Swazi Religion

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SWAZI RELIGION . The Swazi are part of the vast Bantu-speaking population of southern Africa, and their rich cultural heritage is a fusion of Nguni and Sotho elements. Prior to the incursion of colonial and Western influences they were Iron Age horticulturalists and cattle pastoralists, organized into centralized chieftancies. Polygyny and patrilineal descent characterize the kinship system.

The Swazi developed their particular national identity under a dual monarchy represented by a hereditary king of the Nkosi Dlamini clan and a queen mother (the mother of the king or, if she is dead, a surrogate). Unlike other African kingdoms that came under British colonial rule, the Swazi were never conquered by direct force, and much of their traditional culture survived and flourished under the leadership of King Sobhuza II (18991982). A direct lineal descendant of the founder of the royal Dlamini dynasty, Sobhuza was internationally acknowledged in 1968 as king and head of the newly created, independent state of Swaziland.

In 1982 approximately half a million Swazi lived in the Kingdom of Swaziland, an arbitarily demarcated country of 6,705 square miles wedged between the Republic of South Africa and the People's Republic of Mozambique. This tiny kingdom, the heartland of traditional culture, is ecologically diverse and rich in natural resources. Its wealth includes fertile soils, abundant perennial bush pasturage, forests alive with wondrous trees and wild animals, precious minerals, and four major rivers and several streams. Some 40 percent of all land, the legacy of colonial concessions, is owned by whites. Although few Swazi are able to support themselves with agriculture or pastoralism and most rely on wage labor, they remain deeply attached to their ancestral lands and to their cattle. The land is vested in the king as trustee for the nation, and its use is allocated by hereditary chiefs to heads of homesteads. Throughout the region, the king and queen mother are renowned for their knowledge of ritual "to work the rain," the symbol of fertility and "the water of life."

Swazi traditionalists perceive a majestic order in their universe, one alive with powers, emandla (a collective noun that has no singular). These powers continue through time and are not bound by space. They appear in diverse forms and operate with varying degrees of potency. They are in substance rather than of substance; in water, not of water; in earth, not of earth; in man, not of man. Among the Swazi, no rigid division is drawn between natural and supernatural. No substance is considered immutable. Sacred and secular are shifting dimensions of a total reality in which human behavior may influence the elements as much as the elements influence the human condition. Between them there is perpetual and dynamic interaction.

The Swazi have no elaborate myth of creation. The world is there, mysterious and wonderful. In the symbolic system of the Swazi, there is a diversified hierarchy of powers connecting humans to each other and to the cosmos. In the mythical distance is Mvelamqandi ("who-appeared-first") generally described as a power "above," unapproachable, unpredictable, of no specific sex. He/she is sometimes identified with, and sometimes distinguished from, Mkhulumqandi, the first mkhulu, a term applied to a grandfather, symbolic mediator between those living on the earth and those "below," the ancestors, emadloti. Mvelamqandi occasionally sent as his messenger Mlendengamunye, the "one-legged" (interpreted as oneness, unity), who descended in a thick mist and whose appearance, visible only to women and children, portended the coming of fever, a generic term for a variety of illnesses; thus Mlendengamunye had to be propitiated with symbolic sacrifices. He was last seen in the reign of King Mbandzeni (18751889), during a period of early missionary activity. Although Mvelamqandi, Mkhulumqandi, and Mlendengamunye are no longer mentioned in prayer or sacrifice, Swazi theologians, including Sobhuza, have referred to these three divinities, as well as to other powers in the pantheonsuch as the rainbow, titled Inkosatana ("the princess"); the lightning, titled Inyoni ("the bird"); and a water serpent, titled Inyoka Yemakhandakhanaa ("the snake with many heads")to emphasize a sacred and hierarchical order of the cosmos.

The earth is seen as stationary; the calendar of religious events, both national and domestic, is regulated by the visible movements of the sun against fixed points on the horizon and by its position in relation to the waxing and waning of the moon. The divinity of the king is associated with the sunradiant, burning, source of both heat and light, journeying across the sky in a more or less regular path twice a year, controlling the seasons and the productive activities of nature. The moon has its own internal dialectic, associated with fertility, femininity and growth, decline and rebirth. Ceremonies to introduce a person into the fullness of a new status take place when the moon is growing or when it is full. A ceremony that temporarily isolates a man from his fellows is held in the period of the moon's decline and darkness.

