THE GOD WHO PROMISED VICTORY TO THE MATABELE

JOSEPH MILLERD ORPEN

[Extracted from The Nineteenth Century, vol. 40 (August 1896), pp. 187-93.]



IN the despatches daily reaching us from the scene of the native rebellion in Khodesia, frequent mention is made of 'Mlimo,' the mysterious and evidently influential being who has ordered the Matabele to rise against the white man, and promised them victory. Any information about this Mlimo and the religious beliefs of the Matabele will probably be acceptable to the British public at the present juncture; I shall, therefore, in this article attempt to impart some facts upon the subject which I happen to have learned, somewhat in the order in which the knowledge came to me, and it will be seen that we have to do with a phase of one of the oldest and most widely spread faiths in the world something worth our study, both from a political point of view and from that of the history and growth of human religious thought.

On the 27th of March, 1895, I was engaged in surveying that part of Matabeleland where the murdering of white men, women, and children began nearly a year afterwards. I was encamped at the foot of the peaked mountain called 'Ghoko,' between Gwelo and Belingwe. I had a trigonometrical station on the peak, and close by my camp was the kraal of Legulube ('the pig'), who has since joined the rebellion. He was one of the Amalozi tribe, but had become quite Matabele, and had been promoted to be an induna of Lobengula's. I engaged lads from the kraal to carry my instruments up to the top of the peak. In a wood near the summit I happened to catch a glimpse, between the trees, of a structure which, at first, I took to be one of the Zimbabwe-like ruins with which the country abounds. I was reading Bent, and on the look-out for such ruins, but presently I perceived that it was a newly-built hut of a very curious construction. Sitting down to rest near the very top of the peak, I pointed down at the hut and asked one of the lads: 'What is that peculiar-looking house?' He answered gravely, 'It is the House of God' (Mlimo). Now, in order to elicit truth from a native it is always well to avoid putting a leading question, so I went on asking gently, as if ignorant and wishing for information: 'Who is Molimo?' He replied earnestly and ingenuously: 'Don't you know? Molimo made the whole earth these trees everything.'

[p.188]

Q. 'But who made the house?'

A. 'We, all of us. He sent his messenger to us all, the people round Ghoko, telling us to build the house there, and we did so, under the direction of the messenger.'

Q. 'Who was the messenger? Is he here?'

A. 'His name is Lusele Simpindi; he is down there at that kraal.'

Q. 'And where is God?'

A. 'He is at Matojeni, in a rock. No man has seen him at any time, but he speaks to people in all languages, to each in his own tongue. If you spoke to him, he would answer you too in your own language.'

Q. 'What is the use of making him a house here if he lives at Matojeni?'

A. 'Because he is very kind to people who serve him, so we built his house as he ordered us to do, and the women and girls come up every day to keep it in order, according to his commands.'

Q. 'How does Molimo show his kindness?'

A. 'He makes one happy and fortunate in many ways, and sometimes, to one who has served him well, he gives a wife.'

Q. 'Where, does he get the wife from to give to the man?'

A. 'Parents take their little girls by the hand and lead them to Molimo, and call out: 'God, here is our child; we come to give her to you,' and God sends his messengers, and they take the little girl and bring her up till she is given in marriage.'

I went down later to look at the hut, and noticed that there was quite a footpath already worn by the steps of the women and girls who came up daily to keep it in order. It was about twelve feet in diameter, and formed by planting tall boughs upright in a circle in the ground and bending them towards and over each other in the centre, so as to form a dome, which was thatched, Zulu-fashion, from the top to rather more than half-way to the ground, with slightly projecting eaves. Below the eaves the walls were converted into a sort of open wicker-work by surrounding them with rings of twisted grass, about two inches thick, tied by means of thin bark to the uprights at intervals of about two inches. In front was an arched doorway some three feet high, and inside, with a similar doorway, was a circular inner chamber formed of perpendicular sticks plastered over with mud. This chamber was perfectly dark inside, while the outer space round it was lighted through the open-work wall. Two calabashes of water stood at each side of the doorway in the outer compartment, and one inside the inner door, and the floor had been freshly 'smeared.' Near the hut stood a tall tree, and against its trunk were placed three sticks four feet high and forked at the top, the branches which forked having been cut off to about four inches in length. Round the fork at the top of the sticks were some narrow strips of bark entwined snake-wise, the effect reminding one [p.189] forcibly of the 'caduceus' of Mercury in the old representations, with which, indeed, as I shall show, they are apparently absolutely identical.

