This article argues the inadequacy of the structuralist framework of analysis as applied to Central African myths of foundation and tries to demonstrate that a dichotomous approach can inhibit the full understanding of these narratives, often misrepresenting and curtailing their meaning. Instead, it is claimed that blurredness, ambiguity, “consubstantiality,” and fluidity are, in Central Africa, the assortment of logical and symbolic instruments able to convey, as well as constantly recreate, the prodigious intricacy of meanings that emanate from mythological thinking.
- concept of “opposition”
- myths of foundation
- Central Africa (DRC)
- Aruwund (Lunda of the Mwant Yaav)
Central African narratives of the foundation of kingship and the state have long been the object of intense debate, ever since Jan Vansina (1961/1965, 1966) proposed a historical reading of these oral texts. Many were the Africanist historians who followed up his steps, some opting for more literal interpretations of these traditions, others proposing more metaphorical and analytical approaches (see Miller, 1980). The incursion of the structuralist analysis in the midst of this debate, launched by Luc de Heusch in 1972 with his Le roi ivre ou l’origine de l’état, brought a complete new universe of understanding to these oral narratives—considering them as “myth” rather than historical sources—and became a pillar of subsequent studies.
In this article, I shall not go into the prolific controversy that opposed historians and structuralists—the latter mainly represented by de Heusch’s writings—in the interpretation of these foundation narratives for I have long taken my standing in this debate (Palmeirim, 2006, pp. 40-43). Nor will I be discussing—for much the same reason—the extensive literature that uses oral traditions for the reconstruction of early African history (such as in the works of Joseph Miller, David Schoenbrun, or Christopher Wrigley, among many others). However, interest on the motif of the “stranger-king”—which was once considered by Marshall Sahlins (1981) a means of conflict resolution in the context of foreign colonial influence in the Pacific—has been re-awaken in anthropological literature, mainly in relation to the Austronesian-speaking world but also in other contexts, African included (see Caldwell & Henley, 2008). It is again a very different approach from the one I shall take, often drawn from the social and political spheres. And yet, the minute mythical analysis undertaken here can interact with this latter literature in that it addresses the basic opposition between the categories of “outsider” and “insider”, of “rulers” and “those who are ruled,” on which it relies (see, in particular, Fox, 2008). Moreover, it is exactly because this is an underlying opposition in most of these writings that the theme of the stranger-king deserves careful scrutiny by re-analyzing it within the corpus of oral traditions from which it originally stems.
In my book Of Alien Kings and Perpetual Kin, I share with de Heusch two main assumptions. The first is that Central African narratives of foundation—the Ruwund (Lunda)1 epic, which I studied in detail, included—are of mythical and ideological nature. This means that, with de Heusch, I steer away from readings of these oral texts as historical sources. The second is that Ruwund oral traditions share with other Central African narratives a common framework of thinking and, therefore, should be placed and understood within a wider symbolic continuum. They are, at times, able to mutually elucidate each other’s meaning.2
Notwithstanding this convergence, however, I have long been a critic of the structuralist framework of analysis as applied to Central African foundation traditions for I believe it inhibits the full understanding of these narratives, as well as misrepresents and curtails their meaning. De Heusch (2009) believes that “African sacred kingship is ruled everywhere by the same logic” and that “the notion of transformation accounts for the incontestable flexibility of the African symbolism” (p. 122). The question is has de Heusch really succeeded in grasping that “logic”?
I should make here a preliminary statement: Luc de Heusch’s work has always been an endless source of inspiration to me. Hence, despite the fact that my studies on the ideology of kingship among the Aruwund (or nuclear Lunda)—on whom I worked for more than 20 years—point out the wrongs and limitations of the structuralist approach to myth, they can, by the same token, be viewed as a tribute to de Heusch—who has left us not long ago—as well as to the immensely fruitful horizons that structural analysis opened up to the study of symbolic thinking and without which my reasoning and arguments would have never gained existence.
In his last book, Pouvoir et religion (Paris, CNRS Éditions/Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de L’Homme, 2009), de Heusch includes a short text under the title “La royauté chez les luba et les lunda (réponse à Manuela Palmeirim)” (de Heusch, 2009, pp. 121-126). In this text, the author aims at discussing my approach to Ruwund myths and symbolism as I presented it in 2006, in this way launching in writing a dialogue that we had long pursued in person. The present article wishes to pursue this “dialogue”; a dialogue which I feel can be extremely enlightening of the complexity of the symbolic mechanisms that are built, in Central African contexts, around the foundation of kingship, the state, and the motif of the stranger-king. To push such discussion further can also draw, I am led to believe, new paths into the understanding of these overwhelming productions of human and collective thinking, which are indeed myths.
