Publications of the Folk-Lore Society

Date: 1884

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The condition of a man who is about to be an inyanga2 is this: At first he is apparently robust; but in process of time he begins to be delicate, not having any real disease, but being very delicate. He begins to be particular about food, and abstains from some kinds, and requests his friends not to give him that food, because it makes him ill. He habitually avoids certain kinds of food, choosing what he likes, and he does not eat much of that; and he is continually complaining of pains in different parts of his body. And he tells them that he has dreamt that he was being carried away by a river. He dreams of many things, and his body is muddled and he becomes a house of dreams. And he dreams constantly of many things, and on awaking says to his friends, "My body is muddled to-day; I dreamt many men were killing me; I escaped I know not how. And on waking one part of my body felt different from other parts; it was no longer alike all over." At last the man is very ill, and they go to the diviners to enquire.

The diviners do not at once see that he is about to have a soft head.3 It is difficult for them to see the truth; they continually talk nonsense, and make false statements, until all the man’s cattle are devoured at their command, they saying that the spirit of his people demands cattle, that it may eat food.

So the people readily assent to the diviners’ word thinking that they know. At length all the man’s property is expended, he being still ill; and they no longer know what to do, for he has no more cattle, and his friends help him in such things as he needs.

At length an inyanga comes and says that all the others are wrong. He says, "I know that you come here to me because you have been unable to do any thing for the man, and have no longer the heart to believe that any inyanga can help you. But, my friends, I see that my friends, the other izinyanga,4 have gone astray. They have not eaten impepo. They were not initiated in a proper way. Why have they been mistaken, when the disease is evident? For my part, I tell you the izinyanga have troubled you. The disease does not require to be treated with blood. As for the man, I see nothing else but that he is possessed by the Itongo. There is nothing else. He is possessed by an Itongo. Your people5 move in him. They are divided into two parties; some say, ’No, we do not wish that our child should be injured. We do not wish it.’ It is for that reason and no other that he does not get well. If you bar the way against the Itongo, you will be killing him. For he will not be an inyanga; neither will he ever be a man again; he will be what he is now. If he is not ill, he will be delicate, and become a fool, and be unable to understand any thing. I tell you you will kill him by using medicines. Just leave him alone, and look to the end to which the disease points. Do you not see that on the day he has not taken medicine, he just takes a mouthful of food? Do not give him any more medicines. He will not die of the sickness, for he will have what is good given to him."

So the man may be ill two years without getting better; perhaps even longer than that. He may leave the house for a few days, and the people begin to think he will get well. But no, he is confined to the house again. This continues until his hair falls off. And his body is dry and scurfy; and he does not like to anoint himself. People wonder at the progress of the disease. But his head begins to give signs of what is about to happen. He shows that he is about to be a diviner by yawning again and again, and by sneezing again and again. And men say, "No! Truly it seems as though this man was about to be possessed by a spirit." This is also apparent from his being very fond of snuff; not allowing any long time to pass without taking some. And people begin to see that he has had what is good given to him.

After that he is ill; he has slight convulsions, and has water poured on him, and they cease for a time. He habitually sheds tears, at first slight, and at last he weeps aloud, and in the middle of the night, when the people are asleep, he is heard making a noise, and wakes the people by singing; he has composed a song, and men and women awake and go to sing in concert with him.

In this state of things they daily expect his death; he is now but skin and bones, and they think that to-morrow’s sun will not leave him alive. The people wonder when they hear him singing, and they strike their hands in concert. They then begin to take courage, saying, "Yes; now we see that it is the head."6

Therefore whilst he is undergoing this initiation the people of the village are troubled by want of sleep; for a man who is beginning to be an inyanga causes great trouble, for he does not sleep, but works constantly with his brain; his sleep is merely by snatches, and he wakes up singing many songs; and people who are near quit their villages by night when they hear him singing aloud, and go to sing in concert. Perhaps he sings till the morning, no one having slept. The people of the village smite their hands in concert until they are sore. And then he leaps about the house like a frog; and the house becomes too small for him, and he goes out, leaping and singing, and shaking like a reed in the water, and dripping with perspiration.

At that time many cattle arc eaten. The people encourage his becoming an inyanga; they employ means for making the Itongo white, that it may make his divination very clear. At length another ancient inyanga of celebrity is pointed out to him.7 At night whilst asleep he is commanded by the Itongo, who says to him, "Go to So-and-so; go to him, and he will churn for you emetic-ubulawo, that you may be an inyanga altogether." Then he is quiet for a few days, having gone to the inyanga to have ubulawo churned for him; and he comes back quite another man, being now cleansed and an inyanga indeed.

