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Vistas in Astronomy.


tiquity, British

Vo\. 39, pp. 529-538,1995 Copyright 1996 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in Great Britain. All rights reserved 0083-6656/95 $29.00

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Stars and Seasons in Southern Africa

K. V Snedegar

the History of

Department of Astronomy, University of Cape Town, Republic of South Africa (3): Prominent :supplement to lroject (2):The nent to Journal .e visibility and


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Abstract: Although the indigenous people of Southern Africa traditionally viewed the sky as a place quite apart from the Earth, they believed celestial phenomena to be natural signs united with those of the Earth in a harmonious synchronicity. There is no substantial evidence that the precolonial Africans imagined a casual relationship between celestial bodies and the seasonal patterns of life on Earth. They did, however, recognize a coincidental relationship. The traditional African cosmos, then, worked as a noetic principle unifying the observed motions of celestial bodies, the sequence of seasons, and the behavior of plants and animals. Such a cosmos, with local peculiarities, was widely understood in Southern Africa before the end of the last century. By the early 20th century European colonial paradigms had largely obliterated this African worldview. This paper will offer a partial reconstruction. Pre-colonial South African people viewed time as a sequence of discrete natural events; through annual repetition these events served as a guide for proper human action. The South Africans analyzed the passage of time in terms of the motions of celestial bodies, the maturation of beneficial plants, and the mating patterns of animals. The rightful course of human life was seen to fit within the seasonal context of these natural phenomena. The visibility of conspicuous stars and asterisms marked significant times of year. For instance, the Lovedu people greeted the dawn rising of Can opus with joy: "The boy has come out." The star was a signal for rainmaking and boys' initiation ceremonies to proceed. The Venda constellation Thutlwa, the giraffes, comprises 0( and 13 Crucis and 0( and 13 Centauri. In October Thutlwa skims the trees of the evening horizon. The Venda Thutlwa literally means 'rising above the trees,' an allusion to the majestic vegetarian creatures and the stars advising the people to be done with their spring planting. This paper will describe stellar associations with other creatures: wild dogs, warthogs, wildebeests, swallows, cuckoos and cicadas. In each case the visibility of a star will synchronize with a behavior of the associated species. Together, stars and species informed man of the order and unity of an African cosmos - a worldview that must have been as satisfying as it was beautiful.

, Current address: Utah Valley State College, 800 West 1200 South, OREM, UT, 84058-5999, U.S.A. The research iorthis paper was made possible by an award of a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Cape Town; this author is particularly grateful for the advice and support of Dr Brian Warner, professor of astronomy at UCT. 529




K. V Snedegar

Few experiences can be more inspiring than that of a starry night out in the African bu h where Nature's primeval splendor embraces the imagination as well as the senses, Here tSh' night comes alive. The sharp, lightly scented air drones with an hidden orchestra of COuntle,e mating insects. A distant counterpoint of bird chatter, the arguments of baboons, the hvena',s laughter, suggests both the great amount of nocturnal activity and how little of it we d;rectl~ perceive. Above these restless creatures of the night the stars keep watch like the glistening e\~S of half-remembered ancestors, and the Milky Way arches across the sky like some phant~m pathway to another existence. The mythic potential of celestial objects fully exercised the minds of Africans, but that rich heritage is not to be the theme of this paper. It to modern scholarship that pre-colonial Africans also viewed the sky as just as available for exploitation as were the Earth's animal, vegetable and indigenous South is less well known a natural resource mineral resources.


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The particular utility of the heavens lay in their regular apparent motion. By acquainting themselves with celestial motion in a very general innumerate way the Africans were able t; correlate the changing positions of heavenly bodies with seasonal changes on Earth. In short. the Africans developed rudimentary calendars. This paper will briefly discuss how certain stars and asterisms helped South African people define temporal locations within a seasonal framework. Special attention will be paid to the traditions of the Nguni (Swazi, Xhosa. Zulu! and Sotho-Tswana people. For a good introduction to the ethnology of the region the reader 1969, 1971). should consult the Oxford History of South Africa (Wilson and Thompson,




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With the exception of the Western Cape area, Southern Africa lies in a climatic region typified by summer rainfall and winter aridity. The rainy/dry season dichotomy was of great significance to pre-colonial agriculturalists as they depended entirely on rainfall as a source of water, irrigation being unknown to them. Nonetheless, South Africans recognized more than two seasons. Some people counted up to six; three was a more common number. The nomenclature of these seasons varied widely, but the Northern Sotho terms Marega, Selemo. and Lehtabula are not extraordinary in their implications. Marega, "when things dry up.' extends roughly from May to August, winter in the southern hemisphere, Selemo, "the digging season," commencing with the spring rains, is time for cultivation, planting and weeding. The people reap what they have sown during Lehlabula, "the time of plenty," concluding about our month recognizing of April. the annual The seasons sequence themselves of generation only acted as a vague conceptual template for flora and and corruption among the Earth's


