Archive for the Explanations Category

Ubuthakathi, abathakathi and ukuthakatha – a potential explanation

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2012 by White Zulu

 As usual, I’m going to start my explanation with the linguistics. The root of these three words, -thakath-, is most probably related to the verb –thaka, meaning ‘to compound or concoct medicinal mixtures, to mix up medicines, to dispense’. This verb, however, as well as the related nouns ‘umthaki’ and ‘isithako’, does not have a negative connotation – it simply relates to the idea of ‘medicine-mixing’ or pharmacy. In fact, in Vilakazi and Doke’s dictionary, there is no relation drawn between the two words. Another potential relationship might be between the root and a related noun ‘ubuthakathaka’, meaning ‘limpness, softness, weakness, feebleness or debility’. 

However, before we dive in to the potential roots, what does the word mean? The verb, ukuthakatha, means ‘to practise witchcraft, deal in nefarious charms, concoctions, poisons, etc.’. The related agent-noun is ‘umthakathi’ (plural ‘abathakathi’), meaning ‘one who practises witchcraft’, whereas the concept noun ‘ubuthakathi’ simply means ‘witchcraft’. However, these terms translated thus are not entirely accurate. Christianocentric views of ‘witchcraft’ or modern ‘wicca’ are that it is a negative system of belief or worldview, but this does not reflect the true situation. In fact, a more useful translation of the words would be ‘to deal in nefarious charms, concoctions, poisons or any other negative medico-magical items or interventions’ for ukuthakatha, and then similar translations for the other two words, rather than using the contested and often inaccurate term ‘witchcraft’. 

But what does all this mean? What does it mean when someone is accused as an ‘umthakathi’, or accused of ‘ubuthakathi’? Generally, an umthakathi is someone who aims to use potions, spells, poisons and curses in order to harm other people. There are different versions of how someone does this – some claim that an umthakathi is not necessarily conscious of his or her actions, and that they thakatha at night. Others claim that the umthakathi is completely conscious, and aims to hurt – through cursing with lightning, placing of umeqo spells, or casting an eye (ukuphonsa ihlo) at someone. 

Berglund (1976: 266) argues that 

“the Zulu idiom ubuthakathi implies two fields of evil. Firstly, it refers to an incarnate power geared towards harm and destruction which manifests itself through humans and, either directly or indirectly, is addressed to human beings.

Secondly, ubuthakathi is associated with the embedded neutral powers of materia, imithi, the manipulation of which is geared towards evil ends.” 

So there is a difference between a malevolent and evil power (ubuthakathi) manifest in people (abathakathi) who then wield it in order to cause harm, and the use of neutral imithi in order to cause harm, through the knowledge of the medical materials’ power. 

This complicates matters somewhat – medical materia or imithi are by their nature neutral, and anyone can obtain such material in order to poison or to use those properties which they possess in order to harm someone. Thus someone who is an inyanga one day can, by selling medicines which can be used to kill, become an umthakathi the next day. For this reason, it is often innocent izinyanga who are killed because their knowledge of herbs is feared. The second ‘field of evil’ would best be translated by the English word ‘sorceror’ – someone who uses physical or chemical preparations or concoctions in order to effect magic. The first ‘field of evil’, however, implies something supernatural and mystical, associated with things such as flying through the air, invisibility, and gruesome unions with various familiars and beasts.

Another distinction is that the umthakathi yemithi – the sorcerer – is usually something transmitted from parent to child. The other type of umthakathi usually works outside of any social group or clan.

Whether this clears up the issue of ubuthakathi, or calls for another explanatory article, is part of the ongoing discourse on the subject. As Berglund wrote in 1976 (269),

“thinking on ubuthakathi does not always follow only traditional patterns of expressing itself. Zulu society allows for continual and ongoing additions to the ideas of the reality of evil. Ubuthakathi is inclusive in a remarkable way, no description however fanciful and incredible being too extravagant to be true in the realm of ubuthakathi”

What is a Tokoloshe?

Posted in Explanations, Zombie Maskandi with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by White Zulu

Well, the first problem is one of spelling – is it Tokoloshe, Tikoloshe, Tokolo or Tokolosh? All of these are accepted, and (for the most part) the name is usually capitalised. It is unusual, except in cases like the Zombie Maskandi, for the plural to be used – this implies that the word was initially a name, a Mephisto or Hermes or Loki, rather than a description like ‘demon’ or ‘imp’.

