Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites, 2-3



Sickness & Healing

39 to 62

2.0 (pp. 39-40) sickness & healing

p. 39

"The //gawasi live in a house. They have plenty of water and food, including honey."

p. 40

"Healers ... are the major communicating agency between the supernatural and the natural worlds. ... In trance, with great show of courage, the healers confront //Gauwa and the //gauwasi, who are sent ... to inflict sickness and disease upon the people. With yells and shouts and hurled sticks, the healers drive the death-bringers away, demanding that they take with them the sickness and death they brought."


2.1 (pp. 42-3) sickness from the sky; sickness from the water

p. 42

"Sky sickness comes in the form of tiny invisible arrows smeared with deadly n/um. The [//gauwasi] shoot the arrows with tiny bows into the person who is to be made sick."

"In addition to the arrows that carry sky sickness, there are believed to be little invisible n/um sticks that can enter the body anywhere." {Are these "n/um sticks" agents of earth-sickness, sickness from the earth?}

p. 43

"To drink water from a pool in which a python lives might give a sickness called /owha".


2.2 (pp. 47-56) the healers

p. 317, n. 2:6 n/um of Dobe !Kun women

[quoted from Katz & Biesele 1986:203 :] "a healing role is confined to older women past child-bearing age, because of a strong belief that working with n/um is harmful to unborn babies. At present, the n/um ... is "put into" young girls by older women experts, then removed by these women when the girls marry and start families. Later, after menopause, a woman may choose to have her n/um reactivated. Then she may go on ... to !kia and heal in Giraffe.

The putting of n/um into the young girls is described in terms of invisible arrows shot into the midriffs by initiated women. It is also believed that developing n/um is aided by a tea made from !gwa [Grewia retinervis Burret (p. 194)] ..., but this tea is used ritually only for the first experience"

p. 48 a contemporary Nyae Nyae woman having spiritual power

"she actually had the healing n/um and ... in the past she had performed the Healing Rite on occasion. ... She dreamed about game [animals] and where the animals were to be found. Hunters went to her in the mornings to ask in which direction to start the hunt."

pp. 49-50 great healers who had lived in the recent past

p. 49

"One ... could sit in the fire like a pot and not be burned. A few ... would climb to the sky by one of the cords that hand between sky and earth. They would meet the great god, talk with him, and climb back down to earth and enter their bodies again. Others ...

p. 50

knew always where the sickness was and could draw it out; they never healed "on the wrong side.""

pp. 51-2 deities appear in dreams in order to impart spiritual powers to dreamers

p. 51

"When the gods appear to them in their sleep, ... They believe that the gods are actually there beside them ... . According to accounts, the gods appear fairly frequently this way".

p. 52

"//Gauwa knew he wanted n/um and came to give it to him one night when he was asleep, inserting n/um into his back. This was painful ... . ... //Gauwa came to give n/um ... every other night until he had come five times. Then [the person empowered] had enough n/um and began to practice the Healing Rite."

pp. 52-3 a plant imparting spiritual power to become a healer

p. 52

(Drinking a concoction of this plant -- when supplied by a prominent healer -- is able to cancel the effects of the leguaan lizard, which lizard may be hindering another man, who is seeking to become a healer, from being able to become one.)

{Apollon, god of healers, had to slay a lizard, thus becoming sauro-ktonos.}

"!kaishe. The plant is called !kaishe n!oru n!oru in the Dobe area ... . It has been botanically identified as Ferraria glutinosa (Bak) Rendle ... . The Nyae Nyae !Kung

p. 53

attribute supernatural qualities to it. They say it belongs to the gods ... . .. When a man drinks it, he may go mad for a while."

p. 53 praeternatural silvery slivers for healing

"Another man claimed ... n/um ... in the form of little silvery slivers ... .

{cf. the silvern bow of Artemis, sister of Apollon}

//Gauwa, he said, put these into his abdomen. He draws them out when he wants to use them for healing. They are invisible to everyone except very great healers."

p. 55 foods which, when eaten, strengthen a healer's healing-power

"Healers should eat liver ... at every opportunity.

