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Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS Scholarly Communications & Copyright Librarian J. Willard Marriott Library University of Utah


from Psychopathology of Everyday Life
from Contributions to a Discussion on    Suicide
from Mourning and Melancholia
from The Psychogenesis of a Case of    Homosexuality in a Woman
from The Economic Problem of    Masochism


Freud was born in Freiberg in Mähren, in what is now Czechoslovakia. His intellectual gifts were apparent early on, and at 17, he entered the University of Vienna to study medicine. He published his first academic paper at 20 on neurology. In 1885, while studying with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, Freud began to perceive that mental illness might have entirely psychological origins apart from organic causes. These studies gave way to an interest in psychology, and in 1895, he co-published Studies in Hysteria with the physician Josef Breuer; hysteria, he believed, was the result of repressed desires. This work also introduced Freud’s notion of free association, a technique through which the psychoanalyst may uncover the hidden workings of the unconscious by allowing the patient to freely associate “random” thoughts in his or her mind. Perhaps Freud’s best known work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), analyzed the complexly symbolic and frequently sexually oriented operations underlying the process of dreaming. A controversial study of 1905, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, outlined his theories of infantile sexuality and the stages of human psychological and sexual development.

After initial ostracism by the Viennese medical community, the first International Psychoanalytical Congress of 1908 marked the beginning and recognition of the analytical movement in psychology. Freud’s many theories—including the Oedipus complex, the tripartite structure of the mind (ego, id, superego), as well as his speculations on the psychoanalytical aspects of myth, religion, and culture—underwent revision throughout his long life. His legacy includes the concepts of repression, defense mechanisms, “Freudian slips,” projection, and many others. His deterministic, anti-rational, and, some would say, pessimistic views of the importance of unconscious drives and instincts in human conduct radically altered the way people viewed the world and themselves. Despite a history of criticism and attempts to declare him obsolete, Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theory is still in use by practitioners worldwide, and it continues to influence such diverse fields as history, art, and sociology.

The selections presented here outline Freud’s views on suicide. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud argues for an unconscious drive for suicide and illustrates the human tendency to view self-inflicted injuries as unintentional. Indeed, according to Freudian death-instinct theory, suicide is the prototypal death. Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide (1910) contains Freud’s speculations on the causes of suicide in secondary schools. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924), Freud discusses how the dynamics among internal psychological forces can lead to self-destruction or punishment. By using a case study in The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920), Freud argues that suicide stems from infantile fantasies. He does not, however, discuss suicide in the circumstances of painful and ultimately terminal illness, as in his own case.

In 1923, Freud was diagnosed with cancer of the palate. The growth was removed but recurred, and during the 16 years between diagnosis and death, he underwent over 30 operations, as well as repeated fittings, cleanings, and refittings of a prosthesis for his jaw. He retrained himself to speak, but his voice never recovered its clarity. When the Nazis came to power, he considered exile, but resisted it until the occupation of Vienna in spring l938. During that spring, over 500 Austrian Jews committed suicide, but Freud rejected the idea even when it was raised by his daughter Anna. In June 1938, he fled to London, where he had further surgery, but by August, the pain was severe and the smell from his ulcerated cancer so foul, it was reported, that his pet dog would cringe from him. Freud had long had an agreement with his physician Max Schur, also in exile in London, that Schur would help him end his life when the cancer had progressed too far, and on September 21, 1939, Schur injected Freud with morphine, followed by further injections the following day; Freud died on September 23.

Sigmund Freud, Ch. 8:Erroneously Carried Out Actions.” (1901)from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,  ed. and tr. A. A. Brill (1914).  Online at , pp. 198-206.
“Contributions to a Discussion on Suicide,” Vol. 11, 1957,  pp. 231-32; “Mourning and Melancholia,” Vol. 14, 1957, pp. 250-52; “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” Vol. 18, 1955, pp. 160-163; “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Vol. 19, 1961, pp. 168-70, all from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  ed. and tr. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953-74).



It is known that in the more serious cases of psychoneuroses one sometimes finds self-mutilations as symptoms of the disease. That the psychic conflict may end in suicide can never be excluded in these cases. Thus, I know from experience, which some day I shall support with convincing examples, that many apparently accidental injuries happening to such patients are really self-inflicted. This is brought about by the fact that there is a constantly lurking tendency to self-punishment, usually expressing itself in self-reproach, or contributing to the formation of a symptom, which skillfully makes use of an external situation. The required external situation my accidentally present itself or the punishment tendency may assist it until the way is open for the desired injurious effect.

Such occurrences are by no means rare even in cases of moderate severity, and they betray the portions of unconscious intention through a series of special features—for example, through the striking presence of mind which the patients show in the pretended accidents:

One of my boys, whose vivacious temperament was wont to put difficulties in the management of nursing him in his illness, had a fit of anger one morning because he was ordered to remain in bed during the forenoon, and threatened to kill himself: a way out suggested to him by the newspapers. In the evening, he showed me a swelling on the side of his chest which was the result of bumping against the door knob. To my ironical question why he did it, and what he meant by it, the eleven-year-old child explained, “That was my attempt at suicide which I threatened this morning.” However, I do not believe that my views on self-inflicted wounds were accessible to my children at that time.

Whoever believes in the occurrence of semi-intentional self-inflicted injury—if this awkward expression be permitted—will become prepared to accept through it the fact that aside from conscious intentional suicide, there also exists semi-intentional annihilation—with unconscious intention—which is capable of aptly utilizing a threat against life and masking it as a casual mishap. Such mechanisms are by no means rare. For the tendency to self-destruction exists to a certain degree in many more persons than in those who bring it to completion. Self-inflicted injuries are, as a rule, a compromise between this impulse and the forces working against it, and even where it really comes to suicide, the inclination has existed for a long time with less strength or as an unconscious and repressed tendency.

Even suicide consciously committed chooses its time, means and opportunity; it is quite natural that unconscious suicide should wait for a motive to take upon itself one part of the causation and thus free it from its oppression by taking up the defensive forces of the person. These are in no way idle discussions which I here bring up; more than one case of apparently accidental misfortune has become known to me whose surrounding circumstances justified the suspicion of suicide.

For example, during an officers’ horse-race one of the riders fell from his horse and was so seriously injured that a few days later he succumbed to his injuries. His behavior after regaining consciousness was remarkable in more than one way, and his conduct previous to the accident was still more remarkable. He had been greatly depressed by the death of his beloved mother, had crying spells in the society of his comrades, and to his trusted friend had spoken of the taedium vitae. He had wished to quit the service in order to take part in a war in Africa which had no interest for him. Formerly a keen rider, he had later evaded riding whenever possible. Finally, before the horse-race, from which he could not withdraw, he expressed a sad foreboding; in the light of our conception, it is not surprising that his premonition came true. It may be contended that it is quite comprehensible without any further cause that a person in such a state of nervous depression cannot manage a horse as well as on normal days. I quite agree with that, only I should like to look for the mechanism of this motor inhibition through “nervousness” in the intention of self-destruction here emphasized.

Another analysis of an apparently accidental self-inflicted wound, detailed to me by an observer, recalls the saying, “He who digs a pit for others falls in himself.”



