Basics of Zulu cosmology and ancestral spirits.
An understanding of Zulu cosmology and the nature of the ancestral-spirits is needed before other aspects of the topic can be broached. Traditionally the Zulu believe that a human being is comprised of two parts, the body (umZimba) and the spirit (iDlozi). During life these form a unity but on death the iDlozi survives. The power of spirit expresses itself as character or`moral weight’ (isithunzi) during life. While all survive as spirit, it is only those of exemplary behavior and/or status during life (specifically amaKhozi (Chiefs) homestead heads and diviners) exhibiting powerful isithunzi, who become operative ancestral-spirits (amaDlozi) upon death. Such an iDlozi has strong isithunzi and it is this force which may seek to express itself through a descendant making the latter a diviner or medium. The ancestral-spirits are concerned with the lives of their decedents and Zulu say their amaDlozi are benign but can become`righteously' angry when neglected. It is thought that they have a clearer perception of any situation than that possessed by the living. In Zulu cosmology the realms of the living and that of the `dead’ are balanced and interdependent. It is impossible to divorce the concept of the ancestors from an understanding of what it is to be human; in the natural course of things one is conceived from the spirit of one’s father (the mother ensures the body’s nurture), once born one grows to be a man/woman within society, fulfilling the duties that pertain to culturally prescribed roles, one then `quietens’ down into old age before being overtaken by death. Thus in such a view, death allows for the true consummation of a person as `spirit'. The Zulu have a means of contacting these ancestral-spirits through dreams, visions, omens, thanksgiving ceremonies (which entail ritual sacrifice or beer-drinking) and the mediumship of diviners. Berglund says that the ancestors are, "experienced in a very real sense....Their being very much experienced though their means of manifestation is sufficient evidence of their being obvious and real...(The spirit)...is the man, not a part of him."13
It is the task of the diviner to be the specialist communicator with this ancestral realm. A diviner is called by a particular ancestral-spirit (always a relation) yet may work with the ancestors as a group. Being called is indicated by being much troubled (usually through bad dreams, pains in the shoulders, yawning, sighing, sneezing or faintness), this caused by the brooding (ukufukamela) presence of the ancestral-spirits. Only in accepting training as an initiate (iTwasa) can there be any cure, while failure to accept a call can result in madness (ukuhlanya). Training takes the form of being strengthened in various ways (by ritual sacrifices to the ancestral-spirits, dancing, sharpening dreaming and the use of medicines for psychosomatic cleansing) and full diviner’s status is marked by a `coming-out’ ceremony. Once trained one is then a qualified diviner and can be consulted by Zulu lay-persons on matters of concern. Zulu believe that fortune (inhlanhla) comes from abiding by customary behavior and ritual, thereby invoking ancestral blessing while misfortune (isinyama) is seen as a state of being out of harmony with life (usually because of some misbehavior or neglect of customary rituals or by other peoples’ witchcraft and ill-intent (umthakathi). It is in regard to such matters that a diviner can advise (reporting the ancestral-spirits' knowledge). Cures ensure atonement and reestablish harmony and take the form of rituals or the taking of medicines. Traditionally the province of medicines is that of medicine-men although modern diviners also prescribe.
So integral is ancestral-belief that many orthodox Christian Zulu continue to believe in the efficacy of the ancestors, despite the Church’s disapproval, however one surety is that Christians no longer consult diviners as intercessors. Theologian Canon Luke Pato, concerned for the conflict caused African Christians faced by the church’s condemnation, suggests a resolution if the Church were to accept the ancestors as,"taken up into the communion of the saints." He explains, "the dead are simply the departed who have gone to live elsewhere. In the practice of offering libations (pouring a little beer or milk onto the ground) the relationship between the surviving and deceased members of the family is ceremonially maintained. Ancestors may also be appealed to by family members in times of trouble, and may give advise in dreams and visions ."14 While this Catholic concept offers the African Christian a way out of a dilemma, it circumscribes the former `omniscient’ position of the ancestral-spirits, robbing the African of the dynamic of an experiential reality informing both mediumship and artistic expression. As Roger Walsh says of the necessity for a whole-hearted involvement of a diviner in his/her belief-system, "..the cosmology (belief-system) of the shaman (diviner)...is no dry mapping of inanimate worlds but a guide to a living, conscious, willful universe.. providing (the diviner) a belief system his patients will share. This may be crucial since contemporary research suggests that a shared belief system may be a vital part of an effective therapeutic relationship..."15 While the orthodox Christian church finds a need to accommodate traditional belief,modern Africans have formed their own breakaway sects commonly termed Zionists. These sects combine indigenous religion with the Christian message. The number of followers is testimony to the success of such syncretism. Zionists have identified the ancestral-spirits with the Holy Spirit and angels (uMoya and ingolosi), "The Angel not only brings a message from the ancestral-spirit; the Angel is the spirit, the ancestral-spirit." 16 The diviner’s role has been usurped by the Zionist prophet and the pattern of being called, seeing visions and giving cures accords with tradition, but is reinterpreted in Christian idiom.
Perhaps we have to accept that respect for others' culture is all that can be expected of those of us who are outside of that culture. Such respect can be engendered by knowledge of that culture's concepts and experiences. Full understanding, as John Beattie notes, is hard even for anthropologists to come by, "members of one culture have found it almost impossible to see things as they are seen by members of another culture. It is not just a matter of 'seeing the other fellows point of view 'essential though that is. The problem is the very much more difficult one of comprehending the unacknowledged and unanalyzed standpoint from which his views are taken.....we can enter in some degree into other peoples ways of thought and we can attain some understanding of their beliefs and values, but we can never see things exactly as they see them...but we can go a long way towards achieving this kind of comprehension ...Perhaps social anthropology’s chief claim to respect is that it has achieved some success in doing this...mostly due to the extensive fieldwork now regarded as essential."17
13. A-I Berglund Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism London: C Hurst & Co 1976 Page 82
15. Walsh R Shamanism In Palmer H (ed) Inner Knowing: Consciousness..Creativity.. Insight.. .Intuition New York:Tarcher/Putnam 1998, Pages 61-2
16. B Sundkler Bantu Prophets in South Africa London: Oxford University Press 1970 (ed) Page 250
17. J Beattie Other Cultures: Aims, Methods and achievement in Social Anthology London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970 (edition) Pages 76-7
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