Women’s Puppetry and Animism


In various cultures in South Africa, ritual puppetry performances and sacred sculpture, dolls and objects, have been used for the honouring and exploration of the feminine, for centuries.  Puppetry derived from animist practices, is considered to be one of the oldest forms of artistic creativity. It combines sculpture, sacred objects, embodiment, performance, movement, voice and imagination. Dolls and puppets are linked to secret initiation traditions, trance and embodiment,  women’s sexual, spiritual and creative healing powers, ancestral knowledge and the sacred resistance of patriarchy.

In South Africa, we have not yet named or identified our puppetry traditions, but a key to our own ancient traditions lies in a diverse range of figurines, ranging from ancient clay figures to contemporary craftwork in the form of beaded dolls. South Africa has been largely overlooked as a leader in African sculpture, although there are very old carving and sculptural traditions from this region.

In his important study of women’s power and gender politics in prehistoric South African figurine art (2010), Jean-Marie Dederen explores the significance of the sculptures uncovered in a vast cache of clay figurines at a site called Schroda, between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers in Southern Africa. Discovered by archaeologist E.O.M Hanisch thirty years ago, it is considered to be one of the most informative figurine sites ever found in Southern Africa. Since then, even more figurines have been uncovered spread across vast sites north and south of the Limpopo River. Edward Matenga combined these collections in a study in the 1990’s, revealing complex social and cultural functions of this expansive figurine tradition (Dederen, 2010).   More than half were human figures and two thirds of those were female.   The stylized female forms, as Hanisch significantly revealed and Dederen emphasizes, were found mostly in private homesteads, the domestic realm of Zhizo women.

Anthropologist Jacqueline Roumeguere explored these prehistoric clay artifacts and how they stand in counterpoint to the proliferation of Zulu marriage beaded dolls in present-day commercial material culture that we see spread across South Africa (Dederen, 2010). Roumeguere presented the first in depth reading of the clay figures as fertility dolls within Venda cosmology.   The clay figures are described as bisexual in form, with phallic, elongated torsos, protruding navel and womb area, ‘suggestive of sexual potency’ with breasts, female genitalia and buttocks (Dederen, 2010, p. 24). Their meaning was explained to Roumeguere by a practicing traditional Nanga (healer) in the 1950’s, to be named vhana (which means children in Venda), and still made and used by Venda mothers for their daughter’s marriage ceremonies. Roumeguere concludes that both these ancient fertility dolls as well as contemporary beaded marriage dolls can be held to express the power and mystery of women’s procreativity.

Elizabeth Dell explains the ceremonial use of fertility figures specifically associated with feminine identity and sexual maturation in representation across Southern Africa (1998). There seems to be a dualistic function of these objects. The first function serves as a socializing play tool for young girls, allowing them to mimic their mother’s breastfeeding and nurturing (Dell, 1998). Yet dolls and children’s dolls ‘provoke difficulties in their classification because the child’s fantasy gives them special psychological functions, thus placing them on the ritualistic and especially animistic level…the endowment of life to a dead thing” (Jurkowski 144).   Dell explores the different instances where the objects function across the life spans of women. They do not just represent wished for babies, but also represent women when they reach child bearing age, menstruation, are tools of sexual instruction to initiates, used for social education and the processes of feminine maturation. They are also very specific tools for adult ritual performance dealing with ‘imagination and projection, the latter can function as intermediaries between living and dead- between women and their powers to reproduce…a system of metaphorical thought centering around fertility’ (Dell, 1998, p.13).

Jean-Marie Dederen has written a provocative study on the feminine agency of these sacred icons (2010). The Schroda doll is clearly associated with the world of women and sexual fertility that is ambiguously represented in the bisexual icon. Dederen explores that while many pastoralist societies did privilege masculine interests, it is an assumption that Schroda society was ruled by patrilineal power and masculine chief leadership. Far from absolute forms of unilineal descent, he argues, ‘in the real social world, female and male organizing principles coexist as competing forces’ (Dederen, 2010, p. 27). While pure patrilineal descent was found amongst the Nguni tribes, the Venda, Sotho and Tsonga, he suggests, who evidence strong fertility figurine traditions, were markedly bilineal in their power structures (Dederen, 2010, p.27).   In fact, Dederen says, these particular dolls may be seen to express an autonomous feminine perspective of procreation, a feminized rendering of sexuality that served as ‘an alternative to the masculine vision of sexual complementarity’ (2010, p. 36).


