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A Dictionary of World Mythology

Arthur Cotterell

Unkulunkulu Africa 

Literally, ‘chief’. The Zulu, once the most warlike nation in southern Africa, conceive of their sky god's omnipotence in political terms. He is uGuqabadele, ‘the irresistible’; uGobungqongqo, ‘he who bends down even majesties’; and uMabonga-kutuk-izizwe-zonke, ‘he who roars so that all nations are struck with terror’. Like their armies of old, the sky god tolerates no physical opposition.

Unkulunkulu—sometimes called uKqili, ‘the wise one’—is a self-originating deity. The Zulu describe him as uZivelele, ‘he who is of himself’. Having ‘come into being, he gave being to man’, whom he raised ‘out of beds of grass’. Unkulunkulu is a creator god whose ways are incomprehensible and mysterious. Man knows ‘nothing of his mode of life, nor of the principles of his government. His smiting is the only thing we know.’ For Unkulunkulu controls lightning as uDumakade, ‘he who thunders from far-off times’. The maker of all things, he was also indirectly responsible for the coming of death to the earth. Once he sent a chameleon with the message of eternal life, and a lizard with the announcement of death. The chameleon was slow and stopped at a bush in order to eat, so that the lizard arrived first. When the chameleon got to mankind, it was dismayed to find that the message of the lizard was accepted as the correct one. The message myth is widespread in Africa, though a sheep or a dog may act as the messenger. In Zimbabwe the Bemba proverb,

Ulufyeny-embe ali-fwa nakali

(The chameleon is dead long ago), sums up precisely the attitude to this creature, so worthy of death because it failed to deliver the message of life.

An interesting contrast is found in the story of man's desire for death told by the Bamum of Cameroon. Njinyi, ‘he who is everywhere’, had created men healthy and strong. He was, therefore, unable to understand that many of them suddenly became cold and stiff, and asked Death if it was he who caused this. Death replied that men themselves desired to die, and declared that he could demonstrate this truth. While Njinyi concealed himself behind a banana hedge, Death sat down by the wayside. The first person to come along was an old slave, who bewailed his lot and said: ‘Oh, the dead are lucky! If only I had never been born!’ Suddenly he fell down dead. The next to come that way was an old woman. As soon as she complained about the troubles of life she sank down lifeless to the ground. Death then said to Njinyi: ‘Do you see how they call me?’ Njinyi went away grieved, since his creatures did call upon Death.

Unkulunkulu's answer to the loss of immortality was the institution of marriage, so ‘that children may be born and men increase on earth’. He also provided men with ‘doctors’ for the treatment of diseases, and fire for the preparation of food. Health, fertility, and increase are clearly the sky god's concerns—‘the source of being is above which gives life to men’—but his dislike of human misbehaviour is manifest in thunder and hail. Zulu reaction to these natural phenomena is ‘Put things in order!’ They, however, consider that cattle belong to Unkulunkulu, they are his gifts to mankind, and when lightning strikes them, they simply say that ‘he has slaughtered for himself among his own food’.

The departed are not altogether forsaken by Unkulunkulu, though the Zulus believe that unremembered ghosts become impotent and irrelevant. The dwelling-place of the dead is situated in the sky; it is said that the stars are the eyes of the dead looking at the human world. The Bushmen, too, hold that the stars were formerly animals or people.