My servant 'Jim,' a colonial-born Pondo, who had accompanied the pioneers in their first expedition, as well as Jameson's column throughout the war, told me then that he first heard of the Molimo of the country when travelling with Mashona or Makalanga natives near Victoria. A bright meteor had shot from west to east across the sky, and a native at once called out: 'There goes Molimo, home to Matojeni.' On inquiring who 'Molimo' was, Jim learned that he was the god of the natives of those regions, who inhabited them before the invasion and conquests of the Swazi and Matabele. The last ruling sovereign, or 'Mambo,' of these people was of the priestly tribe of the Amalozi, still looked up to by the others with veneration. His seat of government was at the great ruins near the source of the Shangani (where cannon were discovered and a quantity of bullion, &c., dug up by Messrs. Burnham and Ingram). Matojeni, where the oracle of Molimo is heard, is situated about twenty-five miles south-east of Bulawayo, and consists of a cavern in rock, like so many of the ancient oracles. Umsilikaze made use of this oracle and propitiated the god of the country he had conquered by presents. These were always expected to be black in colour, whether cattle, sheep, goats, or blankets. Lobengula, the son of Umsilikazi, also made use of Molimo and sent his sister there to learn her fate, which he duly accomplished by strangling her. The worship of Molimo among the Matabele, indeed, appears only in its most evil form, resulting in a political and cruel priestcraft.

The morning after my ascent of the peak of Ghoko, Legulube came to visit me. After chatting with him for some time and expressing the interest I had felt in hearing about the House of Molimo, I said that I should like to see the man who had brought the message from God. He was evidently disturbed by my request, and said there were four messengers, but they had all gone with messages to Chilimanzi and the other chiefs. I could extract nothing further from him about Molimo, and my having learned as much as I had the day before seemed owing to the mere chance of an habitually inquisitive man having fallen in with an uncommonly ingenuous Kaffir lad, and his having caught sight of a queer-looking hut which might just as probably have escaped his notice.

At another time my son saw three such sticks as I have described placed against the trunk of a tree near a Zimbabwe-like ruin, and asked the natives what they were for. He was told that they were used to pray for rain with. One day a very old and jolly Amalozi man showed me another such ruin near my line of route to the west of Ghoko. He called these ruins 'Arupanga.' Walking round the ruin I came to a tall tree, and leaning against its trunk I saw three [p.190] forked sticks similar to those I had seen before, but in this instance the bark lay folded over the fork and flat against the sides of the sticks. I took the three, strange emblems to him and asked him what they were for. He said, pointing to the strips of bark: 'This is meat. We pray for meat thus: and turning towards the ruin he cried in a tone of entreaty: 'A-ru-pan-ga! give us meat, give us meat that we may cut it with a knife!' I said to him, 'You call these ruins Arupanga, do you speak to the stones?' (I remembered that Bent had stated that the natives did not revere the ruins at Zimbabwe.) He only repeated what he had said before. I again asked him: 'Do you address a person or these stones?' Then he made a change in his prayer, crying: 'Mambo! Umlozi! give us meat that we may cut it with a knife!' 'Mambo' means Lord, and the title Umlos-i would naturally be given by one of the Amalozi to the chief of his own tribe. About these 'wishing' or 'prayer' sticks, I may mention that Bent speaks of having seen them in another part of the country, but peeled, and with the bark twisted round the top, while he heard the natives praying thus: 'Our knives are ready, give us meat!'

The native commissioner of Umtali, Mr. Nesbitt, told me that he came one day upon a hunting party in search of game with several such praying sticks, and that on his telling them that he had shot a buck and that they could have it, they immediately, in token of thanksgiving, cut such a stick, peeled off the bark and wound it round the top.