I.  Introductory Remarks

Gentlemen,—You have all listened with much satisfaction to the plea put forward by an educationalist who will not allow an unjustified charge to be levelled against the institution that  is so dear to him.  But I know that in any case you were not inclined to give easy credence to the accusation that schools drive their pupils to suicide.  Do not let us be carried too far, however, by our sympathy with the party which has been unjustly treated in this instance.  Not all the arguments put forward by the opener of the discussion seem to me to hold water.  If it is the case that youthful suicide occurs not only among pupils in secondary schools but also among apprentices and others, this fact does not acquit the secondary schools; it must perhaps be interpreted as meaning that as regards its pupils the secondary school takes the place of the traumas with which other adolescents meet in other walks of life.  But a secondary school should achieve more than not driving its pupils to suicide.  It should give them a desire to live and should offer them support and backing at a time of life at which the conditions of their development compel them to relax their ties with their parental home and their family.  It seems to me indisputable that schools fail in this, and in many respects fall short of their duty of providing a substitute for the family and of arousing interest in life in the world outside.  This is not a suitable occasion for a criticism of secondary schools in their present shape; but perhaps I may emphasize a single point.  The school must never forget that it has to deal with immature individuals who cannot be denied a right to linger at certain stages of development and even at certain disagreeable ones.  The school must not take on itself the inexorable character of life: it must not seek to be more than a game of life.

II.  Concluding Remarks

Gentlemen,—I have an impression that, in spite of all the valuable material that has been brought before us in this discussion, we have not reached a decision on the problem that interests us.  We were anxious above all to know how it becomes possible for the extraordinarily powerful life instinct to be overcome: whether this can only come about with the help of a disappointed libido or whether the ego can renounce its self-preservation for its own egoistic motives.  It may be that we have failed to answer this psychological question because we have no adequate means of approaching it.  We can, I think, only take as our starting-point the condition of melancholia, which is so familiar to us clinically, and a comparison between it and the affect of mourning.  The affective processes in melancholia, however, and the vicissitudes undergone by the libido in that condition, are totally unknown to us.  Nor have we arrived at a psycho-analytic understanding of the chronic affect of mourning.  Let us suspend our judgement till experience has solved this problem.



Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism.  It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning.  The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open.  Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.  These obsessional states of depression following upon death of a loved person show us what the conflict due to ambivalence can achieve by itself when there is no regressive drawing-in of libido as well.  In melancholia, the occasions which give rise to the illness extend for the most part beyond the clear case of a loss by death, and include all those situations of being slighted, neglected or disappointed, which can import opposed feelings of love and hate into the relationship or reinforce an already existing ambivalence.  This conflict due to ambivalence, which sometimes arises more from real experiences, sometimes more from constitutional factors, must not be overlooked among the preconditions of melancholia.  If the love for the object—a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up—takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering.  The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self in the ways we have been discussing.  In both disorders the patients usually still succeed, by the circuitous path of self punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to him openly.  After all, the person who has occasioned the patient’s emotional disorder, and on whom his illness is centred, is usually to be found in his immediate environment.  The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism, which is nearer to that conflict.

It is this sadism alone that solves the riddle of the tendency to suicide which makes melancholia so interesting—and so dangerous. So immense is the ego’s self-love, which we have come to recognize as the primal state from which instinctual life proceeds, and so vast is the amount of narcissistic libido which we see liberated in the fear that emerges at a threat to life, that we cannot conceive how that ego can consent to its own destruction. We have long known, it is true, that no neurotic harbours thoughts of suicide which he has not turned back upon himself from murderous impulses against others, but we have never been able to explain what interplay of forces can carry such a purpose through to execution. The analysis of melancholia now shows that the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object—if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which relates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. Thus in regression from narcissistic object-choice the object has, it is true, been got rid of, but it has nevertheless proved more powerful than the ego itself.  In the two opposed situations of being most intensely in love and of suicide the ego is overwhelmed by the object, though in totally different ways.



We are led into quite another realm of explanation by the analysis of the attempt at suicide, which I must regard as seriously intended, and which, incidentally, considerably improved her position both with her parents and with the lady she loved.  She went for a walk with her one day in a part of the town and at an hour at which she was not unlikely to meet her father on his way from his office.  So it turned out.  Her father passed them in the street and cast a furious look at her and her companion, about whom he had by that time come to know.  A few moments later she flung herself into the railway cutting.  The explanation she gave of the immediate reasons determining her decision sounded quite plausible.  She had confessed to the lady that the man who had given them such an irate glance was her father, and that he had absolutely forbidden their friendship.  The lady became incensed at this and ordered the girl to leave her then and there, and never again to wait for her or to address her—the affair must now come to an end.  In her despair at having thus lost her loved one for ever, she wanted to put an end to herself.  The analysis, however, was able to disclose another and deeper interpretation behind the one she gave, which was confirmed by the evidence of her own dreams.  The attempted suicide was, as might have been expected, determined by two other motives besides the one she gave: it was the fulfilment of a punishment (self-punishment), and the fulfilment of a wish.  As the latter it meant the attainment of the very wish which, when frustrated, had driven her into homosexuality—namely, the wish to have a child by her father, for now she ‘fell’ through her father’s fault. The fact that at that moment the lady had spoken in just the same terms as her father, and had uttered the same prohibition, forms the connecting link between this deep interpretation and the superficial one of which the girl herself was conscious.  From the point of view of self-punishment the girl’s action shows us that she had developed in her unconscious strong death-wishes against one or other of her parents—perhaps against her father, out of revenge for impeding her love, but more probably against her mother too, when she was pregnant with the little brother.  For analysis has explained the enigma of suicide in the following way: probably no one finds the mental energy required to kill himself unless, in the first place, in doing so he is at the same time killing an object with whom he has identified himself, and, in the second place, is turning against himself a death-wish which had been directed against someone else.  Nor need the regular discovery of these unconscious death-wishes in those who have attempted suicide surprise us (any more than it ought to make us think that it confirms our deductions), since the unconscious of all human beings is full enough of such death-wishes, even against those they love.  Since the girl identified herself with her mother, who should have died at the birth of the child denied to herself, this punishment-fulfilment itself was once again a wish-fulfilment.  Finally, the discovery that several quite different motives, all of great strength, must have co-operated to make such a deed possible is only in accordance with what we should expect.



After these preliminaries we can return to our consideration of moral masochism. We have said that, by their behaviour during treatment and in life, the individuals in question give an impression of being morally inhibited to an excessive degree, of being under the domination of an especially sensitive conscience, although they are not conscious of any of this ultra-morality. On closer inspection, we can see the difference there is between an unconscious extension of morality of this kind and moral masochism. In the former, the accent falls on the heightened sadism of the super-ego to which the ego submits; in the latter, it falls on the ego’s own masochism which seeks punishment, whether from the super-ego or from the parental powers outside. We may be forgiven for having confused the two to begin with; for in both cases it is a question of a relationship between the ego and the super-ego (or powers that are equivalent to it), and in both cases what is involved is a need which is satisfied by punishment and suffering. It can hardly be an insignificant detail, then, that the sadism of the super-ego becomes for the most part glaringly conscious, whereas the masochistic trend of the ego remains as a rule concealed from the subject and has to be inferred from his behaviour.

