Divine kings and the “breath of men”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Monica Wilson. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.044


Divine kings and the “breath of men”

The 1959 Frazer Lecture

Monica WILSON, The University of Cape Town

This article is a reprint of Wilson, Monica. 1959. “‘Divine kings’ and the breath of men.” The Frazer Lecture, Cambridge.

We come today to do honor to Sir James Frazer and I have chosen to talk about the central idea of the Golden bough—divine kingship. This idea has been as fertile as a divine king was held to be; indeed we might liken Sir James to a divine king himself, in his intellectual fruitfulness.

Diving kings have never existed in isolation. They are part of the practical organization of their societies, and men’s ideas about them and attitudes towards them form part of intellectual systems and symbolic patterns. This Sir James well understood, but his material on Africa was limited; he was dependent upon the reports of travellers and missionaries. My purpose this afternoon is first to examine the intellectual system and symbolic pattern of one African people, the Nyakyusa of Tanganyika and their kinsmen of Ngonde in Nyasaland, and try to show you how the conception of divine kinship fits into their categories of thought and symbolic form and then to discuss divine kingship as part of a changing political organization. The analysis relates primarily to one people, but there appears to be a close similarity of ideas and symbols among the peoples of Africa who speak one or other of the 200-odd Bantu languages—ideas and symbols are of course embedded in language—so the generalizations made may apply beyond the narrow boundaries of the Nyakyusa valley and Ngonde plain.

Seven ideas seem to me to have dominated the Nyakyusa-Ngonde cosmology. The first is that vitality, energy, physical vigor, force of character are all important, and must be guarded and fostered. What men worshipped was life, the power of [564]procreation and growth.1 But that power was not left unchecked; it was combined with a wide spacing of births and a limitation of the period during which a woman was permitted to bear children. Moreover, energy and force of character were judged to be manifestations of power at least as great as a numerous offspring, so, in a climate in which inertia creeps over one, energy was admired and judged to be, in a sense, divine.

I say ‘divine’ because the Nyakyusa and Ngonde believed that the source of this power was the very body and person of a king; that it passed through him to his men, their herds and fields; and that on his death the king became a god. A Nyakyusa chief was expected to show his vitality in dancing and hoeing, in the number of his children and the multiplying of his herds, in the success of his army, and his force of personality. He feared to lose vigor for that meant death: no people could afford to tolerate an ageing or ailing king. Perhaps the oddest manifestation of this idea was in Zululand, the last century, when Tshaka, the Zulu king, sent a party with eighty-six tusks of ivory to Cape Town, to buy Macassar hair oil, for he had heard that Macassar oil would prevent a man from growing grey, and he feared, above all things, such a sign of advancing age and declining vigor (Fynn 1950: 142–3, 269).

It was the belief in the control of the divine king and chiefs over the power of growth that gave strength to the institution of chieftainship among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde and, I think, in other parts of Bantu Africa also. Raoul Allier, drawing on the material of the early French missionaries in Basutoland and Barotseland for his study of conversion, says that what made opposition to the chiefs impossible was the fear of breaking the mystical bond established through the chief with the shades (Allier 1925: 140), and as I shall show you, the shades are identified with the procreative principle.

Vitality, fertility, the power of growth was innate in a divine king, but it was not confined to him. It was resident in a lesser degree in every lineage and controlled by the senior members, both living and dead, of the lineage. As one Nyakyusa put it: “The shade and the semen are brothers,” and all through the Nyakyusa rituals the control of the shades over potency and fertility is emphasized (Wilson 1956: 55, 205). The same idea appears further south also. In Bhaca, a dialect of Xhosa, one word, idlozi, is applied both to a shade of the lineage and to semen (Hammond-Tooke n.d.).