While surveying in the neighbourhood of Ghoko, I had read Bent's book, but I afterwards re-read it at Zimbabwe, when I became quite convinced that those ruins were once a temple erected to the all-Father and all-Mother, the Creator, as manifested in the generative powers of Nature, by people connected in religion with the ancient Phoenicians and Arabians, a religion many other traces of which still exist in this country. There was probably nothing gross in their reverence for the generative principle, it was the result of their groping after the all-Father who had produced man and all creation. I told a number of people, including officers of the Chartered Company, Mr. J. Dawson (now Captain Dawson), Mr. Selous, and others, of the evidence on which I had stumbled of a living and influencing religion, still utilised on occasion for political purposes, the workings of which were well worth watching. Mr. Dawson told me he had heard much of 'Molimo' or 'Umlimo,' and that once a rough white trader had gone to Matojeni and entered the sacred cave of the god. Searching it and finding nobody, he shouted mockingly to Molimo, and cursed and swore at him. Afterwards he proceeded to Johannesburg, and was returning with his wagon and a load of goods when he was struck dead by lightning. When the Matabele heard of this, 'You see,' they said, 'not even whites can insult our god with impunity.' Politically considered, I think enough has been told to show that the priests of Umlimo will [p.191] require to be looked after in future to prevent more mischief being done through their means. Perhaps it would be well to blow up the sacred cave containing the oracle, but it is said that there are several places known where Molimo is to be heard. He must thus be considered to be present in more places than one, if not everywhere. I once mentioned the above facts to my old friend the Rev. Frederic Ellenberger of the French Mission in Basutoland, a country which I have long known intimately, and the government of which I administered at one time. I knew that all the Basuto and Bechuana tribes, whose traditions show that they emigrated from the North, were found by the missionaries to be worshippers of 'Molimo' in various ways, and that the missionaries adopted the name of 'Molimo' for God. He told me that the worship of Molimo (Morimo, Modimo, &c.) was found to extend up to Lake Tanganyika at least, though not everywhere throughout the intervening countries. The early Portuguese discoverers mention it under different dialectic changes, as Mozimo, &c. A Jesuit missionary from the Zambesi told me that the people among whom he had been labouring prayed to Mozimo as intercessor with the Supreme Being, whom they called 'Umlungo' or Master, which is the name given to white men by many tribes. The language of Mashonaland will, I am told, take one all over the country, from far north of Nyassa land down to near Delagoa, though a wave of Zulu invasion and language has passed northward through those countries. Mr. Ellenberger, from his critical knowledge of the Basuto language, explained to me what he believes to be the etymology of the word 'Molimo,' pronounced Modimo by the Basutos. He says the root word dimo is an almost obsolete word, appearing sometimes as the name of a man, and that it means hidden, invisible, mysterious.

It is found in the words:

Modimo, God, the unseen spirit. Plural Medimo. The plural Ba-dimo, the unseen persons, i.e. the spirits of ancestors.

Le-dimo, a hidden person. Plural, Madimo, a euphemism (according to the genius of the language, which avoids shocking expressions) meaning man-eaters or cannibals, people who hide to entrap man for food and devour it in secret caves.

Ho-dimo, upwards, towards the invisible world.

Lehodimo, the invisible world, the sky, the heavens.

Dimola, to reveal the unseen (to un-hide, the termination ola denoting the reverse action of a verb).

This etymology may riot be traceable in the Mashona language, but may, none the less, be the correct one, the Basutos having carried it with them in their migration southward, from the present Mashona or Makalanga country. The Mashonas themselves may not retain it, though it explains the fundamental meaning of the name of the object of their worship. In the same way the Bechuana tribe called [p.192] Ba-tsipi, the men of iron (or those who reverence iron tribally), know nothing of the reason of the words they use when praying for success in the chase. 'Thou of the broken leg,' they cry, 'thou who didst fall from heaven, give us food!' This is evidently a hymn descended to them through thousands of years. Hearing such things carries one back into the times of the ancient classics, as I felt once in '74 when hearing a case as British Resident in the Wanskei. It was a charge of murder for alleged witchcraft against Umhlonhlo, the chief of the Pondomisi, and a woman giving evidence told me how, in the subsequently murdered woman's hut, where the lightning spirit had enveloped her, she had, in her sleep, been embraced by the 'thunder bird,' the eagle, the veritable bird of Jupiter Tonans, which produced a sort of possession, by the power of lightning, the worst effect of witchcraft. I may explain that the murdered woman was believed to have dealings with this bird, and her crime was causing the lightning to strike close to the chief's hut.

