to him. He must wait by the edge of the pool amongst the reeds and lilies.”


The elder brother fetched Setuli and made him understand what was wanted of him. Then he went away and left his brother alone, wondering what this new adventure would bring.


Now, though Setuli had always been despised and set aside by all his relations, he was in reality both wise and brave. He sat down at the water's edge and remained perfectly still. Suddenly the waters moved, and up rose a huge alligator. It came straight towards him, lashing its great tail and opening its huge jaws. Its teeth glistened in the sun, and as it walked up the bank it snapped at Setuli and blinked its wicked little eyes. But Setuli sat perfectly still and pretended not to notice. The alligator thrust its long nose almost in his face, snapped its jaws once more, and then seeing he showed no sign of fear, turned tail and slipped into the pool again.


Setuli remained sitting, waiting to see what would happen next. For a little while the pool was still; then the whole of the waters moved and out came a huge ogre, far more hideous and terrible than the alligator. He was covered with eyes and glared with every one of them at the deaf man. Then he roared fiercely and sprang towards him; but still Setuli did not move so much as an eyelid. The ogre shouted again, and then disappeared, like the alligator before him.


After that there was no sound or motion for many hours. Setuli sat watching by the pool. Just as he bagan to think nothing more would happen, the water moved quietly and out came a Fairy in the shape of an old woman. She stood in the waters up to her waist and gazed at Seruli. On her right hand there perched a beautiful black sakobula, on her left hand a little rooibekkie, and on her head was a most wonderful oriole, bright as the rising moon. The old woman continued to gaze at Setuli, and said three times in a loud voice, “Speak!”


When she uttered the third word Setuli felt a new power had come to him. He could speak like other people, and he could understand all the Fairy said.


“Go to your brother,” said she, “and show him you are cured. I have known both of you long and have determined to help you. Whatever you want in the future you shall receive; you have only to ask for it.” The Fairy vanished, and the three birds flew away.


Setuli soon found his brother, and the old man's astonishment was great when he heard the deaf man speak. Setuli in his turn was much surprised to find the three swarms of birds again, just as he had left them on his journey out. They flew in three separate companies, and at the head of each company was one more beautiful than the others, evidently the leader. Setuli soon saw these were the very birds who had accompanied the Fairy; no doubt she had sent them for his use. He thought deeply for a time and then made new plans. The result you shall soon hear.


The two brothers journeyed on till they saw a great storm rising. The sky was blue-black, and a noise could be heard like continuous thunder.


“That is hail,” cried the magician; “we shall be caught here in the open. Nothing can save us from death.”


“Do not fear,” said Setuli; “wait and you shall see.” he gave a command and instantly one thousand huts appeared. His brother gazed in astonishment and delight. Then he said, “What do we want with so many huts? There is no one to shelter but you and me.”


“I shall want huts for my soldiers and people,” said Setuli. Then he turned to the companies of birds and changed them all with one word into warriors. The sakobulas became his first regiment. They were great tall men clad in leopard skins, holding in their hands assegais [4] and huge shields of ox-hide. But one thing remained of their former state. Each man wore on his head a huge cap of the long tail-feathers of the sakobula. They stood in line, saluted their Chief, and marched to their huts. Then came the golden orioles. These were Setuli's bodyguard, and were even finer than the sakobulas. Their skins were of the silver jackal; round their knees and arms were bracelets of white ox-tails, and on their heads were long black ostrich-plumes. Before them stood the golden oriole, bright as the rising moon, now the general in command next to Setuli himself. Last of all came the rooibekkies. These became the little umfaans, the lads who carry all the baggage of the army and wait on the grown men. Setuli sent them all to their huts just as the first hailstones struck the ground.


For an hour no one stirred. The sound of the storm was like continuous roaring thinder; the hailstones were as large as great plums, jagged and sharp as crystals. Every tree was stripped of its leaves and all birds and beasts who could not find shelter were killed or maimed. When the storm ceased the hail lay in icy heaps in every hollow, and the air was frostly and cold as in mid-winter on the high mountains. A raw mist rose from the valleys, but Setuli felt no cold. His heart was great within him, for now he had proved his powers. He called out his troops once more and reviewed them with joy and pride. “We shall go forth and conquer a great kingdom,” he said to his brother. “I shall yet be a rich man.”


