Khoi and San Religion

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KHOI AND SAN RELIGION . The Khoi and San are the aboriginal peoples of southern Africa. The appellations formerly applied to them (Hottentot and Bushmen, respectively) have gone out of use because of their derogatory connotations. Properly, the terms Khoi and San refer to groups of related languages characterized by click consonants and to speakers of these languages, but they are frequently applied in a cultural sense to distinguish between pastoralists (Khoi) and foragers (San). In historical time (essentially, within the past 250 years in this region), these people were found widely distributed below the Cunene, Okavango, and Zambezi river systems, that is, in the modern states of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Smaller numbers were, and are, to be found in southern Angola and Zambia. The once large population of San in South Africa has been completely eliminated; perhaps 20 percent of contemporary Khoi still live in that country. Accurate censuses of these people are available only for Botswana, where today about half the estimated forty thousand San live. The fifty thousand Khoi (except as noted above) are concentrated in Namibia.

Archaeological and historical evidence document the coexistence in these areas of herding and foraging economies for at least the past fifteen centuries. Bantu-speaking as well as Khoi and San agropastoralists have been in the region along with foragers during this entire span of time. The first ethnographies were compiled by German ethnologists in the last decade of the nineteenth century; a few accounts by missionaries, travelers, and traders are available for the preceding one hundred years.

All of these herders and foragers were seasonally migratory, circulating within group-controlled land tenures in response to seasonal distributions of pastures and plant and animal foods. The basic residential group was an extended family often with close collateral extensions; it seldom exceeded fifty persons in size. Two or more of these units, or segments thereof, came together for social, economic, and ritual reasons at specified times, and contact among adjacent groups was maintained by frequent visiting. Descent among the San is bilateral. Patrilineal clans are attributed to the Khoi. Neither social system contains hierarchical strata at present, although there is evidence for them in the past.

On the surface, Khoisan cosmological concepts are not uniformly coherent. The apparent ad hoc and sometimes ambivalent quality of explanations about natural phenomena has led anthropologists to treat these concepts in a descriptive, folkloristic manner. Yet there is an underlying order of shared symbolic categories that represents an inclusive process of cultural management. In its broad outlines, this system is common to all Khoisan groups, even though there is variation in content and emphasis from one group to another.

The key to understanding Khoisan cosmology lies in its creation myths. In the beginning of time all species were conflated. Body parts were distributed in a haphazard, capricious manner by the creator and were intermixed among the different animals. These beings moved through mythical time, eating and mating with each other and being reincarnated in different forms. In the process, each species assumed the identity suggested by its name and thereafter lived in the surroundings and ate the food appropriate to it. As order was achieved, the creator played an ever smaller active role in events; now he lives in the sky, relatively remote from earthly affairs. Generally positive values are attributed to him. Another being has the role of administrator; he is responsible for and is the cause of everything that occurs on earth. He is said to be stupid because he continues to make mistakes. One of the principal mistakes is that people continue to die when, in the logic of creation, they should not be mortal. He also capriciously sends or withholds rain, interferes in the conception and birth of children, and dictates success or failure in food production.

There is, accordingly, a dual conception of death. The death of animals is properly a part of their being; they are food. Human death is rationalized as the caprice of the administrator and justified on the grounds that he eats the dead, whose spirits then remain with him. These spirits have an incorporating interest in death because "their hearts cry for their living kin," and they wish to perpetuate the social order from which they came. The dead are thus agents of the administrator and a danger to the living, especially during dark nights away from camp.

This duality is pervasive in Khoisan cosmological thought. Aside from the obvious oppositions between life and death, earth and sky, that are found among so many peoples, a deeper configuration of a dialectical nature is present. Comparative data is scarce; however, a good deal is known about the Žu/hõasi San (!Kung) of Namibia and Botswana; these people are by far the most numerous living San. This, plus the fact that they share some specific details with Nama Khoi, is suggestive ground for using the data obtained from them for a paradigm case. The Žu/hõasi creator, !xo, and the administrator, //angwa, may be seenand are sometimes described by informantsas a contrasting pair.