This leads us to the idea that kinsmen in a lineage are “members of one another” in a mystical sense; what injures one may injure all, the infection seeping down the roads of kinship and leaving unscathed those who are not, in Nyakyusa phraseology, “of one blood”; and that seniors in the lineage, whether they are alive or dead, exercise power over juniors, bringing sickness or sterility upon them and their stock and fields, if they have offended by quarrelling with one another, or have neglected well-defined obligations. Commoners exercise this power only over members of their own lineage of three or four generations; the power derives from their kinship connections. It is, however, comparable to the power exercised by chiefs over the men and country they rule or ruled before their death, and that exercised by a divine king over a yet larger group of people and a wider area.[565]

One manifestation of the mystical solidarity of kinsmen is the manner in which an heir assumes the name and obligations of a father or brother who has died. He takes on the whole social personality of the dead and becomes, as it were, his living representative. In private families, this form of inheritance is familiar but inconspicuous; it is of great political importance, however, when the dead man held public office, for his heir succeeds to that office. Among the Nyakyusa and Ngonde there are two founding heroes to whom men look back as sources of fertility, and the authors of civilized life, for they occupied a country (so the myth tells) in which men knew no fire but ate their food raw, and they brought fire, and iron, and cattle, and the institution of chieftainship itself. The heirs of these founding heroes are their living representatives and “divine kings.”2

Then there is the idea that power is resident in certain material substances classed as “medicines.” This power may be tapped by anyone with the “know how” and it is used to supplement or develop the power innate in a divine king, and the senior members of a lineage, as well as for innumerable other purposes. “Medicines” are thought to create dignity, majesty, awfulness (ubusisya) and are used by divine kings to buttress their authority in the same way as a modern state—or university—uses robes of office. The main ingredient of “medicines” are plants, but human flesh and blood are the strongest medicines of all, and that is why healthy men and women, or children, were traditionally and still sometimes are murdered, the murderers often believing that they have acted for the good of the community.

The belief in “medicines” is one expression of a deep-rooted conviction that fortune and misfortune are personally controlled. There is no such thing as chance. If the crops of one village are destroyed by hail while those of another flourish the cause of destruction lies in the failing power of the chief, or quarrels between the leading men which have angered their shades; if one child falls ill while others are healthy the illness is due to the anger or jealousy of a kinsman or neighbor. This belief in personal causation is not directly destroyed by a knowledge of the proximate causes of disease. An intelligent teacher said to me, many years ago in Pondoland: “I understand that typhus is carried by lice, but who sent the louse? Why did the infected louse bite A and not his brother B?” So too with malaria. It may well be understood that infection is carried by mosquitoes, but in cases of death from malaria, Pondo and Nyakyusa will inquire of a diviner who has caused it. In the Pondo phrase, “If illness kills the people of one homestead and not of another, it has been sent.”

The ultimate cause of sickness is thought to be anger, anger in men’s hearts. The manner in which it is pictured as operating varies: old-fashioned Nyakyusa speak of pythons in men’s bellies which have the power of flight and leave their owner [566]by night to gnaw his enemies’ vitals; or they describe a father muttering over the hearth in his anger and calling upon his shades to discipline his erring son. The more sophisticated talk about “poisons” which are placed by an angry man in his enemy’s hut, or buried under the lintel of the door.

Anger, the Nyakyusa think, may be used to morally or immorally. Anthropologists have paid a great deal of attention to the supposed manipulation of medicines to injure others illegally, which we call sorcery, and to beliefs in the power of supposed witches to injure their enemies directly, but they have curiously neglected the implications of the belief that sickness is often a just retribution on a wrong-doer, a retribution brought upon him by the legitimate anger of senior kinsmen, or the leaders of the community. In the Nyakyusa view the legitimate anger of a man’s neighbors, particularly of his village headman, may cause him to fall ill of a fever; as they put it, men murmur (the word is that for the buzzing of a hive of bees) and their cold breath falls upon him. Similarly, if the commoners have good reason to be angry with their chief and murmur against him, he fears the chill of fever, or a paralysis of the limbs. This murmuring the Nyakyusa call “the breath of men.” It is held to be akin to witchcraft but is distinguished from it by the end to which it is put; both are the exercise of mystical power (amanga). Witchcraft is used by an individual for selfish and immoral purposes; the “breath of men” is used by the community to enforce law and morality. Which it is labelled, in any particular case, depends partly on the viewpoint of the speaker. A supposed victim or his kinsmen will speak of “witchcraft,” whereas other people may regard the illness as due to a sick man’s own misdeeds, and the neighbors’ just reproof.3 The anger of a father or other senior kinsman which brings illness or sterility to an erring son is always legitimate; if he were angry without cause his anger would be ineffective. And so strong is the idea of justice that it is even thought to be implicit in some medicines which are held to operate only against the guilty.

