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CHAPTER XV: LIGHTNING, THUNDER, RAIN, AND THE RAINBOW

IT is only natural that lightning and thunder should powerfully affect the human imagination all the world over.

Even when their causes are more or less understood there are few or none but must feel a peculiar thrill at sight of the flash and sound of the answering roar. To the primitive mind lightning is a living thing, instinct with destructive power, thunder the voice of some angry spirit or supra-mundane animal. Lightning is, perhaps, most often conceived of as a bird, and there seems no reason to doubt the good faith of those who declare they have actually seen it.

Various descriptions are given of it: sometimes it becomes identified with an actual bird; thus the Amandebele give the name of isivolovolo both to the 'bird of heaven' (inyoni yezulu) and to the white-necked fish-eagle, which flies at a great height and whose droppings possess magical properties.

Dudley Kidd, in Bomvanaland, had a brown bird pointed out to him as the lightning-bird. He was about to shoot it, but was dissuaded, and therefore presumably was unable to determine its species, as he gives no further information. The bird known to Afrikanders as 'hammerkop' (the tufted umber) seems in some way to be associated with lightning as well as rain; to destroy its nest is to bring down a storm.

The Lightning-bird described

One of Bishop Callaway's informants had seen a feather of the lightning-bird, which may very possibly have been a peacock's feather, as it is a fact that peacocks' feathers were sold in Natal about 1860 by some enterprising person who declared that they had been obtained from the 'heavenbird.'[1] According to this man, the bird "is quite peculiar, for its feathers glisten. A man may think it is red; again he sees that it is not so-it is green." [2] This suggests a kind

[1. Amazulu, p. 119.

2 Ibid., p. 383.]

of metallic iridescence, so that it is not surprising if peacocks' feathers were accepted as being the genuine article. Another account says that it has a red bill, red legs, and a short red tail, like fire; "its feathers are bright and dazzling, and it is very fat."

The Xosas call this bird impundulu-a name nowadays adopted for an electric tram-car! It is said to "appear as such"-that is to say, in its proper form as a bird-only to women, but Dr Hewat [1] does not mention what women, if any, have ever seen it. When it darts down as lightning people only see the flash.

It lays a big egg where it strikes, which eggs bring ill-luck to the neighbourhood where laid. The only way to circumvent the bird is to stand ready with a kerrie and hit right through the flash. . . . No one has ever succeeded in killing one yet.

He goes on to say that the doctor [2] is supposed to dig up the egg in order to destroy it; but it is somewhat inconsistent with this to be told in the next sentence that "the possession of the egg would bring great good fortune."

The Lightning-bird's Nest found in Mashonaland

The destruction of the egg seems elsewhere to be considered essential, as would appear from a very interesting account by a magistrate in Mashonaland, writing under the name'Mbizo.'[3] He says that, the lightning having struck a tree near the native messengers' camp at his station, a woman doctor was called in. After examining the place she ran to and fro, round and round, and at last fixed on a spot, which she marked by sticking a horn into the earth, and said that the eggs would be found there. (It seems that none but natives were present at this ceremony.) "Digging operations followed"; but it is not said who dug, which is not without importance. The three Government messengers who were looking on reported that not far from the surface a small round hole was found, very smooth, as if plastered; digging down from this, at a depth of some two

[1. Bantu Folklore, p. 91.

2. Isanusi; in Natal he is inyanga yezulu.

3 Nada (1924), p. 60.]

feet they found a nest with two eggs-quite ordinary looking eggs apparently. The magistrate, on examining the spot, could find no trace of the smooth hole, nor any reason to doubt that the woman had placed the nest in the excavation herself, probably diverting the spectators' attention, as conjurors know how, at the critical moment. When he dropped the eggs on the ground and broke them (they were unmistakably addled) all the people present fled in real terror; but some one must have returned later-perhaps the doctor herself-for "all particles of the eggs were carefully gathered, doctored, and thrown into a deep pool in the Sebakwe River."

This was done to prevent the lightning striking again in the same spot, which, as a matter of fact, it never did, in this instance, up to the time of writing, though fifteen years had passed since the incident took place. If these precautions are omitted it is believed that the bird will come back to pick up its eggs, "with probably fatal results."

Mr Guy Taylor, the editor of Nada, has in his possession a curious earthenware object, turned up by the plough near the Chikuni Mission,[1] which the natives declare is "an egg laid by lightning." None of the local natives (Batonga and Baila) had ever seen anything like it.