The earth, mother to the living and the dead, must be approached with reverence. When a person dies, all in the homestead are prohibited from digging, plowing, or planting, or in other ways "wounding" the earth until the body has been buried and the mourners purified. When Sobhuza died in late August 1982 (the time of the first rains), such prohibitions were imposed throughout the kingdom until the rising of the third moon. The fact that rain did not fall for several weeks afterward and that the country was threatened by drought and famine was interpreted as a reaction to this disturbance in the balance between human actions, the ancestors, and cosmic powers.

The king and the queen mother together represent the physical embodiment of sacred power, as indicated by their traditional titles, ingwenyama ("the lion") and indlovukah ("the she-elephant"). These are two of the most powerful animals in nature: the lionmale, father of many cubs, aggressive, carnivorous; the she-elephantmaternal, matriarchal, stable, firm, herbivorous, mother of one calf after a long period of gestation. Together the two monarchs are spoken of as "a twin," a mysterious, unequal double, united in a relationship riddled with ambivalence. Their everyday actionseating, drinking, bathing, dressingare circumscribed by taboos, and they receive unique treatment to endow them with the "shadow of sovereignty."

At the observable, sociological level, the queen mother and king live in separate homesteads; hers is the sacred center, his is the administrative capital. Their duties are complementary; the balance of power is delicate, and tension between them is believed to endanger the physical condition of the country. The most sacred objects are in the care of the queen mother, and the king must come to the shrine of the nation to address his royal ancestors and offer sacrifices. The correct performance of rituals takes considerable time, concentration, and self-discipline. While the secrets of specific rituals are known to appointed representatives of historically associated clans, only the king is "owner" of all.

Swazi religion sanctions enjoyment of the material and physical: food, women, and dancing. It does not idealize poverty or place a value on suffering as a means to happiness or salvation. To deal with the hazards of lifefailure of crops, unfaithfulness of women, illness and ultimate deaththe culture provides a set of optimistic notions and positive, stereotyped techniques that are especially expressed through the ancestral cult, the vital religion of the Swazi.

In the ancestral cult, the world of the living is projected into the world of spirits (emadloti), who continue the patterns of superiority and inferiority established by earthly experiences as man or woman, old or young, aristocrat or commoner.

Swazi believe that the spirit, or breath, has an existence distinct from that of the flesh. When a person dies, both flesh and spirit must be correctly treated to safeguard the living and show appropriate respect for the dead. Mortuary ritual varies according to both the status of the deceased and his or her relationship with different categories of mourners. The flesh is buried in a cattle kraal, hut, cave, or royal grove. The spirit, after a brief period of aimless wandering, is ritually "brought back" at a sacrificial feast to the family circle.

For conservatives, irrespective of rank or age, the ancestors are an integral part of the reality of routine daily life. Their presence is all-pervasive; their relationships to each category of members of the kinship circlemarried, unmarried, agnates, and in-lawsaffect the language, movements, and clothing of the living. This is particularly conspicuous in the laws of "respect" governing the behavior of a married woman, the outsider brought in to perpetuate the husband's lineage (e.g., she must avoid speaking any word containing the first syllable of the names of particular senior male in-laws; she must not walk in front of the entrance to the shrine or through the cattle kraal). Visitors, on entering a homestead, on receiving food or other hospitality, praise the headman, not as an individual, but by reciting the names of his clan; clan praises are ancestral commemorations.

It is through the ancestors that Swazi confront the universal issues of mortality and morality. Emadloti represent continuity through fertility. They may appear in dreams, or they may materialize temporarily as "snakes" (e.g., the king as a terrifying mamba, the queen mother as a beautiful lizard, a wife as a harmless green garden snake).

Illness and other misfortunes are frequently attributed to the ancestors, but Swazi believe that emadloti do not inflict sufferings through malice or wanton cruelty. The mean husband, the adulterous wife, the overambitious younger brother, the disobedient son may be dealt with directly or vicariously by the spirits, who thus act as custodians of correct behavior and social ethics. Ancestors punish, they do not kill; death is brought about by evildoers (batsakatsi), who are interested in destroying, not in perpetuating, the lineage or the state. If an illness originally divined as sent by the emadloti later becomes fatal, evildoers are assumed to have taken advantage of the patient's weakened condition. Ancestors have greater wisdom, foresight, and power than the rest of mankind, but they are not considered omnipotent.

