“the cow’s function is to connect, to bridge, to invoke. Cows exist in a liminal space between the human and the divine, the physical and the spiritual, the alive and the ancestors, the worldly and the universal.’’ – Uhuru Phalafala
On 8 April 2016 Mail & Guardian published an article by Kwanele Sosibo called “Cows: the sacred and the profane” which describes the significance of the cow in South Africa’s complex history and its subsequent present. He stresses that before we look at this significance we need to understand the cow’s function as something other than food.
The article, and especially the paragraph describing that a cow is not an animal magically resonates with our inspiration for Flying Cows of Jozi, which is why we republish that part of the article below. For the full article and credits please click here.
“The cow is not an animal
In the Setswana-speaking part of the African world, the bovine is referred to as “God with the wet nose”. It’s a crucial conflation of the cow with notions of the divine. It underscores cattle as hallowed beasts of providence.
In Sepedi belief systems, according to PhD candidate Uhuru Phalafala, “the cow’s function is to connect, to bridge, to invoke. Cows exist in a liminal space between the human and the divine, the physical and the spiritual, the alive and the ancestors, the worldly and the universal.’’
In beliefs that have survived but evolved through the ages, despite colonial interruption and erosion, cows are not classified as animals in many Southern African cultures. Beyond their significance as physical symbols of material wealth, cattle are the repository of memory and history. They are the principal offering in funerary rituals concerning ancestors.
It is their location in both the mundane and in such spiritual rites that they also emerge as subjects of song, idioms and myths. Take the Xhosa, for instance: if the offered bull does not bellow during the preparatory ritual for sacrificial slaughter, the sacrifice cannot continue. If it does, they exclaim: “Icamaku livumile [The ancestors are willing!]” Then the sacrifice can continue.
It is crucial, therefore, that before we attempt the difficult task of expounding on the significance of the cow in South Africa’s complex history and its subsequent present, we understand the full spectrum of its functions as something other than food.”
Image: Taken at Bridge Books, showing a page from Cattle of the Ages by Cyril Ramaphosa and Daniel Naudé