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fauna. On a practical level the most certain guide was always the presence or absence ofrain. life blood of all African creatures. However, for ritual and symbolic purposes the changing visibility of notable celestial objects Despite Keletso Atkins' brilliant had special significance. chronicle of the African devotion to observing , synodIC

for initi Nak the i men



The Moon is Dead! Give Us Our Money! (Atkins, 1993), our understanding of the months, actual workings of Southern African lunar calendars remains incomplete. Chaotic iists at month names, none in much agreement with any other, await the unhappy investigator who
enters this field. Punctuating this gloom with flashes of light are African traditions concernIllg specific objects of the starry sky. These include Canopus, the Pleiades, Orion, Spica, th~ Southern Cross, and the Milky Way; together they provide us with considerable insight Illk the meanings with which Africans invested their seasons as well as their lunar months.

Stars and Seasons in Southern Africa


It in the African bush the senses. Here th~ orchestra of countless )f baboons, the hyenas' N little of it we directly like the glistening eyes ,ky like some phantom

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indigenous South is less well known a natural resource mineral resources.

notion. By acquainting le Africans were able to nges on Earth. In short, :fly discuss how certain ations within a seasonal mi (Swazi, Xhosa, Zulu) of the region the reader mpson, 1969, 1971).

lies in a climatic region 1 dichotomy was of great ly on rainfall as a source \fricans recognized more .re common number. The 10 terms Marega, Selemo, a, "when things dry up," here. Selemo, "the digging Jlanting and weeding. The plenty," concluding about Leconceptual template for lOng the Earth's flora and ,resence or absence of rain, )lic purposes the changing

)tion to observing synodic , our understanding of the 1complete. Chaotic lists of : unhappy investigator who frican traditions concerning Pleiades, Orion, Spica, the th considerable insight into lS their lunar months.

The Sotho, Tswana and Venda people traditionally knew Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky, as Naka or Nanga, "the Horn Star." For the Zulu and Swazi it was inKhwenkwezi, Khwekheti to the Tsonga, simply meaning "brilliant star." The Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene (1981) described inKhwenkwezi as one of the morning stars which help people determine time. Nkwekweti is the fifth month of the traditional Swazi calendar; iNkwekwezi is a month name sometimes used in the Mkuze region of Zululand. The term U-Canzibe (Xhosa) or uCwazibe (Zulu) meaning 'shining' or 'sparkling,' was also applied to Canopus. McLaren (1929) identified U-Canzibe as Canopus seen rising before daybreak in May. However, in his Zulu dictionary Bryant (1940) registers Ucwazibe as Aldebaran; Doke and Vilakazi (1964) second this opinion. The confusion may derive from reports such as from James Stuart's informants, who described uCwazibe as the very first star of the group that make up the Pleiades. This statement would seem to favor an identification with Aldebaran. On the other hand, the informants said that the appearance of this star was taken as the actual beginning of the new year, which supports identification with Canopus. They add: "But there is a dispute about which star is uCwazibe" (Webb and Wright, 1976-1979, vol. 3, p. 167). Norton (1909) believed that his Zulu guides were pointing to Fomalhaut as uCwazibe; he was certainly wrong. A term used only by the Zulu in Natal, as opposed to Zululand proper, is Andulela, 'The Harbinger,' was a name given to a morning star rising at harvest time: this is undoubtedly Can opus uCwazibe, or 'praise-poetry,' occasionally alludes to Canopus. A praise poem hails the Ndebele king Mzilikazi as "the tall conspicuous early morning star in the south-east preceding the constellation Pleiades." A praise of Swazi king Sobhuza I includes the line: Amakwezi kubike/and inkwenkwezi kanye neSilimela ("the stars tell each other which is the Morning Star, and the Isilimela;" Vail and White, 1991, pp. 105, 184). The association of this morning star, inkwenkwezi, with the Pleiades has to do with its role in establishing the seasonal calendar. The star's rising in the southeast likewise indicates that it is Canopus. The calendrical significance of Can opus is more clearly discerned among the Sotho-Tswana people than with the Nguni. Naka was said to break up the year and to burn up anything green in nature as it heralded the winter season and the browning of the veld. NakalNangalCanopus should be visible in the pre-dawn sky by the third week of May. Among the Venda the first person to see Nanga at that time of year would sound the phalaphala horn from atop a hill. He would receive a cow as a prize. The Lobedu considered the first pers.on to view Naka as having good luck. Upon learning that Naka had been spotted the people would chant, "Naka has come out, the boy has come out" (Krige, 1931). The star's dawn rising was a signal for rainmaking ceremonies to proceed; it also had some connection with the Wolika boys' initiation ceremony. Beyer (1919) maintained that every year the Sotho carefully watched for Naka toward the end of May. Like their Venda counterparts, Sotho chiefs awarded a cow for the earliest sighting of Naka. On the day of the sighting the chiefs would call their medicine men together. Throwing their bone dice, the doctors would judge whether the new season would be favorable or not. A Native Commissioner of Sekhukuneland gave this account of the Northern Sotho tradition: "For the Basotho of the Northern Transvaal the year begins during the month of Naka (Canopus). During the days when the rising of the star is expected, all the men of the tribe leave their homes and camp out on the mountains. Sometimes they arise very early and arriving on the mountains they kindle fires and watch the skies to the South, where the star is expected to make its appearance. It is the belief of all the men that the person who is the first to see the star will be very prosperous during that year. He will have a rich harvest of kaffir corn, and will enjoy good