Linguistically, the root of the word is not apparent – for one, what is interesting is the use of the hard ‘T’, which is fairly unusual in isiZulu. Other than the literal translations offered for the words used above, among which is…

“a fabulous water-sprite or kelpy, supposed to haunt certain rivers, to be very fond of women, to be mischievous to people, and to be used by witches for nefarious purposes, and said to resemble a tiny, hairy dwarf”

                                                                     (Vilakazi and Doke, s.v.)

… the only related words with the same root are ‘isitokolo’, which is inexplicably a kind of Tsetse fly trap, and ‘utokolo’, which is a contracted form of the full name. There are no verbs with this root, nor any other nouns. Expanding the search to include variant spellings such as ‘thokola’ or ‘thokoloshe’ reveals nothing at all. 

So the linguistics don’t help us – but we certainly have enough evidence from other areas, and particularly from people who claim to have seen or known the Tokoloshe. Berglund (1976, page 280) points out a number of interesting things about the ‘Tikoloshe’ – that he was traditionally harmless and mischievous, and “becomes harmful when he is caught by a witch”, and the he “is the most sought after of all the familiars because he can really satisfy (sexually) the hunger of the witches”. The sexual prowess of the Tokoloshe is well noted – Berglund’s informants stated that he “has an exceedingly large male member which, due to its size, has to be carried over the shoulders and around the neck”. In appearance he is “hairy like a pig”, is very short and has a split tongue – of interest here is that he cannot speak before a witch catches him and turns him into a familiar, and she is the one who splits his tongue so that he can speak the language that they understand.

There are many stories about the Tokoloshe, but one in particular adds another interesting dimension to the composite picture of this creature – on uKhozi FM, an isiZulu radio station broadcast from Durban, there was an interview one morning with a man who claimed to have the recipe for ‘seeing’ a Tokoloshe. The recipe ran thus:

First, you must remove the ubuthongo (the sleep) from a dog’s eye, first thing in the morning.

You must then put this sleep in your eye – dogs can see Tokoloshe, and so you must take their power into your own eyes before you can also see him.

Then, it is very importance that you stay far away from the hearth – the Tokoloshe is terribly afraid of fire, and the smell of smoke on your clothes will chase him away immediately.

You will see him in the lonely places, near water.

Seeing Tokoloshe is only the first step, however – there are many imithi which need to be used to strengthen yourself against his magic, and to trap him, and then to keep him. 

 So, how do these things fit together? What possible explanation can there be?

If you look at the different characteristics of the Tokoloshe, there are broadly two divergent aspects – his hyper-sexuality, and his fear of civilization.

The hyper-sexuality is a common feature of nocturnal demons such as succubi, as well as trickster or magical mythological figures such as Loki and Hermes. It may, in the South African context, be very tempting to trace the stories of Tokoloshe’s sexuality to more real predators, especially in light of one detail – the modern tendency to associate the Tokoloshe with the ‘bricks under the bed’. In modern South African homes, many people still raise their beds using bricks, or empty paint tins, in order to avoid the Tokoloshe’s advances. To anyone aware of the current issues around child abuse and rape in South Africa, these details speak of a fear of being sexually assaulted, as well as the fear of the real person committing the assault – by saying that ‘the Tokoloshe raped me last night’, you are avoiding saying that ‘my uncle raped me’.

However, in light of the fact that the Tokoloshe’s hypersexuality is found in other mythological and folklore figures around the world and across time, it’s probably better if we move away from the immediate context of South Africa and consider the facts a bit more objectively. Folklore figures noted for their prominent sexuality are often associated with fertility, and are equally as often associated with apotropaic (defending against evil) qualities, e.g. Hermes, and his ithyphallic statues used as street signs in ancient Athens. However, the ones who sneak into bedrooms at night, such as the succubi, are usually part of a more complex category of bogeymen – stories told to children to scare them into doing (or not doing, as the case may be) something or other. So the Tokoloshe is probably part fertility figure and part bogeyman.