There is evidence that a similar connection between sickness and sin was made traditionally by a number of African peoples. For example, J.D. Viccars, a missionary, writing on “witchcraft” among the Bolobo of the Congo says that “sometimes a man incurred the wrath of the baloki and is undergoing a just punishment.” “Quite often the victims—are resigned—and accept the judgement—that it is all their own fault” (1949: 223). R. G. Armstrong, writing on West Africa, says “witchcraft is fundamentally an expression of anger, often justified, of an elder” (1954: 1051–69). And Dr. Middleton, discussing witchcraft among the Lugbara of Uganda, shows that an elder has power to invoke shades to bring sickness on his dependents; this is legitimate but the same word, ole rozu, is applied to it as to bewitching (1955: 253–4).4 The idea that a power akin to witchcraft may be used legitimately is therefore in no sense peculiar to the Nyakyusa.

But in communities which are changing rapidly interpretations in terms of just retribution are probably less common than in isolated societies. During a revolution ideas as to what is right conflict, and the authority of elders to enforce traditional [567]obligations is questioned; then misfortune is more readily attributed to the malice of an enemy than to the just anger of a kinsman or neighbor. In modern Africa there is acute controversy over the respective rights of individuals and groups: men and women who claim a certain freedom from traditional obligations to kin or fellow villagers are regarded by some people as irresponsible, by others as showing enterprise and initiative. Sorcery is thought of as the weapon of the go-getter, the individualist who rejects ancient economic obligations; witchcraft as the weapon of the woman who revolts against the traditional subservience to in-laws, or of the mother-in-law who unreasonably tries to enforce outworn rules. That, I suggest, is why accusations of witchcraft and sorcery come to overshadow ancient ideas of mystical power legitimately exercised.

I said that the ultimate cause of misfortune in Nyakyusa eyes is men’s anger; therefore, the Nyakyusa say, it can only be cured by their confession and forgiveness; by men “speaking out” (ukusosya), admitting their anger and expressing good will. So, when someone is ill or another sort of misfortune befalls a family, or village, or chiefdom, the main concern is to discover whose anger has caused the illness and to persuade that person to confess it and express a wish for the patients recovery, or the welfare of the family, or village, or chiefdom. The occasions for “speaking out” are rituals. Family quarrels are expressed at the rituals celebrated at a death or birth or marriage, or in case of serious illness. Then kinsmen gather to feast and drink and admit to one another the hard thoughts they have harbored; they are pressed to drink deeply and speak out; it is the business of the priest or doctor who conducts the ritual to persuade them to speak out freely and so to compose the quarrels, for in the Nyakyusa view “anger in the heart,” a grudge nursed in secret, is what is really dangerous, and confession of anger or ill will is in itself part absolution. To a European it is odd to hear kinsmen at a funeral or marriage feast suddenly begin slanging one another. A man’s sisters start complaining of the stinginess and inhospitality of his wives when they come to visit; the wives retort that their sisters-in-law neglected to invite them to cook for the marriage of a daughter, or criticized the beer they sent, and a whole string of family quarrels are brought up; or a younger brother complains that his senior kinsman, the head of the family, did not come to visit him when he was ill, or bestir himself to find a doctor, and the elder speaks of the lack of respect shown by his junior, and so on. The airing of these grudges is as much part of the ritual as the General Confession is part of an Anglican Communion: the difference is that men admit directly to each other their anger and so the “speaking out” sounds very like a quarrel. Only towards the end will come the reconciliation: “I was angry, I had cause to be, but it is finished now;” or “In this I was wrong, I beg pardon, but he also insulted me and I was angry. It is finished now.”

