Southern African Religions: Southern Bantu Religions

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Patrilineal herdsmen and farmers belonging to the large Bantu linguistic group, which is widely spread over central and eastern Africa, moved into southern Africa in distinct waves. They appeared in the region as distinct cultural groups probably between 1000 and 1600 ce. The Sotho (Pedi, Matlala, et al.) and the related Tswana settled on the arid inland plateau where the San were hunting and the Khoi were raising livestock. The Nguni (Zulu, Swazi, and Xhosa) spread out along the southeastern coast. The Lovedu and Venda, two closely related peoples who became strongly amalgamated with the Sotho in the twentieth century, successively broke away from the Karanga in ancient Zimbabwe; the last Venda migration may have crossed the Limpopo River after 1600 ce, but their predecessors were probably among the first inhabitants of the northeastern Transvaal. The Tsonga, or Thonga, migrated in the early nineteenth century into the Transvaal, where they ran into Sotho and Venda, but their lands still lie principally in Mozambique. In spite of these people's cultural diversity, their ceremonies as well as their conceptions of the world have sprung from the same fundamental cosmology, either through derivation from a common heritage or else from interactions.

A Thermodynamic Conception of the Individual and of the Universe

The opposition between hot and cold is fundamental to many different rites found among the southeastern Bantu-speaking peoples. J. D. Krige and Eileen Jensen Krige have shown the importance of this opposition among the Lovedu. In effect, heat upsets equilibrium and causes dysphoria. To end severe drought, ward off the dangers associated with premature birth, and heal sickness, a cooling treatment is applied. This is also done after the birth of twins, for the whole country risks becoming dry.

The Venda also use this dialectic. Similarly, the Zulu make a sacrificer avoid warmth before undergoing an immolation to the ancestors, who are associated with water and sperm. The day before, he has to give up drinking beer, stop making love, and keep away from fire. Communication with the ancestors is possible only if all participants are coolneither angry nor spiteful. According to the Tsonga, sick persons give off heat, as do menstruating or pregnant women and excited warriors who have just killed an enemy. The cosmic order is threatened by the birth of twins because the mother "has gone up to the sky" during pregnancy, a period of dangerous overheating inside her womb. The Pedi even recommend that pregnant women not go outside whenever it rains. The Tswana say that the hot blood of pregnant women counteracts rain medicine. Moreover, their rainmakers and chiefs must abstain from sexual intercourse throughout most of the rainy season.

The Tsonga liken the normally born baby to a pot that has not cracked when baked. The mother and child are secluded until the umbilical cord falls off. The father cannot approach his wife because she is considered to be too hot. If the baby is male, the father runs a special risk. A series of rites gradually separates the infant from the mother's burning body and integrates him into the father's sphere. The cooling process can be clearly observed during Tsonga funerals for infants. If death follows soon after birth, the body is put inside a cracked pot that is covered with a layer of ashes. If death occurs before the Boha Puri tribal integration, which allows the parents to resume sexual intercourse and is performed when the child reaches the age of one, the body is buried in a humid place. If the child dies after this rite, the funeral is conducted like that of an adult, and the corpse is buried in dry earth.

The same thermal code underlies rites of passage that, though differing in form, are basically similar. An example is the presentation to the moon. A cooling feminine principle, the moon is responsible for watching over the child's growth and is often likened to a paternal aunt. During the first new moon visible after birth, the Pedi place the baby on the ground for a few seconds, and water, symbolizing rain, is poured through the roof and onto the infant. Three months after birth, the Tsonga present the baby to the new moon, throwing a torch toward it. Once the torch goes out, the baby is separated from his or her mother and laid on a pile of ashes. This example keenly reveals the transformational process that brings these rites within a single symbolic system: the Tsonga replace rain with an extinguished torch. Moreover, whenever twins, as "sons of the sky," assist at funerals, their fontanels are smeared with ashes because they are seen as burning, hence dangerous creatures.