K. V. Snedegar cluster, suggesti wean journalist awaiting a time leave the home Von Sicard (I the Pleiades in Ki/imia, 'the Di and by implicat the Digging Sta weather." 1 As, in the Sun's glar vu/i rains comm the masika rain) they herald a dr people, the obse Eastern, Centra with local weath knew the stars b call them Tshilin and Zulu, isiLir Von Sicard find: render isiLimela cultivating imple According to ( One of James St for the cluster '" the end of the n before the end 0 the Digging Star practice. Late Ju At this time of ~ are months in th At first blush, he speaks of a Z " ... die: coming until gc the sun and so If the informa nothing is gainec Zululand, men n toward the begir agricultural prac The Pleiades ma:


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Fig. I. A Pedi (Northern Sotha) man blowing a phalaphala horn (photo courtesy of the McGregor Museum, Kimberley, South Africa).

luck and good fortune till the end of his life. On the day following upon the rising of Naka, the men of the divining bones, the doctors, go to the rivers early in the morning to wash their bones. They put their bones into water that is perfectly still, in which the color of the bones will show up clearly. By understanding the color of the bones, they can foretell what kind of year is expected, a year of plenty or of famine or misfortunes" (Franz, 1931, pp. 241-242).

The Africans have a particularly strong tradition of observing the Pleiades. Some people viewed the cluster as a group of six or seven stars, one Shona name for them being Chimutanhatu, simply 'the six,' another Chinyamunomwe, 'the seven.' Other people were uncertain about the number of constituents. A Venda riddle asks: "I counted which stars and had to give up?" The correct reply is "the Pleiades." Stayt (1931) reports that the Venda discerned only six stars. A Shona term, chirema, meaning 'lame' or 'abnormal,' is also applied to the

~verb has century: Dr Guy 1. I teachingat the Univ

Stars and Seasons in Southern Africa


: ,,,,0 journalist Gaudari the cluster as ,small stan h~ld attraction j, cluster, suggesting that they the described Pleiades were seen an unnatural conglomeration. The Zimbabawaitmga tIme 1. when could fall away to as an mdependent hfe by as au do uuknown chIldren when they

courtesy of the

ing upon the rising Ie rivers early in the that is perfectly still, ~rstanding the color a year of plenty or

Pleiades. Some people or them being Chimupeople were uncertain Ihich stars and had to Ltthe Venda discerned is also applied to the

