The Sunday News
THIS article seeks to identify links, if any, between the chevron motif and pattern on the one hand and the crocodile on the other.
There are instances when the chevron pattern and the crocodile occur together as if to reinforce their common or complementary messages. Even before getting to their inherent messages, there seems to be some common physical attributes with regard to their form.
It is shared messages or interpretations that we seek to identify and unpack. Before we do that, it will be prudent to identify instances where the two seem to occur together. The Zimbabwe Bird, so far found only at Great Zimbabwe, bears images of both a crocodile and the chevron pattern.
We also find, both at Great Zimbabwe and among the VaVhenda, images of both the crocodile and the chevron pattern on diagnostic bowls sculptured out of mica-schist (soapstone, ndilo). Venda wooden doors equally bear images of both elements.
The chevron pattern on its own occurs on numerous items made from, among others, wood, stone, ivory, clay, leather, horn and eggshell. In earlier articles we did furnish the meaning and significance of the chevron motif. We identified it as a motif inspired by the body of a woman, that part of her body that embraces the womb.
It is accordingly, a fertility symbol representing and symbolising continuity of the human species. While on the one hand it symbolises and expresses fertility, it is simultaneously a prayer for sustainability in various situations such as extension of a chiefly lineage and hence executed on royal dwellings. Success may also relate to diagnosis of illness and treatment.
The one biological process that has been observed to be sustainable is procreation resulting from sexual reproduction. Sustainability and continuity embrace the unending cycle of life and encompass both the material and spiritual realms. Father to children and mother to children occurrences translate to sustainable succession. Ancestral spirits are unthinkable in the absence of their material progeny.
“These chevrons also refer to amphibian reptiles, the Venda call the ‘knees of the frog’ or the python which writhes on the edge of the pools for, while the crocodile is specifically associated with kings, it is simultaneously set in a binary relationship with the python, also linked to kingship, but not exclusively so(Nettleton in Dewey 1997).”
The pool and the python were explained and interpreted as representing and expressing male and female elements that complete the fertility phenomenon within the fertility ideology. It is a complementarity of and between dual opposites, of two different elements that in duality present and represent a total picture of sexuality which is a sine qua non for expression and execution of the concepts of continuity and endlessness.
In one of our publications titled, “Echoes From the Past: Interpreting Zimbabwe’s Decorative Symbols,” we asserted that a crocodile is a chevron animal. We arrived at that conclusion after observing and realising that its body comprised “Vs”, exactly what the Venda term the “knees of a frog.” Indeed, the Venda observed and appreciated the “Vs” formed by the frog’s knees and elbows.
This tallies with our understanding of the chevron motif as an open “V” or triangle. If the identified elbows and knees constitute, by virtue of the “V-looking” elbows and knees, then the crocodile is more chevronic than a frog. When one looks at a crocodile one can’t help seeing several “Vs”. The head, ending at the mouth, is a “V.” Knees and elbows are “Vs.”
When the mouth is opened, a “V” formation results. The scales, particularly dorsal ones, are “V-shaped” The teeth are “V-shaped.” It was on the basis of this observation that we arrived at the conclusion that a crocodile’s body bears natural chevron motifs. We had not, by then, read Venda ideas about the frog knee.
Chevrons on bodies of crocodiles were perceived as sharing something in common with a woman’s chevrons which are inspired by her womb with its qualities as an important site where procreation and the continuity of the human species are executed.
This is an important link and similarity which has led to the perception of a crocodile as a pool, as explained in an earlier article. It is thus a pervasive metaphor in Venda and, indeed, other Africans who posit fertility ideologies which have been applied in numerous cultural settings.
The crocodile thus represents and expresses femininity which is closely associated with ideas of continuity, endlessness, eternity, perpetuity and immortality. Where ideas of succession and continuity are sought, the crocodile comes into play.
Among the Venda there is a drum, ngoma, which is played during puberty rituals and ceremonies. The images of crocodiles come into play, thus linking sexuality or fertility and the crocodile. This should not come as a surprise when Venda kings, descended from the Singo community, swallow stone pebbles during their installation.
It is understood that the stone pebbles were obtained from the belly of a crocodile during which the chevron and fertility-endowed crocodile passed its fertility qualities to the stone pebbles.
The king being installed is thus not swallowing mere ordinary stone pebbles, but is symbolically ingesting qualities of fertility, continuity, endlessness and eternity for the royal line of which he is part. It is a representation and expression of succession and jealously keeping royalty within the ruling lineage.
The same goes for the Bapfumbi people in the Beitbridge District. When their chief dies his corpse is carefully guarded in a house so that when sufficiently decomposed, the stone in the belly of the deceased chief falls off and is obtained for administration in the succession ritual to identify the qualifying son among several contenders that have availed themselves to the test. In fact, it does seem the test was administered among the Mbedzi who are a Crocodile people together with their relatives, the Bapfumbi.
The Singo who arrived later among the Mbedzi and conquered the latter, appropriated to themselves an old Mbedzi ritual which imparts continuity and succession to the same royal lineage.
One reason why we took this detour in the Journey to Great Zimbabwe was to shed more light on what is found at Great Zimbabwe in particular the figurines which have been used in Zimbabwe type stone structures in Central and Southern Africa.
It is important to note that figurines were also found on sites that were not characterised by the presence of Zimbabwe stone walls. A case in point is figurines that were associated with initiation rituals among the Bemba of Zambia.
We shall demonstrate, in the next instalment, that among the Venda the figurines were used in association with puberty rituals. The said rituals were practiced right into modern times unlike at Great Zimbabwe where there does not seem to exist local people who use figurines in association with puberty-related initiation rituals.
The nearest community who still conduct such puberty-related initiation rituals are found in Mberengwa and Gutu districts as BaL(R)emba who are part of the broader BaMwenye people who include BaHwesa and Beta people in Manicaland Province.
It is to the Venda and their sexual pedagogical aids associated with puberty-related initiation rituals that we turn before exploring ideas of Dr Edward Matenga (Dewey 1997) who has worked extensively on figurines from several archaeological sites. His is an Afro-centric thrust which centres African Cosmology within which he identifies a thematic fertility ideology.