The Python Cult

A major divinity known as the python spirit among southeastern Bantu-speaking peoples symbolizes the coolness that is responsible for individual, social, and cosmic equilibrium. He is undoubtedly part of the most archaic Bantu cultural substratum, and both the Swazi and Venda perform ceremonies in his honor. Among the Luba in Zaire, he has a celestial manifestation, that of the rainbow. The Zulu and Luba reverse his climatic functions. Nkongolo, the Luba python, is, like the Zulu one, associated with terrestrial waters. As the rainbow, however, he burns rain rather than bringing it. In contrast, the Zulu hold the python and rainbow to be two distinct spirits whose beneficial actions with regard to water are complementary. "Coolest of all animals" according to Axel-Ivar Berglund, Python licks the fat of the black sheep that rainmakers sacrifice to him. On the other hand, the rainbow princess, iNkosazana, is the virgin daughter of the lord of heaven (and of thunderbolts), whose changing moods are dreaded by men. She intercedes so that he regularly sends gentle, soaking rain. Her rays of light plunge into the waters. Virgin girls, disguised as warriors, offer her vegetables and beer on top of a mountain forbidden to men. The feminine rainbow cult stands opposite the masculine python rite of sacrifice. Only princes may kill this venerated animal provided that they not spill its blood. Its fat goes into medicines that specialized magicians use against thunderbolts.

The rainbow princess cult is found specifically among the Nguni. Traces of it are found among the Swazi, who inaugurate the annual Ncwala ceremony during the southern summer solstice with a quest for the waters of the world. National priests lead two separate processions, one in search of river water and the other in search of seawater. Carried on a shield at the head of each procession is a ritual calabash, called "princess." These two calabashes represent the rainbow princess. This extraordinarily complex ceremony, which principally regenerates the king's mystical force, ends with a purifying bonfire that is supposed to be put out by rain.

Although the Swazi apparently have no python cult, Venda religion honors the python, and snake cults thrive among the Karanga. According to Venda cosmogony, the whole creation took place inside Python's stomach. This primordial, aquatic demiurge vomited nine creatures who roamed over the soggy earth, which was still in darkness. They became the sun, moon, and stars. Controlling fertility and rain, Python also presides over girls' puberty rites. Killing a python during the rainy season is strictly forbidden. During the dry season, its carcass is thrown into water, although the head and tail are buried in the cattle fold in order to bring prosperity. People use its fat to protect themselves from burns and to prevent fires.

Most Bantu cosmogonies are fundamentally dualistic. Thus opposite Python is Raluvhumba, who has often been mistaken for a supreme being. His name evokes the eagle, luvumba. Raluvhumba's voice is thunder, and during storms he is visible as a big flame. He controls the sun, which could burn the earth if it came too near. His complementarity with Python stands out in a royal ceremony that is no longer observed. After communicating with Raluvhumba in a sacred cave, the Venda king used to order his people to perform Python's dance (tshikona ) for two nights. Much like other, neighboring societies, the Venda believe that the universe's equilibrium depends upon the joint action of two fundamental principleswater and fire, coolness and heat. Water and coolness have the advantage of having originated first; fire and heat are always menacing because they threaten life. Therefore, the Venda put out all fires when their king dies. The Lovedu do the same because the earth is "hot" whenever their queen (who is responsible for keeping the rain medicineand keeping it cool) passes away.

These myths and rites parallel various fragmentary tales collected among the Karanga. The Korekore, a branch of the Karanga, worship Dzivaguru ("big pool"). This rain spirit lived on earth before he disappeared into a pool on a mountaintop. He was forced to vanish by the magic of a rival chief who coveted his wealth and put on red attire (the color of fire). Like the Venda Python, this vanquished spirit was the primordial ruler of the world. By going down into water, he brought darkness over the earth. His opponent had to use a new magical trick to bring the sun back. Dzivaguru said that he would accept only sheep as offeringsthe same animal that the Zulu sacrifice to Python.

This tale is apparently a variation of a Hungwe myth, taken down by Leo Viktor Frobenius, that accounts for the origin of the mighty Zimbabwe kingdom, whose stone ruins are unique in the Bantu-speaking world. In olden times, a poverty-stricken people known as the Hungwe were dwelling on a mountain. They ate food raw because their chief, Madzivoa, had lost the fire that his daughters kept in a sealed horn containing oil. Hunters from the north, the Hungwe's ancestors, came into the land. They had fire and ritually smoked a pipe to sustain their magical force. Their chief gave fire to Madzivoa, married his daughter, and became the first "king" (mambo ). Many people united around him, and even Madzivoa became his servant. The name of this fallen autochthonous chief derives from dzivoa ("lake" or "pool"), also found in the name Dzivaguru. These two similarly named figures met up with parallel fates at the hands of newcomers who seized their power and wealth.

