Zulu Religion

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ZULU RELIGION . After nearly 150 years of missionary activity the majority of the some 5.5 million Zulu-speaking South Africans are Christians. For many, however, the amadlozi (ancestors or shades of dead kin) who once dominated Zulu religion are still a force to be reckoned with and propitiated. The acceptance of the power of the amadlozi to intervene in the lives of their descendants and to help them is manifested in the beliefs and rituals of most of the African independent churches to which, indeed, over a quarter of all Zulu Christians belong. The basic concerns of traditional Zulu religionthe pursuit of health, fertility, and a balance between man and man and between man and natureare as relevant today as ever. Since these are the very areas in which the ancestors are thought to be most powerful, offerings to the amadlozi occur in many contexts both traditional and Christian. These offerings take place both in the far-flung areas of rural KwaZulu (the geographical area situated on the east coast of South Africa between 28° and 31° south latitude from which most Zulu originated even if they have no ties there today) as well as in cosmopolitan urban centers where Zulu mingle with other South Africans as residents and work-seekers.

Attention is focused here upon the major enduring features of Zulu religion as first reported in the writings of early travelers and missionaries, and later in contemporary anthropological work in KwaZulu, notably that of Harriet Ngubane, whose study of the Nyuswa-Zulu provides a picture of how Zulu religion is practiced today and highlights the previously neglected role of women in belief and ritual.

In Zulu thought the ancestors are only one part of a more extensive system of beliefs. Within this system, the natural order is thought to impinge closely upon man for human beings are thought to be related both physically and psychically to their environment and to be vulnerable to harmful forces in nature. Such forces either operate automatically or are manipulated by sorcerers (abathakathi ) who cause ill health, misfortune, and the general state of vulnerability known as isifo. The ancestors also harm the living but only as a warning when they are angry; in fact, the amadlozi, many of whom were once known to the living, are the major protectors against sorcery. Appropriate ancestral offerings are cattle or goats that are sacrificed, the meat being left overnight for the ancestors to "lick" (khotha ) and to share with the living. Diviners called izangoma (sg., isangoma ) are consulted whenever illness, misfortune, or unusual events occur, for it is they alone who can ascertain the cause. They also recommend paths of reparation in the case of ancestral anger and, in the event of sorcery, may point out the sorcerer or suggest countermeasures. Diviners are called to their profession by their own ancestors, who possess and guide them, and they undergo a lengthy training in their art. Herbalists (izinyanga ) also treat disease and provide protective medicines but, because they are not possessed by the spirits, they lack powers of divination.

Zulu Cosmology and the Natural Order

The Zulu say that in the beginning there was uMvelinqangi, literally the first "comer-out," who broke off from a reed bed followed by human beings, animals, and nature as a whole. He sent a chameleon to humanity with the message that they would live forever. Later, growing impatient with the chameleon's slowness, he sent a lizard with the message that all humans would die, and because it was the faster animal, the lizard arrived first. In some tales uMvelinqangi is portrayed as the source of the known social order, for he gave human beings their ancestors and decided how the ancestors should be approached and placated. There is, however, little evidence that uMvelinqangi was worshiped directly. Ideas about him probably served largely as explanatory constructs for the natural order (and some features of the social order), and in traditional times such ideas would have played a minor role in everyday religious practice. Another name for uMvelinqangi was uNkulunkulu ("the old, old one"), a term that missionaries used for "God," thus causing some confusion by conflating Zulu ideas of a pure creator with Christian notions of a creator and supreme being to whom regular worship must be directed. Distinct from uMvelinqangi is iNkosi yeZulu, the lord of the sky and personification of heaven. He is associated with thunder and lightning, which are greatly feared and against which specially trained herbalists offer pro-tection.

Linked also with the sky or the "above" (ezulwini a critical concept that contrasts with phansi, the "below," where the dead go before becoming ancestors) is iNkosazana yeZulu, or merely iNkosazana, the princess of heaven (uNomkhubulwana). The latter term is derived from khubula ("to sow again after rain or sun has destroyed crops"), and this female deity is closely associated with abundance and sufficient (but not too much) rain. She bestows fertility on crops, cattle, and human beings and is often actively placated in times of drought and searing heat. The patron of women and particularly of young girls, iNkosazana is said to appear in the fructifying mists of spring and to stand on the threshold of summer like a girl whose puberty ceremonies mark her entry to marriage and procreation. The same songs are sung both at girls' puberty ceremonies and at ceremonies held in honor of iNkosazana; in both cases the songs are thought to promote fertility and good rains. Before hoeing begins, women sometimes plant a small field for iNkosazana near a river, and a libation of beer is poured on the ground to the accompaniment of a prayer for a fruitful harvest. Other ceremonies connected with the goddess are aimed at warding off pests that affect crops, cattle diseases, and maladies common in spring and summer such as malaria and gastroenteritis. The word ukushweleza ("to make an apology"), which is used in connection with these rituals, suggests the placation of iNkosazana's anger and the setting of things in order so that the season will proceed without mishap. Because of its conceptual links with fertility and girls' puberty ceremonials, the cult of iNkosazana must be seen against the background of the widespread emphasis upon fertility in African cosmological systems. Her cult has a counterpart in the uyali-vuhwera fertility cult and the gomana drum cult of the northeastern Transvaal Lowveld, but the Zulu are unique among Bantu-speaking peoples in southern Africa in their conception of a female deity associated with fertility who is worshiped even today.