leave the home (McCosh, 1979, p. 35). VonSicard (1966) considered it likely that Arab traders introduced the tradition of observing thePleiades in a calendrical sense to the Swahili. In Kiswahili the Pleiades are known as Kilimia, 'the Digging Stars.' Referring to the vuli and masika rainy periods of East Africa, andby implication the cultivating seasons associated with them, a Swahili proverb runs: "If theDigging Stars set in sunny weather they rise in rain, if they set in rain they rise in sunny weather."I As viewed during the evenings from equatorial East Africa the Pleiades disappear inthe Sun's glare, they 'set,' about early May, to re-emerge in the morning sky just as the June vuli rains commence. Observed in the morning sky the Pleiades set at dawn toward the end of themasika rainy season in November; when they are seen to be rising in the evening twilight theyherald a dry or sunny period (Gray, 1955). Widely dispersed by the migration of Bantu people,the observation of the Pleiades' rising and setting became commonplace throughout Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Interpretation of these events varied in accordance withlocal weather patterns, but the general tradition was so strong that many African people knewthe stars by the same title. For the Nyasa of Malawi the Pleiades are Lemila; the Venda canthem Tshilimela; the Karanga, Chirimera; the Tsonga, Xirimelo; Sotho-Tswana, Selemela; and Zulu, isiLimela. Stayt derives the Venda Tshilimela from the verb u lima, 'to plough.' VonSicard finds the Shona root -rima, meaning 'to till, cultivate or hoe.' Zulu dictionaries render isiLimela as 'the Digging Stars,' also implying hoeing (the hoe had been the principal cultivatingimplement in Southern Africa before the introduction of the plough by Europeans). According to oral tradition the Zulu were actively watching the isiLimela in the 19th century. Oneof James Stuart's Zulu informants named Dhlozi commented that the best time to look forthe cluster was about an hour before sunrise and that the stars should be visible toward the end of the month uluTuli. That is to say, good observers should have seen the isiLimela beforethe end of June each year. But there is a problem. Watching for the heliacal rising of the Digging Stars and following their dictates in June does not accord with Zulu agricultural practice.Late June, being the middle of winter, is scarcely an appropriate time to begin hoeing. At this time of year the land is brown, the soil dry and hard; the life-restoring spring rains aremonths in the future. At first blush, one of Henry Callaway's informants only seems to add to the confusion when he speaks of a Zulu observational tradition. He relates that the star cluster " ... dies, and is not seen. It is not seen in winter; and at last, when the winter is coming to an end, it begins to appear - one of its stars is first, and then three, until going on increasing, it becomes a cluster of stars, and is perfectly clear when the sun is about to rise. And we say /silimela is renewed, and the year is renewed, and so we begin to dig" (Callaway, 1970, pp. 399-400). If the informant is referring to the Pleiades' morning visibility and he does mention sunrise nothing is gained; but our picture changes if he is actually referring to evening visibility. From Zululand, men retiring late after a beer-drinking party can see the Pleiades rising at midnight toward the beginning of September. The late evening interpretation is consonant with Zulu agricultural practice because the first spring rains could reasonably be expected in September. The Pleiades may have provided a rule of thumb, but their visibility did not strictly determine
I This proverb has impressed itself so deeply in the Swahili memory that it is still being recited in the late 20th century: Dr Guy 1. Consolmagno, SJ., now of the Vatican Observatory, recalls hearing the proverb when he was teaching at the University of Kenya.











K V Snedegar yand e Tau full century, khwe g=ei !ui Mungomba c and a buck (1\ are pibwe na , of transmissi, Anotherce stars of OriOJ Betelgeuse, Si Magakgala t< in the early e1 for the root v (I) an edibl. (2) the cons lore con, While the Dictionary (Z stellation said the larval fon Zimbabwe ar caterpillars aJ 1972). Mopa! summer emer kgala stars. A time in June t of the caterpi the veld.

the season of cultivation. Rain was all important. Whether or not the stars agreed, the peOPle would only take up their hoes and begin cultivation after the first rains. While the Zulu may have linked the Pleiades' evening visibility with agricultural activity, the Xhosa had a different understanding of the asterism's morning visibility. The Xhosa watched for the first appearance o~ the isiLir:ze/~ in June. It is ~aid that the m?nth of the Digging Stars, Eyesilimela, symbobzed new bfe rn man for the time of the comrng-out ceremony of the abakwetha circumcision school was determined by the appearance of this constellation. It has always been the custom for Xhosa men to count their years of manhood from this date (Hodgson, 1982, p. 53). When praising the handsomeness of chief Kaiser Matansima, the poet Yali-Manisi naturally adds the formulaic line: "Even from afar he's beautiful as the Pleiades" (Opland, 1983, p. 115).