The regiments shouted “Bayeta,” the salute which is given only to the Chief, and swore to follow whatever Setuli led. Generals were appointed for each division of the army, the three leaders being the birds who sat on the Fairy's hands. There was no trouble about provisions or shelter, for Setuli had only to ask for food and there was abundance for all.


He now determined to search for a kingdom to conquer. He left the coutry of mountains and wooded valleys, and went up to the great tableland to search for new people to overcome. He travelled with his army for a year, but never saw so much as one little hut. The land was empty; on every side was waving grass extending as far as the eye could reach, but no path appeared nor any tree. Great herds of buck sometimes came towards them and then followed fine hunting; but no man or woman could they find though they travelled for many months.


At last they turned back towards the low country, and at the end of a year they came to a range of mountains overlooking an immense plain. Below they saw great cities surrounded by fields full of mealies [5]. Thousands of cattle roamed on the hills; they had but to descend and seize all they wanted.


Setuli bade his men camp in a great valley which could not be seen from the plain. Then he sent spies to find out how strong the cities were and how big was the King's army. But first his brother the magician gave them a wonderful potion which made them invisible, so that no one should suspect them. In the evening they returned in great fear. “The people,” cried they, “are all deaf and dumb; they have but one arm, and walk on one leg only. Not only that, but as soon as we approached them we found we were becoming deaf and dumb also, so we ran back as quickly as possible.”


This troubled Setuli very much. “Don't go near these people,” said he. “Let us get right away from the towns and go hunting in the mountains.”


Now Setuli was very wise, and had besides the advice of his brother, the great magician. He had determined to take possession of all the inhabitants of this country and drive away all their cattle, but he felt sure some powerful monster ruled over them who would firat have to be discovered and destroyed. The only thing to do was to devise some means of attracting him to the camp and killing hi unawares. A big hunt was arranged, and an immense number of birds were taken of all shapes and colours. Setuli drew a feather out of the tail of every bird and made a huge many-coloured ball, which he wore as a head-dress and as a protection for himself, for magic power was in the feathers. Then he allowed preparations to be made for the great feast which followed the hunt, but gave special directions to his men.


“Do not eat all the birds,” he said. “Place half of those you have killed in front of the huts. Put first a whole bird, then the head of a bird you have eaten, in long rows all round the camp, and then put a treble row about my own hut.”


The men carried out these commands carefully, and soon the whole camp was surrounded with dead birds of every hue and shape. When all the feasting was over and the camp quite still, Setuli crept out of his hut and hid behind the screen which sheltered the entrance. It was full moon, and the country shone like silver. Sharp inky black shadows showed near the river where the bushes grew, and round each hut was a dark narrow ring in which no object was visible. Setuli crouched behind his screen of reeds; the camp was absolutely still and deserted. Towards midnight he heard heavy footsteps approaching. Every now and then they stopped, then they began again. Setuli stooped lower; without doubt the monster who owned all the cities in the plan was approaching. The footsteps were not even; they resembled some one hopping very heavily. Presently a huge black figure came in sight, holding a long assegai. He had but one leg and one arm, and stopped greedily at every hut to eat the birds which lay there. As he came nearer, Setuli saw that he was of unimaginable ugliness. His eyes were divided; one was in the middle of his forehead and the other at the back of his head, so that whichever way he stood he saw you, and you could could not escape him. At the entrance of Setuli's hut he stopped, gave a snarl of delight at the sight of so many birds, and sat down to enjoy them.


He had but one arm, so he laid his assegai down just beofre the door-screen. Setuli asked for no better chance; he rose quickly, seized the the assegai and stabbed the monster in the neck. He rolled over with a groan and lay quite still, apparently dead.


With a joyous heart Setuli roused all his men, and at break of day led them into the great plain. To their surprise they found the people walking on two legs and talking as well as themselves. The death of the ogre relieved the people from the bonds of a wicked enchantment, and they were only too glad to go with Setuli and his men, they and all their cattle. By evening all was in order for the march, and at earliest dawn the company started for the mountains.