And if he is to have familiar spirits, there is continually a voice saying to him, "You will not speak with the people; they will be told by us every thing they come to enquire about." And he continually tells the people his dreams, saying, "There are people8 who tell me at night that they will speak for themselves to those who come to enquire." At last all this turns out to be true; when he has begun to divine, at length his power entirely ceases, and he hears the spirits who speak by whistlings speaking to him, and he answers them as he would answer a man; and he causes them to speak by asking them questions; if he does not understand what they say, they make him understand every thing they see. The familiar spirits do not begin by explaining omens which occur among the people; they begin by speaking with him whose familiars they are, and making him acquainted with what is about to happen, and then he divines for the people.

This then is what I know of familiar spirits and diviners.

If the relatives of the man who has been made ill by the Itongo do not wish him to become a diviner, they call a great doctor to treat him, to lay the spirit, that he may not divine. But although the man no longer divines, he is not well; he continues to be always out of health. This is what I know. But although he no longer divines, as regards wisdom he is like a diviner. For instance, there was Undayeni. His friends did not wish him to become a diviner; they said, "No; we do not wish so fine and powerful a man to become a mere thing which stays at home, and does no work, but only divines." So they laid the spirit. But there still remained in him signs which caused the people to say, "If that man had been a diviner, he would have been a very great man, a first-class diviner."

As to the familiar spirits, it is not one only that speaks; they are very many; and their voices are not alike; one has his voice, and another his; and the voice of the man into whom they enter is different from theirs. He too enquires of them as other people do; and he too seeks divination of them. If they do not speak, he does not know what they will say; he cannot tell those who come for divination what they will be told. No. It is his place to take what those who come to enquire bring and nothing more. And the man and the familiar spirits ask questions of each other and converse.

When those who come to seek divination salute him, he replies, "O, you have come when I am alone. The spirits departed yesterday. I do not know where they are gone." So the people wait. When they come they are heard saluting them, saying, "Good day." They reply, "Good day to you, masters." And the man who lives with them also asks them saying, "Are you coming?" They say, they are. It is therefore difficult to understand that it is a deception, when we hear many voices speaking with the man who has familiar spirits, and him too speaking with them. . . .9


When the Amatongo make a man ill, he cries "Hai, hai, hai." They cause him to compose songs, and the people of his home assemble and beat tune to the song the Amatongo have caused him to compose,—the song of initiation,—a song of professional skill.

Some dispute and say, "No. The fellow is merely mad. There is no Itongo10 in him." Others say, "O, there is an Itongo in him; he is already an inyanga."

The others say, "No; he is mad. Have you ever hidden things for him to discover by his inner sight, since you say he is an inyanga?"

They say, "No; we have not done that."

They ask, "How then do you know he is an inyanga?"

They say, "We know it because he is told about medicines, which he goes to dig up."

They reply, "O! he is a mere madman. We might allow that he is an inyanga if you had concealed things for him to find, and he had discovered what you had concealed. But you tell us what is of no import, as you have not done this."

As they are talking thus and disputing about concealing things for him to find, at night when he is asleep he dreams that the man of his people who is dead, and who is causing him to begin to be an inyanga, tells him saying, "They were disputing with each other, saying you are not an inyanga."

He who is beginning to be an inyanga asks, "Why do they say I am not an inyanga?"

He replies, "They say you are not an inyanga, but a mere mad man; and ask if they have hidden things for you to discover, since the others say you are an inyanga."

He says, "Tell me who they are who say so."

He replies, "So-and-so and So-and-so were disputing."

The man asks, "Do you say they lie when they say so?"

He replies, "Be quiet. Because they say so, I say you shall be a greater inyanga than all others, and all men in the world shall be satisfied that you are a great inyanga, and they shall know you."

The man who is beginning to be an inyanga says, "For my part I say they speak the truth when they say I am mad. Truly they have never hidden anything for me to find."

Then the man who was aft inyanga, he who is initiating him, says, "Just be quiet. I will take you to them in the morning. And do you appear on a hill; do not come upon them suddenly; but appear on a hill which is concealed, and cry ’Hai, hai, hai’; cry thus on the hill which is concealed, that they may hear. When you cry ’Hai, hai, hai,’ if they do not hear, then go on to a hill which is open; do not expose yourself much; as soon as you expose yourself, cry ’Hai, hai, hai,’ so that they may just hear. When they hear that it is you, go down again from the hill, and return to the one which is concealed. So I say they will see and understand that they have spoken of a man who is beginning to be a doctor; they shall know by that, that when they said you were a mad man and not an inyanga they were mistaken."