A berry, n/n (Grewia flava DC.), is believed to have n/um and strengthen a healer's n/um.

The roots of sha (Vigna dinteri Harms) ... are beneficial; they should be eaten with sha sha." ["Sha sha (Pelargonium near senecicoides) is a plant used ... for its supernatural element" (p. xxxiv).] [S^a-s^a : "The root of either the male or female plant is used. Women habitually have a root or two hanging from a thong that they wear around their necks" (p. 311, n. 0[4]:2).]

pp. 55-6 powers of healers over the weather

p. 55

"healers in the past ... had been able to predict rain and to protect the people from lightning and the dangerous whirlwinds that carry //Gauwa's smell."

p. 56

"In the past, when lightning threatened, we knew where it would strike and could warn the people. We could see where the whirlwinds would go. ... We could tell about rain."

Certain members of other tribes "were specialists in rainmaking, like those who drew the rain bulls over the land in the rock paintings of the southern Bushmen".


2.3 (pp. 56-62) healing

pp. 56-8 herbs & marrow in healing

p. 56

"The one piece of equipment with ... healers ... is their tortoise shell filled with a mixture of n/um plants and marrow or fat. ...

Women use the same kind of little tortoise shells to carry the fragrant sa powder, which they toss onto the healers or onto visitors for their well-being and which they use as a cosmetic ... .

The plant substances commonly used in the tortoise-shell mixtures are

the roots of the camel thorn tree, /ana (Acacia giraffae Burch.),

the stone {kernel} of the fruit of an ever-

p. 57

green bush, //gwey (Ximenia caffra Sond.), and

the root of zao//o ... . ... . ... zao//o, ... Rubbed on a hunter's face, ... will bring animals to him. Mixed with mamba fat and rubbed on a person's legs, it will protect the person from being bitten by a mamba. ...

Four other plants might be used ... . Their names are "!gein," "//doli," "=keng," and "//kedi" ... . ...

The marrow from the foreleg of a giraffe below the knee is preferred ... . Eland fat is preferred".

p. 58

"a healer shaves the top of the sick person's head and rubs the medicine mixture from his tortoise shell onto the shaven place."

{cf. Yoruba cultic initiation involving application of substances to the shaven scalp of initiates}

[Besides zao//o root (p. 57), two other herbs are used by hunters : mai root and zau.

6:1 (p. 149) "When the hunters make use of the mai root ... before a hunt, ... they may pound slivers of the root to a powder and rub the powder onto their foreheads and noses and take some of it into their mouths."

6:1 (p. 150) "Zau has the power to make a man aim accurately, to pull the bow strongly, and to shoot far."]

pp. 59-60 the healing rite

p. 59

"In the rite ..., the healers extract sickness, real or potential, from the persons they are healing. ... For them to heal, the n/um must be activated ... "awakened," they say. (The !Kung word is gam : "to awaken ... in the morning.") At the dances the n/um songs awaken the n/um. ... The men dance and sing ..., and

they make a great dramatic play about the fire. They run through it, leap over it, stand in it, kneel in it ..., and thrust their heads into the flames to set fire to their hair. ...

{That the hair can be set on fire may indicate enticement by a hair-deity (the Hawai>ian hair-goddess?); and that fire is touched generally would indicate incitement by a fire-deity (perhaps Agni, who praesideth over the world of the mystic flower of 10 petals, Man.i-pura).}

Heat makes their n/um boil ... . It boils up through the spinal column into their heads. ...

{The spinal column resembleth the tunneling of molten lava vertically upward. The sort of lava which actually seetheth is pumice, which solidifieth filled with bubbles formed by volcanic gas.}

At the dances the n/um becomes to strong that ... it overcomes the healers and they go into trance. Then the word "n/um" should not be spoken.

If a word must be used, it should be the respect word "shibi." ...