The new mythical rulers of fire had to accommodate the demiurges associated with water, as told in another Karanga story collected by Frobenius. A snake spirit used to dwell in a lake on the Zimbabwe plain. The king's daughters are thought to copulate with this spirit to keep the sacred pool and rain from disappearing. The vaginas of these princesses, who enjoyed total sexual freedom, had to be continuously moist. Victims to be sacrificed for rainfall were chosen from among them. A second group of princesses had to stay chaste. They were associated with a ritual fire kept by the king's incestuous wife, Mwiza, who represents the morning star.

The Venda myth transposes these elements. Python lived with two wives. Only the first one knew his real nature and could visit him freely during daytime. The second could draw near him only at night when she was soaked. Driven by curiosity, she broke this rule and caught her husband smoking a pipe. Angrily, Python went down into a lake. To end the subsequent drought, the guilty wife had to sacrifice herself and join her husband in the water. The Venda primordial Python clearly brings to mind Zimbabwe's aquatic serpent, of whom Dzivaguru and Madzivoa are avatars.

These variant myths relate both the incompatibility of water and fire and their complementarity. The duality of the Karanga princesses with dry and moist vaginas expresses the southeastern Bantu dialectic of coolness and heat. The Venda myth about the python who secretly smoked a pipe recounts the same theme as the Hungwe one about a mysterious foreigner who drew force out of smoking and prevailed over Madzivoa, an aquatic spirit who used to keep fire in a horn. The sacrifice of the Venda Python's second wife obviously corresponds to the sacrifices demanded of the Karanga princesses. Karanga symbolism vividly distinguishes a primordial spirit associated with both terrestrial and rain waters from a ruler of fire who was his opponent or else became his ally through marriage. The Korekore see these two spirits as rivals but ultimately invoke Dzivaguru whenever there is no rain. However, this cosmogony has been obscured by the cults of possession dedicated to regional or particularistic gods. The ubiquity of these cults, borrowed from the Shona, has distracted researchers from the still-present ancient gods. In fact, Dzivaguru is the only local spirit with no medium.

The Venda, however, have made an original transposition of the ancient dualism. Python, ruler of waters, and Raluvhumba, ruler of celestial fire, are ritually complementary. In Zimbabwe, neighboring Karanga worship Mwari, a supreme being who combines the attributes of both. This "possessor of heaven" is also called Dzivaguru. Mwari's representative, the python, is venerated as a spirit of the mountains, whereas a water snake keeps rivers and springs from going dry.

Cosmology and Sacred Kingship

James G. Frazer was the first to describe as "divine kingship" a political institution whose primary function is control over fertility and natural forces. I prefer to use the term "sacred kingship" because the particular chiefs who are essential to this institution are not actual gods. The Venda and Lovedu inherited the institution of sacred kingship from the Karanga while the Sotho and Tswana did not (sacred kingship is not apparently a feature of Sotho or Tswana culture despite the existence among them of some powerful military chieftaincies). The Swazi established a political and symbolic system remarkably similar to that of the Venda. Sacred kingship is widespread throughout Africa. Surprisingly constant characteristics are thus attributed to African, particularly Bantu-speaking, kings: they are uncommon beings; they take paramountcy through transgression (often incest); they are surrounded by prohibitions; and they are condemned to die early unless other victims make it possible for them to continue reigning.

The Swazi king, master of thunderbolts and of the sun, rules along with a queen mother associated with the moon and with lush vegetation. Together they control the rains. The king has the privilege of marrying his real or classificatory sisters. While young, he succeeds his father with the title "child," and when adult he takes full power by marrying the "queen of the right hand," with whom he commingles blood to become twins. But his real so-called twin is his mother. During the summer solstice, his force weakens, and the whole nation goes through a crisis. He then performs the Ncwala ceremony, which opens with the previously described quest for water. He is proclaimed "bull of the nation" after the sacrifice of an ill-treated black ox, which represents him. Following several events that alternately show his weakness and his force, he consumes the first fruits and is then disguised as the spirit of vegetation.

According to the Venda founding myth, the first two sovereigns were Sun and Moon, his twin sister as well as incestuous wife. Paradoxically, the Venda king rules with a paternal aunt (Makhadzi, a title also used to refer to the moon); an agnatic half sister takes the aunt's place during the next reign. His principal wife, often a real or classificatory sister, belongs to the royal family. The king, "light of the world," controls rain through both Python and Raluvhumba. Although no ritual marks the summer solstice, Makhadzi presides over the first-fruit ceremony.

