Limpopo: Land of Legends

It is easy to miss the plot when visiting the so-called land of legends. So what is the true story with the sacred lake and forest of the Venda, and the Modjadji Rain Queen, in Limpopo? It is easy to miss the plot when visiting the so-called land of legends. You might drive past a lake and suspect the food and beer lying on the side of a beautiful waterfall is litter, when in fact they are offerings to appease the often cruel water spirits. So what is the real story behind the sacred lake and forest of the Venda, and the Modjadji Rain Queen, in Limpopo?

Lake Fundudzi

To the first western travellers it was the sight of virgin sacrifice to a white crocodile. Traditionally, it is sacred for reason much more profound than this. In actual fact the lake never runs dry, and as such it is seen as the only place by the Venda where the waters of creation didn't recede. Geographically, the lake was created by a landslide and the valley traps the water of a river that only skids across it, keeping it full all year round. As the pool of Raluvhimba, the creator, it was and is very sacred.

One day a man mourning for his wife, walked into the lake to drown himself. Taking pity on him, the spirits of the lake turned him into a giant white python, as a symbol of love and fertility. To appease him, young women from all over the kingdom gather on the banks of the lake to honour him by performing the Domba dance, in which they form a kind of conga line, and writhe their arms like a snake.

What about the white crocodile then?

The white crocodile is one of the local people’s ancestors. He is a Zwidutwane (Water Spirit). Long ago, he still required human wives, so he would take human form and go visit them. One day, one of his wives followed him and was so mortified by what she saw she gave out a loud shriek.

Because he could never return to the human world, there was a terrible drought. So the desperate wife offered herself in exchange for rain. Each year, a virgin was sent into the lake to pour some beer on the water to try and appease the spirits. If it sank and was accepted, it would be a good year's harvest. If it floated, however, the virgin girl had to be pulled out fast or the crocodile would eat her and make her his new wife. In the old days, the girl would simply disappear.

Image by Ehrard Vermaak

The Thato Vonde Forest

After visiting Lake Fundudzi many visitors make their way to the “Holy Forest”. Often blanketed in a thick mist, it lives up to its mystical reputation. Travellers are welcomed to the forest by a strict sign ordering them to stick to the path. As one proceeds you will see the age old yellowwoods and ferns that fills the luxuriant hill on which the path is built.

In the austere silence, only broken by the calm chatter of forest birds, a herd of cattle might reveal themselves from the shroud of the mist. These cattle bring an eerie noise with them. The rhythmic ringing of the bells around their neck, coupled by their ghostly moos make for all the mythic magic of ancient faith.

The forest was the burial grounds of the greatest kings. The first king was Dimbanyika. One day while exploring his new kingdom he got stuck in a cave the legend goes. His dog managed to escape and went to call his oldest son, Thohoyandou - after whom the largest village in the area is named today. Thohoyandou could not free his father, so Dimbanyika asked him instead to promise him that he would unite all the tribes in the area. Thohoyandou was successful and is remembered as the greatest of the Venda rulers.

Thohoyandou literally means ‘Head of the Elephant', that is why in Venda they say ‘nda ndou' when they say hello. It means hello Elephant! Today his spirit guards the forest in the form of a white lion.

Image by Ehrard Vermaak

The Modjadji Rain Queen

In Modjadji’s Royal Kraal in the fertile Magoebas kloof is where part of the big rain-making ceremony takes place during the first weekend of October every year. The ritual entails a lot of singing, dancing and drinking of home-brewed beer as well as giving homage to the ancestors by feeding their representative, a holy cow named Mokobo, and washing her with the frothy brew.

The cow is named after the founder of Modjadji's tribes - a young girl who had to flee her home in Zimbabwe's Monomotapa when she fell pregnant with her brother's child, a big taboo in African cultures. Mokobo's mother then stole Monomotapa's rain charms and gave them to her daughter before she left to ensure that the girl would not go hungry in her new dwelling. She believed that if there was rain, there would always be food.  This, then, how the tradition of rain-making filtered down into South Africa form its origins in Zimbabwe.

When these legends are considered, seeing the picturesque landscapes of the Limpopo province are more than merely pleasant sightseeing trips, the stories behind these fabled locations make for a deeper more spiritual experience.

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