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Tricksters and trickery in Zulu folktales.

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Tricksters and Trickery in Zulu Folktales is a research on one of the central themes in African, and particularly Nguni/Zulu folklore, in which the trickster figure plays a pivotal role. The Zulu form part of the Nguni group of the Kintu speaking populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Their oral traditions are based on those of the whole sub-continent, but also constitute significant innovations due to the Nguni's contacts with the Khoisan peoples and to the history that has shaped their reasoning processes. Folktales are an artistic reflection of the people's culture, history, way of life, attitudes to persons and events, springing from the observation of nature and of animal and human, behaviour, in order to create a "culture of the feelings" on which adult decisions are based. The present research is based on the concept of a semiotic communication system whereby folktale "texts" are considered as metaphors, to be de-coded from the literary, cultural and behavioural points of view. The system is employed to produce comic entertainement, as well as for education. A careful examination of the sources reveals the central role that observation of the open book of natural phenomena, and especially the observation of animal life, plays in the formulation of thought patterns and of the imagery bank on which all artistic expression is based, be it in the form of proverbs, or tales, or poetry. Animal observation shows that the small species need to act with some form of cunning in the struggle for survival. The employment of tricks in the tales can be either successful or unsuccessful, and this constitutes the fundamental division of the characters who are constantly associated with trickery. They apply deceiving patterns based on false contracts that create an illusion enabling the trickster to use substitution techniques. The same trick pattern is however widely employed, either successfully or unsuccessfully, by a score of other characters who are only "occasional tricksters", such as human beings, in order to overcome the challenge posed by external, often superior, forces, or simply in order to shape events to their own advantage. The original mould for the successful trickster figure in Kintu speaking Africa is the small Hare. The choice of this animal character points to the bewildered realization that small beings can only survive through guile in a hostile environment dominated by powerful killers. The Nguni/Zulu innovation consists of a composite character with a dual manifestation: Chakide, the slender mongoose, a small carnivorous animal, whose main folktale name is the diminutive Chakijana; and its counterpart Hlakanyana, a semi-human dwarf. The innovation contains a double value: the root ideophone hlaka points to an intelligent being, able to outwit his adversaries by "dissecting" all the elements of a situation in order to identify weaknesses that offer the possibility of defeating the enemy; and to "re-arrange" reality in a new way. This shows the ambivalent function of trickery as a force for both demolition and reconstruction. Chakijana, the small slender mongoose, is like the pan-African Hare in most respects, but with the added feature of being carnivorous, therefore a merciless killer. He makes use of all its powers to either escape larger animals, or to conquer other animals for food in order to survive. Hlakanyana, being semi-human, can interact with both humans and animals; Chakijana is mostly active in an animal setting. The unsuccessful trickster figure in Kintu speaking Africa is Hyena, an evil and powerful killer and scavenger, associated in popular belief with witches by reason of his nocturnal habits and grave digging activities. The Nguni/Zulu innovation is Izimu, a fictional semi-human being, traditionally interpreted as a cannibal, a merciless and dark man eater. Izimu is another composite figure, prevalently corresponding to Hyena, from which he draws most of his fictional characteristics. The figure further assimilates features of half-human, half-animal man-eating monsters known in the folklore of many African cultures, as well as the ogre figure prevalent in European tales. The anthropophagous aspect, taken as its prevalent characteristic by earlier researchers, is a rather secondary feature. The innovation from a purely animal figure (Hyena) to a semi-human one allows this character to interact mostly with human beings, thus expressing deeply felt human concerns and fears. Trickery is the hallmark of comedy, the art of looking at life from an upside-down point of view, to portray not the norm but the unexpected. Thus the metaphors contained in trickster folktales, as expressions of comedy, are rather difficult to decode. The ambivalence, so common in many manifestations of African culture, becomes prevalent in these tales. Human tricksters, who try to imitate the trick sequence, are successful if their aims can be justified in terms of culture and tradition; but are unsuccessful if their aims are disruptive of social harmony. Ambivalence is also predominant in "modern" trickster folktales, and in some manifestations of the trickster themes in recent literature. The trickster tradition is an important aspect of the traditions of the Zulu people, permeating social, educational and literary aspects of life and culture. The Nguni/Zulu innovations of Hlakanyana/Chakijana and of Izimu point to the dynamic and inner stability of the culture, a precious heritage and a force on which to build a great future.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of Natal, Durban, 1995.


Tricksters in literature., Tales--South Africa--History and criticism., Theses--isiZulu., Zulu (African people)--Folklore.