So he does so. He cries "Hai, hai, hai," on a hill which is hidden; they do not hear him distinctly; they hear only a continual sound of Nkene, nkene, nkene, nkene. One of them says, "It sounds as though there was some one singing." Others say "We do not hear. We hear only an echo."

The Itongo comes to him and tells him that they cannot hear, and bids him go out a little on the open hill, and then return again to the hill which is hidden.

So he departs at the word of the Itongo, and goes out to the open hill, and cries "Hai, hai, hai"; and they all hear that it is he. They are again disputing about him, and as soon as they hear that it is he, they say, "Can it be, sirs, that he comes about the matter we were disputing about, saying, he is mad?"

Others say, "O, why do you ask? He comes on that account, if indeed you said he was not an inyanga, but a madman."

The great man of the village to which the inyanga is approaching, says, "I too say he is mad. Just take things and go and hide them, that we may see if he can find them."

They take things; one takes beads, and goes and hides them; others take picks, and go and hide them; others hide assagais; others bracelets; others hide their sticks, others their kilts, others their ornaments, others their pots; others hide baskets, and say, "Just let us see if he will find all these things or not." Others hide cobs of maize; others the ears of amabele, or sweet cane, or of ujiba, or the heads of upoko.

Some say, "O, if he find all these things, will he not be tired? Why have you hidden so many?"

They say, "We hide so many that we may see that he is really an inyanga."

They reply, "Stop now; you have hidden very many things."

They return home, and wait. Then the Itongo tells him on the concealed hill; for it had already said to him, "Keep quiet; they are now hiding things; do not begin to appear. They wish to say when you find the things that you saw when they hid them. Be quiet, that they may hide all the things; then they will be satisfied that you are an inyanga." Now the Itongo tells him, "They have now hidden the things, and gone home. It is proper for you now to go to the home of the people who say you are mad and not an inyanga."

So he comes out on the open mountain, and runs towards their home, being pursued by his own people who are seeking him, for he went out during the night, and they did not hear when he went out very early in the morning, when it was still dark, when the horns of the cattle were beginning to be just visible. He reaches their home, and his own people who were looking for him, and have now found him, come with him. On his arrival he dances; and as he dances they strike hands in unison; and the people of the place who have hidden things for him to find, also start up and strike hands; he dances, and they smite their hands earnestly.

He says to them, "Have you then hid things for me to find?"

They deny, saying, "No; we have not hidden things for you to find."

He says, "You have."

They deny, saying, "It is not true; we have not."

He says, "Am I not able to find them?"

They say, "No; you cannot. Have we hidden then things for you to find?"

He says, "You have."

They deny, declaring that they have not done so. But he asserts that they have.

When they persist in their denial, he starts up, shaking his head. He goes and finds the beads; he finds the picks, and the kilts, and the bracelets; he finds the cobs of maize, and the ears of the amabele and ujiba and of upoko; he finds all the things they have hidden. They see he is a great inyanga when he has found all the things they have concealed. . . .11


Once at Pietermaritzburg a heifer belonging to Mr. G., my white master, was lost. We looked for it, but could not find it. We then asked Mr. G. to give us a shilling, that we might enquire of a diviner, for we were now troubled with looking for it, and did not know where to look for it any further. He gave us a shilling, and we went to a diviner who lives near the Zwartkop. On our arrival we found him sitting in the cattle-pen; and we saluted, saying, "Eh, dear sir," and sat down.

They saluted us, and we replied.

The diviner’s people asked us whence we came.

We told them we came from Pietermaritzburg, and had come to enquire of the diviner.

They said, "Why have you come here?"

We told them we had come on our own account, some cattle12 having been lost. We then asked for snuff, and they gave us some and we took it; and after that the diviner said, "Let us go yonder outside the village."

He went out, and we followed him. He said to us, "Strike the ground, that I may understand, my friends, what is the reason that you have come to me."

We smote our hands together, and said, "Hear."

He said, "You are in trouble."

We said, "Hear."

He said, "Let me just understand what kind of a bullock it is?"

We smote our hands together.

He said, "It is a cow."

We smote our hands.

He said, "No; it is an ox."

We smote our hands.

He said, "No; it is not an ox."

We smote our hands.

He said, "You are in trouble, lads."

We smote our hands.

He said, "But the cow was lost a long time ago."

And there he spoke truly.

We smote our hands.

He said, "Just let me understand if it was stolen by any one."

We smote our hands.

He said, "No, it was not stolen by men; but it is still living."

We smote our hands.

He said, "It is one that is lost."

And there too he spoke the truth.

We smote with our hands.

He said, "Let me just understand of what colour it is."

We smote with our hands.

He said, "It is a red and white cow."

But there he made a guess, and did not speak truly.

We smote our hands.