In his study, Dederen explores two figures that are central to revealing gender power plays and women’s sexual resistance to masculine dominance in sacred figurine traditions. The first, a Venda wooden figurine called ‘the pair’, sculpted by men for boys initiations, functioned as an idol of male domination and patriarchal ideology in initiations and often expressed male sexual dominance and aggression. Pairs depict male and female paired humans and were used as direct signs to teach social and sexual rules to young initiates. These are not typically found in Venda girls initiations, but have been recorded in performed sexual lessons called a matano or ‘show’ in girls secret initiations. Acts of sexual union are omnipresent in the initiations in the form of pairs and paired symbols, which articulate not just the union of male and female, but of the intimate bond between the liminal and the real, the mythic and mundane in rites of passage. These wooden statues also resurface in the girl’s domba initiation dance, specifically in a ritual called nyalilo (she who weeps). It was a ritual performance of the act of sexual union between men and women, mimed often by a master with a young female initiate, and was considered the greatest secret and climactic rite of the initiations.   Anitra Nettleton reveals, that the use of the pair in these teachings ‘probably ensured male control of female initiation’ (Nettleton, 2002, p. 98).

Fertility dolls were designed to move, to be carried, performed and used rather than simply standing still on display. The fertility doll also contained both male and female sexual forms in its representation, however

embedded in its design…was a narrative of denial of masculinity. The Doll offered women the opportunity to express, celebrate or teach an autonomous concept of female identity and fertility…. There is ample evidence for women’s ideological opposition to the patriarchy’ (Dederen, 2010, p. 34).

The doll brings resistant and subversive practices into women’s rites of passage and matrilineal inheritance. Dederen says the first ambiguous feature is the dual sexual nature of the icon, which contains bodily references to the sexual identity of both men and women. This bisexuality is apparent in contemporary dolls as well as pre-commercial ones, such as the Sotho Ngoana Modula (child of grass)[i]. A study of this fertility icon describes the figure as combining a calabash body with a long reed bundle inserted into it and dressed with beads. In many of the doll figures, the masculine aspect is covered and contained in the feminine beadwork, thus, as Dederen suggests, rendering the masculine visible through the feminine. The round wooden calabash is held as a symbol of the feminine womb, a symbol upheld in Sotho oral traditions, and the reed body as symbolic of the phallic, reeds being associated with masculinity and fertility in Sotho culture (Dederen, 2010). Dederen expresses how many indigenous cosmologies in southern Africa consider pools surrounded by reeds to be the birthplace of humanity, and reeds are often used in celebratory symbols of nature’s regenerative powers (2010, p. 31).

Dederen looks at the latent feminine empowerment oft ignored in the Tsonga marriage doll traditions in the Limpopo province of South Africa.   Many researchers simply dismiss their importance by attributing their purposes as reminders of the sanctity of marriage to newly weds and by implication, the male privileging patriarchal systems surrounding them.   But rather than the doll being referred to as a child (n’wana) by women, it is also called xanga and tshutshu, words that hold great significance in women led lineage traditions.   The tshutshu, is a bead that is passed on significantly from mother to her firstborn daughter that is significantly dipped in a girls first menstrual blood and held with great care by the initiate. Rituals around women’s menstruation mysteries and doll making were long associated with women’s empowerment. Barbara Walker writes about red-clay or ‘bloody clay’, associated with women’s menstruation and doll making rituals given by the creator Goddess who ‘taught women to form dolls and smear them with menstrual blood as a conception charm’ (Noble, Shakti Woman, 1991 p.28).

