Engai: God of the Maasai

Exploring the legend and myths associated with the Maasai deity.

Engai, God of Maasai (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL


Traditionally, the Maasai's are monotheist and believe in one God- the Engai. Engai is said to be neither male nor female, but one who has several aspects. The Maasai believe that Engai is the creator of everything. This exhibit explores the legends that are associated with the Engai, and their relation with the Maasai.

There are many names for Engai like, Oloikurrukur- “my thundering one", Magilani- “Powerful knowing one, Olaidimani- “one who is able”, Natii ilakir- “where there are stars”.

Home of Engai (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

Home of Engai

Certain mountains figured in Maasai religious cosmology and stories as the homes of Engai or their descendants.

Oldoinyo Orok, the “Black Mountain” (Mt. Meru) was recognized as holy and home of Engai.

Oldoinyo Oibor, the “White Mountain” (snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro), was sometimes referred to as the home of the first human, Naiteru-kop, deity associated with creation.

Maasai's relation with animals (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

Maasai's relation with the animals

As part of their reverence for nature as Engai’s creation, Maasai treated wild and domestic animals with respect. It is said that the Maasai did not hunt or eat wild animals, including the large herds of wildebeest and zebras that roamed their plains.

Birds were never eaten, but certain species were killed so that their bodies and feathers could be used to create elaborate headdresses for newly circumcised boys.

Snakes were usually left alone. The Maasai believed that certain prominent men returned as black pythons.

Lions, however, were hunted by junior Maasai men for protection and prestige.

How Maasai got the cattle (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The Myth about Origin of Cattle

According to most myths and legends, Engai resided in and was one with the sky and owned all the cattles as well. But one day, the earth and the sky separated, and so Engai was no longer among the people. The cattle though needed grass from the earth to sustain themselves.

It is then that Engai sent the cattle down to earth to the Maasai through the roots of the sacred fig tree and told them to look after the cattle. The Maasai have since then taken care of the cattle for Engai.

The Red and Black God of Maasai (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The legend of Red and Black God

There are two main manifestations of Engai: Engai Narok, which is good and benevolent and is black; and Engai Na-nyokie, which is angry and red. A mythological tale about the  Black and Red god tells about their relationship with the Maasai. According to the tale, the black god was humble, kind and loving, while the red god was malevolent and did not care about people. The two gods lived in heaven, but the black god lived below the red god, and therefore, was closer to the people on earth. One day there was famine all over the world. There was neither food nor water for people. Even the cattle were almost dying from starvation.

Looking at their plight, the black god told the red god that they should give water to people for they are starving. The red god who did not like people was reluctant at first, but after much pleading from black god agreed. Water was released from heaven to earth and for many days it rained. The red god then told to black god to hold back the water as people have had enough, but black god said to let the water flow for few more days as the famine had left the earth parched.

So it continued to rain for more days till the red god again asked to hold the water and the black god released. After a few more days, the black god once again told the red god that they should release more water for the people but the red god refused. This led to an argument between the two gods.

The red god threatened to kill all the people for, he argued, they are spoilt. But the black god defended the people and stopped the red god from causing destruction. So when there is a loud thunder, it is the red god who is trying to get past the black god to destroy the people on earth, but when the thunder is not very loud, it is the black god who is trying to prevent the red god from causing destruction.

Interventions of Engai (2020) by Advithi EmmiProject FUEL

The Maasai attribute the weather to the interventions of Engai. For example, rain is read as a blessing from the God, drought as displeasure, thunder and lightning as anger, rainbows as approval, and comets as portents of bad luck.

Credits: Story

Project FUEL would like to thank the Maasai community in the Losimingori village of Arusha, Tanzania for opening their hearts and home to this research. 

This exhibit is part of the Wise Wall Project, an initiative of Project FUEL, to document, design, and strengthen the wisdom of rural communities and marginalized villages using art and community outreach programs. In the third edition of this project, we collaborated with the Maasai, in Arusha, Tanzania, to build an on-ground community centre for the community and bring an exclusive insight into the life, lifestyle, and learnings of this inspiring community.

Illustration: Advithi Emmi
Research, Interviews and Curation: Project FUEL
Project Partners: Vijana Inspiring Foundation, Vikram Solar Ltd., Lions Club of Dar es Salaam and Arusha, Google Arts & Culture

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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