The natural order impinges on life in other ways which affect health and well-being. In contrast to illnesses caused by sorcery or ancestral anger, there is an extremely wide range of diseases stretching from the common cold to more serious epidemics like smallpox or measles, which are said to "just happen." These maladies may be due to natural causes such as the changing of the seasons or the inevitable processes of aging and maturation. Many are treated with medicines which are potent in themselves and do not necessarily require ritual or religious accompaniment, although protection against certain seasonal illnesses may be sought from iNkosazana. Another important class of natural illnesses are thought to result inevitably from imbalances in nature. All living things are believed to leave behind something of themselves and absorb something of the atmosphere through which they move. Such influences, called imikhondo ("tracks"), may be detrimental to the individual. Treatment, while bringing relief to one person, may release the dangerous element to affect others. To keep the immediate environment pure, people seek to discard imikhondo in public places such as highways and crossroads, where they are thought to mix with other noxious substances placed there by sorcerers; these areas are thus extremely dangerous to travelers. Moving into a new environment may in itself be dangerous, as one is not yet attuned to its influences. Several categories of people are particularly at risk from environmental influences including newcomers to an area, infants who have only recently entered the world, and all those who are temporarily in a weakened state, known as umnyama. This last category includes the bereaved, newly delivered mothers, homicides, and menstruating women. Although all people should be strengthened from time to time against alien environmental influences, these people must be given specific treatments, often both medicinal and ritual, aimed not only at strengthening them but also at achieving or restoring order or symmetry between them and their environment. The word commonly used to describe such treatment is ukuzilungisa (from lunga, "to be as should be," and isa, "to come to be"), which implies the restitution of balance not only between man and nature but sometimes between man and man or between man and his ancestors.

Certain natural processes are thought to weaken the individual. The most important and general is umnyama, to which reference was made above, and which may be literally translated as "darkness," "blackness," or "heaviness." This state results from contact with death or birth, which renders the individual open to sorcery, other malign influences, bad luck, and misfortune, and also makes him or her a danger to others. Women are extremely vulnerable to umnyama because of their biological association with procreation and because the chief mourners at funerals are always women. Indeed, Ngubane argues that because of this dual association with the beginning and end of life, women occupy a "marginal" position in Zulu cosmology and serve as a symbolic bridge between "this world" (the world of the living) and the "otherworld" (that of the spirits). Women, however, not only link this world and the otherworld, but in their roles as daughter in one kinship group and mother in another they form a bridge between two distinct patrilineages. Zulu society is strongly patrilineal, and marriage may occur only outside the clan. A bride is thus an outsider in her affinal home, yet it is only through her that her husband's group can reproduce itself. This social marginality is indicated by certain linguistic avoidances or restrictions (hlonipha ) placed upon a bride and also by the fear that married women are potential sorcerers in their husband's homestead. Since the bearer of children is thus paradoxically also a threat to continuity of the patriline, Zulu social structure places married women in an ambiguous position which complements the marginality they derive from their biological and cultural association with birth and death. Diviners are also seen to be marginal in that they intercede between the living and the dead, between this world and the otherworld, and it is significant that most diviners are women and that men who are called to this position are transvestites.