But the issue of his fear of civilization is an intriguing one – according to many different sources, he only appears in wild places, near water, and at night. This may be an added feature of his bogeyman status, but there are also elements of Pan-type deities in this description. Of interest too is his fear of the smell of smoke from hearth-fires. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around this, but I have a few as-yet-unproven theories about it. 

So… what’s the deal with Gcabashe and his oTokoloshe in the courtroom? The simplest explanation would be to say that he is schizophrenic, and hearing the Tokoloshe speaking to him is just his way of explaining the voices in his head. But there is also the possibility that he was indeed bewitched in some way, and that the Tokoloshe is actually real. Maybe he found a dog, first thing in the morning?

Gaps in the feed of Zulu occult stories

Posted in Explanations with tags , , on May 4, 2012 by White Zulu

No, I wasn’t taken by an umkhovu, nor was I thakatha’d – I was on holiday! But, in the month since my last posts, there have been many strange and wonderful things in Isolezwe – stories about ubuthakathi causing a rise in suicides in Nongoma, follow-ups on the ‘Zombie Maskandi’ weirdness (on page 13, on Friday the 13th, no less!), and postponements in the case of the murdered demoniac. These will all be translated and posted soon, along with explanations where necessary. If at any point you’re unsure of something, comment on the blog or find me on twitter (@Teiresias13).

Thwasa – a definition

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2012 by White Zulu

As mentioned in the article on the initiate sangoma being fired from her workplace, here is the first of the explanations:

An ithwasa is a person whose state is best translated by the term ‘initiate’. The root of the word, -thwas-, has the verbal meaning of “emerge for the first time (as a season or new moon)” as well as “become possessed by a spirit (as occurs during divination)”. 

In the applied form ‘ethwasa’, the verb also means “show signs of a changing state, as by spirit-possession to become a diviner or doctor”.

In another form of the root, intwasa is the hlonipha (need another explanatory blog here) term for inyongo or bile. Bile or inyongo in Zulu medicine has similar associations to choler in the Galenic system of humours, and is quite often spiritually significant.

So an ithwasa is, linguistically speaking, a person emerging from a chrysalis, on the path to becoming an adept channeller of the amadlozi (explanation to come). A person who is in this state is particularly vulnerable to ubuthakathi (to be explained) and possession by amandiki, and so must burn impepho (also to be explained) and chela (sprinkle protective medicine) in the areas in which he or she works and lives.

An important point here is that ukuthwasa, the process of initation into ubungoma (the practice and traditions and essence of isangoma), is a strictly controlled and ritualised process, and is at no point associated with the western negative conception of ‘witchcraft’ (or the isiZulu concept of ‘ubuthakathi’). 

Inyanga – a definition and potential explanation

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , on March 27, 2012 by White Zulu

As with all things to do with religion and culture, the definitions of certain ritual roles in Zulu society are quite fluid, and have often been misdefined. An example of this is the word ‘inyanga’. For many years, this would have been defined as a ‘witch-doctor’ by people from outside Africa. This term, apart from being patently insulting, is incorrect. Let’s start with etymological definition first:

the word inyanga fits into a class of nouns in isiZulu which usually contains words for certain ritually or culturally (as opposed to biologically or relationally) defined humans: such as inkosi (chief), intombi (girl at or around the time of menstruation or ukuthomba), and indoda (man or husband). The root of the word is -nyanga, which is also this word’s homophone – inyanga, meaning ‘a moon’ or ‘a month’. So, at the heart of this word is the root-meaning of ‘moon’. 

Thus, to offer an etymological meaning of the word, I would suggest ‘moon-ritual-person’.

But this doesn’t really help us to understand what role the inyanga plays in Zulu society, other than to say that they are associated with the moon. In fact, the practical definition of an inyanga might be ‘herbalist’ or ‘medicine-mixer’ (in contradistinction to the isangoma who, traditionally, did not make use of physical concoctions or herb-lore in order to heal). An inyanga is usually a lineage-based position, meaning that it is passed on from parent to child. The position is one of inherited or traditional knowledge, and involves the specific concoction of various medicinal materials in order to heal the physical, psychological and spiritual ills of clients who come to consult the inyanga.

