Zulu Beer pots - What’s in a pot? More than just beer
By Andrew Bell
What’s in a pot? An obvious answer to this question would be a bit of clay, water, some elbow grease and whatever is being kept inside (your house keys, vegetables or porridge). What’s also in a pot is a woman’s identity, the protection of the ancestors, the embodiment of fertility and the same energy that creates life and pots. This is not an obscure idea if you think of it a little more; lucky underpants, your grandma’s grandma’s special tea pot or even the jar that keeps your house keys ‘safe’ are all examples of objects that have both a functional and symbolic role.
Zulu beer pots represent a culmination of this wide variety of functional and symbolic factors within the broader scope of Zulu ‘culture’. Sometimes though, what may seem symbolic is actually functional, and the other way around. This can be seen in two main ways in beer pots. Firstly in the actual function that the pots serve in terms of mediating with the ancestors, as happens during beer drink ceremonies. The second way that beer pots embody the Zulu tradition is more implicit. The colouring and decorations of Zulu beer pots embody the factors of gender, fertility and hierarchy. All of these factors can be linked to two pairs of belief. The first is that of the ancestors and hloniphe (respect). The second pair is the Zulu thermodynamic philosophy and ritual ‘pollution’. The first pair is concerned with social hierarchy and the continuation of the male lineage while the second is centred on the idea of fertility, fermentation and creative energy. This is an overwhelming number of factors, worldviews, beliefs and social relations, and in order to simplify how all of these relate to Zulu beer pots, three questions can be asked. The first ‘what goes into the pots?’ helps us explore the beer drink ceremony and the mythology of the ancestors. The second question, ‘why are the pots decorated the way they are?’ explores the ideas of thermodynamics, fertility and how these factors are represented through the colour triangle of red, white and black. The final question is ‘who makes the pots’ and looks at how gender relations in Zulu society have changed since the pre-colonial era and why ceramic beer pots are still produced today, despite there being better or alternative materials.
But, before we can talk about all the symbolism and complex societal relations behind Zulu beer pots, it is helpful to start with what they actually look like. Overall there are four different pots that are used in the process of making and drinking beer. Pots that are used for brewing and storing beer are called Imbiza (plural izimbiza). These pots are around a metre high, and are sometimes are built into the floors of huts (Jolles, 2005, p. 107). Imbiza are fired once in a high oxygen environment, thus creating a red-ish yellow colour. The second pot used for beer are Uphiso (izimpiso plural) (Jolles, 2005). These are used to transport beer, which is sometimes sent as a gift to neighbours or other villages. The pots have long necks, to prevent beer being spilled (see Figure 1.) (Jolles, 2005, p. 107). There are two types of pot that are used for serving beer, Ukhamba and Umancishana. The most decorated pots are Ukhamaba and are fired twice, with the second firing blackening the pots exterior. While Ukhamba vary in size, all are blackened, burnished (polished using a small pebble) and meticulously (though not extensively) decorated using amasumpa patterns (Jolles, 2005, p. 108). Umancishana are small, undecorated pots. This however does not indicate insignificance, and the pots are used for serving beer to the ancestors (something that is monumentally significant).
We can now start with the first question; what goes into the izinkamba and omancishana? Quite simply, beer. Traditional beer is generally brewed using sorghum and is called utshwala or umqomboti (Armstrong, et al., 2008). The beer is boiled and cooked exclusively by women and is a pale pinkish-white in colour. The beer itself is refreshing and nutritious, as in the early nineteenth century the French naturalist Adulphe Delegorgue attested “it quenches the thirst, strengthens a man when he is weak, and takes away fatigue; much more than this, it gives rise to a gentle gaiety, and for that alone, I swear by [the Zulu King] Dingaan, it makes one a better man”. Beer used to be a staple part of Zulu diet in the nineteenth century, King Cetshwayo referring to it as “the food of the Zulu’s” others as ‘ukudla amatshwele’ – eating chickens (Berglund, 1989, p. 209). In the present day, the brewing and drinking of utshwala or umqombothi is more of a ‘tradition’ than it is part of everyday life. Beer made and drunk before any major ceremony, such as funerals, marriages, lobola negotiations or the ritual slaughter of an animal. Although in the present day traditional beer is drunk less often than it previously was, it is, and has always been, drunk with the ancestors. The ancestors are a fundamental part of Zulu belief, and inform many rituals and cultural norms.
Figure 1 (left): “Woman with uphiso. Courtesy Campbell Collections, University of KwaZulu-Natal.” Taken from Armstrong, et al., (2008) p. 518.
