Sangoma and ancestorsSangoma and ancestors

Sangoma and ancestors.The Sangoma is a central figure in South Africa, and 84 percent of the South African population consults a Sangoma

more than three times a year. It was estimated that there are 200,000 practicing 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 colors, 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

occasionally great-grandparents.

Trance states of the Sangoma

Although Sangoma uses herbs, he/she also heals on a psychological and interpersonal level. A more

the 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 an herbalist from a Sangoma is the Sangoma’s use of trance

states for healing.

The Sangoma enters trance states to heal others and the self. The trance states are oracular, imparting

information about illnesses and 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 to

bring about specific trance states. Besides such factors as the diviner’s mindset, 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 mindset 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.” Interestingly, the

linguistic root of the words isangoma (“diviner” in Zulu) and mungoma (“diviner” in Venda or Tsonga) refers to the

“drum.”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, and twigs); collectively called the “bones” in their divination practice.  The trance state is one of focused concentration.

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