Heaven-doctors

The Natal 'heaven-doctors' are more concerned with the bird itself than with its eggs. They set a bowl of amasi mixed with various medicines in the place where they wish the lightning to strike, and when they see the flash rush forward and kill the bird. It seems to have been believed that this had repeatedly happened. The bird was boiled down for the sake of its fat, which was a very precious medicine, used, among other purposes, for anointing the sticks held by the 'heaven-herds' in the ceremony of conjuring the lightning, to be described presently. The Bomvanas, it would seem, do not recognize the possibility of this procedure, if Dudley Kidd was correct in stating it

[1. In Northern Rhodesia.]

as their belief that "the bird sets its own fat on fire and throws it down."

Chimungu of the Baronga

The Baronga identify the lightning-bird with a hawk called chimungu, which is believed to bury itself in the ground where it strikes. These people credit the 'medicine' prepared from it with the peculiar virtue of enabling its possessor to detect thieves. One has not heard of this use of it among the Zulus, with their well-known character for honesty. When lightning has struck any spot of ground and burnt up the grass on it the Ronga chief "casts the bones," and then sends for the professional expert. This man arrives, with a long black stick in his hand, digs at the spot indicated, and finds the bird, alive or dead; one supposes that in the former case he kills it, but this is not specified. He then carefully measures the depth of the hole, making a notch on his stick for future reference, takes the bird home, roasts it, and grinds it to powder. What is done when a case of theft is reported may be read in M. Junod's book.[1]

The Girl who saw the Lightning-bird

A Tumbuka native told the Rev. Donald Fraser that he had never seen the lightning-bird, "but a girl of our village saw it not long ago." It was a large black bird, with "a big, curling tail, like a cock's." It seems to have splashed into a pool of water near where she was hoeing in her garden, and then to have "run up her hoe and scratched her," after which it flew back into the clouds. As the narrator had seen "the marks of its claws on her body" it is probable that the girl had really been struck by lightning, which has been known to leave curious scars. Further, it is believed that "those little scarlet insects you see on the path during the rains are the children of the lightning."[2]

The lakeside people of Buziba (on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria) think lightning and thunder are caused by

[1. The Life of a South African Tribe, vol. ii, pp. 403-404

2. Winning a Primitive People, p. 65.]

flocks of small, glittering red birds, which nest in the rocks near the lake. When Kayura, ruler of the storm (he is the son of the one-legged lake-god Mugasha), is so disposed he sends these birds out: the flashing of their feathers is the lightning and the rushing sound of their wings the thunder. During a thunderstorm Mugasha's missing leg is said to be seen in the clouds-a phenomenon of which, so far as I am aware, no explanation has been offered.

Other Embodiments of Lightning

But birds are not the only creatures held responsible for, or supposed to be connected with, the lightning. The Lambas [1] say that with the flash an animal like a goat, but with the hind legs and tail of a crocodile, descends to earth, let down by a cord like a "strong cobweb." Ordinarily it is drawn up again, but should the 'cobweb' break the animal would be heard crying like a goat, "and the people run together to kill and burn it." They cannot do this without being protected by special 'medicine,' as it is highly dangerous to approach the creature.

No one will use for firewood a tree which has been struck by lightning, while the Zulus (and other cattle-breeding peoples) will never eat the flesh of an animal so killed, unless it has been 'doctored' and they themselves have been washed with the proper 'medicines.' It is a world-wide notion, quite easy to understand, that any person or thing marked for destruction by this mysterious power must be tabu. So the Romans used to sacrifice a sheep on the spot where anyone had been struck by lightning, and made it a sacred place for ever. The Bushongo people of the Kasai suppose lightning to be an animal something like a leopard, but black. It is called "Tsetse Bumba," and is the subject of a curious legend.[2] Bumba, the creator, after producing nine creatures, of which Tsetse was one, and, subsequently, the human race, imposed on them various tabus, which are observed to this day. But Tsetse refused to obey these

[1. Doke, The Lambas of Northern Rhodesia, p. 225.

2. Torday and Joyce, Les Bushongo, p. 20.]

rules, and began working mischief; so Bumba drove her from the earth, and she took refuge in the sky, where she has dwelt ever since. But when people began to suffer because they could not get fire Bumba allowed her to return now and then, and, though every one of these occasions was marked by disaster, men were able to light their fires from trees which had been struck, and thenceforth carefully kept them burning in their huts.

