Nkulunkulu

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The Zulu name for the supreme deity is Nkulunkulu, literally the “old one.” Nkulunkulu is thought to be the Creator or First Cause of all things that exist. He taught the Zulu how to plant corn, how to build fires out of sticks of wood, how to make iron, and how to use herbs for medicine. In fact, he was the one who named all of the animals and the trees, and nothing came into existence without the energy of Nkulunkulu. To indicate the primary position that Nkulunkulu holds in the society, the Zulu elders called this deity by several names. One of the most honored names for Nkulunkulu is Mvelinquanagi. This name for the great high deity means that he came out first; there is none who came before him. Thus, the Zulu are clear and expressive when they say Nkulunkulu is Uthlanga, the place where life began and from which all men broke off, meaning that no one came from anywhere else. The question of the origin of Nkulunkulu is a perplexing one because the answer usually given by the Zulu begs the question. For example, one saying is that Nkulunkulu came from a bed of reeds, but then the question is, from where did the bed of reeds originate?
As the maker of things for humans, Nkulunkulu is thought to have made all things good because Nkulunkulu can create only good. In this regard, Nkulunkulu is like many African supreme deities who are thought to have made only good. Another word used in connection with Nkulunkulu is Usondo. There is the belief that Usondo means “the one who came forth first from Nkulunkulu” or, more precisely, “the first one.” This name is used at the end of statements that contain philosophical or ethical ideas in Zulu. The speaker will end the statement with a nod to Usondo. The people call the rains the “rains of Usondo,” and they speak of the harvest as “the food of Usondo.” Nothing in creation can escape the idea of Usondo because it goes to the heart of origin. All Zulu are essentially the children who came after the breaking into existence by Usondo. They say that Usondo came by Unthlanga and all Zulu ancestors came by Usondo. The word Unthlanga means “Great Father.” Obviously, this is a reference to the original creation of the people. But Nkulunkulu is thought to have gone beneath the world to live once humans were created, and therefore he cannot be seen. Because Nkulunkulu cannot be seen there are no images, shrines, or priests for him; there is no way to trace him, and hence his work is done.
Among the Zulu, it is thought that evil originated when a human disobeyed Nkosi, the Lord of the Sky, and Nkosi became so angry that his anger literally ate him up. According to this story, the Lord of the Sky became angry and expelled both the man and his wife from the sky. This created anger, and the anger created pain. The Zulu distinguish between moral and immoral anger. Good anger is a response to violations of the moral order and supports the community. Once the person has offered reparations for the violation, it is erased from Nkosi's record. Immoral anger is like evil incarnate and has the purpose of annihilation. The problem of evil exists in relationship to the supreme deity, but it is a human problem brought into existence by some action on the part of humanity. Thus, the resolution of evil is achieved when humans recognize their mistakes and reset the universal harmony given by the supreme deity.
Nkulunkulu, although known to be the creator, leaves it to the ancestors and spirits to order and run the society. Highly venerated ancestors are called on in times of trouble and are appealed to for children, family, food, animals, and shelter. Because the ancestral family is the first bond of community, the Zulu look to the age sets and lineage groups for assistance in the first instance. They make sacrifices to the issitoota or amatongo. These are the names of the venerated ancestors. Anything that is detrimental can be attributed to an ancestor who is not happy with something that was done by the living.
It is thought that, from time to time, Nkulunkulu has communicated with human beings through myth. Nothing exists without the intervention of the creator, but the creator does not have to work constantly. Nkulunkulu puts forth an idea and afterward it has a life of its own. For example, death is explained through a story in which Nkulunkulu sent Chameleon to Earth with a message that humans would not die. But before he reached the people, Chameleon stopped to eat fruit. Nkulunkulu became angry and sent Lizard with a message to Humanity that said, “Humans will die.” Lizard got to the Earth and humanity before Chameleon and delivered the message that Nkulunkulu had decreed death. Or, maybe, that he had ordered that humans would be mortal? This mythical story has many counterparts in Zulu history, but the principal point is that Nkulunkulu is the Zulu's connection to creation. Other mythical concepts are developed along the same line; the first use or the first occasion becomes the pattern for all other cases. Fundamentally, Nkulunkulu serves as the oldest idea in the Zulu world because before Nkulunkulu there was nothing.

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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Mbiti, J. S. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.