But these beliefs found in Mashonaland, these temples and praying sticks, carry one further back than any written history goes. Zimbabwe (which in the Mashona language means the 'house of stone') is clearly a hermaphrodite temple, or temple to the dual generative principle (as Baal and Ashtaroth) as well as to the heavenly bodies and all manifestations of the powers creative of man and Nature. It would be a good thing for some one systematically to visit and to make measurements and plans of the many other temples and altars which exist in that country, so that these might be compared with ruins in other parts of the world, especially those of Phoenician origin. There is a peculiar feature in some of these which I shall attempt to describe. An oval stone platform was built, about twelve to fifteen feet high and eighty long, with perpendicular walls, upon a granite rock foundation. Upon this was built another smaller oval platform, and on that two round altars, with steps and a central pillar to each. There was 'Zimbabwe' ornamentation on the wall over a narrow platform-like projection along one side of the ruin.

The very peculiar feature of this ruin was that seven well-like circular holes had been made in the platform round about the altars. These holes were about eight inches in diameter at the top but widened as they went down till they reached the solid rock at a depth of from twelve to fifteen feet, where they were twelve or more inches in diameter. They were lined with stone, cut in segments of a circle to fit into their sides. There were no monoliths in this case. In another ruin these holes were larger and proportionately wider at the bottom.

In Bent's book he gives an illustration of an iron smelting furnace, faintly and conventionally showing the female form. All the furnaces found in Rhodesia are of that form, but those which I have seen (and I have come upon five of them in a row) are far more realistic, most minutely and statuesquely so, all in a cross-legged [p.193] sitting position and clearly showing that the production or birth of the metal is considered worthy of a special religious expression. It recognised the Creator in one form of his human manifestation in creation. The magistrate of Gwello, when he had his first house built in 'wattle and daub,' found that the Makalanga women, who were engaged to plaster it, had produced, according to a general custom, a clay image of the female form in relief upon the inside wall. He asked them what they did that for. They answered benevolently that it was to bring him good luck. This illustrates the pure form of the cult of these people, who worship the unknown and unseen God by reverencing his manifestation (in this instance) in the female side of the creative principle.

I do not pretend to any extensive reading on the subject of the widespread and ancient prevalence of this cult. I only give facts as I have picked them up, showing something of a present local phase of this religion. With regard to the praying sticks I may mention that I saw a reference in Lempriere and also in an article in a German 'Konversations-Lexicon' to the caduceus of Mercury, as having been of Phoenician origin, and originally simply a forked stick with some band wound about the top of it, just like the praying or wishing sticks now used by these tribes; also that sometimes a pair of leaves was represented as growing out of the stick opposite each other near the fork, and that afterwards these leaves came to be represented as wings. Mercury Caducifer, the quick messenger between the gods and men who carried answers to prayer and gave fertility, carried this symbol and wore similar wings in his ankles and on the fillet round his head. The writer of the article in the 'Konversations-Lexicon' to which I have referred says that 'the forked stick appears to be identical with the "wishing stick" of our forefathers as mentioned in the sagas,' which was evidently a praying stick used in appeals to the Deity. They remind one also of certain metal emblems with wings similarly situated which have been found in the excavations at Pompeii and which illustrate the same principle. They likewise recall the rods which Jacob peeled and placed before the flocks of his father-in-law as well as the representation of the Phoenician god of 'teeming flocks and fruitful fields' which, in after ages, was used to mark the boundaries of properties, &c., in Roman times, but the fundamental idea of which was originally identical with the cult of Hermes and other ancient gods. Thus the use of these praying sticks and the other customs and modes of thought which I have mentioned add further links to the chain of evidence furnished by the ruins in Rhodesia of a near connection between northern ancient religions and those held by the people who built the temple of Zimbabwe, and which religious ideas in their present phase appear to be still spread through a wide extent of country around the ruins.