The Lightning-dog of the Congo

The people of the Lower Congo call lightning Nzazi (or Nsasi); with them it takes the form of a kind of magic dog, either red or black, with shaggy hair and a curly tail. When he comes down he gives one sharp bark-ta!-and with the second bark he goes up again. No charm can avail against him, and neither wizard nor witch-doctor has power to avert his attacks. The Zulus, however, know better, as we shall see. R. E. Dennett was told this story by a Luangu man:

A man met a beautiful dog, and was so pleased with its appearance that he determined to take it home with him. As it was raining heavily he took it with him inside his shimbee (hut) and, lighting a fire, proceeded to dry and warm his pet. Suddenly there was an explosion, and neither man, dog, nor shimbee were ever seen again. This dog was Nsasi, so Antonio told me.[2]

This same man, Antonio Lavadeiro (the Lower Congo people very often have Portuguese names), had a strange experience on his own account, which seems to imply that Nzazi is not himself a dog, but hunts with twelve couple of hounds. Here Nzazi is the thunder, and his dogs the lightning. Antonio was playing at marbles under a shed with some friends during a heavy shower of rain, when "it thundered frightfully, and Nzazi sent his twenty-four dogs down upon them. They seized one of the party who had left the shed for a moment, and the fire burnt up a living palm-tree." [3]

[1. Torday, writing in French, made Tsetse feminine, but this may only have
been because of the gender of la foudre.

2. The Black Man's Mind, p. 138.

3. Folk-lore of the Fjort, P. 7.]

But Antonio also told of a man, still living when he spoke, who had been caught up to heaven by a flash of lightning and had a very good time there for two or three weeks. He was then asked by Nzambi (God) himself whether he would rather stay for ever or return to earth. He said he wanted to return, as he missed his friends and relations. So he was sent back to them.

Dudley Kidd mentions, somewhat vaguely, "a fat baby said by the people of Mashonaland to cause the thunder when it crawls on the ground after descending from the sky at the spot where the lightning struck the earth. No further details are given about this infant, which seems to have been reported at second or third hand, or even less directly. We have already seen that some, at least, of the Mashona believe in the lightning-bird.

The Balungwana

But one wonders whether there may be some obscure connexion with the balungwana of the Baronga. These are tiny beings, sometimes called 'dwarfs' (psimhunwanyana), but more often by the name which seems to mean 'little Europeans.'[2] They are said to come down from the sky when heavy rain is falling; if there is thunder without rain people say, "The balungwana are playing up there." Nothing is said about lightning in connexion with them, and they sometimes appear before a great disaster, such as the locust visitation of 18 94, when "a little man and a little woman" fell from the sky and said to the people, "Do not kill the locusts; they belong to us[1]" In 1862, just before the war between two rival Gaza chiefs, a mulungwana alighted on a hill at Lourenço Marques, and was seen by many people. M.Junod's informant had not himself seen him: he was "too little" at the time, and his parents would not let him go and look. He added, surprisingly, that "the white men

[1. The Essential Kafir, p. 121.

2 Junod, Life of a South African Tribe, vol. ii, P. 405. Possibly the name is not, as one thinks at first, a diminutive of the Ronga word for 'white men' (perhaps borrowed from Zulu), but of a plural of Mulungu, as used by many East African tribes, though not by the Baronga. In that case it would mean ' little gods.']

seized him and took him to Mozambique." It does not appear that any inquiries were made of the Portuguese authorities concerning this extraordinary capture.

Heaven-herds, or Heaven-doctors

Thunderstorms being exceedingly frequent and violent in tropical and sub-tropical Africa, more particularly, perhaps, in the south, where the abundance of ironstone in the hills may add to the danger from lightning, the art-or science-of averting them, or, at any rate, of preventing damage, has been developed in great detail. The Zulus have their 'heaven-herds' (who shepherd the thunderclouds), or 'heaven-doctors.' They instinctively feel a storm coming on, a faculty acquired by what is called 'eating the heaven'-that is, eating the flesh of a beast killed by lightning-they also make cuts in their bodies and rub in a 'medicine' compounded from this flesh, with, in addition, that of the lightning-bird, scrapings from the 'thunderbolt,' and, perhaps, certain herbs. The 'thunderbolt' may be a meteorite; it is said to be "a thing like the shank of an assagai," which buries itself in the ground where the lightning strikes, the spot being marked by "a heap of jelly-like substance." The 'doctor,' who has been watching the flash, at once digs here and finds the object.

