Concerns are sometimes expressed about how Indigenous perceptions of certain animals acting as a ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ for an undesirable event (e.g. death) may in fact endanger the species existence. In Africa, owls and snakes are prime examples of this. But is this a problem of Indigenous knowledge per se or is it a symptom of loss of Indigenous knowledge?
During the course of carrying out research on meaningful nature experiences, a few individuals have understandably objected to the implications of belief systems which hold that certain animals may act as a ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ for certain events. In other words, the appearance of a creature at a particular moment is perceived to carry a meaningful message for the perceiver.
This idea is quite prevalent among Indigenous and non-Western cultures. I guess I was first exposed to its potency when spending time with Aboriginal Australians a few years back. Or at least it was something I was forced to reflect on more seriously than I had done before.
Visitations by certain birds were said to carry importance (and, as featured on eyes4earth.org last year, research is now underway within Indigenous Australian communities to document such knowledge.) I’ve since read about Native American worldviews, saw similar interpretations in India and experienced firsthand such beliefs in South Africa with the Khomani San and Xhosa peoples. It seems pretty universal.
That this exists amongst more traditional cultures is not overly surprising – much has been written in anthropological literature and there are plenty of explanations floating around including: the close link and dependency on nature for survival; the idea that Man has his/her archetypal symbols; or to human’s innate need for projecting meaning into or onto nature and seeking association with characteristic of animals…be it out of fear-based domination or love-based kinship.
But I was intrigued as to whether: 1. These beliefs are evolving or dissolving as Indigenous cultures become more Western influenced and diluted? And 2. Whether Western white Caucasians still share similar perceptions somewhere in their collective unconscious?
Well, from what I’ve seen it appears to be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. Yes, Indigenous cultures still foster such beliefs but in many cases knowledge is becoming lost or misinterpreted, misunderstood or simply misused to justify actions which border more on fear-based superstition than respect and reverence. And, yes, such beliefs were integral to former European cultures (e.g. pagan and Celtic beliefs, Greek mythology) and it is no surprise that many animals have become iconic in meaning-making (e.g. ‘omens’) even in our modern society. Many ‘new age’ or less mainstream (yet often revealing) texts explore this phenomenon and seek to offer pointers for how us sacred-starved humans can use such ‘totems’ to support our own personal development. (South African author Andrea Wansbury provides just one example with her interesting book: “Birds: Divine Messengers”, see: http://andreawansbury.com )
But should this subjective knowledge – or perhaps perceptual delusion – be given (scientific) legitimacy? What are the implications? What are the societal and conservation benefits for giving weight to such worldviews or alternative ‘ways of knowing’?
When presenting my research proposal some time ago, one prominent South African ecologist confronted me with the very sobering reality of the multitudes (pick any number and add three to five ‘zeros’) of animals – particularly birds and reptiles – that are killed each year in South Africa due to this very fact of ‘meaning’ being attributed to animals. This person was mainly referring to killings done out of fear or superstition. But animal killings may also be done for traditional medicine (i.e. ‘muti’) or for ritualistic and ceremonial purposes (e.g. wild cat skins).
My mind instantly raced back to images of my first visit to Kruger National Park. There at Sabi Sabi restaurant (I think it was there) was a display of the sad plight of the owls in South Africa. With less-than-pleasant images, a conservation-minded information stand decried their large-scale massacre across many parts of the rural areas of the country. These owls are traditionally perceived (predominantly by Bantu peoples) as bringers of bad luck. It is said that if an owl is to land on the roof of your house then, sadly, someone will soon die. Even in the Baviaanskloof region, I’ve found both some of the Coloured & Xhosa folk share similar interpretations. It bothered me. Does attributing such a label automatically imply slaughter?
I asked a Xhosa man I know – a local Christian minister and now recently also a ‘sangoma’, i.e. traditional healer (I love this co-existence of traditions by the way). He said that animals take on different meaning for different people in a community depending on what ‘their’ particular animal is. Should that animal cross their path, yes, some people do seek to kill it. But that’s not how it was meant to be. What then?
I asked another Xhosa chap – a park ranger – who whilst not a sangoma himself, comes from a family with a strong lineage of traditional healers and diviners (sangomas). Sitting in his peaceful empty field office, he explains:
“Some of the people they are associated with the elephant. Some of the people are associated with the leopard. Some people interact with animals, and some people are associated with certain snakes. Some certain snakes, they can come and visit. They can come around the house and go and you are not supposed to kill it. Should you kill it, you are supposed to make a ceremony for asking forgiveness. It is a visit from the ancestors. On my other side, I am also associated with the bees. Because the bees, they are also my family. So there are times when they can visit our home. Last time, it was last year, they visited home, and they gathered and I made some honey. And I am not supposed to chase them. I have to make a traditional beer and talk with them and call some other elders, they will talk with them. And after some time they will go. So it is a visit. After that visit, there will be much pleasure and liking everything.”
