Twins, Incest and Mediators: The Structure of Four Zulu Folk Tales

This article applies Lvi-Straussian methods of myth analysis to four folktales recorded in Natal (South Africa) by H. Callaway in the 1860s and published, with a number of other stories and fragments, with parallel English and Zulu texts in 1868. The folktales were selected on the grounds that they all dealt with relationships within the family, and appeared to be making serious statements on matters of significance. Although they differed greatly in plot, character and locale, it transpired on analysis that all four stories contained the same deep structure. More particularly, all involved the interaction of sets of male and female twins, and all ended on the positive note of marriage. More strikingly, in each case there was a crucial episode in which sour milk was offered by the male twin to his sister, who, in each case, refused it. Also central to all the stories was the intervention of an ambiguous animal, bird or monster. It is suggested that the clue to the interpretation of this set of folktales lies in the importance of sour milk, in all Nguni societies, as a symbol of kinship: it may be drunk only together with kin. Refusal to drink is therefore a denial of kinship (and a statement of availability for marriage). The possible meaning behind the surface structure of the tales is discussed as an attempt to reconcile the incompatibility between the (universal) drive towards incest and Nguni preoccupation with avoiding it, as expressed in the wide-ranging elaboration of Nguni exogamy rules. Bibliogr., notes, sum. also in French.

Title: Twins, Incest and Mediators: The Structure of Four Zulu Folk Tales
Author: Hammond-Tooke, W. David
Year: 1992
Periodical: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute
Volume: 62
Issue: 2
Pages: 203-220
Language: English
Geographic term: South Africa
External link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1160455
Abstract: This article applies Lvi-Straussian methods of myth analysis to four folktales recorded in Natal (South Africa) by H. Callaway in the 1860s and published, with a number of other stories and fragments, with parallel English and Zulu texts in 1868. The folktales were selected on the grounds that they all dealt with relationships within the family, and appeared to be making serious statements on matters of significance. Although they differed greatly in plot, character and locale, it transpired on analysis that all four stories contained the same deep structure. More particularly, all involved the interaction of sets of male and female twins, and all ended on the positive note of marriage. More strikingly, in each case there was a crucial episode in which sour milk was offered by the male twin to his sister, who, in each case, refused it. Also central to all the stories was the intervention of an ambiguous animal, bird or monster. It is suggested that the clue to the interpretation of this set of folktales lies in the importance of sour milk, in all Nguni societies, as a symbol of kinship: it may be drunk only together with kin. Refusal to drink is therefore a denial of kinship (and a statement of availability for marriage). The possible meaning behind the surface structure of the tales is discussed as an attempt to reconcile the incompatibility between the (universal) drive towards incest and Nguni preoccupation with avoiding it, as expressed in the wide-ranging elaboration of Nguni exogamy rules. Bibliogr., notes, sum. also in French.