Figure 2 (right): Buhle Zondi watching a friend drink beer at the Magwaza homestead in mPhabalane near Ndondondwane drift, umemulo (girls’ coming of age ceremony), 2006.”CITATION Jul08 \p 519 \l 7177 (Armstrong, et al., 2008, p. 519)
Being or becoming an ancestor is intrinsically linked to the traditional African ideas of what it means to be a person. Becoming a person is a process, which is highlighted by initiation or ‘liminal phases’ in life (See earlier chapters on ‘Childhood’ and ‘Initiation’). As a child, one does not yet have many responsibilities, however clay objects are used to facilitate socialisation (Waters, this volume). Both girls and boys, must go through an initiation process so that they can be recognised as an adult, and again, clay figurines aid in this process (Manana, this volume). Once a person goes through initiation, they are treated as an adult and have many new responsibilities to fulfil, as can be seen in the ‘pots of life’ section of the physical display. When a person is an adult, they are more respected in their community, and as one grows older and wiser, they are accorded higher respect. For example, only people of a certain age may smoke pipe tobacco, which is also seen as a way to commune with or invoke the ancestors (Hlangani, this volume). An Igbo proverb holds that “"What an old man sees sitting down, a young man cannot see standing up” (Menkiti, 1984, p. 173). The final transition one goes through in life is death. Following ones death, you become an ancestor, and are thus afforded the ultimate respect from your predecessors and kin.
Respect or holniphe is another fundamental aspect that underlies personhood and Zulu society. When beer is referred to as the ‘food of men’ this does not mean that is only drunk by women and men, but rather includes the living and the ‘shades’ (the ancestors) (Berglund, 1989, p. 210). Drinking with the ancestors is no trivial thing as they provide good fortune to one’s household and, as shown above, require hloniphe (respect) to be shown to them. The idea of hloniphe is thus intrinsically imbued in the Zulu and generally in South African concepts of ‘personhood’. While in ‘western’ ways of thinking, the individual is given priority over the group, in ‘African’ societies it is the group that gives importance to and defines a person (Menkiti, 1984). This is not to say that your life is completely controlled by your society or community, but rather that self-worth and value are gained through ones relationships with others; Ubuntu – I am because we are. In terms of Zulu beer pots, this manifests in the fact that beer is never drunk alone, and is always shared among people and with the ancestors.
It is important to understand that there is no clear division between the ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ and reality in the Zulu and South African belief systems (Berglund, 1989). The ancestors are almost ‘ever present’ in the world, and so drinking beer with them is actually drinking beer with them. Sometimes a small portion of utshwala will be poured for the shades into the ground, where they are thought to live. Usually, beer in an umancishana (the small, undecorated pots) will be left for the ancestors in umsamo a small area in the back of a house or hut (Armstrong, et al., 2008, p. 517). This not only is informed by the ideas of ubuntu but also of hloniphe. Principles of hloniphe dictate what goes on a beer drink ceremony. Zulu society is ordered around the male, patrilineal lineage (Berglund, 1989). Hloniphe is thus shown more to men. However, the first person to drink is to whom a ceremony is dedicated. For example, a man promised a beer drink upon his son’s safe return from hospital. At the actual ceremony, despite being a junior, the son drank beer first (Berglund, 1989, p. 213). This is so the ancestors know who to focus their attention on (ibid). Subsequently, the host (who is head of the household) drinks and then the oldest in the paternal line, as they are closest to the shades. This shows how both hierarchy and lineage play a role in celebrating with the ancestors and in social relations.
Now that we know what beer pots are used for, let us turn to the second question, ‘why are they decorated the way they are’ and more broadly ‘what do the decorations symbolise?’ There are two major aspects to consider on Zulu ukhamba, ‘amasumpa’ and their black burnishing. First let’s consider the decorations on this pot, known as amasumpa. Decorations on ukhamba drinking pots are generally placed around the middle or ‘waist’ of the pot. These serve a functional role, and make it easier to grip the pot when it is slippery with beer (Armstrong, et al., 2008). As you may know by now though, pots are not merely ‘functional’ and the positioning of amasumpa around the ‘waist’ of the pot can be seen as a deliberate representation of the female body. Specifically, amasumpa may be representative of two things, female body modification and/or groundnuts. Body scarification is practiced in a wide variety of contexts across Africa. In West Africa, women from the Mafa and Bulahay tribes in Cameroon scarify their bodies for ritual healing in a pattern known as wudah (David, et al., 1988, p. 370). These patterns are also shown in pots, through the application of small clay pellets (David, et al., 1988, p. 371). In the Zulu context, scarification was done as a personal choice and is indicative of adolescence (Armstrong, et al., 2008). It has also been postulated that amasumpa can be likened to groundnuts. This is rather probable, seeing as another type of decoration, amaphule (ploughs), are representative of the fields that women tend (Armstrong, et al., 2008, p. 538). Essentially this is the embodied expression of female fertility. Fields of crops are planted with seed, which is likened to sex and pregnancy. Groundnuts are a special kind of crop, both because they resemble the male teste and because they grow underground (the realm of the ancestors) (Armstrong, et al., 2008, pp. 537-538). Men must be careful and as such show hloniphe to these fields, as walking over them can damage their fertility.