The stars comprising Orion's Belt and Sword formed asterisms in the minds of South Africans. The Zulu sometimes called the three belt stars imPhambano, which possibly comes from the root mbambane, a cluster or group of things close together. Ritter (1955), however. presents the term as Impanbana, and interprets it as 'the Crossing.' He adds that the Zulu observed the heliacal rising of Impanbana in July, after which cultivation would begin. To the Xhosa the asterism was amaRoza, signifying nothing more than 'three stars in a row.' The Karanga knew the asterism 8, E, and" Orionis as Nguruve, 'the wild pigs.' This designation was widespread. For the Sotho they were the Makolobe, for the Tswana, Dikolobe, both meaning 'pigs.' In the Mkuze area of northern Zululand one of the summer months was occasionally called iNgulube ukuzala kwayo ('the moon when the wild pig litters down'). One would like to think that the wild pig appellation results from a calendrical analogy with the reproductive behavior of these animals. Some ambiguity of species exists; either the warthog, Phacochoerus aethiopicus, or the bush pig, Potamochoerus porcus, could be indicated. Fortunately, the two species exhibit very similar behaviors. Fairall (1968) investigated the reproductive seasons of mammals in the Kruger National Park. He found that the warthog has a farrowing season commencing in mid-November. Research on the bush pig shows that it has its litters in the same period. The Dikolobe stars have their acronychal rising one could say that they are being born about the third week of November. To have associated the reappearance of the stars with the appearance of new pigs must have been only natural. Intriguingly, bush pig and warthog litters often consist of three piglets (Smithers, 1971). If the Africans recognized this fact it would have given them another reason to identify the three Belt stars with pigs. Two or three celestial dogs, called Mbwa in the Shona language, were closely associated with the wild pigs. Von Sicard was inclined to equate one dog with Sirius, but the Tswana point to Orion's Sword, saying: dintsa Ie Dikolobe ('the dogs are chasing the pigs'). The Northern Sotho cognate Dintshwa is likewise applied to the sword stars. That the motif of these stars chasing or hunting each other was current among diverse African people may offer evidence of the transmission and transformation of folk information in Africa. The Ju/Wasi tell of the god, Old /Gao, who was hunting in the skies. He spotted three zebras, the stars of Orion's Belt, and shot an arrow at them. But it missed, falling short. The arrow is Orion's Sword. All three zebras escaped onto the Earth, as can be seen when they set in the west (Marshall, 1975). In a Khoikhoi myth preserved by Hahn (1881, pp. 108-109), the Aob is sent out by his wives, the Pleiades. He too stalks the zebras. Hahn depicts Aob in this way: Aldebaran represents Aob himself; the stars rr! and rr2 Orionis comprise his bow; 8 and E Tauri are his sandals, //haron;

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Ingongoli \\ on Star-Lore,' The article eq to be directly (1927). There This star is pc "... which rise what time of A somewh:
(1964) identif the name of c:

lngongoni ma wildebeests c, wildebeest hel (Connochaete almost all the

Stars and Seasons in Southern Africa ars agreed, the people ~ricultural activity, the The Xhosa watched



nonth of the Digging ming-out ceremony of ;)f this constellation. It anhood from this date :r Matansima, the Poet lutiful as the Pleiades"

in the minds of South

J, which possibly comes

y and e Tauri form his kaross or coat. The stars e, l, and 42 Orionis form Aob's arrow. A full century after Hahn's account /Gwi Bushmen described stars in the vicinity of Orion as khwe g=ei !ui, or 'a man shooting a steinbok' (Silberbauer, 1981). During an interview, Louis Mungomba of the !Xu community at Schmidtsdrift spoke of the Belt stars as a man, his dog and a buck (Mungomba, 1994). As far away as the Songye people of central Zaire the Belt stars are pibwe na mbwa na nyama ('a man, a dog and an animal,' Merriam, 1974). The mechanics of transmission of the chase motif among disparate people has yet to be elucidated. Another celestial entity, possibly a rather extended asterism, may have included the brightest stars of Orion. Beyer (1919) suggests that the Sotho recognized a foursome of stars - Rigel, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon - which all together they called Magakgala. The stars are also Magakgala to the Tswana, who say the corn should be harvested when Magakgala is visible in the early evening. In his Setswana dictionary, Snyman (1990) lists two intriguing definitions for the root word -gakgala: (l) an edible caterpillar, and (2) the constellation of the dolphin (i.e. Delphinus; however, the Tswana have no traditional lore concerning dolphins).

Ritter (1955), however, He adds that the Zulu ion would begin. To the tree stars in a row.' The gs.' This designation was Dikolobe, both meaning nonths was occasionally down'). One would like 19y with the reproductive Ie warthog, Phacochoerus ted. Fortunately, the two e reproductive seasons of g has a farrowing season lat it has its litters in the lId say that they are being pearance of the stars with gly, bush pig and warthog lUS recognized this fact it lfS with pigs. 'ere closely associated with -ius, but the Tswana point ~ the pigs'). The Northern .at the motif of these stars people may offer evidence ica. The Ju/Wasi tell of the as, the stars of Orion's Belt, is Orion's Sword. All three west (Marshall, 1975). In a is sent out by his wives, the Aldebaran represents Aob lUri are his sandals, /lharon;

