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!Kung Bushman Religious Beliefs1

  • Lorna Marshall


My purpose in this paper is to describe some of the religious beliefs held currently by the !Kung Bushmen of the interior bands of the Nyae Nyae region of South West Africa. I shall limit the paper to a description of their concepts of the gods, the problem of evil, supplication, the spirits of the dead, and the ceremonial curing dance, but leave for another paper a more detailed account of medicine men, how they become medicine men, and more about their practices and beliefs. We gathered the information which I present principally on our expeditions of 1952–3 and 1955.



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page 221 note 2 Schapera, I., The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa, London: Routledge, 1930. Reference is particularly to chapter vii.

page 222 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., pp. 176–7.

page 222 note 2 Ibid., p. 197.

page 224 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 182.

page 224 note 2 Ibid., pp. 191, 374.

page 224 note 3 For the location and extent of the Nyae Nyae region see Marshall, Lorna, ‘!Kung Bushman Bands’, Africa, vol. xxx, no. 4, Oct. 1960, pp. 325–7.

page 224 note 4 Schapera, op. cit., p. 183.

page 224 note 5 Some !Kung informants, /Ti!kay among them, claimed they did not know the name Ko. Others told us that Ko is a god of other people, a different god, not ≠Gao!na or //Gauwa. They said, for example, that the white man's god is Ko. One informant said, in effect, that, even though Ko was a god of other people, he could kill anybody—white men, black men, and Bushmen. One is interested to note that Ko was the name of the female mantis god of the Bushmen of Basutoland, reported by Arbousset, as Schapera tells us (ibid., p. 181).

page 224 note 6 ‘Lebzelter, in his account of Kung religion, says that all the groups investigated by him have the belief in a “supreme good being ” (“ein höchstes gutes Wesen”). Among the Eastern Kung this being is termed Xu (elsewhere he spells the name //Khu) or Xuwa, “the Lord ” or “the great captain ”, whom he identifies with Vedder's Huwu or Huʼe.’ (Ibid., p. 183.)

Bushman languages present so many difficulties to those who are not experts in them—difficulties in recognizing the clicks and in sorting out variations in pronunciation between individuals even of the same group, as well as variations that are probably imposed by the position of the words in the sentence and by other grammatical configurations, &c.—that such discrepancies as Kxo, Xu, and //Khu are relatively slight. Fully aware of my own inadequacy in the language, I usually assume when I differ from another observer that the other is right and I am wrong. However, I cannot simply adopt another's rendering of the word without knowing if the discrepancy is due to dialectal differences or to my ignorance or what, and so must stick to my own approximations.

page 224 note 7 Schapera, op. cit., pp. 182–3.

page 224 note 8 Ibid., p. 185.

page 224 note 9 Ibid., p. 190.

page 225 note 1 Cf. Marshall, Lorna, ‘The Kin Terminology System of the !Kung Bushmen’, Africa, vol. xxvii, no.1, Jan. 1957, pp. 125.

page 226 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 192.

page 226 note 2 Cf. Marshall, Lorna, ‘!Kung Bushman Bands,’ Africa, vol. xxx, no. 4, Oct. 1960, pp. 325–55.

page 229 note 1 I wish to acknowledge with gratitude and pleasure the assistance of our daughter, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in gathering the material of the old tales, as well as other data. The first tale is hers. In paraphrasing the tales, we adhered to the events, the ideas, and the details, incorporating them as they were told us, but we have put the tales into our own words, attempting to preserve something of the quality of the telling as it came to our ears.

page 234 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 183.

page 234 note 2 Ibid.

page 234 note 3 Ibid., p. 184.

page 234 note 4 Ibid., pp. 184–5.

page 236 note 1 Ancient watercourses, now usually dry.

page 236 note 2 A pliable strip or thong used for twisting into ropes.

page 237 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 397.

page 237 note 2 ‘This “supreme being” [Huwe or Xu] is regarded as anthropomorphic, he looks like a Bushman and he also speaks Kung. He lives in the sky in a house with two storcys, the lower of which is occupied by himself, his wife, whose name is unknown, and many children, while the upper is occupied, as already mentioned, by the souls of the dead (xa). In appearance this house is similar to the ordinary Bushman hut, although not quite the same, and its exterior is “hairy like a caterpillar.” Honey, locusts, fat flies, and butterflies are found here in superabundance, and the “great captain” feeds upon these; the souls of the dead, however, merely sit around and eat nothing. Xu summons the magicians to their profession, and gives them supernatural powers; he is the lord over rain and lightning, as well as over the spirits, //gauab, and through the chief of the latter he sends good fortune in hunting or in the collection of veldkos. If anybody thinks or speaks evil of him, he punishes the evildoer with lightning; otherwise he takes no interest in the doings of his “Bushman children ”, except when somebody swears falsely by him, for the Kung have a regular oath in which they invoke him. He is prayed to by them in fixed form for rain, in case of severe illness, before going out hunting or before undertaking a dangerous journey’ (ibid., p. 184).

page 238 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 188.

page 239 note 1 Ibid., pp. 188–9.

page 239 note 2 Ibid., p. 589.

page 240 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 188.

page 240 note 2 Ibid.

page 243 note 1 Schapera, op. cit., p. 168.

page 249 note 1 Nicholas England is in the process of tracing the songs and analysing the music, and he has a paper in preparation which will include !Kung beliefs and practices about them.

page 250 note 1 The !Kung know about the drug called dagga. They told us that it grows in B.P. and that when they go to trade they sometimes get a little. They like to have some when they go hunting; it keeps one from feeling tired or discouraged, they say. They might take some at a dance if they had it, but they are not dependent on it or on any other substance to induce trance. The trances are psychologically induced.

page 250 note 2 !Kung men swear a great deal. The swearing plays always upon the themes of the genital organs, sexual intercourse, incest, and excrement. In deprecation they call each other genital organs or tell each other to go and commit incest with their mothers, sisters, wives' mothers, or sons' wives. We have not recorded their saying ‘daughter ’. Is that thought so terrible to them that its expression is beyond even these hardened swearers ? They use the same themes in their blasphemy against the gods. ‘Uncovered ’ or ‘thrown-away penis ’ may mean ‘circumcised ’. This is a great insult among the !Kung who do not circumcise but know that the Bantu do. ‘Filthy face ’ means ‘covered with excrement’.

1 We are grateful for a grant towards the publication of this long article.

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