For the non-specialist reader, let me resume the Ruwund epic of kingship origin, which became the center of this debate. This narrative recounts that Ruwund kingship was founded in the sequence of the arrival of a foreign hunter of Luba origin, called Cibind Yirung (or Tshibinda Ilunga, in some of the literature), at the lands of the princess Ruwej (Lueji). She was then the leader of the Aruwund—organized in an egalitarian and simple society based on kinship ties—and ruled with the help of her close relatives and fellow chiefs, the atubung, at the sacred land of the river Nkalaany. However, she comes to fall in love with the stranger, to whom she ends up entrusting the symbol of ancestral chiefship, a bracelet of human sinew called rukan. In the version most often collected, and that which is most widely told at the Ruwund capital today, Ruwej proves to be sterile after marrying the hunter. Cibind Yirung then marries a second woman, Kamong, with whom a son is conceived. It was the son of Cibind Yirung (named Yaav) who would instate a more sophisticated order and become the first king (or paramount chief). He was the first holder of the dynastic title of Mwant Yaav, a title which was subsequently bestowed upon all Ruwund kings.
In his Le roi ivre, de Heusch asserts—and I agree with him—that the hunter hero of the Ruwund epic is a homologous figure of the hunter of the Luba narrative of foundation, Mbidi Kiluwe. He also proclaims that Ruwej’s order is opposed to the new order founded by Cibind Yirung and his son. The theme of the sterility of Ruwej (present in some, but not all, versions of the epic) plays here a crucial role as the first king is indeed Cibind Yirung’s son, not Ruwej’s. These two mythical characters engage, for de Heusch, in a radical opposition (explicitly stated in de Heusch, 2009, p. 124), one which opposes the discourteous, ill-mannered, uncivilized, and primitive order of Ruwej and her fellow chiefs called atubung (an order associated to sterility, the moon, terrestrial waters, and the dry season) to the new and sophisticated order represented by the hunter hero of Luba origin (who appears, in his turn, associated to fecundity, to the sun and celestial fire, and to the rainy season; de Heusch, 1972, p. 226).
De Heusch does sustain that the alliance through marriage of Ruwej and Cibind is essential to trigger the emergence of a new order. However, in the good structuralist manner, he affirms this alliance to be one between mutually exclusive opposites, doomed of utter symbolic irreconcilability. As a consequence of this interpretation, the new order which was to be found appears, in the eyes of de Heusch (1972, p. 191, as translated in 1982a, p. 155), of a completely different nature from that which preceded it, “a rupture of a sociological kind” having taken place.
Other corollaries of this structuralist emphasis on “opposition” are the ideas that kingship is an order symbolically construed as coming from outside the primitive society (de Heusch, 1972, p. 276; 1982a, p. 228), as a new civilization introduced from the exterior (de Heusch, 1972, p. 187; 1991, p. 115), in which process Cibind Yirung plays the role of “culture hero,” the true mentor of social change and bearer of kingship (for instance, de Heusch, 1972, p. 203; 1982b, p. 192). Ruwej and the autochthonous people, however, are relegated to a passive kind of behavior. The non-cultural profile of Ruwej (which, once again, is seen to stress the radical dichotomy instituted between the native princess and the foreign hunter) would gain sturdier prominence when analyzing the Ruwund epic in the context of a broader “system of transformations,” by means of which Ruwej can be seen as the homologous counterpart of the uncouth and incestuous Luba mythical king, Nkongolo.
Our main point of dissention resides precisely on the stress placed by de Heusch on the heuristic and theoretical validity of the concept of “opposition” as capable of supplying the key for the whole understanding of Ruwund (and other Central African) symbolic constructs. In my book (Palmeirim, 2006, ch. 2 mainly), I point out that de Heusch’s emphasis on the opposition between the old order of Ruwej and the new political system installed by Yirung’s son is a mere consequence of his structuralist standpoint and that Ruwund material cannot be straitjacketed into such a rigid framework. If opposition and dichotomous thinking indeed appear to be, at times, features of these narratives—and of Ruwund overall symbolic ideology—the stress on the sameness and closeness of both terms of the opposition is equally forceful, thereby originating a mythical and symbolic thinking of extreme ambiguity and fluidity, and indeed of overwhelming complexity. De Heusch affirms, for instance, that we can oppose the hyperexogamy of Yirung to the hyperendogamy of Ruwej. However, if Ruwej was indeed engaged—in one of the versions that I collected in the field—in a relationship with a close relative of hers before the arrival of the Luba hunter (the dignitary Mwant Rumang), she finally engages in a hyperexogamous relation with Cibind Yirung. Her profile is, thus, one of ambiguity. De Heusch (2009) is ready to admit that he has “no doubt put too much emphasis on the negative aspects of Ruwej” (p. 122) based on the idea that Ruwej is a homologous of the Luba hero Nkongolo. However, then he seems to discard this by attributing it to a mechanism of “inversion”—again, a mere formal device of the structural model is used to interpret the mythical text.