Venda and Swazi symbolic configurations are related through transformations. In practice, the Venda put agnatic ties in place of the incestuous uterine (or twin) ties of their myth. The Swazi, on the contrary, maintain these mythical ties through a fiction. Mirrored by a queen who is the king's agnatic half sister, the Venda queen aunt obviously fills the same ritual position as the Swazi queen mother, who is a "twin" to her son. The queen of the right hand, who is both the king's wife and fictive twin, is a substitute for the queen mother. More meaningful parallels exist. The "twin body" of the Swazi kingdom expresses a great power of life; it is completed by the male tinsila, the sovereign's symbolic twins associated with his right and left hands. A similar pair in the Venda kingdom corresponds to the paternal uncle and agnatic half brother, respectively Makhadzi's and the queen sister's masculine doubles.

The Lovedu's mythic and historical traditions throw light upon this structural transformation of the ideal twin model. A very long time ago, Princess Dzugudini, the daughter of the king of Monomotapa, bore a son, Muhale, to her uterine brother. Their mother kept their secret, stole her husband's rain medicine, and gave it to her daughter, who fled southward with her young son. With some supporters, they reached the Lovedu land, where Muhale, who had brought fire along, founded a kingdom. The incestuous uterine couple are thus closely associated with the ritual couple formed by a son (keeper of fire) and mother (supplier of rain medicine). The Swazi have simply combined these two images to present the queen mother as her son's twin sister. Succession in the Lovedu royal house later came into the hands of women. The first queen was born out of incest between a king and his daughter. Even though the model for perpetuating sacred kingship through the union of a brother and his uterine sister (ideally between twins of the opposite sex) has shifted agnatically, the Lovedu did not adopt the Venda solution. Their rain queen reigns alone but reputedly has intercourse with a brother in order to bear an heiress.

Lovedu traditions have kept alive the incestuous marriage of sacred chiefs in the ancient Karanga civilization. The king of Monomotapa reigned with Mazarira, his sister and wife. A later account (Frobenius) states that, in ancient Zimbabwe, Mazarira was the monarch's own mother. The heir apparent lived in incest with a sister who became his principal wife with the name Mwiza (in Monomotapa, Nabwiza). When enthroned along with her brother, she lit the new ritual fire for her keeping.

Unlike the Venda one, the Karanga founding myth does not mention a primordial monarchy of the Sun and Moon twins. Moon, the first king, emerged from the primeval waters. For two years he lived chastely with Morning Star, who brought him fire and bore vegetation before being taken back by Mwari, the supreme being. Moon received a second wife, Evening Star, who invited him to have sexual intercourse. She bore mankind and animals. Moon became "ruler" (mambo ) over a large population. Two years later, Evening Star left him to go live with Snake, master of the rains. When Moon tried to take her back, Snake bit him. Moon pined away. Rain stopped falling. His children strangled him and buried him with Evening Star who had decided to die with him. After that the children chose a new king. This myth perfectly illustrates the cosmological function of sacred kingship, here under the sign of the moon. Having lost his power over nature, the weakened king was condemned to an early death. The rulers of Monomotapa were killed whenever they showed the least physical failing, whether sickness or impotence. The following ceremony clearly associated them with the moon. At the rising of the new moon, the king had to mock fight invisible enemies in the presence of the realm's dignitaries. According to several accounts, the sacred chiefs of the Karanga and related peoples were eliminated after reigning either two or four years. In the myth, this period corresponds to the Venusian cycle. Mwiza represents Venus, the morning star. Recall that Mwiza was surrounded by chaste, dry princesses. They greeted the first rising of the morning star. On the other hand, the second group of humid princesses, who had intercourse with the snake spirit of the waters, probably had to do with the evening star.