Quarrels between chiefs and people, between the divine king and his vassals, or the chiefdoms which acknowledge his overlordship; quarrels between villages, and personal quarrels between the leading men of the country, all these are brought up at the sacrifices to the founding heroes and in the chiefs’ groves. The priests and village headmen and chief express and reject their anger against one another, the commoner leaders being particularly forthright in their criticism of the chiefs. On such confession is thought to depend the efficacy of the rituals, and so the weather, the fertility of the soil, the increase of the herds, and the health of the participants themselves.[568]

There was also a “cleansing of the country” celebrated annually by each Nyakyusa chiefdom and the kingdom of Ngonde just after the break of the rains (which is the New Year in Africa) when men cleared out the ashes from the hearths and cast them away at the crossroads in the bush. As they went in a body, the people danced alongside the village leaders who bore the ashes, and men lunged at one another with spears. “They said” and I am quoting one of the priests): “‘Let us dance, let us fight, that the homesteads may be peaceful.” “Let us throw out the ashes that death may leave the homesteads and they be at peace.” It is to bring out the war from within.’ Only if the symbolism of the rituals of kinship is ignored could this be interpreted as an expression of rebellion, rather than a confession, and, indeed, I suggest that much of what has been cited as evidence of rebellion in rituals elsewhere in Africa is in fact the formal admission of anger, the prelude to reconciliation (Gluckman 1952). The body politic is purged by the very act of “speaking out” (ukusyosya).

Detailed evidence is available to show that admission and rejection of anger is a main theme of the rituals of the Nyakyusa (Wilson 1959). and I believe that it recurs in the rituals of reconciliation among the Thonga, and among the Xhosa and Tswana there is evidence of kinsmen “speaking out” at a sacrifice (Junod 1927: 398–400). In Xhosa it is said that a ritual is the occasion ukuzityand’igila—to cut open the gizzard. “Speaking out” in rituals is a direct corollary of the idea that anger is mystically dangerous and so linked to the notion of personal causation of misfortune.

The idea that anger is dangerous has a further implication. Since anger is a real experience, and everyone is aware of it in themselves, most Nyakyusa (and I think many other Africans) find it impossible to imagine a Utopia without witchcraft or sorcery which, to them, is the logical expression of unbridled anger. One of my closest friends among the Nyakyusa said to me one day: “You are dissembling like all Europeans; you don’t want to admit the reality of witchcraft. You are just dissembling.” That is why witch-finders still attract so many followers in Africa—one has just swept through BuNyakyusa—and many of the Independent African Churches, such as the followers of Alice, now so numerous in Northern Rhodesia, stress protection from witchcraft, and the obligation to admit the use of “medicines” of sorcery, and to cast them out. Witch-finding campaigns were the revivalist movements of the pagan tradition and they continue today.

You will notice that though the mechanisms believed in appear to us ridiculous the underlying principle is one that most people would accept. It is that individual good health and national prosperity depend ultimately on good social relationships—on amity between kinsmen, neighbors, and fellow-citizens.

I want, now, to give you some inkling of the pattern of Nyakyusa-Ngonde symbolism. Twenty-four years ago (when I first lived among the Nyakyusa) this was no “forgotten language” but everyday usage, and the Nyakyusa priest had accepted forms to draw upon, just as did William Blake in his poetry (Raine 1958); but when a society changes very fast the ancient coherence of ideas and patterns of thought are shattered, and men seem to forget the meaning of the symbols recurring in their rituals than their parents were. I can only select a few examples from the thicket of symbols which it is the task of any interpreter of Nyakyusa ritual to penetrate.

All the rituals celebrated for individuals—at puberty and marriage, birth and death—and those celebrated on behalf of the country at the accession of a chief or [569]divine king were dramas of death and resurrection. The nubile girl, the mother of a first-born child, or of twins, the principal mourners, the heir to the chieftainship or divine kingship died and were reborn in the ritual, emerged transformed. During their period of seclusion they sojourned with the shads and when they emerged they purified themselves, for the sacredness of the shades was felt to be contamination, corruption, not holiness and purity.

Then vitality, the power of growth, was pictured as being embedded in the visibly growing parts of the body, the hair, and nails. An old Nyakyusa priest once took my husband’s hand and said to him: “When you cut these nails of yours do they not grow again? . . . Where, then, does their growth come from? Does it not come from the body? . . . The village headmen take the power of growth from the chief, his nails and his hair.” This they did lest the power of growth be buried with the chief and disappear.

