Women play an important role in all facets of society. When we go back to ancient times of the Greeks, one aspect that is still constant is the important role of women in religion. This has also been the situation in Malawi in the recent past.
The main aim of this article is to give you a glimpse as to the similarities of women past and women present. In order to do this, I will compare Makewana, “the mother of children” to the high priestess at Delphi, known as the Pythia. We will focus on the two priestesses’ important roles in traditional religion. It is a marvel how so-called, “second class citizens” past and present have such high and honourable duties in a male dominated society.
J.W.M. Van Breugel (2001) writes of three different ways in which Makewana came to be, though we will not get into too much detail. What we need to know is that as early as 1500 A.D a woman was honoured with priesthood. Makewana was a priestess of a rain shrine at Msinja. She was in charge of this shrine and it became the spiritual centre of the Chewa kingdom. The first Makewana was born Mangadzi Phiri ( Van Breugel ,44). She was connected to the royal family, although accounts vary as to whether she was sister or mother-in-law to one of the Kalongas, as the rulers were called. W.H.J Rangeley explains that Mangadzi became possessed by God, Chiuta, and this is why she was a priestess.
The rain priestesses who came after Makewana were given the same title. Makewana was not allowed to marry. She only consorted with a male during initiation of girls. Her consort was known as Kamundi. (Van Breugel, 56). This consorting was a ritual intercourse because according to Van Breugel it was necessary for a chief to “open the wombs of the young women”. Makewana being the head of the shrine was considered a chief. Since she was not allowed to marry or have sexual relations, her consort with Kamundi was referred to as “a snake who entered into her house?” ( Van Breugel, 57). They would both be wrapped to the extent that neither could see the other. Kamundi as a snake was a python (nsato). A famous painting by Max Dashu of Makewana shows her holding a snake in her hands in the same way one would hold a walking stick.
W.H.J. Rangeley (1952) further explains that Makewana never cut her hair and it went down to her waist. Her hair was kept long because it was believed that she controlled the rain. She lived in her own hut where she lay on a bed of ivory tusks that were covered with a black cloth. According to Rangeley nothing near her was to be white. He also mentions that Makewana was also in her own right a prophetess.
When we study the oracle at Delphi we see a similarity in that a woman was a symbol of such an historic and important aspect of religion. The oracle was a female priestess who was called the Pythia and was possessed by the god Apollo, as Makewana was possessed by Chiuta God. The Pythia who was the prophetess of Apollo would utter the responses of the god ( Morford and Lenardon, 245, 2010 ). Delphi was the centre of the Greek world. Warriors, kings, and commoners alike from all over Greece would go to the oracle and ask for prophecy from the god. Msinja shrine was as stated above a spiritual hub of the Chewa kingdom.
The Pythia, like Makewana, had a special seat that she sat on to utter the words of the god Apollo. Lenardon and Morford point out that her seat of prophecy was a tripod, a bowl supported by metal legs. (p 245, Classical Mythology). The two tell us that this tripod at Delphi was a symbol and a source of divine prophetic power. The name Pyhtia comes from Python a dragon or a large serpent that was slain by Apollo. It is quiet fascinating how the same snake also plays an important role in the history of Makewana as mentioned above.
We have said that Makewana was connected to royalty. Similarly, the Pythia was supposed to be someone of honourable birth.
Music and creativity was featured when Makewana would prophecy. The drumer ( Tsang`oma) played an important role in her prophecies. Although music did not play a role in the Pythia’s trance, the creative aspect comes in when we consider that she was the priestess of the god of music, Apollo.
The Pythia underwent ritual cleansing with sacred water from the Castalian spring to ensure purification and inspiration.
( Morford and Lenardon, 245). According to some sources Makewana washed in boiling water because she had control over water. Others state that she bathed in the Diampwe River and yet others talk of her bathing in the sacred pool of Malawi. (W.H.J. Rangeley, 33). As we can see, bodies of water play an important role in the purification of these women priestesses.
Literature further tells us that at first the Pythia was a virgin but there was an incident where an inquirer of the oracle seduced her. Lenardon and Morford reveal that due to this from that time the Pythia chosen was supposed to be a woman over the age of fifty. Similar to Makewana, priestesses had no business engaging in sexual intercourse. Their lives before being called to service might not have been pure but now they had to remain pure. In light of this we can see that both priestesses were not allowed to have any attachments. Marriage was definitely out of the question. We therefore see a paradox in both cases where two powerful women were still limited by society as far as marriage choices were concerned. They were also limited when it came to freedom of movement, yet these were women who could predict which space was ideal for building a kingdom and if a kingdom would fall.
Though a difference between these two priestesses could be that at Delphi when the god possessed the woman and she revealed what the god had said, it had to be interpreted. This interpretation had to be done by a male priest or prophet (Morford and Lenardon, 245). The question one can ask is, why have a female priestess then? Why have two, why not one doing both jobs?
In comparing these two priestesses we can see that both the ancient Greek tradition and Malawian traditions have been literally dependant on women’s voices . There might not be that many similarities between the two religious centres, but what is there is a link that emphasises women’s important role in society. Both priestesses lived in societies that placed a lot of constraints but they definitely had voices that could grab the attention of kings.
Morford, M and Lenardon, Robert J. Classical Mythology, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Rangeley, W.H. J. ‘Two Nyasaland Rain Shrines,’ The Nyasaland Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July, 1952), pp.31-50.
Van Breugel, J.W.M , Chewa Traditional Religions, Zomba: Kachere Series (2001).