Ancestors and Social Life

As Eileen Jensen Krige has pointed out, "the real vital religion of the Zulus is their ancestor worship" (Krige, 1936). Indeed, when things are going well, the Zulu say that their ancestors are "with them," but when misfortune strikes, they say that the ancestors are "facing away." Revelations are made in dreams and visions as well as through misfortune, and what angers the ancestors most is neglect and failure to fulfill kinship obligations. Different aspects of the overall conception of the ancestors are indicated in the various Zulu words used for the dead. Amadlozi is derived from dloza, meaning "to care for, keep an eye on," but because the spirit world is thought to be situated "below" (phansi ), the ancestors are often referred to simply as abaphansi, "those of the below." Another word frequently used is amathongo, from ubuthongo, "deep sleep," a reference to one of the ways in which the ancestors contact the living. Diviners address their ancestors as makhosi, from inkhosi, "chief," and ubukhosi, "authority, power, glory," thus emphasizing the major nuances of the unique relationship between them and the spirits which possess them. The word isithunzi, from umthunzi, "shadow," refers to the force or personality that leaves the body at death and wanders aimlessly until it is "brought home" (buyisa ) by a special ceremony designed to integrate it (as an idlozi, or ancestor proper) into the body of powerful ancestors who have control over the living. Since the spirits are dependent upon their descendants to perform this and other ancestral rituals, the relationship between the living and the dead is one of mutuality which excludes non-kin and reflects the major emphases of Zulu kinship and particularly patrilineal organization.

A man's most important ancestors are his father, mother, father's father, and father's mother, as well as the father's brothers who act with and share sacrifices offered to deceased parents and grandparents. Among the Nyuswa-Zulu, about whom we have recent knowledge from the work of Ngubane, amadlozi more than three generations removed from a homestead head are not thought to be dangerous. They are said, however, to come to sacrifices along with closer ancestors, and may even possess a diviner as a supporting spirit. The living kin who gather for ancestral rituals largely include the patrilineal descendants of a grandfather, and the women who have married these men. At sacrifices, it is the genealogically senior male (umnumzane ) who officiates. Among the Nyuswa-Zulu the married men of this cluster or segment (umndeni ) of two or three generations often live close to each other and, under the headship of the umnumzane, act as a corporate group in the control and management of common resources (such as land) and in the settlement of internal disputes. The authority of the umnumzane is bolstered by his ritual position and the fact that younger agnates can approach the ancestors only through him. The rituals of the ancestor cult therefore both demonstrate and, in the Durkhemian sense, promote the corporate character and social continuity of the umndeni. On the political level, the ancestors of the king guard and protect the whole society and are sacrificed to at national festivals. Prior to the defeat of the Zulu nation and the disbanding of the army by the British, the king's ancestors were always called upon before warriors went into battle.

The ancestor cult reflects a number of other important aspects of Zulu social life. The role of the chief wife who bears the heir is emphasized, for it is on the umsamo of her hut (the rear part of the dwelling associated with the spirits) that sacrificial meat is placed for the ancestors to share. Individual social identities are often fixed unambiguously by calling on the ancestors. Thus a baby is placed formally under the control of the ancestors to whose line it belongs by the sacrifice of a goat known as imbeleko, the skin of which is used to secure the baby on its mother's back. This ceremony is usually performed by the child's father or father's father, but in the case of an unmarried woman, the responsibility lies with her father and his umndeni to which the child belongs.

In former times abandoned children were adopted by an imbeleko sacrifice, thus demonstrating that it is social rather than biological paternity which is important. By the same token, one of the objectives of wedding ceremonies is to introduce the bride, who comes from another descent group, to her husband's ancestors and to put her under their care. Neglect of this formality may result in failure on the part of her affinal ancestors to recognize and protect her and her children. Barrenness is sometimes, however, attributed to a married woman's own ancestors who may, for instance, be angry that the correct puberty ceremonies were not performed for her. They may also make her ill if they want her to become a diviner. In both cases it is her father's responsibility to set matters in order. The fact that a married woman can be affected by her own ancestors as well as those of her husband serves both to underline the separate identity of affinal groups linked by marriage and to indicate the married woman's role as a bridge between the two patrilineages. With time and the birth of children she is effectively transferred from the one descent group to the other. After menopause she may eat those parts of ancestral sacrifices reserved for members of her affinal kin group, and she may even call on the ancestors if no suitable male is present. At death she is fully incorporated into her affinal group when she is brought back by her son as one of his patrilineal ancestors. She has then completed the "long journey" (udwendwe ) that she began as a bride, and in so doing she had mediated between the conflicting interests of patriliny and exogamy in Zulu society.

Spirit Possession

Spirit possession is an important and dynamic aspect of Zulu life. The call to be a diviner takes the form of recognized mental and physical affliction, the cure for which are initiation and professional training. The traditional isangoma (and her counterpart in many Christian sects) is a pivotal force for order and rapprochement between man and the spirit world. There are, however, new forms of spirit possession that were first reported at the turn of the century, which have intensified since the 1930s. These are destructive and anarchic; Ngubane relates them to the disruptive effects of social and industrial change. Indiki and ufufunyane (or iziwe ) are the most prevalent types, resulting from possession by the deceased spirits of foreigners, which have not been integrated into the body of the ancestors. Indiki are possessed by male spirits who enter the individual's chest by chance and manifest themselves in a deep bellowing voice which speaks in a foreign tongue. Treatment often involves replacing the alien spirit with an ancestral spirit, and the indiki may become a diviner. Ufufunyane is diagnosed as due to sorcery and is a particularly intractable form, for the alien spirit becomes violent when challenged. The possessed individuals become hysterical and may attempt suicide in a frenzy. Treatment involves dispelling the alien spiritor often hordes of spirits of different race groupsand replacing them by spirits controlled by the doctor and referred to as a regiment (amabutho ). The image is one of war against the sorcerer's evil medicine; no attempt is made to call an ancestral spirit, and no cult membership or professionalization results.

