Shona Religion

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SHONA RELIGION . Bantu-speaking peoples first moved into the central area between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers (what is now Zimbabwe) some two millennia ago. Over the centuries, small polities formed and combined into a number of complex states, which in turn divided in the face of internal and external pressures. The term Shona is relatively new and is applied to the indigenous inhabitants of this region, excluding only the small ethnic groups at the northern and southern peripheries and the nineteenth-century Nguni invaders from the south, namely, the Ndebele, who now occupy southwest Zimbabwe, and the Shangane in the southeast. The Shona peoples are often classified according to four main dialect groups: the Zezuru in the center, the Korekore to the north, the Manyika to the east, and the Karanga to the south. The Shona are the dominant ethnic group in contemporary Zimbabwe, comprising about eight million people, or four-fifths of the population of the country.

At the time of colonization at the end of the nineteenth century, the Shona comprised a large number of independent petty chiefdoms. They lived in scattered villages based on patrilineages. They subsisted primarily on agriculture and kept some livestockespecially cattle, which had significance in marriage payments and for religious purposes. There was considerable internal trade in such goods as agricultural products, ironwork, and tobacco; the earlier external trade in gold and ivory had fallen to a mere trickle by this stage. Now, a century later, even rural Shona benefit from the technology and consumer comforts bought from the proceeds of wage labor and cash cropping. At least a quarter of the Shona population now claim affiliation to some Christian denomination, and Christian beliefs have infiltrated the thinking of professing traditionalists. Traditional beliefs and practices are, however, still dominant, even among many professed Christians.

Traditional Religion

Shona religion traditionally focused on relations with spirits of the dead. These include spirits of strangers, spirits of deceased ancestors, spirits of the land, and spirits of ancient heroes. Most Shona also acknowledge a high god (known by a variety of names) who is too remote to be concerned with the affairs of humans; he was, however, accessible through the cult in southern Shona country and is becoming more widely accessible through the influence of Christianity.

Superficially, the Shona believe in a clear hierarchy of spirits, with the high god at the top, followed by spirits of heroes, of the land, of ancestors, and finally of strangers. Indeed, to many Shona, the spiritual world appears fixed in a permanent and ancient hierarchy. In practice, however, the relative status of different spirits often varies with locality and changes over time. The relative importance of different spirits often depends on the activities of their mediums.

Spirits of all levels may be associated with mediums or hosts. When a man or woman is about to become a medium, the first sign is usually sickness, often accompanied by mental disturbances, which a diviner interprets as a call by a spirit for the sick person to become its host. The patient is initiated as a medium and from time to time is possessed by the spirit. In the state of possession, the medium goes into a kind of trance during which he or she is supposed to lose consciousness, and the spirit is believed to speak and act through the medium. Mediums of the more important spirits are the major religious specialists in traditional Shona society.

Divination is most frequently performed by a possessed medium, although certain mechanical means, especially the use of various types of dice, are also used. Most ritual activity takes place in response to illness or other misfortunes, and mediums who have been through similar sufferings themselves are often best able to help others to cope with their problems. Misfortune is usually explained in terms of the influence of spirits, although occasionally it may also be explained in terms of the evil machinations of a witch.

Shona maintain that certain persons, aided by evil spirits, have perverted values and delight in their esoteric powers to do harm. This belief is likely to come into practice only when there are severe social tensions, and accusations of witchcraft may be used to justify rifts in a formerly close-knit community.

The ancestral cult

When illness or other misfortune is sufficiently worrying for a diviner to be consulted, the most common result of divination is that the trouble is attributed to the spirit of a deceased ancestor who wishes to be honored. The deceased head of a family is believed to be responsible for the well-being of all his descendants. A deceased mother or maternal grandmother may also be considered influential, especially in matters concerning the fertility of girls. It is said that not even a witch can attack a member of a family without the cooperation of aggrieved ancestral spirits.