So how does this relate to ‘moon-ritual-person’? According to an inyanga whom I interviewed as part of my MA thesis, as well as various anthropological writings on the subject, many of the medicinal materials can only be gathered at certain times of the day, when the essence of the material is particularly strong. This often coincides with specific lunar cycles, and the gathering usually occurs at night. Hence ‘moon-ritual-person’.

I hope that this clears up some misconceptions about izinyanga in general – they are not witch-doctors at all, but are rather something like a mix of doctor, psychiatrist and chemist. 

Fake izinyanga – a potential explanation

Posted in Explanations with tags , on March 24, 2012 by White Zulu

Izinyangambumbulu have made an appearance in two linked stories over the past week and a half – but what is actually going on here?

16th to 25th March

Dominating the news recently have been the stories of the izinyangabumbulu – the fake izinyanga. These are not something new. In fact, they are the reason why people tend to have such a negative attitude to magical practitioners and herbalists in general. Given various names in various places and at various times, snake-oil sellers, con-artists, goetes, and travelling conjurors tend to prey on the desperate – and who could be more desperate than an unemployed person in the middle of an economic recession, living in an area where his only hope lies in the tens of thousands of offers of ‘get-rich-quick’ and ‘bring back your lost lover’ thrust at him at traffic lights. Coming to the city from rural areas like Ingwavuma, where izinyanga and izangoma are legitimate and sacrosanct members of the social fabric, the trust given by people to anyone claiming to be an ‘inyanga’ is not that surprising.

So, these are a special type of con-artist – preying not just on the gullible and desperate, but also on those whose belief and trust in traditional systems of healing and ‘magic’ predisposes trust. They are actually easier targets than many people conned by those pretending to be banks (phishing scams) or wealthy third-world donors (419 scams), and their cons rely not on a faith in economics or human nature, but in the logic-systems of belief. 

Demon Possession and Disembowelment – a potential explanation

Posted in Explanations with tags , , , , , on March 24, 2012 by White Zulu

Demon possession and disembowelment
19th – 25th March 2012

Two stories made headlines this week in isiZulu newspapers – those to do with ‘izinyangambumbulu’ and those dealing with ‘amadimoni’.

The idea of possession in Zulu culture predates the arrival of Christianity, although the addition of foreign elements has complicated the issue somewhat. Initially, what seems to be the case is that ‘possession’ (as distinct from the ‘channelling’ of or communion with ancestral spirits or amadlozi) involves spirits from outside of the clan or family group – sometimes called amandiki.

There is a notable case of this ‘amandiki possession’ from the area near Durban, which was tried under British laws prohibiting witchcraft, in 1906 in the Durban High Court, and which is recorded in papers in the Killie Campbell archives. What links this case with the current one? The fact that all the accused were women, much like the Bacchae or Maenads of ancient Greece, or the infamous witches of Medieval Europe and Salem.

So, why women? Many theories have been suggested, veering from the misogynistic assessments of the Greeks to the more nuanced understandings of twentieth-century (but still mostly male) social anthropologists. There are a couple of details which make for interesting analysis:

1. there is usually an older, sexually initiated woman who acts as the ‘mustagoges’ or initator of the
younger, sexually naïve women
2. the initates (mustai) are usually going through menarche, and are coming to terms with the soup of
hormones flooding their bodies – hormones which have been shown to induce (among other things) strange
dreams, psychological disturbances, and changes in physical appearance
3. occurrences of this kind of possession usually occur in areas where there is an existing patriarchy, as
well as heightened religious, ethnic or social tension
4. this kind of possession tends to involve behaviour which not only goes against the dominant social
system, but which actively inverts those systems: eating raw flesh, cannibalism, nakedness, and
nocturnal activity are just a few of the activities common to these occurrences

So, where the male response to similar circumstances tends to take on a physical (usually violent) aspect, the female response is to try to find a spiritual way of negotiating the shifts in their situation. The older women try to manage the process, as they have done for centuries through socially sanctioned initiation schools. However, in areas where the societal, ethnic or religious tension is severe (such as Salem in the 17th century, medieval Europe caught in the process of Christianisation, 5th century BC Athens dealing with the Peloponnesian war, or 21st century South Africa dealing with various societal issues), their usual responses can become distorted – leading to instances like the brutal disembowelling of 14-year-old Nhlanhla in uMlazi.