While the Delphinus connection is difficult to accept, the Comprehensive Northern Sotho Dictionary (Ziervogel and Mokgokong, 1975) seconds the entry on edible worms and a constellation said to appear on cold nights. The caterpillar is most likely the famous mopane worm, the larval form of Gonimbrasia belina, the Anomalous Emperor moth. Throughout Botswana, Zimbabwe and the Northern Transvaal people collect mopane worms by the sack-full. The caterpillars are eviscerated and sun-dried or roasted, then added to stew as a relish (Pinhey, 1972). Mopane worms themselves emerge twice a year, in summer and again ,in winter. The summer emergence occurs about the time of the acronychal or evening rising of the Magakgala stars. As for the cold nights, it is said among the Northern Sotho that after threshing time in June these stars despoil all green plants. This description is in keeping with the action of the caterpillars although they only defoliate mopane trees as well as the winter browning of the veld.


lngongoli was one of the few Xhosa star names mentioned in an anonymous article, 'Notes on Star-Lore,' appearing in the October 1881 issue of the Cape Quarterly Review (WG., 1881). The article equates Ingongoli with the Evening Star, presumably Venus. The term would seem to be directly related to a Tsonga name for Venus, Ngongomela, which was collected by Junod (1927). There is, however, reason to believe that the term refers to a fixed star, not a planet. This star is possibly Spica. Zulu informants told Samuelson (1929) of a bright star, iNqonqoli, "... which rises at about 3 a.m. before the morning star." Unhappily, Samuelson did not record what time of year the late-night rising takes place . A somewhat abbreviated form of Samuelson's lnqonqoli is iNonqoyi. Doke and Vilakazi (1964) identify Inonqoyi as the planet Jupiter. But after the pattern of other stars bearing the name of a lunar month, an association between Inqonqoli/lnonqoyi and the Swazi month lngongoni may be inferred. Ingongoni, meaning 'wildebeest,' is the summer month when the wildebeests calve; Mkhuze Zulus knew this month as iNkonkoni. Further, it is noteworthy that wildebeest herds are highly synchronized in their reproduction. A study of the blue wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus) of Kruger National Park found that under normal circumstances almost all the animals had their young within a 6 week period commencing in mid-November


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K. V Snedegar The Sotho an bird rests. They ofheaven,' the , purpose of Mole, and night. Sever constant movem Evidently, the a /Xam informa depicted the 'Sta the other is ove] Way,pictured a~ dry places.' A K Serogabolo also swear,curse or i to Clegg (1986) I this description , of the Galaxy, a] quite often delay forthe Tswana t unfulfilled.

(Fairall, 1968). Research on unmanaged wildebeest populations of the Serengeti has shown that on average 87'Yt, of calves are born within a 20-day period in non-drought years (Sinclair 1977). Observing the spectacle of thousands of animals having their young at the same tim~ must have been sufficient reason for the Swazi and Zulu to call the lunation corresponding roughly with November/December the 'Wildebeest Month.' As for a Wildebeest Star which rises at about 3 a.m., the timing could not be more opportune - as seen from northern Zululand, Spica rises shortly before 3.30 on the morning of 15 November, and about 1.30 on 15 December.


The Sotho and Tswana recognized a group of stars called Dithutlwa, the giraffes. Thuda is the Venda equivalent. Normally there are four giraffes, two male and two female. Sometimes the Venda add a little giraffe, thudana. In Tswana parlance the males are the brighter stars, C( and f3 Centauri, while exand f3 Crucis are the females. The Sotho and Venda, however, make ex and f3 Centauri the females. According to Stayt (1931), the Venda month Khubvhumedzi rightly began with the crescent Moon when the lower two Thuda are just below the horizon and the upper two are just visible. For the Sotho, when the Dithutlwa are seen gliding above the southwestern horizon just after sunset, they indicate the beginning of cultivating season. Late in May the females leave the company of the males, dipping to the pre-dawn southwestern horizon (Crux is circumpolar below 2r South Latitude) and then pulling up Naka/Canopus. The Sotho-Tswana term Thutlwa is itself suggestive of the horizon-skimming stars. It means above the trees. Perhaps in a related strain, the Tswana informant Mogorosi speaks of two depabe, 'yellow animal' stars found in the south: in winter they cross each other and one comes to settle where the other was before. The bigger star is a sign of the winter season and the other is a sign of the summer season (Breutz, 1969, p. 208). This is consistent with the motion of the giraffe stars. At all events, giraffes have no monopoly on being yellowish in color. The /Xam Bushmen knew these stars of Centaurus and Crux as lions. Apparently the Tswana were aware of the Bushman tradition, but decided to transform the lions into animals whose tall features lifted them closer to the stars.