Traditional Belief and Zulu Christianity

Zulu cosmological ideas have been incorporated into Zulu Christian thought in a number of subtle ways. The word for "breath" (umoya ) is translated as "Holy Spirit," and people said to be filled with the Holy Spirit become leaders in African independent churches that have split off from orthodox congregations. In these churches Christian beliefs coexist with aspects of traditional Zulu belief, and leadership reveals striking similarities to traditional divination in that the prophet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, explains misfortune and prescribes remedies. These may include ancestral offerings as well as orthodox Christian prayer. Protection against sorcery and misfortune is given by prayer and also medicine, and the blend of the two religious systems is basic to the vibrancy of African Christianity as it has developed, not only in the independent churches, but recently in orthodox congregations as well. Healing, purification, and the search for fertility are major issues in African Christianity, and many of the sects and churches that have proliferated in town and country serve not only the spiritual needs of their members but perform important social and welfare functions in the context of the chronic poverty and political subordination that has characterized the lives of many Zulu in the twentieth century.


The most important of the early works on Zulu religion is the Reverend Henry Callaway's The Religious System of the Amazulu (1870; reprint, Cape Town, 1970), which presents original texts by Zulu informants together with translations and notes. A. T. Bryant's article "The Zulu Cult of the Dead," Man 17 (September 1917): 140145, and his book The Zulu People (1948; New York, 1970), which gives details on Nomkhubulwane beliefs and ceremonies, provide a useful summary of what may be considered the main elements of the traditional belief system as described to early travelers and missionaries. An anthropological analysis, built up largely from these sources, but placing both belief and practice in their wider social context, is to be found in Eileen Jensen Krige's The Social System of the Zulus (Pietermaritzburg, 1936), pp. 280296.

Two studies that deal with the present situation, both based on detailed anthropological research, are the Reverend Axel-Ivar Berglund's Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism (London, 1976), and Harriet Ngubane's Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine (London, 1977). The first work offers an exhaustive compilation of detail, which provides some important insights, and also discusses a number of problematic conceptual issues. However, for scholars and laymen alike, Ngubane's book is the best starting point; an ethnographic study of one community, it is written lucidly and with the insight of a Zulu anthropologist. For doctors and those involved in the medical field, it is a sine qua non as it examines religious beliefs as part of Zulu ideas about the causation and treatment of disease.

Researchers seeking to become conversant with the details of Zulu thought patterns should consult Otto F. Raum's The Social Functions of Avoidances and Taboos among the Zulu (Berlin and New York, 1973), as it presents fascinating but very detailed data on a wide range of beliefs and their associated avoidances. The writings of Katesa Schlosser will also be of interest, especially Zauberei im Zululand: Manuskripte des Blitz-Zauberers Laduma Madela (Kiel, 1972), a study of Zulu mythology as told by a lightning doctor. Although the latter work shows how one Zulu philosopher has rethought and to some extent reinterpreted and expanded traditional Zulu cosmological notions, none of the above works concentrate specifically on change. Those interested in this aspect should consult Bengt Sundkler's Bantu Prophets in South Africa, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1961), and his more recent Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists (Lund and Oxford, 1976). The sociological and welfare concomitants of many African independent churches are discussed in the work of James P. Kiernan; see in particular "Pure and Puritan: An Attempt to View Zionism as a Collective Response to Urban Poverty," African Studies 36 (1977): 3141. The continuing influence of the conception of the ancestors in literature and worldview is demonstrated by a recent collection of poems by the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (Exeter, N. H., 1982).

New Sources

Berglund, Axel-Iver. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Bloomington, 1989.

Canocini, Noverino N. Zulu Oral Traditions. Durban, 1996.

Hexham, Irving, ed. Texts on Zulu Religion: Traditional Zulu Ideas About God. Lewiston, N.Y., 1987.

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879. New York, 1998.

Mountain, Alan. The Rise and Fall of Zulu Empire. Constantia, South Africa, 1999.

Eleanor M. Preston-Whyte (1987)

Revised Bibliography