Cultural astronomy of the Shona| Interpreting how the moon, stars, and planets are perceived

Just like in other parts of the world, the Shona held their own beliefs about the sky and celestial bodies. An understanding of such beliefs and concepts could be a foundation for raising awareness on and arousing interest in astronomy for the average Zimbabwean child.

Below are some interesting insights on astronomy from the Shona.

The stars and planets

The moon

The stars and planets

Nyenyedzi/ Nyeredzi

This is the generic Shona name for a star.

The bodies of light that appear in the night sky (other than the moon), are strictly speaking, either stars or planets. They are all generally referred to as nyenyedzi or nyeredzi.  A planet, more often Venus, is seen as the brightest star. A number of factors can be used to distinguish between stars and planets. These include their appearance – stars twinkle; their brightness – planets are brighter; and their size – stars are bigger.

There is a group of planets that are visible with the unaided eye. These are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. From these, the ‘morning star’ and the ‘evening star’ are identified. Venus stands out more than the others; being quite bright all the time and visible for months.  As a result, the terms ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ were originally used just for Venus. Today some now use these terms to refer to the other visible planets. In Shona, the ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ have specific names to identify them as such.

Nhanda/ Nyamatsatsi/ Nyamasase/ Hweva/ Hwevera

The morning star

All the above-listed Shona terms are used to refer to the planet Venus, which is identified based on the time of day it shines up in the sky. On one side of the sun, Venus – the nyamatsatsi leads the sun. It will rise in the morning a few hours before the sun. As the sun rises and the sky becomes brighter, it fades away.


Interesting fact

After the sun and the earth’s moon, Venus is the brightest light in the sky and the closest planet to earth.


Marinda/ Vhenekeratsvimborume

The evening star

On the other side of the sun, Venus trails the sun. It is seen shortly after the sun sets when it is dark enough. My grandmother says,’ inoteverana nezuva parinonyura (It trails the sun as the sun sets).’ This is Venus the evening star – vhenekeratsvimborume.

Tsvimborume refers to an unmarried man, either a bachelor or widower. Some say the evening star marks the time tsvimborume return home from wooing women; while others say it marks the time they leave home, as they have no restrictions to enjoying nightlife. The star is also referred to as marinda. The word rinda has a number of meanings, one of which is ‘put up for the night.’ One elder explained that the star is seen ‘nguva dzeruvhunzavaeni.’ My guess, therefore, is that the name marinda means that the star marks the time when travelers find a place to put up for the night.

Chinyamutanhatu/ Chimutanhatu

Known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters

In different parts of the world, constellations (groups of stars forming recognisable patterns) are known to have been given special names. Such names were inspired by mythological creatures, people, animals or objects.

Nhanhatu is the Shona word for six. Chinyamutanhatu is a beautiful cluster of stars, of which six are brighter and stand out more than the rest. For those familiar with constellations, this is the famous Pleiades. The Pleiades star cluster is also known as the seven sisters. The name Pleiades is in relation to Greek mythology. One of the seven stars is not very visible to the naked eye hence most people will see only six. According to Greek mythology, the seventh star is absent because one of the Pleiades sisters, Merope, was ashamed of having a mortal husband who was also a criminal, and deserted her sisters. November is the month of chinyamutanhatu and the star cluster is used to identify the beginning of the rainy season.


Interesting fact

In Japan, the Pleiades is known as the ‘Subaru,’ which is said to have inspired the logo of the Japanese automobile manufacturer, Subaru.


Nguruvenembwa

Orion

In Greek mythology, Orion was a hunter who fell in love with the Pleiades, the seven sisters. When he began to pursue them, Zeus, the sky and thunder god, scooped them and placed them in the sky.

Orion is known as nguruvenembwa which is in reference to the three dogs – imbwa (Orion’s belt), which are perceived to be chasing the three pigs – nguruve (Orion’s sword).

Chinyamutatu/ Mutatu

Orion’s belt

Nhatu is the Shona word for three. Chinyamutatu is a recognisable short line of three bright stars that are seen on summer nights, clearly visible from November to February.