The fact that moral masochism is unconscious leads us to an obvious clue. We were able to translate the expression ‘unconscious sense of guilt’ as meaning a need for punishment at the hands of a parental power. We now know that the wish, which so frequently appears in phantasies, to be beaten by the father stands very close to the other wish, to have a passive (feminine) sexual relation to him and is only a regressive distortion of it. If we insert this explanation into the content of moral masochism, its hidden meaning becomes clear to us. Conscience and morality have arisen through the overcoming, the desexualization, of the Oedipus complex; but through moral masochism morality becomes sexualized once more, the Oedipus complex is revived and the way is opened for a regression from morality to the Oedipus complex. This is to the advantage neither of morality nor of the person concerned. An individual may, it is true, have preserved the whole or some measure of ethical sense alongside of his masochism; but, alternatively, a large part of his conscience may have vanished into his masochism. Again, masochism creates a temptation to perform ‘sinful’ actions, which may then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience (as is exemplified in so many Russian character-types) or by chastisement from the great parental power of Destiny. In order to provoke punishment from this last representative of the parents, the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects which open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence.

The turning back of sadism against the self regularly occurs where a cultural suppression of the instincts holds back a large part of the subject’s destructive instinctual components from being exercised in life. We may suppose that this portion of the destructive instinct which has retreated appears in the ego as an intensification of masochism. The phenomena of conscience, however, lead us to infer that the destructiveness which returns from the external world is also taken up by the super-ego, without any such transformation, and increases its sadism against the ego. The sadism of the super-ego and the masochism of the ego supplement each other and unite to produce the same effects. It is only in this way, I think, that we can understand how the suppression of an instinct can – frequently or quite generally – result in a sense of guilt and how a person’s conscience becomes more severe and more sensitive the more he refrains from aggression against others. One might expect that if a man knows that he is in the habit of avoiding the commission of acts of aggression that are undesirable from a cultural standpoint he will for that reason have a good conscience and will watch over his ego less suspiciously. The situation is usually presented as though ethical requirements were the primary thing and the renunciation of instinct followed from them. This leaves the origin of the ethical sense unexplained. Actually, it seems to be the other way about. The first instinctual renunciation is enforced by external powers, and it is only this which creates the ethical sense, which expresses itself in conscience and demands a further renunciation of instinct.

Thus moral masochism becomes a classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instinct. Its danger lies in the fact that it originates from the death instinct and corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction. But since, on the other hand, it has the significance of an erotic component, even the subject’s destruction of himself cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction.

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Filed under Freud, Sigmund, Psychiatry, Selections, The Modern Era

(c. 1889)

The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself


This anonymous selection was originally published in the Methodist Church Missionary Society’s magazine The Gospel in All Lands in April of 1889. Little is known about its author or its exact date of composition, except that the author, “a widow herself,” identifies herself as a member of the Kayastha caste, living in the Punjab. The caste is a community of scribes, highly educated and historically very influential, and of well-to-do economic status.

Sati or suttee, as the British called it, also known as widow-burning, in which the new widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was practice with apparent antecedents as far back as the 5th century A.D. or even earlier [q.v., Vedas]. The practice has never been universal among Hindus, and it does not always involve fire: for instance, the Bengali Jogi weaver caste and the Jasnathi caste in Rajasthan buried the wife alive with her husband. Sati stones or grave markers often served as sites of veneration, and were known throughout India by the 10th century. Rulers during the Mughal period attempted to suppress the practice but without lasting success, and it reached the greatest rates of frequency in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1813, the British East India Company recognized the legitimacy of sati as long as it was based on the widow’s “consent,” not coercion. Between 1813 and 1828, the period during which the British collected statistics on sati, approximately 8,000 widows were burnt. The practice was banned by the Bengal presidency in 1829 and upheld by the British Privy Council in 1832; statistics were not kept after that time, though the decree affected only some areas of India and that portion of the population where British rule was in sway. In 1856, the law was also amended to allow widows to remarry, but the Social Reform Movement found that traditional custom could not be undone overnight and that opposition to the continuing practice of sati was necessary. Although it is now illegal to attempt to commit sati or to glorify or abet it, it still occasionally occurs in rural areas of India.

“The Plight of Hindu Widows” is a distinctly graphic and disturbing account arising from the body of literature written in the second half of the 19th century focusing on the issue of widow remarriage and with it the question of women’s rights in India; it is significant in that it presents a view of sati not from the vantage point of European male observers, who were almost universally unsympathetic and disapproving (though often fascinated by the beauty of the doomed wife), but from that of an Indian woman who could have undergone sati herself.

Sati is sometimes conceptualized as a form of suicide, sometimes as a form of social murder. Earlier treatments of sati in Hindu literature had sometimes romanticized it (e.g., in Bana’s Harsha-Carita [q.v.], where the queen’s death is portrayed as a devout and fully voluntary choice against the opposition of her son, a religiously inspired act of devotion to her dead husband in the expectation of reward and reunion in the afterlife, though Bana was himself opposed to the practice). In popular belief, it is claimed, sati is said to be painless and will remove the sins of seven generations in a woman’s family, and she will not be reborn as a woman. In “The Plight of Hindu Widows,” in contrast, the practice of sati is seen by its widow author as an unwelcome alternative, though still preferable to the vicious social treatment experienced by widows, a treatment that she describes as a lifelong, slow death compared to sati’s quick but cruel death. Thus a widow might knowingly, even voluntarily, choose death by sati rather than the life that would otherwise await her after the death of her husband, even though the alleged voluntariness of her choice is severely compromised by oppressive social circumstances.

Anonymous, “The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself,” Methodist Church Missionary Society, The Gospel in All Lands, 1889, pp. 160-162, tr. Maya Pandit, in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Centuryeds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991), pp. 358–363. Material in introduction also from Lata Mani, “Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts: Reading Eyewitness Accounts of Widow Burning,” from Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1992, Ch. 22, pp. 392–408; and Christine Everaert.



There are four major castes among the Hindus and I was born into the caste known as Kayastha, which is the third in the hierarchy and most infamous for its maltreatment of widows.

Widows anywhere have to suffer, but the customs in our caste are too terrible. The people in the Punjab don’t treat their widows so strictly. But we do not belong to the Punjab. Originally we migrated from the northwest and settled there. And since ours is a well-to-do, why, even wealthy, caste, our regulations in this regard are extremely strict.

Once the husband dies, the torture of his wife begins, as if the messengers of the death god Yama themselves have come to take away her soul. None of her relatives will touch her to take her ornaments off her body. That task is assigned to three women from the barber caste. Their number varies from three to six. No sooner does the husband breathe his last than those female fiends literally jump all over her and violently tear all the ornaments from her nose, ears, etc. In that rush, the delicate bones of the nose and ears are sometimes broken. Sometimes while plucking the ornaments from her hair, tufts of hair are also plucked off. If she is wearing any gold or silver ornaments, these cruel women never have the patience to take them off one by one; they pin her hands down on the ground and try to break the bangles with a large stone. And many a time her hands are severely wounded in the process. Why, these callous women torture even a six- or seven-year-old girl, who doesn’t even know what a husband means when she becomes a widow!