These experts are supposed to turn back hail and lightning, but not rain, which, in a land of frequent and disastrous droughts, is a blessing anxiously awaited. They have to undergo a special initiation and observe certain tabus, which do not, to our thinking, seem to have much point: for instance, they must never drink from a cup of beer unless it is quite full, or eat izindumba beans unless given to them. But if these and other prohibitions are infringed the 'doctor' loses his power, and if he is unsuccessful in averting a storm it is at once attributed to his not having 'fasted'-a term which includes other matters besides abstinence from food.

When a storm is coming on the inyanga yezulu seizes his sticks, which have been rubbed with the proper 'medicines,' and takes up his station outside the house-sometimes on the wall of the cattle-fold, if this is of stone. He brandishes his sticks, and shouts, 'scolding the heaven,' ordering the storm to depart, and whistling to it as herd-boys do to their cattle. While this goes on no one in the house is supposed to speak; and if it is hailing people do no work, for this, it is believed, would attract the lightning.

Birds which bring Rain

Rain, of course, is a pressing preoccupation for many natives of Africa, and the professional rain-doctor is an important person. He will be more fitly treated in the next chapter; but there are also rain-rites in which all the people take part, and rain-charms which may be used by individuals. Thus the ground horribill (insingizi [1]) is a bird intimately associated with rain. When there has been no rain for some time they catch an insingizi, kill it, and throw it into a pool, when, "if it rains"-for it seems as if this result were by no means certain-" it is said it rains for the sake of the insingizi which has been killed: the heaven becomes soft; it wails for it by raining, wailing a funeral wail." [2] If a number of these birds are seen gathered together in one place, uttering their cries, it is supposed that they are calling for rain, and that it will soon follow.

The Bateleur eagle (ingqungqulu) is looked to for omens of various kinds; among others it announces the coming of rain. But it is not, like the other bird, used as a rain-charm.

Shouting for Rain

The feast of first-fruits (ukutshwama) was formerly, perhaps is still, held in or about the month of January, when the new crops begin to be fit for use. But it sometimes happens that the rains have been late in coming, and consequently there is no 'new food' to be eaten. On such occasions the assembled people intone 'magical songs,'

[1. The dictionaries give both 'ground hornbill' and 'turkey-buzzard' as equivalents for insingirti. There is no clue as to which is meant here, but I imagine the former.

2 Callaway, Amazulu, p. 407.]

which are believed to produce the desired effect. These same songs may also be used with the opposite intention, viz., to stop excessive and long-continued rain when an army is on the march.

I have heard people 'shouting for rain' on the slopes of Mount Bangwe, in the Shire Highlands, with weird, wailing cries-perhaps calling on the spirit of the old chief Kankomba, who used to be invoked for the same purpose in Duff Macdonald's day.[1] But this is straying too far from our proper subject, and it is time to consider the myths of the rainbow.

The Rainbow

Africans have been struck not so much by the beauty of the rainbow as by its strangeness, and they nearly always look on it as malignant and dangerous. This may seem unaccountable to us, accustomed to think of it as the symbol of hope, and familiar with the lovely figure of Iris, the messenger of the gods. But it is a common belief that it stops the rain, and this is quite enough to constitute it an enemy. Its colours are sometimes said to be the glow of a destroying fire: "If it settles on the trees," said a Luyi man to Emile Jacottet, "it will burn all the leaves." It is curiously associated with ant-heaps, in which it is supposed to live. Anyone who sees it-that is, sees the place where its end seems to rest on the earth-runs away as fast as he can: "if he sees you he will kill you." It is described--one cannot see why-as an animal as big as a jackal, with a bushy tail. Others say it is like a many-coloured snake,[2]

[1. Africana, vol. i, p. 70.