This cosmological system obviously differs from the Venda's, even though the Karanga origins of the Venda kingdom are beyond doubt. In charge of the rains, Karanga and Venda kings are related to aquatic snake spirits. In the Venda myth, both Venusian wives belonged to Python, but only the daytime one could be with her husband whenever he smoked (i.e., used fire). The morning/evening star opposition exists but is concealed. Moreover, the Venda sovereign was not lunar. The first king was none other than Sun, whom Python vomited out. Present-day rulers proclaim to be descended from Raluvhumba, who controls thunderbolts and is symbolized by the eagle. The thunderbird's role in Karanga royal cosmogony needs to be better known. Thomas Huffman, an archaeologist, has suggested that Zimbabwe's famous stone birds represent successive rulers in the form of fish eagles. In old Zimbabwe, this brightly feathered bird was the mediator between humanity and Mwari, the celestial demiurge and congener of the Venda Raluvhumba. Recall that the Hungwe, whose name literally means "fish eagle," brought fire to the destitute folk ruled by the aquatic Madzivoa. The complementarity of the eagle and serpent restores the fundamental opposition between fire and water.

Two diverging traditions relate the origin of fire, the celestial symbol of sovereignty. The Venda king is apparently associated with the second. He went ahead of Raluvhumba when the latter appeared on earth as a big, thundering flame. The stick that the king uses to stir his porridge is called "the fire lighter."

Whereas the Karanga moon kings were killed after they reigned a short time (or whenever their physical forces failed, as in Monomotapa), the Venda kings enjoy long lives provided they do not have children after enthronement. They have to take a drug that inhibits their sexuality. Comparisons with central Africa lead to the conclusion that this practice aims at containing the king's dangerous, almost sorcerous, magical power. Among the Pende in Zaire, some sacred chiefs are forced to refrain from sexual intercourse after taking office. Lovedu ritual ascribes power over the rains to a secretly incestuous queen who had to commit suicide. It has its place in the same system of symbolic transformations, which goes back to a common ideology.

The Ritual Complex of Circumcision

Neither the Karanga nor the Shona practice circumcision. However, all accounts agree that this custom and its related initiation are a time-honored institution among the Sotho and Tswana, who have passed it on to the Lovedu, Venda, and Tsonga. Girls' puberty rites usually correspond to male circumcision. Girls undergo a pretended circumcision that amounts to slightly cutting the clitoris (Lovedu) or upper leg (Tswana) or to placing a knife between the legs (Pedi). The southern Sotho designate both feminine initiation and masculine circumcision with the same word (lebello ). The Pedi, a northern Sotho people, make boys go through two successive rites (Bodika and Bogwera), but girls undergo a single collective rite (Byale). The Lovedu have adopted the latter; they call it Vyali and correlate it with the second masculine initiation. Those peoples with Karanga origins initially held only individual rites (the Venda Khoba or Lovedu Khomba) at the first menstruation.

Among the Sotho circumcision enables young men to become warriors. Each new class of circumcised youths forms a regiment in their chief's service. Although chiefs lack the attributes of sacred kings, the symbolisms of Sotho initiation and of the Swazi kingdom are strikingly close. Major Pedi chiefs keep a tribal fire that neither women nor uncircumcised boys may approach. From it initiates take a brand to light the fire that will burn continuously in the center of their circular bush camp during the dry season. After being circumcised, they gather each morning around this fire, the "little lion," and stage a feigned attack. They "pierce the laws." The solar symbolism of the lion fire is indicated by its bed lying along an east-west axis. The sun symbolizes the adult Pedi man. The "spotted white hyena" represents the lunar feminine principle but also refers to a small conical tower forbidden to those undergoing initiation. Built at the camp's eastern entry with carefully polished stones grouted with cinders, it stands alongside a smaller structure, its child. At the end of initiation, the newly circumcised follow the "hyena's tracks," a trail of cinders inside the camp, from the western entry northward to the eastern one. This path depicts the moon's apparent movement eastward, opposite to the sun's. The discovery of the hyena monument by initiates brings together pairs of opposites: sun and moon, male and female. When the masculine ceremony ends, girls who have just had their first period begin collective initiation. They experience a pretend circumcision and are secluded for a month under the authority of the chief's principal wife.

The Matlala have made interesting changes in this ceremony. The fire bed, called "lion," also lies along an east-west axis. Initiates are awakened at dawn while the morning star is shining. Since looking at the sun is forbidden during the first phase of initiation, the boys turn their faces westward. During the second phase, they look eastward and expose the right half of their bodies to the fire's heat. During this "night of change," a stake is erected and its top decorated with ostrich feathers. Greeted as grandmother, this stake replicates the Pedi's lunar monument. Throughout their retreat, initiates pretend to attack the moon. The Matlala use obviously phallic metaphors to liken the waning moon to a female elephant that has to be "stabbed" and "made to fall." Pedi initiation songs also mention a mysterious elephant, an image that instructors take explicitly to mean the dangerous menstruating woman.