When a man dies, his spirit is believed to wander around restlessly until it is settled in the family homestead by a ritual normally performed a year or more after death. After this, his spirit is frequently invoked in the homestead, particularly when any important event takes place within the family. He may have a bull dedicated to him from the family herd of cattle, which may be sacrificed in his honor should divination reveal this to be his wish. At any ritual in his honor, descendants must gather together with their spouses to reaffirm their unity as a group and the necessity of cooperation between them. The same is true for a female ancestor. The spirits of family ancestors are seen as spirit elders who continue to control and to care for the family groups for which they were responsible during their lives. Many such ancestral spirits are believed to preside over important family gatherings through a possessed medium, who is a member of the family. As the extended kinship system weakens, especially in urban areas, the ancestral cult becomes a more private affair, providing a means of explaining and coping with personal misfortune.

Spirits of the land

Ancestors of chiefly lineages are responsible for all the people living in their territorial domains. The domain for which any chiefly spirit is responsible may be the chiefdom as a whole or a section of the chiefdom particularly associated with the spirit. Such a spirit is, in most of Shona country, called mhondoro ("lion") and frequently will have a medium who has high status in the community as a whole.

Where there is a history of invasion of one people by another, a differentiation of function has often developed between the cult of the chiefly spirits, which is concerned with political power, and the cult of the defeated autochthonous spirits, which concerns rainfall and the fertility of the land. In such cases, the autochthonous spirit might be considered equal to, or even more powerful than, the chiefly lion spirits.

Rituals are held in honor of territorial spirits to request good rains before a harvest and to give thanks after the harvest. Such rituals principally involve the brewing of millet beer, to which all families in the spirit's domain should contribute, and singing and dancing over a couple of days in honor of the spirit, often at a tree shrine in the veld. At the directions of the possessed medium, rites may also be held to avert threats to crops through drought or pests. Certain days are considered holy to the spirit guardians of the land, and on these days no traditional work may be done in the fields.

Mediums of territorial spirits preside at all rituals in honor of their spirits. They may also preside at the trial of someone accused of a crime against the spirit, such as incest or working on a holy day. In many parts of Shona country, the possessed mediums of chiefly spirits are responsible for electing a new chief, who is to be their representative in the government of the country. Chief and mediums are subsequently expected to consult with one another and to cooperate on important issues. Since the territorial spirits are responsible for all people in their land, a possessed medium may be consulted over the private difficulties of residents and may acquire a reputation for divining and healing beyond the territorial limits of the domain.

A medium's reputation depends on the ability to convince people at séances and to acquire a large clientele. In practice, if the medium is to acquire and maintain a position of influence, the medium's oracular pronouncements, whether in private divination or concerning the election of a chief, must accord with public opinion. In many situations, therefore, mediums serve to crystalize and to voice public opinion. More generally, spirit mediums represent great figures of the Shona past and have frequently become symbols of rejection of white dominance.

Regional cults

Certain spirits spread their influence beyond the territorial domain of any political authority. Such spirits may be associated with powerful political figures of the past, symbolizing conglomerations of chiefdoms that for a period may have been subject to a single ruling dynasty. Or they may be conceived as spirits of ancient heroes who lived before the establishment of any present dynasties. The mediums of such spirits are consulted by clients from a number of neighboring chiefdoms on private problems and on public issues such as drought and chiefly inheritance. Some of these spirits, such as Chaminuka and Nehanda, have become national figures on account of the activities of their mediums in successive wars against the Ndebele and against white settlers.

The most widespread regional cult is that of the high god, Mwari, which is centered on a number of shrines in southern Shona country. In the past, this was the dominant religious cult among most Karanga and Kalanga peoples, and it received some attention from the invading Ndebele. The main shrines in the Matopo Hills are maintained by a hereditary priesthood. There, sacrifices for rain are offered and a voice from a cave utters oracles for those who wish to consult Mwari. Selected young boys and girls dedicated to Mwari live for a time at the center to help maintain the shrine and dance at rituals; often they become important spirit mediums when they return home on reaching maturity, thus maintaining close contacts between the cult center and outlying traditional cults. Mwari was accepted as the Shona name for God by early Christian missionaries, and through Christian influence it has now been accepted far beyond the sphere of influence of the traditional cult centers.