After her initiations, this sacred tshutshu is put in a beaded box and attached to a belt or girdle that is tied around her waist, where it is said to represent her sexuality. Only a close maternal relative, mother or grandmother of the young woman makes this sacred belt.

Tshutshu, it was said, belonged ‘to those who feed from the same breast’ and safeguarded the powers of motherhood from one generation to the following. It was put around the first-born daughters waist during the taking out ceremony, one month after birth. The baby was shown to the outside world together with her mother’s xanga belt (Dederen, 2010, p. 32).

The tshutshu is moved between the dressing of the marriage doll as well as the young woman’s belt, both of which, Dederen points out, are potent symbols of womanhood, motherhood and feminine fecundity (2010). The xanga doll thus arises in complex ways through the tshutshu practices, as a keeper of matrilineal descent and feminine ancestral meaning. Held only by the female line, this living figurine offered such significance for the maintenance of feminine power, education and representation within her society. As Dederen points out, the doll provided women with a powerful tool to symbolically weaken the patriarchy of their society (2010).

Thus the doll can be seen to hold a deeply resistant feminine presence, subversive of patriarchal power. While this subversive potential may not have been explicitly revealed in public, in the secret and sacred traditions of girls initiations, their use and perception was linked specifically to the sexuality and pride of the women.   Dederen goes so far as to suggest that ‘ the feminized phallic image would have redefined manhood as a mere tool for the realization of female identity’, the ultimate power of woman to hold the mysteries of life and procreation, menstruation and death that is the complex process of feminine fertility and lineage (2010, p. 36).

The secret traditions of southern African women’s puppetry traditions lie at the heart of the processes of birth and death so central to the knowing of feminine embodiment. The capacity of the feminine to house consummation as well as dissolution, central to the great mysteries of the life process, is literally held in the surfaces of the body expressed through the tshutshu and xanga.   These meanings would also have taken their full significance in the actual performance of ritual, extending beyond the still form of the figure itself, highlighting the acutely permeable surfaces of separation between self and other. In the liminal states of women’s sacred performance, the figurine is integral to flux, power, protection, embodiment and spirit of the rite of passage. As Dederen points out the figurine would also have innovated and changed over the centuries, but always serving as reminder and representation of the womb where ‘in the sphere of human procreation, female sexual potency rules supreme’ (2010, p. 37).

This sentiment is reinforced in the writing of historian, elder and high sanusi (leader of the traditional healers) Vusamazulu Baba Credo Mutwa (1964). His internationally acclaimed book, Indaba, My Children, chronicles the key customs, mythologies and sacred storytelling oral traditions of South Africa.   He writes on the oldest Bantu customs, which held women as the highest authority in their sacred laws and mythologies. These customs are still apparent in the survival of the matriarchal Rain Queen traditions in Venda today.   Baba Mutwa chronicles a time in early African history in which females played a sacred role and the tribes worshipped women within a broader cosmology that honoured the Great Mother as Goddess of Creation. They also acknowledged the distinctly liminal spaces that femininity inhabits

A woman, be she one’s wife or one’s mother, exists in the past, present and future at the same time, and she does not belong to ones father or oneself, but to those as yet unborn, and to one’s ancestors…The girl one marries is not chosen by oneself but by one’s ancestors and that she begets children, using the man only as the medium (Mutwa, 1964, p. 626).

The mystery of the feminine as procreator is her ability to exist, not only within the material realities of embodiment, but as a bridge in time and space. A woman communicates, just in the process of her being, between the seen and unseen, which in the context of ancestral tradition includes those who came before and those who are still to be born. Science today further supports this long held traditional knowledge. It is within the grandmother’s pregnant body, that her own daughter will already produce ovaries that hold the egg cells of her potential children, before birth. The recognition of women’s power and autonomy in tradition reinforces the importance of feminine animism and remembering of these practices in South Africa today, practices that honoured and upheld not only women’s’ procreative and sexual rights, but the divinity of her being.

[i] Denderen cites the analysis of these tradtions by Marilee Wood (1998:35-51)