Gwarajena/ Gwararenzou

The milky way

Gwararenzou is a dim band of light that stretches across the sky. It is made up of billions of stars and looks speckled and dusty. The names above describe it as a path. Gwara is the Shona word for ‘path.’ Gwararenzou means ‘elephants’ path’ and gwarajena means ‘white path.’ I also came across the name Gwara raKuruvi but failed to establish how it came about.


Interesting fact

The milky way is known by the Xhosa as umnyele wezulu or ‘the backbone of the heavens.’


Maguta and Mazhara

The Small and Large Magellanic Clouds

These are two large clouds of stars and gas that can be seen with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. They look like detached pieces of the Milky Way.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is called Maguta and the Small Magellanic Cloud is called Mazhara. Zhara means famine or hunger, and maguta refers to plenty, or abundance of crops. It was thought that there would be a drought if the Mazhara was clearer, and a time of plenty was set to come if Maguta was clearer instead.

Meteors and Comets

I am still to gather meaningful and more comprehensive information on comets and meteors. Some literature I came across states that a meteor was considered to be an ancient chief shooting across the sky.

The moon

From observing the moon, the Shona were able to divide the year into months, which were named according to agricultural activities, climatic conditions, and other environmental observations. Also from observing the moon, different moon phases were identified and a specific name given for each.

In modern science, it is understood that moon phases occur in sequence from new moon to waxing moon, full moon, waning moon and back to new moon.

Tenderekedzi

New moon – first visible crescent moon

After the astronomical new moon (when the moon is not visible), a thin crescent moon follows after a day or two. Tenderekedzi is the word used for the first sighting of this crescent moon. This marks the beginning of a new month.

Njedzana/ Jedzana

New moon

Nje-e is the ideophone of ‘glowing whitely’ and -ana is a diminutive suffix. Imagine the words hukwana and hwayana which are terms for the young of huku (fowl) and hwai (sheep) respectively. As such, the word njedzana gives the meaning of ‘little glow.’

In modern science, a new moon is identified when there is no visible moon. This is because only the dark side of the moon faces the planet earth. According to the Shona however, a new moon – njedzana, is identified the moment a thin sliver of the moon becomes visible after the ‘no visible moon.’ This defines the beginning of a new month which extends until the last appearance of the particular moon.

Ziseresere

This is the eighth day after a new moon.

Ruchenje

Waxing moon

The moon in the southern hemisphere is seen to grow from the left and wane towards the right.  As it grows bigger (waxing) after a new moon it is known as ruchenje.

Jenaguru

Full moon

Here jena means bright. The word jenaguru, therefore, refers to something that is large and bright. In relation to the moon, the term is more often used to make reference to a full moon. Jenaguru is visible throughout the night.

Mhindo/ Rikati

Waning crescent moon/ Dark moon

Towards the end of the lunar cycle, the moon shrinks in size to a smaller crescent each day before disappearing entirely at the time of the New Moon. In this period it is said ‘mwedzi waenda kumhindo,’ meaning, ‘the moon is waning,’ and literally, ‘the moon has entered.’

The word mhindo is related to the word pinda, whose common meaning is ‘enter.’ Perhaps at the time of an astronomical new moon, the moon is thought to have entered into another space, before it reappears again and with a visible sliver. At the point of reappearance, it is said ‘mwedzi wabuda,’ which literally means, ‘the moon has come out.’

Conclusion

While researching for this article, I got to read so much on astronomy as viewed from ancient African practices and beliefs, and also as understood in modern science. I was nothing short of mesmerised. In my exploration and zeal to discover, I have been exposed to a whole new world and new interests aroused. In me, the ancient has born learned.


References:

  1. www.worldatlas.com
  2. www.universetoday.com
  3. www.spaceopedia.com
  4. www.windows2universe.org
  5. www.earthsky.org
  6. www.assa.saao.ac.za
  7. www.moonconnection.com

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