{perhaps cognate with /S`IB/ 'grey-haired/ (Strong's 7867), /s`e^bah/ 'grey hair' (Strong's 7872). The Hawai>ian goddess (one of 10 siblings, and mother of 10 offspring -- HM, p. 214) whose name hath the meaning 'grey hair' is mother of the pumice-god (HM, p. 215) : by way of the pumice-bridge was reached (according to the Rama-ayana) the abode of Ravana the 10-headed.}

Singing a n/um song, the healer places his hands on the person, usually one hand on the back and the other on the chest. He flutters his hands. In a moment or two he begins to make the indescribable sounds of the rite, the n//hara sounds. ... .

p. 60

... when the healer flutters his hands on a person, he draws the sickness out of that person and into himself with his hands. ... Once in the healer's body, the sickness goes up his arms into his neck ... . He ejects it through his neck from a place at the back of his neck called n//au by

the violent shakes of the head ... .

{A peculiar sort of spirit-possession in Africa entaileth the shaking of one's own head.}

In setting fire to their hair the healers exude n/um. The n/um comes in the smell of the burning hair and is breathed in by the patient. ...

Diligent massage is another supplementary practice. The healer rubs the person's feet and legs, back, arms, and abdomen. This rubs the sickness into one place and makes it easier to extract. ...

HM = Martha Beckwith : Hawaiian Mythology. Yale U Pr, 1940.

[Besides the respect word "s^ibi" (p. 59) for "n/um", other respect words are :-

6:1 (p. 150) "/doh" for "maa" ('wind'), used while stalking game-animals downwind.

7:0 (p. 164) "n/oi" for "!ga" ('rain'), used during a storm.]



Ritual Healing Dance

64 to 90

3.0 (p. 63) ritual healing dance

"The Ritual Healing Dance is called n/um tshxai, "n/um dance." When people gather together to dance they say they "dance a song," tshxai tshxi. ... . ... the Healing Dance excludes no one. Every man, woman, and child attends. ... In close configuration they clap, sing, and stamp the dancing steps with ... rhythmic precision ... .

As their trance deepens, the healers with great show of courage confront the //gauwasi, the death bringers, who lurk in the shadows beyond the firelight".


3.1 (pp. 64-70) dance-groups

p. 68 fire-dance

"When lurching and staggering about in trance, the healers deliberately throw burning brands around, walk in the fire, and set fire fire to their hair".


3.3 (p. 74) the women's dancing

p. 74 dignified restraint

"in extreme contrast to the remarkable shaking of breasts, shivering, and swinging of buttocks seen in the dancing of the women of the neighboring Bantu tribes."

p. 74 bared buttocks

"in the Eland Dance of the Menarcheal Rite, ... the women took off their karosses and hung beads from their waists down their bare behinds".

[6:1 (p. 147) "In sexual intercourse among the !Kung, the man's position is usually at the back of the woman. Buttocks are kept as modestly covered as the woman's genitals."]

p. 74 sa powder

"When a woman is dancing in her capering style ..., she may occasionally dance toward a healer with a gesture of praise ..., and she may toss sa powder on him. Sa powder tossed or rubbed lightly on a healer enables him to see more clearly where the sickness is in the person he is healing."


3.5 (pp. 79-84) music

pp. 80-1 musical instruments

p. 80

"dance rattles ["dried coccoons" (p. 82)], ...

musical bows,

the //gwashi ["a little pluriarc of four or five strings"],

and a squeaky one-string violinlike instrument."

p. 81

musical mouth-bow : "A man places on end of the bow in his mouth and plucks the strings with his fingers ... . By changing the size of his mouth cavity, he can produce the tones of the bow tunes."

p. 81 musical scales

"The !Kung have four scales,

two of five notes,

two of four notes."

"Scale 4, the Rain-Eland Scale, is ... a tetratonic scale that is "a most unstable (and most un-European) tri-partitioning of a fifth that itself varies in size ..."".

p. 83 women's clapping

"brings the rims of the palms together making a small air chamber, smaller than in European clapping. This small chamber produces the sharp, high-pitched pop."

p. 84 singing

"Men softly singing their songs of the //gwashi regularly use falsetto. Women also use it in singing lullabies ... . ...

