Sangoma and ancestors.The Sangoma is a central figure in South Africa, and 84 percent of the South African population consult a Sangoma
more than three times a year. It was estimated that there are 200 000 practising Sangomas. Many sangomas go into
training after an “initiation illness” called the ukuthwasa.
There have been various attempts to categorize traditional African healers.There is a primary distinction between the
ancestrally designated diviner or mediator isangoma, and the herbalist or doctor inyanga, who works primarily with
herbs and other forms of medication and who has not been called by the ancestors. Many Sangomas (izangoma;
plural of isangoma) or diviners are also herbalists, while many herbalists (izinyanga) practice divination and communicate with their ancestors.
The purpose of trance states is to communicate with the ancestors, to achieve extrasensory perception, and to
develop paranormal abilities. Sangomas (male or female) play many different social and political roles in the
(Sangomas offered protective medicine [muti] to freedom fighters during South Africa’s political struggles), and
“smelling out” witches, as well as narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of his/her tradition.
Sangoma dress code
The dress code of a Sangoma highlights the importance of his/her relationship with the ancestors. Although the
dress code is determined by the symbols of the colours, in South Africa there is no fixed list of equipment or specific
dress code. While there is great variety within the dress code, one characteristic element of the dress code of many
Sangomas is the wearing of a goat’s gallbladder that is tied into the hair at the back of the head. This gallbladder
comes from the goat that was slaughtered at the time of a Sangoma’s graduation, and it is said to “call the
ancestors.” In most cases, a cluster of goat horns and bead containers filled with an assortment of herbs and
medicines is worn around the neck, shoulders, and body. A cow-tail whisk and a stick are other typical elements of
the regalia. The Sangoma’s whisk, which signifies dignity, is used during dancing and is also used to sprinkle certain
medicines. The Sangoma may wear strips of goatskin taken from the initiation goat as straps that crisscross his/her chest.
Sangoma and ancestors
Central to the Sangoma is his/her relationship with the ancestors. Without this special relationship, which is achieved
through trance states, the identity of the Sangoma would be compromised. Sangomas operate within a religious
context that features a High God whose name varies according to the particular group. The High God has also been
called “the Great Ancestor.”
The High God is similar to the notion of the First Cause; the Zulu term Nkunkulu means “the First to Emerge.” God is
thus a Creator sustaining, and ruling over, the universe, but at the same time removed from the world he has
created. It is the ancestors who are in contact with the people. The sangoma is the essential link between the
physical world and the afterworld of the ancestors.
Death is not viewed as a total annihilation of an individual. Rather, it is understood that the person “has gone, has
gone home, has been called by his people, i.e. by ancestors.” There are two types of ancestors, the first being the
nameless dead of the overarching clan. The second type of ancestors communicate with their descendants via
dreams or illness, and they may bring misfortune. These are usually deceased parents and grandparents, and
Trance states of the Sangoma
Although the Sangoma uses herbs, he/she also heals on a psychological and interpersonal level. A more
psychodynamic interpretation, would consider the healing and therapeutic functioning of trance states as resulting in
the lowering of tension and the release of “bad objects” through creating a restorative emotional experience that
enhances creativity. What most clearly distinguishes a herbalist from a Sangoma is the Sangoma’s use of trance
states for healing.
The Sangoma enters trance states in order to heal others and self. The trance states are oracular, imparting
information about illnesses and about ways of curing them. The trance states that occur during dancing, lucid
dreaming, and divination are all different from one another. During the trance state that the Sangoma enters while
dancing, the ancestors, speaking through him/her, disclose future possibilities, reveal hidden agendas, interpret
puzzling dreams, and find lost articles. The lucid dreams of a Sangoma may indicate a particular medicinal plant to
be used for a patient, who may only visit him the following day. During divination, a gentle trance state is induced,
and the ancestors “speak” to the Sangoma in a soft voice.
Shamans across the world employ various inductive techniques to alter their states of consciousness in order to
bring about specific trance states. Besides such factors as the diviner’s mind-set, the setting, and the time chosen
for the ritual.
Environment: Trance induction
The physical environment in which trance induction occurs is often a critical factor. Sangomas have frequently
trained themselves to achieve an altered mind-set within a specific setting, which over time, through the very act of
inhabiting that space, becomes conducive to attaining that goal. Similarly, specific rituals, ceremonies, articles of
clothing, body movements, and even the clapping of hands have the power to affect the shaman’s state of mind and
induce a trance.
I have witnessed a Sangoma induce a trance state simply through the act of entering his hut and wrapping a cloth
around his body. His breathing became more erratic, and his body began to shake; an indication that the ancestors
were approaching and entering his body, to use him as their channel. That is why the novices (thwasas) help the
Sangoma dress, fitting the headdress of ostrich feathers and the wig with the gallbladder, wrapping beads around
the arms and body, and tying rattles above the ankles.
Within the Sangoma’s dwelling is a space dedicated to the ancestors and used as a shrine (indumba). Some of
these are inductive spaces. The shrine occupies a corner of the wall furthest from the door, and should face east.
candle or lamp.
Inducing Trances: Drums and dance
The drum is an essential trance-inducing instrument. When you keep quiet and listen to the drums, sometimes the
amadlozi [ancestors] will make you shake and you fall back.
During the dancing and singing, accompanied by drumming, hyperstimulation of the body and the mind occurs.
allowing the establishment of a shamanistic trance and enabling the ancestors to “enter.” It is interesting that the
linguistic root of the words isangoma (“diviner” in Zulu) and mungoma (“diviner” in Venda or Tsonga) refers to the
Specific rituals induce the trance state during the oracular practice of divination, which usually takes place in front of
the indoor shrine, a sacred space.
use a set of bones, shells and other items (such as coins, dice, seeds, twigs); collectively called the “bones” in their
divination practice. The trance state is one of focused concentration.