The Sunday News
AFTER some close scrutiny of the named cosmic phenomena, it becomes apparent that there is some observed duality in so far as names are concerned. This is one aspect through which the link between the heavens and earth is expressed. The vexing question is which phenomena were named first? Was the cosmic umthala, the Milky Way, named ahead of umthala as found in the stomach of a cow. Just which got its name first? What is clear though are the obvious similarities between the two.
What we may be certain about is that the heavens are mirrored on earth. Nature seems to provide inspiration to culture. The latter is a replica of the former. Yes, our familiar adage, “As above, so below,” is pertinent in this instance. Beauty and aesthetics on earth are couched in cosmic terms. In any case, a human being is crafted in cosmic terms. The created cultural reality is informed by the creator, a mirror image of the CREATOR.
In this case, it is the human being who himself is part and parcel and an extension of nature. Human nature is subject to bigger and more primary NATURE. Within that context, the inanimate seem older than the animate. Life as we know, understand and name it, is informed by nature. In a human being nature and culture fuse, in the same manner body and soul/spirit fuse.
It seems natural and named heavenly objects and phenomena result in similarly named objects and phenomena on earth with natural components being the first point of contact. Through human nature cosmic nature replicates itself at the cultural realm. Are we then saying the heavens provided the first names and then came nature on earth and finally in the hierarchy of naming came the cultural realm?
Before we land on earth let us investigate the concept of cosmic and terrestrial comparisons. There is the sun, ilanga and we saw an equivalent of the cosmic sun on the terrestrial front. Among the Nguni, people dared stare at the king (at least in olden days). The sun was deemed to be the metaphor for the heavenly sun which is the brightest and shiniest. It is number one in the scale of luminosity. At the political, cultural, spiritual, social, administrative and military levels the king was number one and the idea was expressed in terms of height within a royal settlement. Within a given settlement a king occupied the highest point. Divine kingship was perceived in similar terms.
Sometimes the moon has some halo, umkhumbi, around it. On the basis of the shape of the lunar halo, the term has found its way onto the earthly front, at both the natural and cultural levels. Umkhumbi denotes enclosed circular space. Human beings may arrange themselves in similar mode as when playing certain games. When they engage in some dances the same arrangement may be executed. As has already been pointed out, the circular unit is the universal building block for the universe.
The concept isibaya may refer to a cattle byre with a circular design. However, the same concept may be referred to in a different situation as long as the idea of a circular enclosure is embraced. Isibaya thus refers primarily to the shape of enclosed space and secondarily, to a cattle byre as an example of some architectural design with enclosed space. This observation is important in appreciating the resident idea or trait which lies behind a given name. In this particular case, it is the shape of enclosed space. In the former, it was intensity of brilliance. Named objects in the cosmos and their counterparts on earth share some similarity beyond the physical and material. Rather, similarities which are captured in the same names lie in some common trait within different objects. The process of naming is more subtle and more sublime than we may imagine.
Another cosmic body that we identified was the Milky Way, umthala. It is important, beyond the name, to identify that common trait that led to the adoption of a common name. The heavenly Milky Way is a cluster of several brightly shining stars. Then the earthly umthala, as pointed out above, is similarly named on the basis of the configuration and positioning of the thicker, lighter and harder streak of tissues in the stomach of a cow. How do dead, albeit brilliant, stars compare with some living tissue so as to invite the same name to both of them?
We may begin with stars. They are generally a bright, elongated and winding constellation of stars against a background of a more vast sea of stellar bodies. When that image is conceptualised and taken out of the heavens, we observe on a cow stomach, ulusu, the same shape, against a comparable background of less bright masses of tissue. It is thus shape, relative differences in size in comparison to backgrounds that render the same name, umthala. The same name is also applied to a type of grass which grows in some rivers. The grass, in comparison to other grass species in the same river, is lighter and forms some kind of streaking configuration. These identified traits are the very same ones that identify the Milky Way and umthala on tripe, a favourite for the men who roast and consume it with delight and glee.
Let us take one more example so as to appreciate more the resident trait that invites a common name for objects in the heavens and those on earth. We shall take, once more, the moon in the heavens, inyanga, and the traditional doctor, inyanga. What is the common trait or traits? Both possess healing potency. “Kholiwe, hamba lomkhuhlane!” This incantation was pronounced at the emergence of every new moon. There was a belief the lunar moon took away with it diseases when it waned till death. Both are characterised by incremental and waning potency. As the lunar moon waxes, that is gets fuller and bigger, its potency increases in a positive correlation.
A traditional doctor’s potency increases in sync with that of the moon. Conversely, when the potency of the moon wanes, that of a traditional doctor wanes in sync. There is one day when the moon does not appear at all in the sky. The moon is “dead”, as it were. It has lost all its potency and that translates to loss of spiritual potency by the traditional doctor. On that day traditional doctors do not ply their trade — that of medical practice. We can thus identify a common trait as regeneration of potency and its converse, declining spiritual powers of healing.
Indeed, namers identify some resident characteristic or trait and attach appropriate names. When they see similar traits on a different front, the same name is given; hence umthala, inyanga and ilanga are names given to different objects on different planes and yet they share recognised similar traits. As we shall see later, a desired trait may be given to an individual who, it was believed, might live to fulfil the wish expressed in a name. In this case, the name is a prayer, a wish, a desire, some longing and aspiration.
Thembekile, Pathisa, Nkululeko!