Figure 3 (left): “Pot from Hlabisa with amasumpa. Made in the 1970s or 1980s by Annie Sishwile (Jolles 2005: 128).” Taken from CITATION Jul08 \p 530 \l 7177 (Armstrong, et al., 2008, p. 530)
Figure 4 (right): : “Potter making amapuluho amasumpa, Entumeni area near Melmoth, 1994.” (Armstrong, et al., 2008, p. 535)
If amasumpa and other decorations on beer pots are understood in the same context as the Mafa and Bulahay as ritual healing and protection, the positioning of the decorations around the waist of the pot may signify protection of female fertility, the womb, and explicitly, the beer inside the pot. There are many theories surrounding the decoration of ukhamba, however all of them are concerned with the representation of the female and female productive and creative capacity. Women’s creative and productive energies form part of the second fundamental philosophy that underlies Zulu beliefs about fertility and pollution. This is the philosophy of thermodynamics; understanding the world in terms of temperature or energy relations. In this relationship, hot and cold, heat and coolness are almost in opposition to one another (Gosselain, 1999). Heat is as a creative energy, which also creates ‘pollution’. If pollution is uncontrolled or not cleansed, it can lead to certain types of sickness if it is not guarded against or contained (Berglund, 1989). Heat is found in fires and the furnaces used to smelt iron and fire pots. Furnaces are created in the image of a woman’s womb. In the same way, heat is associated with pregnancy, giving birth and menstruation (Gosselain, 1999). The process of making a fire is akin to having sex, with two sticks being rubbed together to create ‘heat’ thus creating a ‘flame child’ (Gosselain, 1999). Most ‘creative processes’ – making pots, having sex, brewing beer, menstruation – are all associated with ‘heat’ (Gosselain, 1999). Heat is the energy of the ancestors, who are also said to reside around the hip region, and create sexual arousal and desire within both men and women (Berglund, 1989, pp. 253-254). Heat is best described as ones terminal desires for food, sex or beer (Berglund, 1989, p. 254). Thus heat manifests in material items as the colour red, in blood, fire, fermentation and drunkenness. The ancestors both create and enjoy heat and thus beer. However, if it is uncontrolled sickness or misfortune may arise. A person who is unable to control their ‘heat’ loses the respect of others. Similarly, a person who drinks beer alone is one who is unable to control their heat or desire for beer, and is called a thief.
Coolness or the cold is the control of heat. Cold tempers the desires and energy created by heat. The ancestors are found in cold places, such as rivers or caves, shadows or the umswalo in a hut (Berglund, 1989). Where heat is creative and potentially destructive energy, cold is associated with calmness and focus. Before a ritual slaughter, a butcher cannot have sex or eat meat because of the heat present in the processes. Instead he must abstain, in order to focus on the task set to him (Berglund, 1989, p. 223). The same is true of ritual practitioners or smelters (see the chapter on furnaces). In the same way, women cannot brew beer or fire a pot the day after having sex, when they are menstruating or pregnant. This is because their heat has the potential to offend the ancestors, curdle and make horrible beer or cause the failure of the pot. The cold and darkness is associated with the darkness and the ancestors and diviners will use a special dark cloth to create a shadow when casting bones (Berglund, 1989, p. 176). This shadow, protects and invokes the presence of the ancestors in the bones. Coolness also is associated with semen. This is significant because not only are the ancestors associated with coolness, but semen allows the male family lineage to continue. Thus the links between the ancestors, men, and the patrilineal lineage (as mentioned earlier when discussing the beer drink ceremony) are enforced.