2 Virgil, in the fifth book of the Æneid (84-93), tells how, when Æneas had made offerings at his father's tomb, a snake came out from "the foot of the shrine" and glided round it seven times. Its scales were blue and gold, and glittered in many colours like the rainbow. It tasted the food and drink there set out, and then crept back into the earth whence it came. Æneas did not know whether to think it "the genius of the place" or an attendant on his father: an African would never have doubted that it was Anchises himself. The reference to the rainbow is curious, but must not be pressed as indicating that in ancient Italy it was thought of as a snake; while in Africa the rainbow snake has no connexion with the ancestral ghost.]

which is more intelligible. Some Zulus say that it is a sheep, or lives with a sheep. The common Zulu expression for it, however (the only one I remember to have heard), is utingo lwenkosikazi, 'the Queen's arch'-that is, one of the arched wattles forming the hut of that mysterious being the Queen of Heaven, concerning whom it is difficult to obtain exact information.

The Kikuyu [1] say it is a 'wicked animal,' which lives in the water, comes out at night, eats goats and cattle, and has even been known to eat people. There was one which lived in Lake Nalvasha and swallowed the cattle of the Masai, but was at last killed by the young warriors. This, it seems, was related as an actual occurrence.

It is worth noting that the Kikuyu say, "the rainbow in the water [in the spray from a waterfall] and the sky is not the animal itself, but its picture," because in a very distant region of West Africa the Ewe (in Togo) say the same thing: the rainbow is the reflection of the snake in the clouds. These people also think that it hides in an ant-hill, whence it rises up after rain.

One of the Kikuyu stories of the rainbow ("The Giant of the Great Water") could really be classed with those about the Swallowing Monster, recounted in a previous chapter.

The Baganda are perhaps exceptional in their way of regarding the rainbow, whom they call Musoke; he is the patron of fishermen. It is wrong, by the by, to point at the rainbow, so they say: anyone who does so will find his finger become stiff. The Baila,[2] on the contrary, point at the rainbow to drive it away, not with the finger, but with the pestle used for pounding grain. They call it the bow of Leza (God), but none the less credit it with preventing the fall of rain.

Where the Rainbow ends

"They have a curious idea that just below where the bow touches earth there is a very fierce goat-ram, which burns

[1. W. S. and K. Routledge, With a Prehistoric People, pp. 307-314.

2. Smith and Dale, The Ila-speaking Peoples, vol. ii, p. 220.]

like fire." But here and there one comes upon traces of the notion-familiar to us in Europe-that some treasure would be found at the point where the rainbow touches the ground, if one could only reach it. The Ewe (who, however, need not concern us here) think this is where the valuable 'Aggrey beads' are to be found. A Chaga story told by Dr Gutmann[1] relates how a needy Dorobo set out from his home to ask Iruwa for cattle. When he came to the " rainbow's end " he stood still and uttered his prayer. And this he did for many days. But no cattle appeared. Then he was seized with rage (the story-teller says, " his heart rose up "); he drew his sword and cut the rainbow in two. Half of it flew up to the sky; the other half fell to the ground and sank in, making a deep hole. Nothing more is said about the Dorobo; one would not be surprised to learn that he perished miserably as a punishment for his presumption. Later on some people came upon the hole and, climbing down, found "another country." They came back and reported what they had seen: those to whom they told it would not believe them. So they went down again, and returned with vessels full of milk, which convinced the sceptics. But some lions had followed them down, and the next time any people descended they found no one there, the inhabitants having emigrated. (It is not actually stated that the first explorers found any people in the underground region, but it must be understood that they are implied in the mention of milk.) They heard the growling of the lions, and made the best of their way back, as they had come. Since then no one has ventured down the pit. Frankly, I do not know what to make of this.

Rainbow Snakes

The people of Luangu hold, if Dennett was correctly informed, that there are two rainbows, a good and an evil one. But the rainbow snakes, which seem to be distinct from these two, are six, and not one. They correspond to the colours of the rainbow, which are counted as six, not seven-perhaps

[1. Volksbuch, p. 153.]

no distinction is drawn between indigo and blue. (But this writer's statements about numbers must be received with caution, because one never knows how much he read into what he was told by the people themselves.)

In Mayombe, to the east of Luangu, the rainbow is called Mbumba Luangu. It is, says Père Bittremieux,[1] an enormous nkisi-snake, which comes out of water and wriggles up the nearest high tree when it wants to stop the rain. It is worshipped (if that is the correct word to use in this connexion) by the secret society of the Bakimba. There is a saying that you should not stand still in the place where the rainbow appears to shoot up from the earth, nor stare at the mist whence it rises. If you do so your eyes will become dim and misty.

So much for the rainbow.

[1. Idioticon, vol. i, p. 387.]


Next: Chapter XVI: Doctors, Prophets, and Witches