At such times grief crashes down on the poor woman from all sides. On the one hand she has to endure the grief of the husband’s death, and on the other hand, no one comes near her to console her. On the contrary, those who had loved her from her childhood, and had brought her up tenderly, even they shower curses on her. In our caste, it is the custom that all the women accompany men when the corpse is carried for cremation. Everyone has to walk even though they are wealthy and have carriages. The menfolk walk in front and women follow them, clad in veils. And the poor widow follows them all. She is supported by the barber women. There has to be a distance of two hundred feet between her and the rest of the women because it is believed by our people that if her shadow falls over a married woman, she too will become a widow. It doesn’t affect the barber women, who torture her, however, in the same fashion. Because of this stupid superstition, even a relative whose heart melts at the sight of her doesn’t dare to look at her. But people are not satisfied even when they have tortured her so much. They brand her heart further as if with red-hot irons. Several men keep on shouting in that procession, asking people to stay away from her, and the barber women literally drag her along throughout the walk.

The place for cremation is usually on the bank of a river or a lake. When the procession reaches the site, the widow is pushed into the water. She has to lie there till the corpse is burned to ashes and all the people have had their bath and dried their clothes. When people are ready to go home, they pull her out of the water. Whether the water is cold as ice or the sun scorches down fiercely, she has to stay there until everyone has finished. Nobody takes pity on her. Even on the way back home, she is dragged along throughout. Because of such things, women prefer to burn themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. If the poor woman falls ill on such occasions, nobody even thinks of giving her medicine.

Once, before I became a widow myself, I had been in one such funeral procession. The place of cremation was nearly six miles away. It was summer. It was three o’clock in the afternoon by the time we reached home after having completed all the rites. I will never forget how the scorching heat of the sun was literally burning us on our way. We used to halt at regular intervals to rest a while and drink water. But that poor widow did not dare to ask for water. Had she asked for it, she would have lost her honor. The women with her could have given her some, but they felt no pity for her. Finally she collapsed unconscious. But even then her torturers continued to drag her throughout the road. On top of it, they kept nagging at her, saying, “Are you the only widow in the world? What’s the point of weeping now! Your husband is gone forever!”

Later on, when this poor forsaken woman did not even have the strength to crawl, she was tied up into a bundle as if of rags, and then dragged off. This woman was one of our relatives; but none of us dared go anywhere near her. Had anyone done so, she would have been showered with curses. But even then, one woman somehow managed to take her water in a glass. On seeing her the widow ran to her like a wild beast. I cannot even bear to describe her behavior then. First of all, she gulped down the water, which revived her a bit. Then she fell at the feet of the woman who had given her the water and said, “Sister, I’ll never forget what you have done for me. You are like a god to me. You have given my life back to me. But please go away quickly. If anybody comes to know of what you have done, both of us will have to pay for it. I, at least, will not let this out.”

It is the custom that a widow should eat only once a day for a year after her husband’s death; apart from that, she also has to fast completely on several days. Other relatives also eat only once a day. But only for fifteen days. After returning from the cremation ground, she has to sit on the ground in a corner, without changing her clothes, whether dry or wet. Nobody, apart from the barber women, visits her. If her own relatives are poor, even they don’t come to see her. She has to sit alone. Oh, cruel corner, all of us widows know you so thoroughly well. And we never remember you unless we are grieved.

A woman whose husband is dead is like a living corpse. She has no rights in the home. In spite of her grief, her relatives brand her with frightening words and gestures. Though she is all alone there and not allowed to speak to anyone, her relatives go to her and pierce her with sharp words. Her mother says, “What a mean creature! I don’t think there is anyone more vile than she. It would have been better if she were never born!” Her mother-in-law says, “This horrible snake bit my son and killed him. He died, but why is this worthless woman still alive?” There are even other widows among the women who speak cruelly to her! They feel that if they don’t speak so, people, and God too, would think that they actually pitied her. The sister-in-law says, “I will not cast even a glance at this luckless, ill-fated creature! I will not even speak a word to her.” Those who come to console the relatives of the dead say to the mother of the dead man, “Mother, this monstrous woman has ruined your house. She must be cursed. It’s only because of her that you have been thrown into the ocean of grief!” And to the widow they say, “Now, what do you want to live for?” If she wails aloud, they say, “What a shameless woman! How callous! She cries because she wants a husband.” Thus, she has to spend those thirteen days of grief in that alcove. What an unendurable state! No one can understand how painful it is unless she experiences it.

On the eleventh day, the brahmin comes. He comes like a policeman to arrest a convict. And then he authoritatively demands money or oil and so on. The widow has to pay him even if she is very poor; if she cannot pay immediately, she has to promise him that she will pay in future. Even if the widow is exceedingly poor, she has to pay at least thirteen rupees. Other brahmins demand other things. They demand more if the family is a rich one. Sometimes the widows have to work as servants doing household jobs, to earn money to pay these brahmins their dues.

Thus, there is nothing in our fate but suffering from birth to death. When our husbands are alive, we are their slaves; when they die, our fate is even worse.

The thirteenth day is the most fateful, the worst day for the widow. Though on this day she is allowed to change the clothes she has been wearing since her husband’s death and have a bath, people continue to condemn her. Her relatives gather around her and place some money before her. This is supposed to be for her keep. They curse her a million times while doing so. If the money gathered is a large sum, one of her relatives takes it into his possession and doles it out to her in small installments.

Then the brahmin comes again to demand money. The brahmin and the barber women have to be paid again when the widow’s head is shaved. After six weeks, she is again given the very clothes she had been wearing for the first thirteen days. When she sees those clothes again, she shudders from head to toe, as if she has been widowed again. Then she is sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Ganges, and those clothes are thrown into the river after she has taken a holy dip in it.

After one year, if the widow is staying with her parents, she may be allowed to wear some ornaments. If asked about the reason, the parents say, “How long can our daughter continue not wearing ornaments? How can we bear to see her sit like that before us, wearing none, when we ourselves wear so many?”

Those widows who have lost their parents, however, have a terrible fate. They have to remain as slaves to their brothers’ wives or even sons. People feel there is no need to employ a servant if there is a widow in the house. If the widow has a sister-in-law (her brother’s wife), she has to suffer harassment at her hands. They constantly quarrel. Her fate isn’t any different in her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law hate her and often beat her. If she decides to separate and live independently because of the frequent quarrels, her honor is maligned. If she has any children, she has to toil hard for their upkeep. And when they grow up and get married, she becomes a slave to their wives. If a widow does not have any children, her relatives make her adopt a male child. He becomes heir to her property. And when he grows up and gets married, he is ruled by his wife and provides his adopted mother only with food and clothing. The widow has no right whatsoever to any property she may have. In such a condition, it is better for her if she earns her own living by working for others as a domestic servant.

In our caste, a woman does not have a right over even a piece of her father’s property. It all goes to his relatives. Similarly, widows do not get a share in their husband’s property either. They can claim only that which someone is kind enough to offer them. If they get any cash, they know neither how to keep it safe nor how to spend it. If a woman dies when her husband is still alive, her body is decorated with ornaments and new clothes, and then cremated. But when a widow dies, her body is just wrapped up in plain white cloth and cremated. It is reasoned that if a widow goes to the other world in ornaments and new clothes, her husband will not accept her there.

Thousands of widows die after a husband’s death. But far more have to suffer worse fates throughout their life if they stay alive. Once, a widow who was a relative of mine died in front of me. She had fallen ill before her husband died. When he died, she was so weak that she could not even be dragged to her husband’s cremation. She had a burning fever. Then her mother-in-law dragged her down from the cot onto the ground and ordered the servant to pour bucketfuls of cold water over her. After some eight hours, she died. But nobody came to see how she was when she was dying of the cold. After she died, however, they started praising her, saying that she had died for the love of her husband.

