Traditional Medicine and Magic in Zulu Society

Herbalists and Diviners

©Dr Peter Magubane
Diviners usually wear long white, beaded headdresses in acknowledgement of their association with the shades of the underworld.

Traditional medicines in Zulu society have their origins in the mists of antiquity, and their use and application today have changed little over the ages.

The Zulu make a distinction between the herbalist 'inyanga yokwelapha', whose task it is, still, today, to administer medicines made from plants and animals, and the diviner 'inyanga yokubhula', who 'smells out' or divines the cause of complaints by using bones, shells, seeds and other artefacts.

The diviner keeps these items in a special container which he or she throws on a mat, much like the throwing of dice, and from the way they land is able to divine the client's problems.

There are two other categories of diviners: the isangoma is a medium that can make contact with the ancestral spirits and prescribe medicines according to their dictates, which are then obtained from the inyanga yokubhula; the isanusi is a diviner capable of 'smelling out' sorcerers and other evil-doers.


©Dr Peter Magubane
A Sangoma from the Zulu tribe.

The inyanga 'plural izinyanga' and isangoma acquire their knowledge and skills over a long apprenticeship which in traditional society could span as long as 20 years.

Traditionally medicine men and women occupied a very high status in the community, often second only to the chief. In modern urban society this status has largely been translated into wealth. Most izinyanga in urban areas have shops in which they have consulting rooms and from which they dispense and sell their medicines.