The Sunday News
STELLAR bodies have always had some influence on earthly events. Stars and other cosmic bodies determine the timing of ritual, cultural and agricultural activities. Heavens dictate events that humans and, indeed, other life forms undertake within their natural and cultural realms. Mythologies have been crafted on the bases of many considerations such as stellar configuration, resembled shapes of earthly characters such as animals and a lot more. Some mythologies have spiritual dimensions. Indeed, stars are linked to the souls of the dear departed.
The language used, for example among the Ndebele, suggests existence of a path or way that a soul is guided along. Among Egyptian Pharaohs their bodies were interred in burial chambers within colossal lithic pyramids. There were channels that were inclined at angles that pointed to the star or stars which were the destinations for the departing soul. Pyramid writings within a burial chamber were to serve the purpose of guiding the soul or spirit in its journey to stellar destinations.
When there was intense wailing during one funeral, I heard an elderly woman chastise wailers, “Lizamvalela indlela!” You will block his/her way (to the world of ancestors). Not so long ago I listened to a brother who said, “Izindlela zami sezivulekile.” My ways are now open. Indeed, his ways were open and in a matter of one day after he breathed his last. But that was after certain demands had been met. He wanted to bid farewell to his cattle. He lived just for one day after bidding farewell to his animals. One’s ways to the land of ancestors may be blocked when certain conditions have not been met. However, what is important is that there is a journey that is embarked upon after death.
Africans were not to be left out in the world of stars with which they had some relationship. Today we focus the spotlight on the stellar constellation known as Pleiades, isilimela which appears on the shoulder of the zodiacal Taurus Bull. The Pleiades consists of seven stars, the so-called Seven Sisters and Messier 45. Astronomers claim the seventh star is no longer visible in the night sky. The stars are among the nearest star clusters to earth. Around November the Pleiades occupy the highest point in the night sky around midnight. In terms of distance, Pleiades is 440 million light years from the solar system. This goes to demonstrate the vastness of the universe which continues to expand outwards.
The Pleiades stellar cluster appears at the beginning of spring. It is thus an expression of life and nourishment. In Autumn the cluster exits the stellar theatre. Greek mythology associated the cluster with spiritual understanding and consciousness. It is interesting to observe some similarities between African ideas regarding Pleiades and ideas emanating from Greek mythology. We now turn to African ideas regarding Pleiades, isilimela, kelimela in Sotho and hhala in Tjikalanga.
Among the Ndebele, the name isilimela, from its etymological derivation is associated with the commencement of the agricultural season. The African calendar ended with the end of winter which is characterised by phenomenal reduction in metabolic processes; just enough to keep both plants and some animals alive. Some animals go into hibernation while some trees shed their leaves. Winter is synonymous with death or its approximation. It is time of rest in readiness for the onset of spring.
Spring is the equivalent of sunrise. It is the time of year when nature assumes vitality and life. Trees start budding and flowering: ukununkula lokuqhakaza. Animals come out of hibernation as temperatures begin picking up. This is the time for life and nourishment. Spring is the harbinger of the onset of the agricultural season. It is time to put seed in the ground, isikhathi sokugubula. The time is marked by the emergence of isilimela which is not visible in the night sky throughout the year.
In IsiNdebele spring starts with the month known as uMpandula, the time when the environmental landscape changes, phenduka, from dullness to brightness, from death to life and nourishment. The emergence of the cluster is a marker and teller of time when communities should get ready for the agricultural season. Among the BaKalanga it is time when the Njelele Fertility/Rain Shrine is visited by supplicants sent by communities to ask for rain, kumbila nkombe, ukucela inkezo or ukucela amazolo. Isilimela is a marker of commencement of a critically important economic activity, namely ploughing.
The spiritual dimension is equally significant. In some earlier installation we compared the heavenly moon, inyanga, and the traditional doctor, inyanga. When United College of Education (UCE) Ndebele students visited Amagugu International Heritage Centre (AIHC) recently, they brought out more comparisons which we had overlooked. The heavenly moon, inyanga, iyakhanyisa, it gives forth light, when one goes to consult a traditional doctor, uyakhanyiselwa or inyanga iyamkhanyisela. There is some important comparison between the two. While the heavenly moon gives forth light and in the process enables people to see. In order for one to see, there must be light, ukukhanya. The traditional doctor, through diagnosis, sheds light on the person seeking his advice. Indeed, the class of first years were the brightest that I have had the pleasure to lecture over the years.
Back to isilimela and spirituality or the traditional doctor. Isilimela, by emerging in the night sky, is said to graduate, ukuthwasa. As pointed out above, it is not always visible in the night sky. There is a time or season when it emerges, ukuthwasa. In the process, it brings forth light. Similarly, for one to become a traditional doctor, one has to undergo some initiation after which he/she graduates, uyathwasa. The same concept is applied to the moon when it emerges in the western sky.
Ukuthwasa of a traditional doctor is then linked to that of isilimela. One who is afflicted with some health condition which demands that they go to enkundleni where they are initiated into the art of spiritual diagnosis and healing by some seasoned doctor, has to thwasa at the end of the period of attachment. The rigorous training or equipping of their spirituality goes on for quite some time. Sometimes it may last more than a year. The graduation of the initiate is timed so as to coincide with the emergence of isilimela.
By and large spiritual initiation takes place so as to include the winter months. The completion of the course which is marked with ukutshwama, involving administration of herbal concoctions and parts of some slaughtered goat coincides with the season beyond winter. The graduating initiate is led to his people where tests of spiritual competency are conducted. This is done through asking the initiate to identify some hidden object. The test is called ukulijwa. This takes place during ukwendiswa, the time when the initiate is delivered to his/ her people. The time is dictated by the movements of isilimela.
In fact, one cannot be said to have successfully undergone spiritual initiation when aspects of astronomy were not revealed to them. Success is registered where one can readily identify the various cosmic bodies especially isilimela without being guided by some living being. The initiate has to identify people’s ailments without asking the people concerned or one with some spiritual issue. The process of initiation was meant to deepen spiritual links between the initiate and the spirit world. Steps are also taken to fortify them both spiritually and physically.
The articles we are currently writing. It is all about names and naming. Today we focused on isilimela so as to appreciate why it is thus named. Further, readers ought to appreciate that we are currently dealing with naming of cosmic bodies. When we are done with these, we shall take a flight to Mother Earth where we shall be dealing with names relating to nature and culture.