God with the Wet Nose: Southern Africa and the Sacred Lives of Cattle

Learn about the spiritual significance of cattle in southern African indigenous cultures

In the Setswana-speaking part of the African world, the bovine is referred to as “God with the wet nose”. It’s a crucial conflation of the cow with notions of the divine. It underscores cattle as hallowed beasts of providence. — Kwanele Sosibo

Ceramic Nguni cattlePhansi Museum

Understanding the significance of cattle

In many southern African indigenous cultures, cattle are sacred beings whose spiritual and aesthtic significance is of great importance in understanding  socio-ecominc relations amongst different ethnic groups.

Ceramic Nguni cattlePhansi Museum

The language and poetry of southern Africa's cattle

 As Kwanele Sobiso shows,  cattle exist as quantifiable signifiers of wealth and status in many southern African cultures but they also function as repositories of memory and history. 

Strong identification with cattle, historically and culturally, is carried in language, proverbs and storytelling among many southern African cultures.

Sheppard / Storyboard by Mr XuluOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Evocations of cattle amongst the Batswana

As scholars D.S Matjila and Karen Haire show, in southern Africa's Batswana culture, cattle are an important in the social and spirtual development of identity as they are a symbolic means by which relations amongst the living and the ancestors are negotiated.

Amongst the Batswana, different breeds of cattle, their myriad colors and markings, as well as distinctive characteristics are very familiar as are their analogous meanings. For example, as cattle have two stomachs and ‘chew cud’, the proverb kgoma ga e ke nyela boloko jothe ( an ox never relieves itself of all its dung at the same time) means ‘do not impart all your all your knowledge or gems at once’ Or, when the Batswana reprimand a man for immature behavior, the say, ‘Ga e ke e bopa matota a le mabedi (a bull cannot own two territories), meaning, a person cannot act like a teenager whilst he is grown up. — D. S. Matjila & Karen Haire

Nguni cattle and milk pailsPhansi Museum

Zulu people and the blessed beasts

In Zulu culture cattle play a pivotal role within traditional communal life. They have been used to link families in marriage and legitimize children, and to underpin the concept ancestral religion and the chief's power. — (Peté &  Crocker, 2008) 

Nguni cattlePhansi Museum

Housing the ancestors

The cattle byre has great significance in Zulu culture. It serves to protect valuable cattle but it is also where the homestead's ancestors are housed. Animal sacrifices are performed their honor at the byre particularly when it is thought that the ancestors have become angry.

Cattle serve as a constant reminder of the vigilance of the departed and, in the role of mediator, they provide the link between the perceptible and the transcendental. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in traditional society, the animals which forged so vital and complex a link within and between the communities of the living and dead, should have been closely observed, named and praised with such perception and precision. — David Hammond-Tooke

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