In other words, !xo is a completed proper being, as is a Žu/õa person. (The name Žu/hõasi means "completed people": žu means "person," /hõa "finished" or "complete," and si is a plural suffix.) //angwa is incomplete, chaotic, "without sense." !xo's attributes are desirable, //angwa's despicable.

The color blueThe color red
Cultural orderNatural order

The one gives life, the other takes it away. Some Žu/hõasi think of them as alternative aspects of the same person. That this division, and by implication the cosmological system of which it is a part, may have considerable time depth is suggested by the attribution of cattle and sheep to the cultural order of!xo, while horses and goats are assigned to the unfinished domain of //angwa. Archaeological evidence places both cattle and sheep firmly within the first millennium ce in southern Africa; horses are much more recent. Linguistically, cattle and sheep are derived from a single native stem in most Khoisan languages; horses and goats, on the other hand, are called by a term borrowed from Setswana orin the case of horsesby extensions of the local word for zebra.

Among the Nama, the creator (rendered Tsui //goab by Schapera) has functions identical to those of !xo and, like his Žu/hõasi counterpart, had an earthly trickster manifestation during the time of creation. It was this trickster (gaun!a among Žu/hõasi; Heitsi Eibib among the Nama) who carried out the actual acts of creation. Khoi, in the past, had annual rain ceremonies in which several groups joined. Pregnant cattle and sheep were slaughtered on these occasions and their flesh consumed; their milk, blood, and the water in which they were boiled were used to douse the fire on which they had been cooked. Prayers for rain were offered to Tsui //goab as this was done. The Nama counterpart of //angwa is //gaunab, derived from //gau, "to destroy." Their administrative roles are parallel. Earlier writers claim that southern Khoi and southern San worshiped the moon, but as Schapera notes, these reports are inadequate and unsystematic; it is, therefore, difficult to give full credit to such claims. Contemporary San use the moon as a quite specific and accurate timepiece. When referring to the time of occurrence of an event, they will point to a position of the moon in the sky or state that the moon's return to a position will coincide with some event. Women mark their menstrual cycles and the durations of their pregnancies in like manner, but they do so strictly for calendric purposes. It is possible Europeans interpreted these actions as "moon worship."

Although the mythological past is not thought to be active in the present natural world, many of its elements are very much involved in the control of this world. The administrator eats not only humans but also flies, which he attracts by smearing honey around his mouth. This reversal of propriety and the fact that he is covered with long hair (Khoisan have little body hair) is taken as further proof of the confused incompleteness that situates him in residual mythological time. Shamans enter this time while in trance to confront the administrator.

Žu/hõasi shamans go in disembodied flight to the sky and wrestle with //angwa in an attempt to force him to correct some erroran illness, a social disfunction, or an uncertainty about events. In entering this state, shamans take on some of its attributes; they sprout body hair or feathers, become partly or wholly animal, and fly. To be able to participate in this realm they must partake of it. They eat the bile of a lion, the musk gland of a skunklike weasel, the fat from an eland and a porcupine, and the roots of the three plants that grow in the supernatural world. Bitterness (of bile and gland) and fat are the dual sources of strength, as are the roots of extrasensory vision. These elementseaten once during the course of learning to be a shamanempower ordinary men to challenge the strength of the supernatural and, by overcoming it, to restore order to the social and natural universe.

The ritual context in which these activities take place involves the entire kin-based community. Only a few people who are directly affected may participate in minor cases, but, small or large, the form of both divinatory and curing rituals is the same. Both involve trance as the essential visionary condition in which the shaman is enabled to exercise his or her power. Women and girls sit in close physical contact, forming a circle facing a fire; they sing and clap songs that are associated with specific natural elements, usually animals but also plants or their products. Men and boys dance closely around the circle, chanting a counterpoint to the songs. Certain dancers are identified with particular animals and their songs; they are more likely to enter trance during performances of these songs. As a dancer feels the trance state approaching, he or she intensifies his or her movements and vocalizations, uttering piercing cries and calling for help, which is signified by heightening the intensity of the music. It is said that in the mythological past, the actual animal being danced (an eland, for example) was attracted to the performance, but now only its spirit attends.

