oa Alternation - Ritual cleansing, incense and the tree of life - observations on some indigenous plant usage in traditional Zulu and Xhosa purification and burial rites

Volume 14, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1023-1757



Purification procedures involving plants during rites of passage have been a widespread phenomenon in many cultures through the ages. Relics of such practises from biblical times are still to be found in present day transition-marking ceremonies such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals, which may be marked by the use of white flowers or the burning of incense. Although their underlying significance may often be forgotten in Western society, in rural Africa there is a great awareness of the mystical forces of pollution and danger that need to be overcome to ensure safe passage during such times of transition. The anthropologist Arnold van Gennep observed in 1908 that in rites of passage three consecutive phases could be perceived (Van Gennep 1960). These phases are separation, transition and incorporation and while not all of them are apparent to the same extent in every rite, the perception is still a useful guide to our understanding of the processes involved. The pattern may be clearly seen in African circumcision and healer graduation ceremonies where the candidates are required to live in the bush, away from their families, for a length of time before the ceremony, then to undergo various rites before incorporation into a recognised age or professional group.

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