Swazi have no class of ordained priests, and the privileged duty of appealing to the emadloti rests with the head of the family. The father acts on behalf of his sons; if he is dead, the older brother acts on behalf of the younger. In this patrilineal society, ancestors of a married woman remain at her natal home, approachable only by her senior male kinsmen. Contact is usually made through the medium of "food" (meat, beer, or tobacco snuff); the dead, who are said to be often hungry, "lick" the essence of the offerings laid at dusk on an altar in the shrine hut and left overnight.

Emadloti are spoken of with respect and fear, and they are routinely addressed with the formality demanded by living elders. But they are not adored or worshiped. They are approached as practical beings, and appeals to them are sometimes spontaneous and conversational, interspersed with rebukes and generally devoid of gratitude. There is no conflict between the ethics of the ancestral cult and the mundane desires of life. Swazi desire the ends they say the emadloti desire for them.

Interpreting the messages of the ancestors is the task of diviners (tangoma ), the main specialists in deep, esoteric knowledge. They are called upon to reveal the cause of illness or misfortune (the particular offense or the specific ancestor who must be "remembered" or appeased), and they indicate, but do not carry out, the cure (ritual sacrifice, purification, or medical treatment). Tangoma work in collaboration with specialists in medicines (tinyanga temitsi), but whereas the latter acquire their knowledge voluntarily and deliberately, each diviner is "entered," often against his or her will, by an ancestral spirit who takes control.

The training of diviners is lengthy and arduous. They suffer both mentally and physically, and when they finally qualify, "reborn like the new moon," their entire being has changed. Dressed in the strange costume of their new calling, they demonstrate their powers in a public séance, accompanying their performances with inspired songs and dances. Techniques of divination vary; some diviners use material objects (bones, shells, roots), while others rely on "feel" or verbal cues. There is no fixed hierarchy of diviners, and reputations fluctuate. Though some individual diviners are recognized as frauds and others are seen as fallible, perception through possession by the ancestors is never challenged.

Diviners, who are often of exceptional intelligence, perform within the legal framework of religion. In this capacity they practice against evildoers (witches and sorcerers) who act illegally, in secret and horrible ways, some through an innate propensity for evil, others through deliberate use of material substances, including poisons and parts of the human body. Political leaders and other aristocrats employ medicine men and diviners to bolster their positions, but are actively discouraged from becoming either medicine men or diviners themselves, since this would interfere with their administrative duties and does not fit into their ascribed status. The Ingwenyama is believed to have deeper knowledge than any of his subjects and to be able to detect and destroy evildoers by virtue of his royal blood reinforced by unique royal potions.

The king and his mother take the lead in the cycle of national rituals. The most dramatic and illuminating example is the Ncwala, a ritual which grows in elaboration and potency as the king increases in power. If the king dies and his successor is a minor, a very attenuated ceremony, known as the Simemo, is performed. (On Sobhuza's death, the council selected as his heir a boy of fourteen years.) Traditionally, the first full Ncwala should be performed when the young king reaches full manhood and is married to two ritual queens.

Ncwala is divided into two parts, Little Ncwala and Big Ncwala. Little Ncwala, which opens when the sun reaches its resting place in the south and the moon has waned, lasts two days and symbolizes the break with the old year. Big Ncwala, which opens when the moon is full and lasts six days, symbolically revitalizes the king and fortifies the nation against evildoers within the country and enemies outside its borders. In the liminal period, sacred dances and songs are practiced throughout the country, ritual costumes are prepared, and sacred ingredients are collected by national priests. Swazi participants, as well as foreign analysts, interpret the complex ritual at various levels of meaning.

Ingwenyama is recognized as the "owner" of Ncwala. Anyone else who attempts to "dance Ncwala" is judged guilty of treason. Politically, Ncwala is a reflection of rank in which major social categoriesprinces, chiefs, queens, councillors, and warriors in age regimentsare visibly distinguished from each other by sacred costumes and perform distinctive roles in the service of Ingwenyama as symbol of the nation. At another level, Ingwenyama is mystically identified with the miraculous and ever-changing powers in naturethe sun and the moon, not as separate elements but in their interaction. The king's body is bathed with "waters of all the world" drawn from rivers and from the ocean by two groups of national priests, each group carrying a sacred gourd titled Inkosatana, "the princess," which is also the title of the rainbow. Ingwenyama "bites" of the green foods of the new year and also of the organs of a fierce black bull which has been thrown and pummeled to the rhythm of a lullaby by a regiment of "pure youths who have not yet spilled their strength in children."