Peripheral cults

Throughout Shona country, certain spirits are believed to be the concern of their hosts only. These are usually conceived as spirits of aliens, or occasionally of animals, who died away from home and so wander about, unsettled and restless, until they find a human host they can possess. Such a spirit may confer special powers on the host, particularly those of divining and healing, as well as such skills as hunting or playing music. Often, however, alien spirits are said only to want to dance, and they possess their hosts only at dances held in honor of such spirits, when a number of hosts of similar spirits are likely to be present and to become possessed simultaneously. These séances, usually held in response to illness in one of the hosts, allow persons who are undergoing some kind of strain to find relief in the attention they receive and in the dramatic dancing they perform.

Christianity among the Shona

Christian missionaries, active in Shona country for nearly a hundred years, have strongly influenced contemporary Shona religion. Initially, conversion to Christianity was largely associated with the acquisition of wealth, mainly through education and consequent employment but also through access to improved agricultural techniques. For many, Christianity was a symbol of the new ways of life that colonization introduced and, in particular, of the comforts that the new technology made possible; for others it became a symbol of white oppression.

Different mission churches were located in different rural areas; branches of these churches in the cities were able to provide places where migrants could meet others from their home areas. They also established accessible means of communication with the rural areas. With its emphasis on the high god rather than on local cults, Christianity was better adapted than traditional religion to cope with the new situation of high mobility and intermingling of people from different regions, especially in the urban centers.

Christianity does not, however, incorporate mechanisms for coping with tension at the family and local level, and as presented by missionaries it retains an impersonal approach to illness. Consequently, professed Christians still frequently revert to ancestral and local cults when faced with persistent illness and other personal problems, particularly when these reflect social tensions.

Since the early 1930s, many Shona have joined the new independent churches, which have adopted forms of Christianity but are free from foreign control. These pay more attention to traditional cosmologies, and particularly to the belief in afflicting spirits and in witchcraft as causes of misfortune, but like the mission churches they provide a means of overcoming the boundaries of family and local cults. These churches tend to attract many disparate peoples, although most of their followers are relatively uneducated. Faith healing, a central activity in most of them, is a major means for attracting converts. Afflicting spirits are exorcised, rather than being accommodated as in traditional religion or simply dismissed as in the mission churches.

Although in ritual and belief independent churches are much closer to traditional religion than are the mission churches, the antagonism between them and traditional cults is much greater than in the case of mission churches because their adherents are drawn largely from a common body of people. For those outside positions of leadership, however, there is an easy intermingling of religious systems. Individuals may move in and out of the various religious groups depending on the circumstances of the moment, and most Shona see nothing wrong in such religious mobility. For most Shona, the various forms of Christianity together with the various traditional cults all provide a pool of religious responses from which an individual can choose, depending on his or her needs of the moment.


The most comprehensive ethnography of the Shona, which gives special emphasis to religion, is my own Shona Peoples, 2d ed. (Gweru, 1982). This book contains a full bibliography. Michael Gelfand has written a number of works on the religion of different Shona groups, which, despite flaws in research methodology and presentation, provide useful material: The best of these are Shona Ritual (Cape Town, 1959), which describes the religion of the central Shona (Zezuru), and African Crucible (Cape Town, 1968), which looks at the changing situation. Peter Fry's Spirits of Protest (Cambridge, 1976) provides insights into the political and social roles of Zezuru spirit mediums. Hubert Bucher's Spirits and Power (Cape Town, 1980) analyzes Shona cosmology from secondary sources. On issues closely related to religion, G. L. Chavunduka's Traditional Healers and the Shona Patient (Gwelo, 1978) includes information on the relationship between Shona religion and illness; Gelfand's Witchdoctor (London, 1964) is a good account of Shona diviner-healers and their practices; and his The African Witch (Edinburgh, 1967) provides the best available description of Shona witchcraft beliefs and practices. On the introduction of Christianity into Shona society, Marshall W. Murphree's Christianity and the Shona (London, 1969) gives a concise analysis of the interrelationships of different religious groups (including traditionalists) in a Shona community. M. L. Daneel provides a thorough coverage of the most important independent churches in Old and New in Southern Shona Independent Churches, 2 vols. (The Hague, 19711974).

M. F. C. Bourdillon (1987)