Just as the lion is in opposition to the elephant, so a solar fire along an east-west axis is in opposition to the moon. This Sotho symbolism can be compared to that surrounding the Swazi lion king, associated with the sun and fire, who rules along with an elephant queen mother, associated with the moon. During the Ncwala ceremony, the weakened king runs after the summer solstitial sun. He finally has sexual intercourse with the queen of the right hand, a notorious action comparable to the solar quest for virility by newly circumcised Sotho youth. During their retreat, Pedi initiates are as weak as the Swazi king during the Ncwala. They try in vain "to run past the sun." The king's successor is chosen from among his very young sons. This child king is the only Swazi male who, at adolescence, goes through a circumcision-like ceremony. Otherwise, the Nguni do not hold circumcision or related initiation ceremonies, although they might have in the past. The Swazi seemingly concentrate the symbolism of Sotho initiation within their royal institution. The Swazi king may never drink water, just as those undergoing Sotho initiation may not. At the end of initiation, the newly circumcised jump into water while their camp is set ablaze; the Ncwala ends as the Swazi king washes while a purifying bonfire is lit. Like this king, the Pedi who have completed initiation become lions and brave warriors. Just as Pedi initiation leads to the formation of new military regiments, so the Swazi military age grades actively participate in the Ncwala, under the sign of the moon. Throughout the Sotho region, circumcision camps fall under the chiefs' direct control. The Swazi Ncwala and Sotho puberty rites are variations of the same symbolic and sociological themes.

Similarities lie even closer. Recall how the lion fire in the Pedi initiatory camp is lit. The chief's principal wife has a function like that of the Swazi queen motherto keep rain medicine. To be wedded, she appears at sunset as all fires are put out. The fire ignited in her dwelling is used to renew the tribal fire. The fire in the chief's keeping (which he gives to those undergoing initiation) and the rain medicine kept by his principal wife (who gives birth to his successor) are both complementary and opposite. The newly circumcised youth's solar/lunar quest for a woman is also a search for rain. Strictly kept apart from the opposite sex, initiates gather around the solar lion fire during the dry season. Ritual chants invite them to follow the elephant's (woman's) tracks "when it rains," for then this animal has "no more force" and can be killed easily. Such phrases mean that a man may approach a woman only after her menstrual period. The cycle of fertility is linked to the change of seasons; menstruation suspends sexual relations and, like the dry season, falls under the sign of fire.

The Tsonga and Venda use this cosmological code. They borrowed and also adapted the institution of circumcision camps from their Sotho neighbors. A feminine elephant fire replaces the masculine lion fire in initiation camps. How should this inversion be understood? For many southeastern Bantu-speaking peoples, particularly the Swazi and Sotho, the masculine sun is complementary to the feminine moon (associated with rain and lush vegetation). But in general fire is feminine and terrestrial water masculine. Menstruation and pregnancy have to do with heat. The profound symbolic changes separating Sotho and non-Sotho circumcision rites come down to a fundamental alternative: should the ritual fire be given masculine and solar attributes or the hot properties of menstrual blood? The Sotho have made the first, the lion fire, their choice; the Tsonga and Venda have opted for the second, the elephant fire.

Moreover, the Tsonga do not put political authorities in charge of initiation. Unlike the Pedi, they entrust the ritual fire to the chief's principal wife, who keeps it burning in her dwelling in order to smoke medicine objects. Furthermore, the moon is dissociated from the sun; Moon's husband is Evening Star. For all these reasons, solar/lunar symbolism sinks into the background. Instead, all symbolism related to Tsonga circumcision is dominated by the opposition between masculine water and feminine fire, as shown by the ritual formulas taught during initiation.