Indeed, Ruwund ideological thought constantly plays on difference and likeness, affirming mythical heroes as both antagonistic and accomplices, kin and allies, and creating, by this token, a complex of blurred identities that yield the duplicity and ambiguity claimed, in my book, to be the very essence of Ruwund mythical constructs and kingship ideology. The fixity of the structuralist framework cannot capture such ductility and intricacy of thought. Let me resume here some of my arguments.
The Theme of the Sterility of Ruwej
De Heusch considers the mytheme of the sterility of Ruwej critical in conveying the sharp opposition between the two mythical heroes, the Ruwund princess and Cibind Yirung, the Luba hunter, who assume in the myth the old and new orders, respectively. Indeed, being sterile in most versions collected (and indeed the ones which are given privilege in de Heusch’s analysis), Ruwej sees herself unable to conceive the first king and founder of the dynastic title of Mwant Yaav (this undertaking is entrusted to Kamong, the hunter’s second wife). It is as if Ruwej would set herself aside from the rise of the new order associated to the foreign hunter, by this gesture instating a disjuncture between the autochthonous order within which she ruled and the new system that was to be installed after the arrival of the Luba hunter.
This interpretation invites us—in line with de Heusch’s thinking—to build a system of oppositions which would, at the symbolic level, contrast the inferior, ancestral, and autochthonous political organization (associated with sterility) to the (so-called) new civilization, brought about with the arrival of the foreigner, more sophisticated and instating fecundity. These are indeed the two principles which, according to the author, would characterize the dualistic ideology of sovereignty in this and other Central African kingdoms. We would thus be facing a perfect dichotomous system of thought. Moreover, as a consequence of this structuralist framework of analysis—I will stress this once more—the role of Ruwej in the foundation of the new order would of necessity be diminished, the hunter appearing as the “culture hero” (héros civilisateur), that is, the genuine promoter of social change and of a more cultured order (de Heusch, 1972, p. 203, 276; 1982b, p. 192, for instance).
However, as I tried to demonstrate (Palmeirim, 2006, ch. 2, in particular), the Ruwund princess is essentially an ambiguous figure, an ambiguity that challenges rigid dichotomies such as those proposed by de Heusch, as well as a model of analysis in which the terms of an opposition are in a relationship of the type a/negation of a. For indeed, the Ruwund ideology of kingship appears more complex and ductile than that, moving constantly in the midst of ambiguity.