Another woman jumped from the roof of her house and committed suicide when she heard that her husband had died away from home. I and many of her other friends knew that this woman had never gotten along well with her husband. They used to quarrel often. Yet people praised her for committing suicide. If all these tales are put together, it would make a large book. The British government put a ban on the custom of sati, but as a result of that several women who could have died a cruel but quick death when their husbands died now have to face an agonizingly slow death.

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#23 Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear

When a master of the fishing-spear has fallen sick and is becoming weak, he will call all his people and tell them to bring his whole camp (tribe or subtribe) to his home to bury him whilst he lives. His people will obey him quickly come, for if they delay and the master of the fishing-spear dies before they reach him, they will be most miserable…

[An informant relates…]

…I first saw a master of the fishing-spear called Deng Deng buried alive in the land of the Majok tribe across the river. I was only a boy…

The master of the fishing-spear Deng Deng was becoming very old, and when his years were finished and he was very old indeed, so that he could not see well and all his teeth had fallen out, he told his lineage that he wished to be buried alive, and that they should go and tell the people of the country and see if they agreed.

They prepared the ground for his burial at a very ancient cattle-camp site called Malwal, which was also hard by the homestead of Deng Deng and near his cattle-byre. So it was at his very own original home [panden nhom, literally ‘the head of his home’]. The clan which cleared and dug the ground was Padiangbar; it is that clan which buries a master of the fishing-spear alive in my country.

They dug a very big hole on the highest point of the cattle-camp site, in the middle of the cattle. Next to it were two bulls, a big white one and a red one. They were the whole beasts of the clan-divinities Mon Grass and Flesh. When the hole had been dug, they made two platforms [frameworks] of akoc wood, which had been fetched by the young men of Padiangbar from far away in the forest, as much as a day’s journey distant.

They worked for three days, and the old man was still above the ground. They honoured the bulls with songs for two days, speaking invocations each day in the morning and the evening. Then the masters of the fishing-spear of Pakedang, along with those of Paketoi and Pagong, slit the throats of the bulls at about 10 o’ clock. Deng Deng’s mother was the daughter of a woman of Paketoi and his mother’s father was of the clan Pagong. So they were all there together, to join together his father’s and his maternal uncle’s families (bi panerden mat kek pan e wun).

Deng Deng made invocations over the bulls, and the horns of the first bull, the white one, sank forwards to the ground. When the bull had been killed, they took its skin and cut it into strips, and made a bed from it on the framework. And every day they made a feast (cam yai) and danced inside the cattle-byre during the daytime, and outside at night. And men slept in the byre with other men’s wives, and everyone agreed to this [literally ‘and there was no bad word’].

They then placed a war-shield, made from the hide of a bull of the clan-divinity which had been killed in the past, on the top of the bed. It was a war-shield which had for long been kept in the byre, and which the people had anointed with butter every spring and autumn, during the ‘dividing months’. They placed Deng Deng on the shield and lowered him into the grave.

The red (brown) bull remained. When Deng Deng had been lowered into the hole, they made a platform over him, and so arranged it that the top of the platform was level with the surface of the ground. They sang hymns, and after the singing was finished they made an enclosure of dhot wood around the grave. The enclosure was about twice the area of the surface of the grave, and of such a height that a man could just see over it if he tried. Then they took cattle-dung and partly covered over the top of the grave, leaving part uncovered so that his voice could be heard. From his grave, Deng Deng called the older men together outside the enclosure, and all the women and children, even his own wives, were sent away…

While the master of the fishing-spear still speaks, they do not cover the grave with dung. But when he no longer replies when they address him, they heap up the dung over him. And when it has all sunk in, they make a shrine. Some people may then say ‘The master of the fishing-spear has died’, but they will usually say ‘The master has been taken into the earth’. And nobody will say ‘Alas, he is dead!’ They will say ‘It is very good.’…

The fundamental principle, clear in all accounts, is that certain masters of the fishing-spear must not or should not be seen to enter upon physical death and the debility which precedes it in the same way as ordinary men or domestic animals. Their deaths are to be, or are to appear, deliberate, and they are to be the occasion of a form of public celebration.

…the ceremonies described in no way prevent the ultimate recognition of the ageing and physical death of those for whom they are performed. This death is recognized; but it is the public experience of it, for the survivors, which is deliberately modified by the performance of these ceremonies. It is clear also that this is the Dinka intention in performing the rites. They do not think that they have made their masters of the fishing-spear personally immortal by burying them before they have become corpses or, in some accounts, by anticipating their deaths by ritual killing. The expressions used for the deaths of masters of the fishing-spear are euphemisms for an event which is fully admitted. In my experience they are not even inevitably used, though a Dinka would prefer to say gently ‘The master has gone to the earth’ or ‘The master has gone to sit’, rather than ‘The master has died’, particularly at the time of death. These euphemisms replace the involuntary and passive connotations of the ordinary verb for ‘to die’ (thou) by expressions suggesting a positive act. Similarly (though this point is not specifically made in any of the accounts) when we hear that the people ‘bury their master of the fishing-spear’ it is as an alternative to ‘letting him die’. In other words, the deliberately contrived death, though recognized as death, enables them to avoid admitting in this case the involuntary death which is the lot of ordinary men and beasts. Further, it is not the master of the fishing-spear who ‘kills’ himself, though he requests or receives a special form of death. The action to avoid, for him, the mere deprival of life which death represents for ordinary Dinka, is action taken by his people. And, as we see in most of the accounts given, their intention is not primarily to undertake the special ceremonies for his sake, but for their own.

[#23] Dinka: “Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear,” from Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 300-303, 313-314; quotations in introductory passage from 304, 309.

Additional Sources

Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298; of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996; see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1; concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27; concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54; quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78; quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993, p. 86. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti. London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303; and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.   Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim; quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982; James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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#22 The Folktale of The Four Truths


A man said to his wife, “I want you to arrange my hair in four parts.” The woman did as he directed. Then he went and sat under a tree and invited everybody to come and guess what each of the four parts stood for. Each person was to come with a cow-calf. The person who guessed correctly was to take all the cow-calves. He told his wife what the parts represented: “A wife is a stranger.” “A half brother from a stepmother is a stranger.” “A dog is a loyal friend.” “A mother’s brother is a loyal friend.”

People came and guessed, but no one guessed correctly. Many days passed, and no one guessed correctly. All that time the man remained under the tree. He did not work at home or in his fields.

The Government decided that he was a troublemaker; they decided that he would be hanged if anyone guessed correctly. The man was guarded by four policemen armed with guns.

One day a son of his half brother said to the man’s wife, “Why has Uncle abandoned his home? What is so important about this guessing game that it makes a man leave his wife and his home to sit under a tree?”

Then she said, “He is making much out of nothing. What he wants people to guess is very simple. His four truths are: ‘a wife is a stranger’; ‘a half brother from a stepmother is a stranger’; ‘a dog is a loyal friend’; and ‘a mother’s brother is a loyal friend.’ It is all very simple.”

The boy spent the night at his uncle’s home. In the morning he went and worked in the fields. Then he went and sat under the tree. People continued to guess while he listened. Eventually, he said, “Uncle, may I try?” “Of course you may,” said his uncle.