For a long time I was puzzled by accounts of how the shades lick the offerings made to them, and of how a priest keeping watch in the sacred grove of Lubaga in a little wicker cage made for him, must be licked by the python which was the manifestation of a founding ancestor, Lwembe.5 Then I understood that it was a symbol of acceptance and solicitude felt appropriate by a pastoral people who watch with joy a cow licking, and licking her newborn calf. But there was also the belief that a python licked its victim before swallowing it, and so licking was terrifying. The shades were the source of blessing, a shelter to their kin, but at the same time they were fearful; in the rituals they were “brought back to warm themselves at the hearth” and yet they were repeatedly driven off (M. Wilson 1956: 46–53, 59–60, 73–7, 204; 1959: 108–9; Casalis [1859] 1933: 312). Men feared any close connection with them; above all they feared any close connection with them; above all they feared lest a shade ‘brood over’ them as a hen broods over her chickens. Thus the ambivalence of their attitudes to fathers and uncles who, though dead, were still thought to exercise authority was expressed.

Confession and forgiveness were symbolized by spitting, or blowing out water. As one informant put it: “When a father who has been angry forgives his son and spits on the ground all the anger that is in him comes out like spit.” That is why, in Nyakyusa rituals(and in the rituals of many other peoples in Africa) an essential act was the blowing out of water. It was a confession and expression of good will, in itself an absolution, which preceded sacrifice. It was linked, too, with the traditional ordeal, used through a great part of Central Africa, to distinguish truth from falsehood. When a charge of practicing witchcraft was made, or when sufficient evidence to decide a case of theft or adultery was lacking, defendant and plaintiff were given an infusion of the umwafi (Erythroploeum guineense) tree to drink. Those who vomited were judged innocent; those who failed to vomit, or retained the poison for some hours, were judged guilty. As one effect of the poison when retained is to cause gross swelling, swelling and guilt were widely associated.

These symbols which are interpreted here had, I think, a very wide currency. Others were more limited, being linked to a particular economy, such as banana [570]cultivation. Among the Nyakyusa and Ganda, whose staple crop was bananas and plantains, male and female were represented by different varieties of banana and plantain, a corpse by the flower (for each stem only flowers once) and the lineage by the root which constantly sends up fresh suckers, and so on.

This, then, is a very cursory account of the sort of intellectual climate in which the idea of divine kingship flourished. I turn now to the practical aspect, with which anthropologists have mostly been concerned, and to consider how the institution operated.

A divine king presupposes a faithful people: he can have no existence apart from a following of commoners. And the nature of his divinity, as a repository of vitality, implies that his term of office must be limited. As his powers fail someone must see to it that he is replaced. So the divine kings of the Nyakyusa and their kinsmen in the Ngonde were controlled by commoner priests and councilors whose duty it was to smother the king when they judged it expedient. “A king was not ill,” and he died with the breath in his body lest the power of growth disappear with him. The priests told us that the initiative came from the king himself who, when he fell ill, would tell his men: “I am going, I have eaten food at home, at the place of the shades,” and then it was incumbent upon them to do what was necessary, removing his hair and nails and smothering him. Moreover, the king was no tyrant but subject to the law, and obliged to pay a fine to his own priests if he broke one of the innumerable taboos governing his eating, and drinking, and washing, and sleeping.

The leaders of the people, the commoners, exercised this very practical weapon—the right and obligation of putting the divine king or chief to death when his powers failed—but they were thought of as having mystical power also, the power of witchcraft or “the breath of men.” Which it was called depended upon the viewpoint of the speaker. To chiefs the commoner priests were black witches exerting an innate power maliciously; to the commoners their village headmen and priests were responsible leaders, rightly criticizing the chief or king when he acted unconstitutionally or immorally so that their breath fell upon him and brought on an ague or paralysis. However the commoner’s power was viewed, there was felt to be a balance in the mystical sphere between the power of growth resident in kings and chiefs and the power of witchcraft or “breath” innate in men, and this matched the balance in practical affairs. Such an equilibrium between king and commoners was apparently foreign to Egypt (Frankfort 1948: 51–6), but it was widespread in Bantu Africa.

For those anthropologists—including myself—whose main concern is with the forms of cooperation and conflict in human societies, and the basis of their coherence, it is on the interaction between ruler and subject, between divine king and commoner priests and village headmen, that interest fastens. The divine kings of the Nyakyusa and Ngonde were symbols of unity, and conflicts between chiefdoms, and between chiefs and king, were resolved in the rituals directed towards the founding heroes, while conflicts between chiefs and commoners were resolved in the rituals of each chiefdom.