Yodeling is the women's specialty. The technique is used consistently when the women are singing loudly at the Healing Dances and in the singing of menarcheal music".

p. 84 "the overtone of instruments to be the source of the yodel. Alpine yodelers hear the overtones of alphorns, Solomon Island yodelers those of panpipes. Bushmen ... bows readily produce overtones. ... Binga Pygmies yodel, but few other African peoples do (England 1995:chap. 3)."

England 1995 = N. England : Music among the Zu>/>wa-si and Related Peoples of Namibia ... . Garland Publ, NY.


3.6 (pp. 85-90) the dance and the healers

pp. 85-9 trance-dance of the healers

p. 85

"the healers, their n/um heated by the fire and awakened by music, begin to go into trance and to heal. ... In this first stage of trance, the men usually look grave and preoccupied, and then they begin to stare fixedly and to be unsteady on their legs. ... they stagger slightly, sway, and tilt ... . ...

p. 86

The intensity increases, and some of the healers begin to go into deeper trance. A man may suddenly start to breathe heavily, open-mouthed. He may stare ahead, tense, unseeing ... . He may stand trembling and swaying, his eyes closed, or shuddering ... in violent gasps. ... The men say that the strength of their n/um overwhelms them. ... Things appear to be smaller than normal and to fly around. The fire appears to be over their heads. Things whir. ... This is the stage in which the healing power is ... most intense. ...

p. 87

Paroxysms occur at any time to men in this stage of trance. ... They sink down groaning and gasping. They shudder ... . Sometimes they froth at the mouth. ... The men throw back their heads, uttering shriek after shriek. ... This is a time for the dramatic play at the fire. ... Other men, meanwhile, are swearing and throwing sticks at the death-bringers. ... women may jump up to dance. ... The music soars, the tempo quickens, the intensity crests. ... the healers continue to heal, very often in pairs. They believe that two men together bring double n/um and double strength to the healing. ...

p. 88

The trancing man's eyes would be shut, and his arms would be held tightly around the body of his helper. ... In the final stage ..., a man falls into apparent unconsciousness. ... Some tremble; others are taut and rigid ... . Their arms may stand out stiffly from their bodies ... . Their eyeballs may be rolled back so that only the whites show ... . ... This apparent unconsciousness ... is what the !Kung call "half-death." In it ..., the man's spirit goes out from his body through his head. ... .

... when the healer's spirit leaves his body, it goes to encounter //Gauwa and the //gauwasi. Many men ... when in trance ... see these other-world beings on earth. ... When deep in half-death, the healer is believed to be in danger. His spirit might wander away or be taken by the //gauwasi. The women should sing loudly and well at

p. 89

this time. The n/um of the song is protective, and the sound can guide the spirit back. Other healers, often three or four at a time, work ardently over the man in half-death, ...

calling his spirit to return. ... They exhort the spirit to return, calling olut, "Where are you? Come back."

{cf. the Chinese custom to call, "O! soul, come back", at the moment of a actual death.}

They take off the man's rattles and shake and pounce them up and down his body to gain the absent spirit's attention and to indicate where the body is."

p. 87 "The common everyday insults that men exchange in the joking relationships play principally upon the themes of ... sexual intercourse, and incest."

p. 318, n. 3:4 astral-projection in other tribes of Bushfolk

"healers in Botswana ... told of out-of-body visions. One of the men ... said he had been to the sky while in trance ... . This man while in trance had visions of traveling to places on earth. {projection of the astral body} ... (Katz 1982:187)"

"God himself came to [the informant-healer]. (The name given to God was Kauha.) Together went into a river and traveled a long way, carried by the water. They came to a place where the spirits were dancing. ... They were still under water ... . They sang and danced until daybreak. ... After that Kauha and [the healer] entered the earth and traveled a long way within it. When they emerged, they climbed the thread of the sky and met the spirits of the dead up there. The spirits sang for [the healer] to dance. (Biesele 1979)"

Biesele 1979 in :- Joan Halifax (ed.) : Shamanic Voices. Dutton, NY. pp. 54-62.


PEABODY MUSEUM MONOGRAPHS, No. 8 = Lorna J. Marshall : Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites. Harvard U, Cambridge (MA), 1999.