“Those four parts stand for: ‘a wife is a stranger;’ ‘a half brother from a stepmother is a stranger;’ ‘a dog is a loyal friend;’ and ‘a brother of your mother is a loyal friend.’ ”

His uncle looked down and said nothing. “Did he guess correctly?” asked one of the policemen. “Yes,” he answered.

The man was carried away to Headquarters. The Chief said that he would be executed the following day.

The man begged the Chief, “Please do not kill me before I pay my last visit to my family! Allow me to talk to my wife before I die.”

The Chief allowed him to go, guarded by four policemen. When he got to his house, he said to his wife, “My dear wife, what began as a game has destroyed me!”

“I do not want to hear anything now,” she said. “Who told you to do it? Leave me alone. Go to your death.”

“Won’t you at least give me some milk to drink?” he begged. “I am hungry!”

“No!” she said, “I will not give you milk. Why should I waste my milk on a dying man.”

So he went into the cattle-byre and cried. When the dogs saw him cry, they attacked the policemen, killing two of them. The dogs were then caught and killed.

The other two policemen took the prisoner back to the Chief. On the way, they met his half brother from a stepmother. The half brother said to him, “Brother, has that game really destroyed you? Are they really going to kill you?” “Yes, Brother,” he said, “they are going to kill me.”

“If you are really going to die, then Brother, it would be a terrible waste to go with that beautiful robe you are wearing. Would you please give it to me? I will give you this one to die in.”

“No!” the man said. “Keep your robe. I will die in my own robe.”

So they parted and continued their separate journeys. In the meantime, the man sent word to his sister’s son, saying “I am dying. Would at least one of you come and talk to me before I die?”

His sister had six sons. The youngest said he want to go alone. The eldest said he wanted to go alone. Each of the six wanted to go alone. The youngest said that unless he was allowed to go alone, he would kill himself. So he went. He ran and ran until close to dawn. When he arrived, he found his uncle had been taken to be hanged. He went to the policemen and said, “Let my uncle go; otherwise someone will die with him.”

The policemen said to him, “How can we let him go when the Chief has sentenced him to death?”

“Let us go back to the Chief and discuss the matter there,” he said.

When the policemen refused, the boy told them that if they proceeded with the execution they would be sure to lose one of their own.

The policemen hesitated and then decided to take the boy back to the Chief. When they got there, the boy offered to take his uncle’s place and be hanged in his place: “My uncle is an only son. He has no brothers to look after his things. My mother has six sons. I am the sixth. I can die, and the five brothers will take care of our things. Please, Chief, let my uncle live.”

The matter was debated and debated. Then the Chief turned to the prisoner and asked, “Why did you decide to play such a game?”

“I wanted to prove what has just happened,” the man said. “I gave the secret to my wife, and she gave it away to the only person who guessed correctly. When I went to talk to her before I was to die, she rebuked me. As I was about to be taken back, my dogs attacked the policemen and killed two of them. As I came back with the remaining two policemen, I met my half brother on the way. All he cared for was my beautiful robe. And now you have just seen what my nephew has done. That is what I wanted to prove.”

They saw what he meant. The Chief decided to pardon him without punishing the boy. So both the man and his nephew returned free and happy.

[#22] Dinka:  “The Folktale  of the Four Truths,” from Francis Mading Deng, Dinka Folktales: African Stories from the Sudan, New York and London: Africana Publishing, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1974, pp. 137-139.

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#21 The Ghost of a Suicide
     (John Roscoe, 1923)

Though there were certain spirits which were feared, there was no knowledge of a spirit-world or of any spirits created apart from this world: the people stood in constant awe only of disembodied spirits of men, the ghosts. When a man who possessed property died, his heir had to build him a shrine in the house near his own bed, and generally dedicated to him certain cows whose milk was daily offered at the shrine, this being the place where the ghost came to visit his family and to take his meal of the essence of the milk. The rest of the milk was then drunk by the owner of the house and those of his children who were unmarried and living at home. No outside person might partake, and even the man’s wife might not take any, for she was of a different clan. If the ghost was neglected or any member of the family did anything of which he did not approve, he would manifest his displeasure by causing illness or death among the people or the cattle. Powerful ghosts might also be persuaded by members of their families to cause illness to some person of another clan in revenge for some wrong. Sickness was always supposed to be caused either by ghosts or by magic; and a medicine-man had to be summoned to find out the cause by augury, for the treatment varied with the cause.

People who had no property and no power in this world were not generally feared when they became ghosts, for they were thought to have as little power then as before, and no steps were taken to keep their ghosts in good temper. The ghosts of some poor people, however, might be dangerous, owing to the circumstances of their death. For example, a sick man who came to beg for food and was refused might, should he die in the neighbourhood from want, cause some evil. If an epidemic broke out or someone fell ill shortly afterwards, the misfortune was attributed to this ghost and offerings were made to propitiate him.

The ghost of anyone who had been wrongfully accused and had committed suicide was very dangerous, even the ghost of a woman being feared under these circumstances. A woman who had been wrongfully accused of adultery would go and hang herself, and her ghost would then be a malignant influence. Her body was buried as near the place of her death as possible that the ghost might be destroyed or confined to that locality. If she hanged herself on a tree, the body was buried just clear of the roots, the tree was cut down and its roots were dug up; the whole was then burned to ashes and the relatives had to pay ample compensation to the chief on whose land the deed had been done.

[#21] Banyoro: “The Ghost of a Suicide,” from John Roscoe, The Bakitara or Banyoro, Cambridge:” At the University Press, 1923, pp. 41-42.

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#20 The Burial of a King
     (R. C. A. Samuelson, 1929)

When a king dies the fact is kept secret for quite three months, and people are simply told that Inkosi Iyadunguzela, “the king is ailing.” So soon as he is dead a black bull is killed and its hide wrapped round the king, all over, and he is sewn into it and as it dries tightens up. Many other bulls of the same colour are killed after this and their hides wrapped round, in turn, over the first one until the hide coffin of the king has become very large and heavy. Towards the end of the third month all the soldiers of the king are called up to where he is lying in state, without being told what for—when they have arrived then only it leaks out that the king is no more. Some of them are sent to cut branches of the Umbambangwe (a thorny bush), others are sent to cut branches of the Umklele bush (a very tough bush) for the purpose of a fence being made round the grave, some, with the household officers of the king, are set to dig and prepare the grave. All the soldiers come to this ceremony fully panoplied. The nobility, consisting of those who were members of his Executive, carry him to the grave—perfect silence is observed while he is being carried to the grave. The grave is a very large one, and a special niche in the side of the grave is cut out for placing his body in. His personal household servants, “Izinceku,” enter the grave and receive him and place him in his last resting place. All attire he has worn and articles he has used are buried with him, but laid a little distance away from him. The king’s favourite wife, an Inceku, “personal servant,” who used to wash his feet, and another Inceku, who used to eat what the king left, are, or used to be, buried alive with the king, sometimes they were killed and then buried. With some kings it is said that a wife holding a mat for making his bed, another holding a snuff-box with snuff, another holding a calabash with water for him to drink, were buried with him. King Mpande’s Prime Minister, Masipula, was arranging to have such women and men buried with King Mpande, when he was about to be buried, but King Cetewayo stopped him doing so.

[#20] Zulu: “The Burial of a King,” from R. C. A. Samuelson, Long, Long Ago, Durban: Knox Printing and Publishing Co., 1929, p. 291.