To understand this it is necessary to consider divine kings in time. Chieftainship and divine kingship is not an immemorial institution among the Nyakyusa-Ngonde and their neighbors in the corridor between the great lakes, Tanganyika and Nyasa; it was an innovation probably less than four hundred years ago. All the people of [571]that area speak of their chiefs coming as strangers (M. Wilson 1958: 12, 21–3, 32, 38–9, 41–5, 48), and of being ‘different in their bodies’ from the original occupants. The Nyakyusa and Ngonde trace their history back three to four hundred years, to the period when the institution of chieftainship was established among a primitive and scattered people by invaders from the east. The invaders were better fed and better armed—they had cattle and iron weapons which the original occupants of the Nyakyusa valley and Ngonde plain lacked—but there is no evidence that they established themselves by force. They may well have been welcomed as arbitrators in a manner so admirably described for the Alur (Southall 1953: 181–228), further north. Certainly they extended the area of the rule of law; before they came each tiny village or band of hunters was independent, and recognized no common authority. The founding heroes settled on hill-tops which became centers of worship, numerous sources of power; and gradually their descendants spread through the surrounding country establishing themselves as chiefs over the sparse and isolated settlements of the earlier inhabitants. The heirs of the two founding heroes became divine kings, as I have said, and other sons and their descendants became chiefs who participated in the prestige and supposed mystical qualities of these kings, but in a lesser degree. The leaders of the old scattered communities became village headmen, anafumu,6 but their office was not permitted to be hereditary lest they became chiefs. New village headmen were selected from among the commoners—the ancient inhabitants of the country—in each generation.7

Whether because they brought with them cattle which provided a plentiful supply of milk, and an efficient technique of cultivation with contour ridging and green manuring, or for some other reason, the invaders seem to have increased rapidly, and to have shown something of the driving energy with which divine kingship was thought to be endowed. The energy is still apparent today—employers on the Copperbelt speak of it in the same breath as they grumble about the truculence of Nyakyusa labor—and I, for one, believe it to be directly related to the plentiful food produced by their particular technique of stock-keeping and cultivation.

However that may be, it is certain that the arrival of the heroes coincided with an increase in skill and of capital in the form of breeding stock; an extension of the area of trade and ritual cooperation, notably a trade in iron with the Kinga of the Livingstone Mountains which was exchanged for food in the Nyakyusa valley, and an export trade in ivory from Ngonde; and the participation of people of different languages and customs in sacrifice to the two founding heroes, Lwembe and Kyungu. The heroes and chiefs succeeded also in welding together people of different stocks; all the traditions stress that chiefs ‘differed in their bodies’ from commoners.

The heroes were both duces and reges in de Jouvenel’s terms (1957: 21–2, 34, 298–9): they initiated new activities—traditions graphically describe the start of [572]cattle breeding, and Lwembe sending to Bukinga for iron hoes—and they established the beginnings of a king’s peace.

I said that the conflicts were resolved in the rituals celebrated. At sacrifices to the founding hero, Lwembe, which were actually observed, quarrels between the priests of the Nyakyusa and those of the Kinga—who differ from the Nyakyusa in language and in custom—were brought out into the open and a reconciliation sought, though not fully achieved. And the tension created between the divine king and certain of his chiefs by the establishment of a Government Court in the capital of one of the chiefs and not at that of the divine king was admitted and smoothed over, the representative of the chiefdom which had secured the Court eventually admitting negligence in not having sent a cow for sacrifice to ask blessing on the Court. So also, a bitter quarrel within a chiefdom between commoner village headmen and a priest of the royal line was openly expressed, and a reconciliation effected at the drinking of beer which accompanied a sacrifice in the grove of the dead chiefs (M. Wilson 1959: 30–40, 46, 123–41. The force compelling the celebration of these rituals was hunger, due to a partial failure of crops first in the cold season and then in a drought, and the ill-health of one of the chief priests, Kasitile, who was convinced that his fever and cough were due to a quarrel with other leading men of the country. There is good reason to think that the rituals celebrated at puberty, and childbirth, and death helped in the integration of individuals; as well as uniting kinship groups; anti-social desires were expressed and rejected and approved attitudes reaffirmed (M. Wilson 1956: 46–85,101–17, 227–8, 231–2; cf. Bettelheim 1954: 27–45); and it is likely that the “speaking out” at sacrifices for the country helped the leading men like Kasitile to compose internal conflicts, as well as quarrels with their peers.