The king appears in the ceremonies in a variety of unique clothing, whether it be a penis sheath of ivory on his naked body or, as at the climax of the main day, an indescribably elaborate costume of bright green, razor-edged grass and evergreen shoots. With his face half hidden by a cap of black plumes over a headband of lion skin, he is an awe-inspiring creature of the wild.

On the final day of the ritual, the day of purification, relics of the past year are burned on a pyre in the sibaya (cattle kraal) of the capital village, and rain, symbolizing the blessing of the ancestors, must fall to extinguish the flame and drench the rulers and their people.

A complementary and less elaborate women's ritual, Mhlanga (from the word for "reed," a symbol of fertility), centers on the queen mother. Each winter, unmarried girls are sent on a pilgrimage to marshy areas to cut the long supple reeds needed to repair the fences surrounding the enclosures of the queen mother and the queens. The reeds must be golden ripe, not brittle, the tassles full, and the seeds not yet dispersed. The girls wear brief costumes to reveal their beauty and purity, and singing and dancing are essential for the performance. The king must be present; the girls are feasted and the ancestors offered their share.

Although early missionaries who preached the Protestant ethic condemned traditional Swazi beliefs and practices, Swazi rulers were interested in learning the new religion. From their point of view, the ancestral cult is not incompatible with the basic tenets of Christianity, only with the specific applications of the tenets that missionaries have made.

Sobhuza never identified himself with any specific denomination, but his role as priest-king of the entire country was increasingly recognized during his reign not only by independent African churches, but by some of the more conventional congregations as well. Queen mothers have retained their affiliation with individual churches while at the same time carrying out their traditional ritual duties. Priests of independent churches participate in Ncwala, and members of any denomination may hold services in the Lobamba National Church, an impressive structure completed in 1978 in the ambience of the ritual capital. The extent to which this symbiotic process will continue is unpredictable. As long as the myth of the Swazi divine kingship retains a political hold over the Swazi, this will be ritualized in the Ncwala. If the myth is abandoned and Swazi kingship ends or is made subordinate to other myths with different loyalties and interests (such as individual equality), both the ritual and the underlying political meaning of the Ncwala will be lost. But judging from the histories of other African societies, the Swazi will hold to their belief in the ancestors and in diviners.


There is as yet no full-length study of Swazi religion, although a general monograph by Brian Allan Marwick, The Swazi (Cambridge, 1940), does include a chapter titled "Religion and Magic." A very rich store of information on Swazi beliefs, rituals, and symbols is contained in books and articles I have written: among them, An African Aristocracy: Rank among the Swazi (Oxford, 1947) is a detailed account of the traditional political system and its economic and religious institutions; The Swazi: A South African Kingdom (New York, 1963) is a case study with an interpretive chapter on religion; So-bhuza II: Ngwenyama and King of Swaziland (London, 1978) is a biography of a traditional king which illustrates the importance of religion as an attribute of modern Swazi kingship. The close relationship between Swazi kingship and the independent church movement is well documented by Bengt Sundkler in Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists (Lund and Oxford, 1976).

My study "A Ritual of Kingship among the Swazi," Africa 14 (1944): 230256, also included in An African Aristocracy, is a detailed ethnographic account of Ncwala based on participant observation and texts. The ritual has received different interpretations by scholars with diverse theoretical approaches. The most significant of these studies are Max Gluckman's Rituals of Rebellion in Southeast Africa (Manchester, 1954), which emphasizes political and social functions; T. O. Beidelman's "Swazi Royal Ritual," Africa 36 (October 1966): 373405, which interprets the cosmological system and makes use of Jungian psychology; and Luc de Heusch's Mythes et rites bantous, vol. 2, Rois nés d'un coeur de vache (Paris, 1982), which sets the Ncwala in a broad comparative framework built on a brilliant, Lévi-Straussian analysis of sacred kingship in Africa.

New Sources

Cummergen, Paul. "Zionism and Politics in Swaziland." Journal of Religion in Africa, 30 (2000): 370386.

Hall, James. Sangoma: An Odyssey into the Spirit World of Africa. New York, 1994.

Kasanene, Peter. Swazi Traditional Religion and Society. Mbabane, 1993.

Hilda Kuper (1987)

Revised Bibliography