Three animals successively figure in these formulas. Symbol of the circumcising knife that makes boys fit for reproduction, the crocodile "moves heavily across fords and in the rushes." The hippopotamus "opens the road for elephants toward the ford." The elephant "walks slowly on dry ground" where rain will fill her tracks. These metaphors strongly contrast the aquatic, masculine domain of the crocodile with the solid ground of the female elephant. Between these two lies the road opened up by the hippopotamus, which is associated with a virgin girl whom young boys rape. They thus open the way to the female elephant, the adult woman who becomes fertile only after menstruation, which supposedly stops with the start of the rainy season. The elephant fire is a sign of both feminine sterility and the dry season. Every day, initiates confront this fire and "stab" it with a phallic stick while they sing, "Elephant, stay calm!" Significantly, they may not drink any water during their retreat. When the camp is burned down at the end of initation, they jump into a pool as they proclaim their virility. How to interpret this sequence? Circumcision, the necessary condition for procreative functioning, falls under the sign of masculine water. Separated from this element during seclusion, initiates are brought close to a feminine fire, which they cannot extinguish before the rainy season. The symbolic space around the elephant fire in the center of the initiation camp and the crocodile's watery place outside the camp are clearly delimited. The elephant fire corresponds to menstruation, dry earth, and feminine sterility; the crocodile's watery realm to circumcision, terrestrial water, and masculine fertility.

By playing on these oppositions, the Tsonga merely adjusted Sotho symbolism to the thermodynamic code with which all their rites of passage comply. Recall that newborn Tsonga children, created inside burning wombs, undergo cooling rites and that the growth of boys is placed under the sign of the moon. Just before puberty, the ritual process is reversed, for sexuality is a new source of heat to be carefully controlled. Tsonga circumcision rites are an initiation into the mysteries of feminine fire. Circumcision definitively cuts the maternal bond and marks the beginning of a young man's search for a wife. Wives are normally taken from among pubescent girls who, excessively hot during their first menstruation, undergo a collective cooling rite, which is the reverse of the masculine ceremony. Every morning during their month-long retreat, they are led, with faces veiled, to a pool and dunked into water up to their necks. Back in the hut, they are not allowed to warm themselves near the fire. During Pedi initiation, girls are also dunked into a stream to take away heat caused by menstruation, but this occurs at sunset. The Tsonga and Venda both apply cooling treatments to lower girls' temperatures.

Solar symbolism remains a vital part of the Tsonga ceremony. Initiates leave for the place of circumcision at dawn while the morning star heralds the sun, which will pull them out of the "darkness" of childhood. In addition to putting a feminine elephant fire in place of the Pedi masculine lion fire, the Venda (and probably also the Tsonga) change its direction along a north-south axis. According to a widespread conception in southern Africa, the sun travels from its northern to its southern houses between dry and rainy seasons. Like the Pedi, the Tsonga hold initiation ceremonies during the dry season. As the southern summer solstice and the first rains draw near, the newly initiated may start "following the elephant's tracks"fearlessly approaching women. The opposition between the elephant's dry ground and the crocodile's watery place is a sign of the changing seasons. Sexuality corresponds, as among the Pedi, to the cosmic order governed by the sun's course.

Thus the symbolic system of circumcision is based upon a kind of thermodynamics that characterizes all thought among the southeastern Bantu-speaking peoples. Moreover, circumcision resembles the mukanda complex of rituals that is diffused among such matrilineal Bantu-speaking peoples as the Ndembu and Chokwe in western central Africa. Consequently it brings to light a particularly interesting historical problem. Did the matrilineal societies in the region that is now comprised of Zambia, Angola, and northwest Zaire maintain a very old Bantu cultural tradition that was lost by other groups (much like the patrilineal Sotho and their near neighbors did in southern Africa)? This hypothesis cannot be dismissed a priori. However many arguments support another interpretation (de Heusch, 1982). It seems more plausible that the southern Bantu-speaking zone should be considered as the center of diffusion of this institution to central Africa. This type of diffusion would have taken place in the land of the Lozi, or Rotse, where the Kololo conquerors (of Sotho origin) took power in 1836. They ruled until 1864 and set up circumcision camps there that were associated with the military formation of young men. Among the Ndembu these rites also make one a warrior. Everything leads one to believe that during the nineteenth century the circumcision camps inaugurated by the Sotho conquerors were gradually adopted by neighboring populations who added to the circumcision rituals their own practice of using masks. Naturally, in each case the model is transformed from one region to another, but this transformation always takes place within the logic of symbolic thought already at work in southern Africa.

See Also

Swazi Religion.


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Luc de Heusch (1987)

Translated from French by Noal Mellott
Revised Bibliography

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Southern African Religions: Southern Bantu Religions

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Southern African Religions: Southern Bantu Religions