That all sounded pretty nice and in support of conservation but what about the owls? Aren’t they supposed to be bad?
“Ja, they are associated with the bad evils. There are different deaths. Deaths that are caused by evil. And also there is death, which is in nature, you see. Those evil things that are associated with the owls, they will be a calling that something is going to be happening in the family. So the family is in that bad luck. So those things should not be happening, and eventually somebody is going to die. So those things are very bad luck and death will continue and continue. There are some deaths, which cannot be stopped, you see. It will happen.”
So this was becoming a little clearer to me. And it was also intriguing to see the intercultural similarities. Owls have always been the subject of superstition or symbolism. Many cultures have associated them with either death or wisdom – attributes which can even be found in the folklore of the Mayan peoples of Central America. In ancient Greece, the owl was held sacred to the virgin-goddess Athena whose supreme attribute was divine wisdom.
But I still needed some more opinions on the South African perceptions.
I asked both a Coloured bossiedoktor (bush boctor) and a Xhosa-Khoi sanusi (uppermost sangoma). Yes, owls on roof-tops, snakes by the river or water spirits in the pond all carry a powerful message. And do you go out and kill them? No of course not, that would mean trouble…
I asked a lecturer in anthropology who is also inducted into the Zulu sangoma tradition. Same story. In fact, she said killing the animal in question may have greater repercussions with the ‘ancestors’ who were often associated with (or embodied in) the appearance of that animal.
I asked a Coloured friend of mine. He didn’t really believe in all that stuff the older people believed until he was out with some fellow community members and they experienced an incident when a bird foretold a certain negative incident which came true within a matter of minutes. This immediately changed his perception.
So, I said, “Should we kill these birds then?”
His answer was resounding and, in his delightful Coloured accent, it went something like this:
“No man. That bird is just the messenger. If that bad thing is going to happen, it is going to happen anyway. It’s not the birds fault. He is just giving you a warning. He is actually helping you, you see… you don’t kill the messenger!”
So the problem is not necessarily the meaning-making or the interpretation. The problem is a breakdown of Indigenous knowledge transmission, a problem where the processes and deeper connections are no longer understood, no longer explained and where the values which were embodied and implicit in the stories and traditions have been corrupted, misinterpreted or forgotten. The solution is education – but not just to throw that overused word out there like we usually do…but to understand what that education means in terms of the specific cultural context, e.g. utilizing existing elders or accepted mentors to pass on cultural knowledge complete with the stories and values therein. Mission impossible? Possibly…
If cultures evolve and stories are no longer ‘real’ or relevant, so be it. But then we need new stories which embody the core values and norms which the former beliefs embodied. Whether the icons of sacred forest or the knowing owl are replaced with modern-day signs and omens of malfunctioning cell phones or empty KFC outlets then ok – but can they be tailored to deliver both a respect for nature and fellow human… the interconnectedness of human-nature?
Credo Mutwa, South Africa’s most famous shaman, may have understood it best. This Zulu sanusi expresses the old African belief system quite matter-of-factly:
“We used to believe that in every one of us there lay a spiritual animal, bird and fish with which we should keep contact at all times, to anchor our family upon the shifting surface of this often troubled planet.”*
The Zulus call their great Earth Mother Nomkhubulwane, a name which means ‘she who chooses the state of an animal’* or what we might alternatively refer to as a ‘shape-shifter’. Credo Mutwa continues:
“The great Earth Mother is capable of changing her shape into beautiful and gentle birds, animals and reptiles. She is capable of assuming the shape of an animal such as springbok, an eland, an impala, a lizard, or a python…We are taught that the reason that our forefathers told us that our gods and goddesses were capable of changing shape…is that they wanted to instil in the minds of their descendents the oneness of the human being, the animal and the Deity. By making us believe that the highest gods were part animal and part human being, we were taught to look upon animals with great reverence, love and respect.”
So maybe the Earth Mother or African ancestors would still prefer to make their presence known through the owl, snake, monitor lizard, mantis, eland or bird. Maybe they know that that way – more than any other – can deliver a felt understanding of interconnectedness with all life on earth.
Or are we now content to kill off all our messengers?
[Funnily, after completing a draft of this article and going to bed, I heard the unmistakeable haunting ‘hoo-hoooo’ of an owl nearby. It carried on for what felt like a couple of hours throughout the night. I was staying in central Stellenbosch at the time – and had never heard an owl during all my previous visits.]
*Mutwa, C. (1996). Isilwane: The Animal. Tales and Fables of Africa. Struik Publishers. Cape Town.
Text: Matthew Zylstra
Photos: Header image (Spotted Eagle Owl, South Africa) by Lea C. and edited by Matt Z; Xhosa Ceremony by Matt Z; Spectacled Owl (Costa Rica) by Elena V.