The two heroes who established divine kingships among the Nyakyusa in Tanganyika and the men of Ngonde in Nyasaland sprang from the same lineage and spoke the same language, but the development of the institution in the two areas differed. In BuNyakyusa, the founding hero, Lwembe, was primarily a ritual leader and he never developed any extensive secular authority. His descendants became chiefs through the lower Nyakyusa valley and they sacrificed to him and recognized the spiritual overlordship of his heirs, but they did not pay taxes to him or refer appeals from their courts. That was why “the living Lwembe” did not get a Government Court. In Ngonde it was otherwise; there the divine king gradually acquired secular power. This power was based on the control of an external trade in ivory, and the import of cloth, and later of guns. The Nyakyusa had no such external trade because geographically they were much more isolated. They were cut off by an arc of mountains over which the lowest pass is 8000 feet, a great marsh, and the stormy waters of the northern tip of Nyasa. Their exchange of food for iron with the Kinga remained the merest trickle. There is a great deal of evidence from Central and South Africa to show that the development of centralized kingdoms, such as Ngonde gradually became, was directly linked either with an external trade in ivory and slaves, or with a high degree of internal specialization (G. Wilson 1939; M. Wilson 1958: 54–5).8 That Nyakyusa had neither and their divine king [573]remained a priest and god, whereas the Kyungu of Ngonde was transformed from god to magistrate.

The process of centralization and the exchange of ritual for secular authority developed fast after the European occupation in Central Africa. The heir to the Lwembes refused to be installed as a divine king—the tenure of that office was always highly precarious and unpopular—and, though he failed to secure a Government Court in the thirties, he now sits on the District Council and warmly rejects the insinuations of some of his colleagues that he is really “just a priest.” And the place to “speak out” today, to air grievances and seek a reconciliation, is a council or committee, not a sacred grove.

Perhaps the tradition of “speaking out,” the obligation to express anger fully, partly explains the violence of the speeches of some African leaders on formal occasions—leaders who are much less violent in ordinary conversation. In the English tradition men are more outspoken in private than in public; but African leaders are chosen by their followers partly for their very outspokenness. Sometimes it seems as if the rostrums of Hyde Park—that institution which delights and astonishes those of us who come from countries with a more rigid censorship—were made part of the formal process of government. I doubt whether the violence is solely a demagogue’s trick; the expression of anger is felt, in Africa, to be the first step towards the resolution of conflicts; “speaking out” is the prelude to compromise. Having said that, let me add, in my own country the public utterances of black South Africans are commonly more moderate than those of my fellow whites. Our great danger in the South is the absence of occasions on which blacks can speak their minds to whites.

I keep asking myself, what will happen to divine kingship in modern Africa. The swing to popular leadership and against hereditary chieftainship has been very strong during the past two decades in South and Central Africa, and popular movements are still gathering momentum. At the same time there is evidence of the tenacity of belief in mystical power. As I said earlier, the belief in personal causation of fortune and misfortune is not directly destroyed by a knowledge of proximate causes. There is still the nagging doubt: who sent the louse? Recent tragic events in Basutoland and Kenya prove that there is still a lively belief in the efficacy of human flesh as a medicine; witch-finders are received enthusiastically; and there is evidence that some of the new popular leaders—or their followers on their behalf—are claiming mystical power. This is what the late John Bond called “the barrier of African mysticism”; it is one of the things that limits understanding between black and white in Africa. My friends among educated Africans who will speak openly of these things are least skeptical than most Europeans, and very conscious of the pressure of traditional beliefs. As one of them put it: “It is easy when I am here at the University not to believe any of it but when I go home and mother says: ‘Just use this medicine I have got for you, dear; people will be jealous of you now that you have got your BA and you must be careful,’’ then it is very hard not to believe.’ A general belief in personal causation and the manipulation of medicines to achieve good or evil fortune is more tenacious than belief in power resident in [574]certain lineages of divine kings, but men resort to the old gods very readily in time for drought or famine.

