Religious Belief System of the Khoisans

by Christina Strynatka

The religious belief systems of the Khoisan, a group of people in South Africa, have five common elements. According to David Chidester, Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Cape Town, the elements are a high god, a destructive god, a trickster figure, transmigration of the souls of the dead and lunar importance. Christianity also plays a role in Khoisan religious belief systems.

Christianity

After the Khoisan were defeated in the third Cape Frontier War (1799-1801), they were receptive to the messages of Christian missionaries who promised them God would help those who felt oppressed. The Khoisan people also felt that converting to Christianity would help rebuild their depressed economy, and it did so on a large scale. The new Khoisan Christians also acted more like loyal colonial citizens because it enhanced their reputations as spiritually and economically redeemed in the eyes of British humanitarian evangelicals.

The High God

In everyday activities, the Khoisan believe that one deity is the supreme creator and maintainer of life and earthly elements. This supreme god is a good one and its goodness is the focus of rituals and sacrifices. For the Khoikhoi branch of Khoisan people, their supreme god is called Tsui-//goab and is a wise, powerful and omnipresent god. San, the other Khoisan branch, claims Cagn as their supreme god; their deity possesses many of the same characteristics as Tsui-//goab with one notable difference being an expectation of immortality. To worship Cagn, San Khoisan regularly dance all night in worship under full moons.

The Destructive God

The religion of Khoisan employs a duality: for every worshiper's belief in a particular high god, there is a converse evil god who is responsible for evil, war, sickness and death. For the Khoikhoi, this destructive god is called //Gaunab. The personality traits of evil and supremacy are combined into one god for the San -- Cagn -- who also takes on the role of trickster. For the San Khoisan to guard against the destructive side of Cagn, they often engage in trance dances, which trigger a supernatural and healing potency called n/um. N/um is used to heal the sick and dying, and its presence is noted when dancers experience heat in their stomachs and altered states of consciousness.

The Trickster Figure

One of the three facets of Cagn's personality is that he is a trickster as well as a creator and destroyer, resulting in a sometimes mischievous or stupid deity. The Khoikhoi have a separate deity for their trickster figure and call it Heitsi-Eibib. This figure also employs the duality present in Khoisan religious belief systems by maintaining ambiguity between good and evil, and shape-shifting between creator and destroyer. At other times, Heitsi-Eibib also plays the role of rogue or prankster.

Dances and the Moon

One key tenet of Khoisan religious beliefs is their employment of dances. Some, like trance dances directed at Cagn, are used for medicinal purposes, and some are used for social bonding within the community. One dance is even used to symbolize life from conception to birth -- The Great Domba Dance. Dancing is used in many rituals of Khoisan worship such as that toward Tsui-//goab, the deity who is also associated with the sun and moon, although the Khoisan themselves do not specifically worship the moon.

Death and the Afterlife

Through dancing, the Khoisan people believe they can cross the bridge between the living and the dead to banish evil deities responsible for causing illness. They take part in these dances approximately once a month with the San Khoisan healers doing so for the added purpose of obtaining spiritual and medicinal knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible. However, when the topic of death arises, there is no one set belief that is shared by all Khoisan people. For example, some believe that the observation of a shooting star represents the imminent death of a member of the community, while others believe that it is not until a person dies that they become a star in the sky.

About the Author

Based primarily in Toronto, Christina Strynatka has been writing culture-related articles since 2003 with her work appearing in "Excalibur," "BallnRoll"and "Addicted Magazine." She holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Cognitive Science from York University.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images