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supposed natura MilkyWay. It wa The stars of Oric pigs,the emerge] heralded the apI ritual one a timl time did these a wewould be mis Africans' keen a relationships bet


The Zulu called our galaxy umTala or umThala. Doke and Vilakazi (1964, p. 782) register four other definitions for the term: (1) (2) (3) (4) a species of tall marsh grass, Erianthus capensis, used for thatching, the strip of fleshy muscle encircling the paunch of cattle, a dark stripe on some people from the navel down, and the patch of hair left on top of an infant's head when the rest has been rubbed off.

References [I] Atkins, K.

For the Xhosa the Milky Way was Um-nyele, meaning the raised bristles along the back [of the sky], as on an angry dog (Soga n.d.). Judging from these associations, the Nguni people must have viewed the Milky Way as a king of fuzzy rib-vault across the night sky. The idea that it held up the sky, or even held it together, is strongly implied. One of the many titles of the Swazi king, the chief pillar of traditional Swazi society, is 'The Milky Way' (Kuper, 1986): and a Zulu regiment enrolled by king Mpande bore the nickname umtala wezulu (Faye, 1923).

African Wor [2]Beyer, G. (1' [3]Breutz, P. L. ies in HonolA

[4] [5]

Bryant, A. 1 Callaway, H [6]Doke, C. M. University F

Stars and Seasons in Southern Africa ti has shown :ars (Sinclair, le same til11e Jrresponding it Star which om northern lbout 1.30 On 537

The Sotho and Tswana knew the Milky Way as Molalatladi, the place where the lightning bird rests. They also used the term Molalakoko and occasionally Molawagodimo, 'the line ofheaven,' the Venda cognate being Mulala-vhungu. A Northern Sotho man attests that the purpose of Molalatladi is 2-fold: it keeps the sky from collapsing on Earth, and it governs day and night. Several other Tswana and Sotho informants said that the Milky Way indicates the constant movement of time and that it turns the Sun to the east (Breutz, 1969, p. 208). Evidently, the Milky Way served as a special indicator of the rainy season. When !Nanni, a /Xam informant of Lucy Lloyd, painted a sloppy watercolor of the sky in May 1881 he depicted the 'Star Country' as divided in two. One side represents the starry sky in fine weather, the other is overcast with clouds which shut out the stars. Separating the halves, the Milky Way,pictured as a road crosses the heavens. The Songye call it 'the dividing line of wet and dry places.' A Khwe Bushman knew it simply as 'the Line.' The vague Sotho-Tswana term Serogabolo also pertains to the Milky Way in its seasonal aspect. Its verbal roots are raga (to swear, curse or insult) and baloga or balosa (to blurt out or cause to blurt out). According to Clegg (1986) rain is due when Serogabolo reaches the zenith. The Milky Way best matches this description on September evenings when the Scorpius-Sagittarius region, the very center of the Galaxy, appears overhead. Yet while the spring rains may begin in September they are quite often delayed by weeks and even months. In drought years it would only be appropriate forthe Tswana to blurt out a curse after hopes of rain taken from this celestial sign had gone unfulfilled.

dIes. Thuda is Ie. Sometimes ghter stars, owever, make ,(hubvhumedzi N the horizon gliding above vating season. southwestern aka/Canopus. tars. It means speaks of two md one comes ~ason and the ith the motion I in color. The e Tswana were lals whose tall



South Africans judged the stars as marking the seasonal rhythms of life. Spring rains were supposed naturally to follow certain appearances of the Pleiades, the Southern Cross and the MilkyWay. It was profoundly disappointing when the rains (or was it the stars?) did not behave. The stars of Orion, and perhaps Spica, had associations with summer's fertility: litters of bush pigs,the emergence of mopane worms, a spectacular new generation of wildebeests. Can opus heralded the approach of winter, the end of the reproductive season and the beginning of a ritual one a time for divination, initiation ceremonies and drinking parties. However, at no time did these astronomical pieces of folk wisdom become a coherent body of knowledge: wewould be mistaken in calling them a system. Nonetheless, this folk wisdom testifies to the Africans' keen awareness of Nature and to their impressive ability to recognize coincidental relationships between phenomena.

p. 782) register

lbbed off. ng the back [of ~ Nguni people .t sky. The idea ~ many titles of , (Kuper, 1986); /u (Faye, 1923).