During divinatory trances, Žu/hõasi shamans shout descriptions of their encounter with //angwa in which the cause of the social or physical illness under investigation is revealed. This cause is almost invariably some transgression on the part of either the patient or a close kinsman, usually involving the violation of rights to property (especially the products of land) or personal rights (infractions of obligations, sometimes extending to ancestors). But this direct cause is always expressed indirectly as having disrupted the cosmological order through some mediating agency; for example, the offender may have eaten (or only have killed) a forbidden animal. During the curing trance, the shaman rubs the patient and everyone else present with his hands and arms, thereby transferring healing energy through the mediating agentsweat.

Thus the myths and their reenactment constitute the conceptual dimensions of Khoisan reality. They integrate subjective experience with the larger structural context through a repertoire of causal principles that, though not expressly verbalized in ordinary discourse, are based on an underlying symbolic order. Trance rituals mediate between these realms. Although couched in causal metaphors, responsibility is normally allocated to living individuals (through their having transgressed the cosmological order) and almost always involves a consensus solution to current social disruptions. The act of divination translates the cosmological constructs in terms of the specific instance at hand. The random, amoral, impersonal forces of naturewhich have an order of their own, personified by the administrator and his domainare temporarily neutralized by this dialectic between culture and society. In the process, although the internal logic remains intact, both are transformed.

There is abundant evidence that these contemporary systems of thought are derived through transformations of more ancient systems. Many rock paintings throughout southern Africa depict persons in postures identical to those assumed during trance today. Therianthropic and theriomorphic figures comparable with those of current creation myths abound among these paintings. The basic structure of these myths and many specific referents (rain bulls whose blood brings rain; water snakes that have hair, horns, limbs, and ears; beings that partake of the mythic past in the present) are shared by many Khoisan and southern Bantu-speaking peoples, suggesting a long history of associated cosmological construction. There is also evidence for comparatively recent change from more active totemic association with natural elements, especially animals, prominent today in trance. The colonial era and its aftermath disrupted the political and economic lives of Khoisan as well as Bantu-speaking peoples; in this process, it is possible but not yet certain that destructive, uncontrollable elements of the cosmological system became emphasized over the constructive forces of creation, and that today the administrator (//angwa of Žu/hõasi) has disproportionate power when compared historically with the role that the creator (!xo) has played.


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Lee, Richard B. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. New York, 1979. The first comprehensive view of the San. Although it falls prey to many traditional faults of evolutionary theory in anthropology, it is much more systematic than its predecessors.

Lewis-Williams, David. Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings. London, 1981. Excellent integration of prehistoric and historical rock art with contemporary and archival stories. Points the way toward further fruitful research.

Marshall, Lorna. "!Kung Bushman Religious Beliefs." Africa 32 (1962): 221252. Narrative and descriptive account containing useful information but no comprehensive analysis.

Schapera, Isaac. The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa. London, 1930. Based on accounts of missionaries and travelers. Valuable information but outdated synthesis.

Silberbauer, George B. Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert. Cambridge, Mass., 1981. Primarily an ecological, evolutionary study, but also includes information on the religious system of the G/wi San.

Wilmsen, Edwin N. "Of Paintings and Painters, in Terms of Žu/hõasi Interpretations." In Contemporary Studies on Khoisan in Honour of Oswin Köhler on the Occasion of His Seventy-fifth Birthday, edited by Rainer Vossen and Klaus Keuthmann. Hamburg, 1986. An economic and political analysis of prehistoric and contemporary San paintings.

New Sources

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Smith, Andrew B. The Bushmen of Southern Africa: A Foraging Society in Transition. Athens, Ohio, 2000.

Steyn, Hendrik Pieter. Vanished Lifestyles: The Early Cape Khoi and San. Pretoria, South Africa, 1990.

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Wannenburgh, Alf. The Bushmen. Cape Town, South Africa, 1999.

Edwin N. Wilmsen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Khoi and San Religion

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