They had gone a whole day's journey, and had reached a point high above the great plain, when Setuli discovered that he had lost his ball of feathers. He did not wish to turn his followers back, but neither could he bear to travel farther without his head-dress, for it had magic power, and it might be long before he could get such another. So he bade his army go on under the leadership of his brother, and went down the mountain-paths as fast as possible till he came to the valley in which they had camped. There he saw a sight which made his heart stand still. The ogre whom he had left for dead was sitting up alive and well, and round him danced and romped hundreds of little ogres, all with one leg and one arm like their father. They tossed the magic ball of feathers from one to another and shouted with glee.


Setuli saw he must risk all and trust to his swift feet to get away. He ran in suddenly, seized the ball of feathers, and turned quickly away up the mountain-path. As he touched the ball, all the little ogres vanished like smoke. Only the big one remained, and for a moment he was dazed and did not understand what had happened. Then he got up and stamped after Setuli with astonishing speed. It was all Setuli could do to keep the distance between them, but he was strong and knew the paths. They lept from rock to rock, in and out among the trees, till they came to the grassy slopes which led to the great pass. They climbed all day till the sun began to set. Then at the very top of the mountain range Setuli found his army camped along the side of a deep ravine. Below was a valley many hundreds of feet deep, lined with huge rocks and great trees. Beyond, many weary hours away, rose another mountain with green slopes marked with the course of many streams.


“Bayeta!” cried the army when they saw their Chief.


“My men,” cried Setuli, “we have not a moment to lose. Our enemy is behind us and we shall soon be in his hands. Let every man, woman and child fix his eyes on the mountain-side opposite and then leap with all his might.”


Setuli could hear his enemy behind him as his people leapt together into the air. He ran forward, touched the cattle with his ball of feathers, and they too jumped with all their might. All landed safely on the other side, and placed the great ravine between them and the terrible ogre. Setuli jumped last, just as the monster, breathless and exhausted, reached the edge of the precipice.


Twilight set in, and when the sun rose next morning Setuli and all his people found themselves in perfect safety, and set forth once more on their journey. They travelled all day, and at sunset came to the most beautiful valley they had ever beheld. It lay far below them, wide, green and fertile. Down its centre flowed a clear stream shaded by great tree-ferns, and bordered with thick green bushes covered with scarlet flowers. The valley extended as far as the eye could see towards the setting sun; all the hills on either side were closely wooded and well watered. Setuli turned to his brother and said, “This is the finest country I have ever seen. We will settle here with all our men.”


At the end of the valley was a very large kraal wherein dwelt the Chief of the country. Setuli determined to win him over to his side and make him his man.


So he took his bodyguard and marched down the mountain-paths to the gate of the kraal. Just as they approached the Cheif's hut he struck every one of his men on the leg with his magic assegai. They at once began to walk every man on one leg.


“Never have I seen such magic power,” said the Chief. “You shall be our King and protect us against all our enemies.”


“I will show you yet more marvels,” said Setuli. He struck his men once more and they all walked like ordinary human beings. While the Chief still stared in open-mouthed wonder, he turned to the mountain-side and shouted, “Men, appear!”


Instantly from top to bottom of the great hill stood line upon line of magnificent warriors, clad in leopard skins and holding white shields. They lifted their right hands and shouted “Bayeta!” so that the cry echoed like thunder from side to side of the valley.


Then Setuli shouted once more, “Men, disappear!” and at once the hillside was empty and silent.


“You see,” said Setuli, “I have men at my command whenever we need them.”


“You shall certainly be our King,” cried all the people. So Setuli and his brother and all the man and women who belonged to them stayed in the valley, and lived in great peace and happiness all their lives long.




[1]: Sakobulas: The Kafir name for the black birds just mentioned.


[2]: Rooibekkie: Dutch for “red beak.”


[3]: Mantsiane: The Kefir name for the rooibekkie.


[4]: Assegais: Small light spears, of which natives usually carry several. An assegai can be thrown as a dart or used like a spear at close quarters.


[5]: Mealies: The name generally used in South Africa for Indian corn or maize.


Proofread from the original source by a SurLaLune Volunteer, Natalie Parsons, in July 2020.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Setuli; or, The King of the Birds
Tale Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Book Title: Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT]
Book Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Publisher: Macmillan and Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1908
Country of Origin: South Africa

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