[I] Atkins, K. E. (1993) The Moon Is Dead! Give Us Our Money!: The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843-1900. Currey, London. [2]Beyer, G. (1919) Suto astronomy. SAJS 16, 201-210. [3]Breutz, P. L. (1969) Sotho-Tswana celestial concepts. In: Ethnological and Linguistic Studies in Honour of N J Van Warmelo, pp. 199-210. Government Printer, Pretoria. [4]Bryant, A. T. (1940) A Zulu-English Dictionary. Marianhill Mission Press, Marianhill. [5]Callaway, H. (1970) The Religious System of the Amazulu. C. Struik, Cape Town. [6]Doke, C. M. and Vilakazi, B. W (1964) Zulu-English Dictionary, 2nd edn. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg.



'HI~llil!illijl~'-I't!d"~lt-"""'''':1:'-'1II>-_I'~I'' lit""



L ,


K. V Snedegar in the Kruger Nation 1 a.

[7] Fairall, N, (1968) The reproductive seasons of some mammals Park, Zoologica Africana 3, 189-210,

[8) Faye, C. (1923) Zulu References for Interpreters and Students, City Printing Works, Pieter. maritzburg. [9] Gray, 1. (1955) Nairuzi or siku ya mwaka. In: Tanganyika Notes and Records 38, 1-22. [10) Franz, G. H. (1931) Some customs of the Transvaal Basotho. Bantu Studies 5(3),241-246 [II) Hahn, T. (1881) Tsuni//Goam: The Supreme Being of the Koi-Koi. Trubner, London .. [12] Hodgson, 1. (1982) The God of the Xhosa. Oxford University Press, Cape Town. [13] Junod, H. A. (1927) The Life of an African Tribe. Macmillan, London. [14] Krige, E. (1931) Agricultural ceremonies and practices of the BaLobedu. Bantu Studies 5(3),207-239. [IS] Kunene, M. (1981) Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic. Heinemann, London. [16] Kuper, H. (1986) The Swazi: A South African Kingdom, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press Oxford .. (17) (18) [19] [20) [21) [22] [23] Marshall, L. (1975) Two Ju/wa constellations. Botswana Notes and Records 7,153-159, McCosh, F. W 1. (1979) The African sky. NADA 12(1),30-44. McLaren, 1. (1929) A Grammar of the Kaffir Language. Longmans, Green, London. Merriam, A. P. (1974) An African World: The Basongye Village of Lupuapa Ngye. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. Mungomba, L. (1994) Interview by KVS at Schmidtsdrift, 23 July 1994. Norton, Rev. Father (1909) Native star names. South African J Sci. 6, 306-309. Opland, 1. (1983) Xhosa Oral Poetry: Aspects of a Black South African Tradition. Raven Press, Johannesburg. Pinhey, E. (1972) Emperor Moths of South and South Central Africa. C. Struik, Cape Town. Ritter, E. A. (1955) Shaka Zulu. Longmans, Green, London. Samuelson, R. C. (1929) Long, Long Ago. Knox. Silberbauer, G. B. (1981) Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Sinclair, A. R. E. (1977) The African Buffalo: A Study of Resource Limitation of Populations. Chicago University Press, Chicago. Smithers, H. N. R. (1971) Mammals of Botswana. National Museum of Rhodesia, Salisbury. Snyman, 1. W, Shole, 1. S. and Ie Roux, 1. C. (1990) Setswana English Afrikaans Dictionary, Via Afrika, Pretoria.


My con of the gall

arise from myth have willtie to common. Pleiades a This hy

able to

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I' \.'

,~ I'


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....... ~ .j.~"~I' .';~ .1).

[24] (25) [26) (27) [28) [29] [30]

era! name are three variants. ~ Now Ie undergoe: precessJOI

R.C.E. th dawn re-z the Indo-

[31] Soga, 1. H. (n.d.) The Ama-Xhosa: Life and Customs. Lovedale Press, Lovedale. [32] Stayt, H. (1931) The BaVenda. Oxford University Press, Oxford .... [33] Vail, L. and White, L. (1991) Power and the Praise Poem. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. [34] Von Sicard, H. (1966) Karanga stars. NADA 9(3),42-65. [35] WG. (1881) Notes on star-lore. Cape Quarterly Review 1(1), 52-63. [36] Webb, C. de B. and Wright, 1. B. (1976-1979) The James Stuart Archive of Record:d O~al Evidence Relating the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring People, 4 Volumes. Umverslty of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. [37] Wilson, M. and Thompson, L. (1969-1971) umes. Oxford University Press, Oxford. The Oxford History of South Africa, 2 Vol-

a pre-Gn which mt Gradu closer to Latin na move on into ano position rose, to (
Fin all:

coincide, equinoct the caler month c

gods. It ;

[38] Ziervogel, D. and Mokgokong, P. C. (1975) Comprehensive Northern Sotho Dictionary, 1. L. van Schaik/UNISA, Pretoria.


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