The second major decorative element on ukhamba is their blackened exterior. This is a very difficult thing to make and requires the second firing of the pot as well as several hours of burnishing the pot with a small pebble to give it, its sheen. At this point it is important to bring in a final factor regarding beer pots; their historical context. Although sharing and drinking beer with the ancestors is a long held tradition, the use of blackened ceramic pots for drinking beer only really started in the early nineteenth century (Jolles, 2005). During this period, the Zulu nation experienced several natural disasters, from a cattle endemic to the failure of crops because of drought. On top of this, was the growing power of the local colonial authorities who began to impose ‘hut taxes’ in order to force people into the cash economy. Many people were dispossessed because of these factors, as well as forced removals into ‘ethnic reserves’ (Jolles, 2005).The drinking of beer became outlawed, and many other practices (such as belief in the ancestors) were banned by the colonial authorities. This was a time of emotional turmoil and chaos for most black South Africans, including the Zulus. Beer pots were thus created as a representation of security and a sort of psychological totem (Jolles, 2005). Ceramics are more permanent than beer baskets, and the black exterior of the pots welcomes the ancestors to drink beer and sit with their relatives.
The use of ceramics is also however indicative of a shift in the gender dynamics in Zulu society. Colonial migrant labour systems meant that men had to leave home in the rural areas to go and work on farms or in the mines (Jolles, 2005). As such most social processes were left to the supervision of women. Communion with the ancestors was thus moved into the domain of ceramics. In the present day, ceramics are still used in ceremonies that involve the ancestors, with ceramics still being produced by women. The potters who make ukhamamba have also found a niche in the market for both traditional customers and tourists or art dealers (Wyk & Sithole, 2007). Thus, while the traditional significance of these pots is less emphasised, they persist in other contexts. What has also diversified is the gendered division of labour. While it is still mostly women who make pots, men, such as the artist Clive Sithole (who was inspired by the female potter who started the trend of selling pots as art, Nesta Nala) have started making and selling Zulu beer pots as a form of art (Wyk & Sithole, 2007).
To summarise and conclude, let’s again consider a beer drink ceremony. The order in which beer is drunk is informed by hloniphe, and who is closest to the ancestors is accorded the most respect. The pots are black, and welcome the ancestors to partake in the beer. The beer is white, which is both the colour of the ancestors and male semen, thus embodying the concepts of male fertility and the male lineage. But wait. The pots are held around the waist, made easier by the amaphule or amasumpa on the pot. This reminds the people at the drink that it is women who tend the fields, the very same fields that would have yielded the sorghum for the beer. The beer itself is slightly alcoholic, and the fermentation process in the creation of beer are representative of heat and the creative energy and fertility of women. The pots themselves are made by women, and their process of being fired is akin to making and giving birth to a child. Both what goes into the pots and the pots themselves were created by women. The fermented beer that goes into a pot is the same as semen in the womb, and the invocation ‘or bringing to life’ of the ancestors through drinking beer can be likened to giving birth, paying respect and feeding the ancestors. Zulu society is patriarchally oriented, however this may be said to occur in ‘high visibility’ or public zones of society; beer drinks, lobola ceremonies or ritual slaughters (Berglund, 1989 and Beck, et al., 2016). The private ‘low visibility’ essentially behind the scenes sphere of society is both controlled and almost dominated by women’s labour (Beck, et al., 2016).
So what is in a pot? In a vessel as small as the Zulu ukhambha, is a means of ritual and spiritual communication. A pot is a way to communicate to both the ancestors and one’s societal and social situation. Ukhamba are a sign of the struggle and security against colonial control in the nineteenth century, a symbol of gender dynamics in society, a representation of female creative power and a means of social ordering. You can also drink beer out of them. Despite the introduction and new containers for drinking, the Zulu pots have continued to survive and have even found new life in the modern art world. Although the Zulu way of life has been eroded, traditions such as the spirit of ubuntu and the guidance of the ancestors are still important. ‘So why pots?’ - as summed up by Fowler (2006, pp. 113) “beer is still a food, not a beverage. It is inappropriate to seek guidance from your ancestors or to bond with strangers, friends or family without sharing food. When such things are no longer important in Zulu society, only then may pottery cease to be made.”
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Fowler, K. D., 2006. Classification and collapse: the ethnohistory of Zulu ceramic use. Southern African Humanities, 18(2), pp. 93-117.
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Menkiti, I., 1984. Person and Community in African Traditional Thought . In: R. A. Wright, ed. African Philosophy: An Introduction . Lanham: University Press of America, pp. 171-181.
Wyk, G. v. & Sithole, C., 2007. Interview with Clive Sithole. African Arts, 40(1), pp. 71-73.