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#19 Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian
     (L. H. Samuelson, 1912)

There are many, no doubt, who know of the old cruel Zulu custom of “Ukugodusa” (sending home), i.e., doing away with the aged people. If a man was too old and feeble to go to the king’s kraal occasionally, and join his regiment whenever called out, the king would pick out a troop of men and say, “Hamba niye kum’godusa” —meaning “go and send him home.” Then this troop of men would travel miles away to the man’s kraal, taking good care to get there by night, and to surround it, so as to pounce upon the poor old fellow as soon as he came out of his hut in the morning, and take him away to bury alive or otherwise kill him. The victim simply had to go away obediently, knowing it was the king’s order, as well as the custom of his country. So all Zulu men, old and young, used to make a point of meeting at the king’s kraal, “Komkulu” (at the great one’s), especially at Christmas time, to show that they were still of service. If through illness they had to stay at home, and it could be proved that they were indisposed, the king excused them; but they were most careful not to let it happen again.

When women became helpless, and needed looking after, they, too, had to be “sent home,” and that was done by their own people. Even their own sons would order it to be done, and assist in the cruel performance… “Ukugodusa,” one is thankful to know, is out of date now, as well as illegal.

I feel that it would, perhaps, be wise to give one more proof to show that the above was a real custom amongst Zulus, even as lately as in the days of King Cetshwayo. A poor old woman named Madokodo was another victim, besides Mfoto whom I mentioned before. Sometime in the beginning of 1869 Madokodo, on account of her old age, was thrown into a donga, or pit, by one of her sons and his friends, to get her out of the way, or send her home (godusa), as this was called. The poor old body was not in her second childhood (as Mfoto was), but was healthy and strong. She was in this pit for a few days, trying to get out, but kept falling back again. When night came she was in terror of the wolves and tigers which were prowling about the place; but she knew there was a Great God above, and she prayed for His protection. At last she managed to scrape a few holes in the donga with her finger nails, and made steps to climb up by, and the Great Almighty (Usomandhla) gave her strength to get out. Then she went to a great friend of hers, who fed her and kept her in a secret corner of her kraal until she got over her shock and became strong again. Madokodo then went to one of her other sons by night, and he was much pleased as well as surprised to see his mother alive; but, fearing the elder and cruel brother might find her and try to carry out this cruel custom again, he thought it best not to keep her with him long, so he proposed taking her to a mission station and giving her to the missionary. The mother agreed to this, and the two went off together, traveling a good many miles till they reached St. Paul’s Mission Station, the missionary there being my father, Rev. S. M. Samuelson. Arriving at the door of our house, poor old Madokodo, lame and footsore, called out in a pleading voice, “Ngitola Baba,” “Ngitola Nkosi Yame!” which means, “Adopt me, Father,” “Adopt me, my Master.” My father inquired into the matter, and all was related, her loving son supporting her. Nothing could be done but to save the poor old soul from future trouble, and to try to win her for Christ’s Kingdom. My father took her under his care on August 13th, 1869, and the son took leave of his mother and returned home again. Madokodo slept in the kitchen, and my mother took great interest in her, for she was very intelligent, industrious and tidy. After a while Madokodo expressed a wish to join the Catechumen class, and be prepared for Baptism. She was very earnest; for early in the morning, just about sunrise, we children heard her deep, pleading voice in prayer whilst we were still in our beds, “Baba wami Opezulu, ovele wa ngibheka, osangibhekile namanje, ngitola Mdali wami, tola nabanta bami, utetelele nalo ongilahlileyo!” (My Father above, Thou Who hast taken care for me from the very first, and Who art still caring for me, adopt me, my Creator, adopt also my children, and forgive the one who has thrown me away.”) Then she would always finish with “The Lord’s Prayer,” which she had by then learnt. At the end of eight months she was baptized, and received the named Eva. She was, I believe, the first old woman who became a Christian at St. Paul’s, and she was very happy after that, and helped in the mission work by setting an excellent example to the younger converts. News of the aged woman’s conversion and baptism spread all over the country like wildfire, for Zulus, as a rule, are great news carriers. Her wicked son heard of it, for he had hoped she had reached her destination long ago, as he had “sent her home.” The middle-aged people bore her a grudge on account of her having become a Christian at her age, and, fearing others might do the same, clubbed together and made plans to get her out the way; so they accused her of witchcraft and reported her to King Cetshwayo. Eva at this time had had someone to help to build her a small hut, and she was cutting some high grass (tambootie) near a certain kraal, with which to thatch it. Meanwhile, illness (influenza colds) breaking out at this kraal, poor old Eva was accused of having caused this. The King, through his Prime Minister, Mnyamana, granted permission to have her killed. On the 4th of June, 1870 (Trinity Sunday), as we were just coming out of church, we were surprised by a large party of men (thirty in number) meeting us outside the church door, armed with assagais and knobkerries, with a demand from the King that Eva should be handed over to them to be killed! Eva ran to her protector (my father), calling out, “Save me, save me!” and caught hold of him round the waist, and the men pulling her away by force nearly tore his coat tails off. Then my younger brother Robert (R. C. Samuelson) interfered, and took hold of the woman, calling out, “Muyeke bo!” (leave her); then one man, indignant with this interference, lifted up his knobkerrie over Robert’s head, shouting: “Ngase ngiliqumuze ikanda kona manje” (I will break your skull this moment); then, of course, the poor woman had to go. She was driven by these thirty men six miles into the thorn country to river called Idango, near the Umblatuzi river. We sat on the mountain, all of us, watching the long procession, Eva leading, the row of cruel humanity following in a long string. We watched and prayed broken-hearted, for we all loved poor old Eva; but it was a comfort to know she was a Christian! At last when we could see them no more we returned home, too dispirited to dine that day. In the evening someone told us she had met her fate bravely. As she went along she prayed to be received in the Heavenly Home of rest, where all unkindness and cruelty will end! At Idango river they drove her to a very big pond, where crocodiles were often seen; there they lifted up their kerries to brain her. She then said, “Ngogoduka impela namhla!” (“I will, of a surety (indeed), go home to-day!”) They then killed her and threw her into the pond for the crocodiles to eat.

Such was life in Zululand before the Zulu war. And yet on the whole things had, in a way, improved since Tshaka’s and Dingane’s days. The life of a missionary with his family was not at all an enviable one, although the natives had great respect for them, knowing as they did that lived in their country as friends and messengers of the Gospel. They liked the missionary, although they objected to his religion.

[#19] Zulu: “Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian,” from L. H. Samuelson (Nomleti), Some Zulu Customs and Folk-Lore, London: The Church Printing Company, 1912, pp. 11-17.

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#18 Godusa: The Old Woman and the Ant-Bear’s Hole
     (R. C. A. Samuelson, 1929)

Here is an instance of a custom of the Zulus, which civilisation would naturally characterise as cruel, but which, with the Zulus was considered merciful. There was a kraal named KwaMbaza, about three miles fromSt. Paul’s Mission Station, and the chief man in charge was a headman called Mazwi. In this kraal there lived an old woman who was well over a hundred years, whose name was Mfotho. Mother, who was a great walker, used to visit this, among other kraals in connection with mission work, accompanied by one of the mission station Christian girls, taking medicines if required.