As I have tried to show you, divine kingship was itself an innovation in at least some parts of Central Africa no more than four hundred years ago; its establishment coincided with a technical revolution—the introduction of cattle and of iron; an expansion of trade and ritual cooperation; an extension of the area of the rule of law; and the welding of people of different stocks in a common society. Like the founding heroes the whites came as both duceand reges, initiating new activities; the cultivation of valuable crops—coffee and tea—and exchange of these for manufactured goods; building roads and schools and hospitals; preaching the Christian Gospel; besides keeping the peace between peoples formerly at war. And the problems of government in contemporary Africa today are, in a sense, similar to those which confronted the founding heroes of BuNyakyusa and Ngonde. What is to be the adjustment to the new technical revolution and the modern expansion of trade and ritual cooperation, the extension of the area of the rule of law to embrace most of the world; and, above all, how are people of different races to be welded into a common society? Perhaps the new loyalty may be to national states which were the successors to divine kings in Europe; perhaps the stage of exclusive national sovereignty may be skipped in Africa as so many other stages have been skipped. What concerns me most is to know what will replace ‘the breath of men’, what will be the form of democratic control, and how a public conscience will operate, for it is much more difficult in Africa, as elsewhere, for these to be effective in large than in small units. Perhaps the heirs of divine kings and chiefs will provide local leaders, representatives of local interests, to check the over-weening power of central authorities. This, you will remember, is what the leaders of the scattered groups united by the heroes of Nyakyusa and Ngonde became; the leaders of the aborigines represented by the people, and village interests, as opposed to the chiefs.

To conclude, it seems that Sir James’ idea of divine kingship is still relevant to any study of modern Africa, for an understanding and apprehension of the traditional intellectual systems and symbolic patters is a condition of understanding the revolution which is taking place. I feel that it is peculiarly incumbent upon those of us who claim it be African by birth and sympathy to seek to interpret the old ideas and symbols in terms of the new Africa.


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———. 1958. Peoples of the Nyasa-Tanganyika corridor. Cape Town: New Series.

———. 1959. Communal rituals of the Nyakyusa. London: Oxford University Press.


Monica WILSON (1908–1982) was a South African anthropologist, who taught at the University College of Fort Hare, Rhodes University, and the University of Cape Town. She published several monographs resulting from her fieldwork with the Nyakyusa in Tanzania between 1935 and 1938, notably Good company: A study of Nyakyusa age-villages (1951) and Rituals of kinship among the Nyakyusa (1956).


1. This conception has been illustrated with a wealth of detail by R. P. P. Tempels (1946).

2. The notion of a living representative of a founding hero apparently surprises some Egyptologists, but it is in strict conformity with the ideas of the Nyakyusa and various other Bantu-speaking peoples regarding kinship and inheritance. Cf. H. W. Fairman: “Amenophils I and Rameses II are treated exactly as if they were contemporaries performing together the same ritual, though in fact they were separated by two and a half centuries. This extraordinary situation must imply not merely that the king celebrated the cult of his ancestors, but that he was literally identified with them, and that even in his life he was one of them” (1958: 103–4).

3. Cf. G. Wilson (1936: 167–9); M. Wilson (1951: 96–108).

4. Compare also: Adams (1958: 26–30); Bohannan (1958: 1–11). The Tiv concept of tsav is parallel to the Nyakyusa concept of amanga.

5. Cf. Mofolo (1931: 2, 25–31). Mr. Mofolo devotes a whole chapter of his novel to a description of a great snake licking Chaka. I am particularly grateful to my colleague, Dr. A. C. Jordan, for calling my attention to this passage.

6. The word for “chief” in a number of Bantu languages to the west of the Nyakyusa comes from this root, -fumu.

7. The Nyakyusa had an elaborate age organization and commoner village headmen were leaders of age groups, but this is not directly relevant to the position of divine kings. For an account of the age organization see M. Wilson (1951).

8. Godfrey Wilson, The constitution of Ngonde, Rhodes Livingstone Papers, no. 3 (1939); Monica Wilson, Peoples of the Nyasa-Tanganyika corridor, 54–5. Fynn shows that the development of trade in ivory and cattle with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay coincided with the emergence of the Zulu kingdom (1950:8, 10, 16, 47–8).