He said, "No; it is a heifer; it is not yet a calf."

We smote our hands.

And there too he spoke truly.

He said, "Let me understand if the heifer is still living or not."

We smote our hands.

He said, "No, the heifer is dead."

We smote our hands.

He said, "No, it is still living."

He said, "Let me just understand where it is."

We smote our hands.

He said, "It is in the mimosa thorn-country."

We smote our hands.

He said, "Just let me understand in what part of the thorn-country it is."

We smote our hands.

He said, "It has gone down the Umsunduze."

We smote our hands.

He said, "Just let me understand if it is still living."

We smote our hands.

He said, "It is still living, and eating umtolo and umunga. Go and look for it there, and you will find it."

We thought we understood that he had now told us the place, for for some time we had not known where to go to look for it.

Then we gave him the shilling, and returned to Pietermaritzburg. When we came to Mr. G. we told him that the diviner said it was in the thorn-country, and that we were to go and look for it down the Umsunduze.

He told us to go and look for it in the place mentioned by the diviner. We went to look for it, going down the Umsunduze. As we went along we looked for it, going towards the thorn-country which he had pointed out. At length we got as far as T.’s, and sought for it in that neighbourhood; we could not find it, for the thorns were very thick. As we went we enquired at all the native villages in the thorn-country. The people said they knew nothing about it; and others told us to go to T., the white man who ate up the cattle of the people that were lost. But we were afraid to go to him, for he is a passionate white man who beats any coloured men whom he does not know if he see them passing through his land. So we went back to Pietermaritzburg without going to T.; and told Mr. G. that we had not found the heifer at the place pointed out by the diviner. So he told us to give up the search. We did so, and that was the end of it. . . .13


John went to enquire of a diviner when his sister was ill, wishing to know what was the cause of her illness. But when he smote the ground he smote mechanically, assenting to every thing the diviner said, for he said to himself, "For my part I know nothing. It is the diviner that shall point out to me the real facts of the case."

The diviner reproved him, saying, "Surely, my friend, did you ever enquire of a diviner in this way before?"

John replied in the affirmative, saying, "O, it is I indeed who enquire,14 for I am now the responsible head of our village; there is no other man in it; there is no one but me."

The diviner said, "I see. You do not know how to enquire of a diviner." At length he devised a plan with one of his own people, saying, "This man has not the least notion of divination. Just go and ask him, that he may tell you why he has come, that you may smite the ground for me in a proper manner."

So indeed the man said to John, "The diviner says you do not know how to divine. Tell me the cause of your coming. You will see that we smite the ground for him vehemently when he speaks to the point; and if he does not speak to the point, we do not smite much."

John said in answer, "For my part I do not understand what you say. I have merely come to the diviner for no other purpose than to hear of him the nature of a disease. I did not come to talk with you about it. For my part I shall hear from the diviner what the disease is."

So he refused to tell him; and the man went back to the diviner; he said, "Let him come to me again, that we may hear."

So John again smote the ground vehemently, and thus expressed his assent to every thing the diviner said. Until he became quite foolish, and said, "O, my friend, I see indeed that you do not know how to enquire of a diviner."

He said this because there was no point where John assented very much, nor where he assented slightly, that he might see by his assenting slightly that he had not hit the mark. He expected if he hit the mark John would smite the ground vehemently; but if he missed it he would strike gently. So he left off divining, and said, "No, my friend, I never met with a man who enquired like you." He could do nothing.

John said, "O then, my friend, as you do not see the nature of the disease, now give me back my shilling, that I may betake myself to another diviner."

So the diviner gave him back the shilling. His name was Um-ngom’-u-ng’-umuntu.15


2 Diviner, physician, or shaman.

3A soft head, that is, impressible. Diviners are said to have soft heads.

4 Plural of inyanga.

5Your people move in him, that is, the Amatongo, a class of spirits.

6 Lit., We see the head, viz., that it is affected in that way which is followed by the power to divine.

7 That is, by the Itongo in a dream.

8 People, viz., the dead, the Amatongo.

9 Pages 259–267.

10 Singular of Amatongo, spirits of the dead.

11 Pages 273–279.

12 They say "some cattle," although it was but one that was missing, that they may not give the diviner too much knowledge. They leave him to discover the deception; and if he does not, but proceeds to speak as though many cattle were lost, they know he does not understand divination.

13 Pages 300–304.

14 The head of the village alone enquires of the diviner, either in person or by his representatives. Great men send messengers to the diviner, and do not go in person.

15 Pages 328–330.

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Chicago: Publications of the Folk-Lore Society in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: . Publications of the Folk-Lore Society, Vol. 15, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , Publications of the Folk-Lore Society. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from