This old woman came out to see mother, and the two became great friends. Mother gave her a blanket to keep her old body warm, for she had been provided with very scanty covering. The old lady totteringly danced before Mother and thanked her for the gift, and whenever Mother came thereafter Mfotho used to dance, and, to encourage her, the people of the kraal used to applaud her by shouting “Mfotho.” On the last occasion mother went to this kraal Mfotho failed to appear, so Mother enquired what was the matter with her, and in what hut she was. The cool answer was, “She has gone home, she was placed in that ant-bear’s hole yonder.” This failed to satisfy Mother’s enquiry, so she pressed her question, and this is the account she received. “Mfotho was so old that we decided to help her to ‘go home,’ so one day we told her to come out of her hut and walk to an ant-bear’s hole yonder to be buried; she did not object, but came along with snuff box which had been used by her to hold her snuff many years. When she arrived near the hole, she asked to be allowed to sit down and have a snuff, and she was allowed to do so. When she had finished snuffing she put her snuff box into a small bag which hung from her loins, stood up and said, ‘I am now ready; I am going.’ She moved to the edge of the hole, and was pushed into it and buried alive.” Mother was so shocked that she never visited that kraal again.

It was a general custom of the Zulus to “godukisa” or “godusa” old people in this manner. They never said a very old person had died; but they us to say “Usegodukile,” “he has now gone home.” Anyway, it was not an ideal way of dying or going home. It is, moreover, strange that the Zulu, who had no idea of future home according to our way of thinking, and had no knowledge of the immortality of the soul, except that it lived in Idhlozi, “Snake” should have coined and used that expression. Maybe it was coined at a time that their creed was different to that which they later adopted. It may be, of course, that they referred to the rendezvous of the spirits of their ancestors, the Amadhlozi.

[#18] Zulu: “Godusa: The Old Woman and the Antbear’s Hole,” from R. C. A. Samuelson, Long, Long Ago, Durban: Knox Printing and Publishing Co., 1929, pp. 37-38.


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#17 The Timely Death

The importance of the shades in Zulu life and thinking cannot be overestimated… The few variations in thinking that may be traced are related to differences in rural and urban settings and the tendency for urbanized Zulu to be more sophisticated in their thinking. It is true that the symbol through which thinking is expressed at times may change, largely due to local conditions of life. But the interpretation given to the symbol is, again, remarkably uniform. Zulu living in the stone-covered areas of the Msinga district bury their dead with a stone place at the feet, over the head and under the knees of the corpse, while people in a district where stones are not plentiful will use pieces of broken clay vessels for the same purpose. But both the stones and the pieces of burnt clay are interpreted similarly. “He is like a stone. So we are burying him with stones,” was said in the Msinga district, while people living in the stone-lacking area, defining their symbol, said: “The dead man is like the hard clay which is the vessel. It is stone-like… That is why we bury him with these things. They are no good to us any more. His body is no good any more. The clay and the corpse are the same.”…

The existence and presence of the shades is not doubted. They are a reality which is so strongly interwoven into kinship relations that a world without them is not possible. Faith is not in the first instance approached critically. It is generously inclusive. It is only of recent date that scepticism is finding its way into Zulu thought-patterns and expressed essentially among intellectuals, particularly those in urban settings…


There are essentially two concepts of death. Firstly, a timely death which presupposes a number of children and grandchildren who survive the deceased. Secondly, there is death which is untimely and is regarded as a serious interference in a human’s life. The quality of such a death is included in the English idioms annihilation or extinction. A timely death is in the Zulu language expressed by terms such as ukugoduka, ukudlula, ukuhamba and ukuqubeka, which all give notions of a passing on, a continuation. An untimely death is described as ukufa, ukubhubha, and ukugqibuka which imply a breaking off of life.

Ngema [an informant] was emphatic that physical death, when it comes at the correct time in life, is in itself not evil. It is to be regarded as a natural continuation of man’s existence. “When a man has completed his work in that he is old and of ripe age, then he is happy because things have gone well with him. He sees that there will be those that will do his work for him (ref. to ritual killings) when he has passed on. So he is not fearful because of death. He can even say to his people, ‘No, I am now tired of living.’ He says this because there is nothing more he can do.” Discussions with a great number of Zulu on the issue of death at a mature age indicates that Ngema was not expressing only personal views but ideas representative of the people.

When old people die they are not mourned. “To the old death does not come unexpectedly. We do not mourn them because we knew that it was coming. They were not taken unaware.” People expressing sympathy with friends whose aged parents or senior relatives have passed away show no signs of grief and will say: “We do not say anything. He was of ripe age.” Or they may say: “Do not complain. It was her turn now. Even the teeth revealed that eating was painful.” “You must not weep. Did you not know that he was ready for this thing? So why are you distressed?”

Death of an aged person is not of necessity considered the work of sorcery or witchcraft. It is a natural development and accepted as such.

Literature on the Zulu makes mention of the now obsolete custom of ukugodusa, sending the aged further. Informants who have knowledge of this custom agree that it was by no means common although done occasionally. It was certainly not looked upon as cruel. Informants themselves accepted the custom as intelligible, saying that they did not see anything wrong with it other than that “today the magistrate and the police do not allow it.” An old man who had been messenger at the battle of Ulundi said that one of his father’s brothers had been treated thus. He recollected hearing the man asking his sons to godusa him “since he had no teeth and not even the sun could warm him any more.” After a few days the old man was no longer seen in the homestead and nobody inquired about him, “everybody knowing what had been done”.

[#17] Zulu: “The Timely Death,” from Axel-Ivar Berglund, Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1976, pp. 78-81.

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#16 An Old Woman’s Pre-Arranged Funeral
     (G. T. Basden, 1921)

Holding the most profound belief in the supernatural, the Ibo is deeply conscious of his relationship to the unseen world, and every precaution must be observed in order to keep the spirit of the departed in a state of peaceful contentment. The Ibo will endure everything demanded of him in this life; will put up with hardships, the misbehaviour of his children, indeed anything, in order to insure that his burial will be properly performed. His whole future welfare depends upon this, and hence it takes, at all times, a most prominent place in a man’s calculations.

In certain districts it was formerly by no means rare to find that a woman had made arrangements whereby she died before reaching the period of enforced inactivity. There was the perpetual dread lest she should be unable to secure a guarantee or leave sufficient property whereby she might be sure of a worthy burial. To relieve her mind she would strive to accumulate the necessary funds and then, divining that the days of her decline were near, she would enter into an agreement with her son, or some other young man, in which he undertook to fulfill all her wishes in connection with her burial, she, on her part, duly compensating him for all the expense and trouble involved. These preliminaries having been mutually settled, the woman either poisoned herself or the draught was administered to her, in order that the final rites in connection with the second burial might be fulfilled with as little delay as possible.

…When men have run their course in this world they return to their master—the Supreme Being—and live with him in the spirit world. In their spiritual state they are endowed with never-ending life, and, until the ceremony of second burial has been observed, they continue to haunt this world, wandering at will in the houses, compound and farms, invisible, yet ever present, and taking a distinct and unremitting interest in the affairs of the individual and the community with which they associated in life. After the rites of second burial have been completed the “spirits” depart to their appointed place and rest in peace until their reincarnation, i.e. as long as they behave themselves.

[#16] Igbo: “An Old Woman’s Prearranged Funeral,” from G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1921, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, pp. 117-119

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