To begin with, not all versions of the myth of kingship origin associate Ruwej with sterility. Variants are there in which the princess is fertile (Dias de Carvalho, 1890, pp. 58-76; and the neighboring Sanga version, see Roland, 1963, p. 23), and, in these, she is clearly in a relationship of conjunction, not disjuncture and opposition, with Cibind Yirung. I also pointed out that there are different levels of specificity in the narration of the myth (Palmeirim, 2006, ch. 1). If narrators residing at the capital of the kingdom (Musumb) will base their story on the title histories of the main dignitaries who live at the royal court—and might then produce a variant which stresses Ruwej’s sterility—at the periphery of the kingdom title histories of minor dignitaries may be included in the narration, hence disclosing other facets of Ruwej’s behavior. I myself collected in the field accounts which claim that Ruwej had, before the arrival of the foreign hunter, a previous consort from whom she conceived a son (this son is nowadays perpetuated at the king’s court by the notable with the title of Mutiy). Narrations may indeed incorporate a lesser or a greater number of title histories and, by this token, become more schematic or else richer and more detailed. Narrators, however, may also give different emphases to the narration to argue a point or negotiate a position. In this process, they may include, or else omit, certain title histories from their account. The act of narration is, actually, more of a dynamic process than we would gather from de Heusch’s writings. In addition, if it is true—as de Heusch argues—that in the versions in which Ruwej is sterile she places herself in clear opposition to Yirung, these very same versions insist that Ruwej’s consent is absolutely needed for Yirung to take up another wife (Église Méthodiste [EM], 1963, p. 16). In some variants, it is the princess herself who appoints Kamong (a close relative) to conceive, on her behalf, he who would become the first king (Duysters, 1958, p. 84).3
Ruwej is therefore an equivocal being: She appears to set herself aside from the new order (and indeed the dignitary who represents Ruwej at the royal court nowadays is seen as representing the ancestral order), and yet she generates all the necessary conditions for its emergence. In Dias de Carvalho’s (1890), variant this is particularly obvious: It is the princess who seduces Yirung by offering the hunter her own house to stay, and it is her who persuades the atubung, the chiefs with whom she ruled Ruwund land, into accepting the newcomer. In this version—and in others also—it is against her brothers’ will that she hands the sacred bracelet, symbol of power, to the foreign hunter (Dias de Carvalho, 1890, p. 75; Duysters, 1958, p. 83; Struyf, 1948, pp. 374-345; Van den Byvang, 1937, p. 431). Finally, it is Ruwej herself who prompts Kamong into marrying the foreigner. The relationship between Ruwej and Cibind Yirung is, thus, from the very first moment, a relationship of complicity, and Ruwej’s willing participation in the whole process is as instrumental as that of Cibind Yirung, whom the literature on culture heroes appears to indicate as the sole bearer of the new order.
The two spouses of Yirung are thus accomplices in the foundation of kingship. In previous writings (Palmeirim, 2003, 2006, pp. 46–47), I have set forth the arguments that allow us to affirm that Kamong appears in the myth as a mere “double” of Ruwej, the bigamy of the hunter (also a feature of Luba foundation myths) being a way of emphasizing the double-edged nature that characterizes the attitude of the princess in the Ruwund ideology of kingship. De Heusch (2009) is wrong when he implies that a clear opposition between Ruwej and Kamong is maintained and reinforced in the royal court nowadays by the sterility of the dignitary who perpetuates the mythical princess, the notable with the title of Nswaan Murund. It might have escaped de Heusch—who did not do fieldwork among the Aruwund—that both the Nswaan Murund and the Rukonkish (who perpetuates Kamong) are strictly sterile dignitaries at the court. This feature, thus, brings them together rather than opposing them.
As a matter of fact, the duality of Ruwej is clearly codified in the power insignia of the dignitary who represents her nowadays at the king’s court. The Nswaan Murund’s insignia exhibits a hybrid nature, including at once elements present in the symbols of office of the atubung, the dignitaries associated with autochthony and the primitive system, and elements that characterize the regalia of the ayilol, the nobles who represent the innovative political and symbolic order. In this way, the princess seems to embody both the egalitarian ideology, which is a feature of the original system, and the hierarchical principle characterizing the new order (see Palmeirim, 1998).
This very same twofold profile is once more superbly conveyed by the mask representing Ruwej that I have analyzed in a short text titled As Duas Faces de Ruwej ("The two faces of Ruwej", 2003; also 2008). This mask, manufactured by a Cokwe artist for a Lunda initiation ceremony and photographed by Manuel Jordán during his fieldwork in Zambia in the beginnings of the 1990s (Jordán, 1993), exhibits two faces oriented in opposite directions. As I hope to have shown, the mask is indeed the flawless plastic and metaphoric representation of the intrinsic ambiguity that I have argued to define the Ruwund ideological thinking concerning royalty and, in particular, the behavior of the mythical figure Ruwej. The princess encompasses, on her own, the whole of the duality that de Heusch attributes to the pair Cibind Yirung/Ruwej. She remains attached to the ancestral order of the atubung (only to Ruwej do these chiefs owe any allegiance), and yet she engages, herself or through Kamong (depending on the versions we consider), in the inception of kingship; she declares herself sterile, yet she is fertile in some variants; she represents the egalitarian principle of the atubung, yet her insignia also exhibits the hierarchical ideology of the innovative order. As I shall argue next, she can be seen as the king’s spouse, and yet she is also one of his kin. She is indeed a two-faced heroine for she seems to blur and fade, at times, into the features that appeared, at the eyes of de Heusch, to fit in a clear-cut manner Cibind Yirung alone.
Unsolved Paradoxes From the Structuralist Point of View
It is “paradoxes” such as the above that are of impossible resolution were we to adopt the structural framework of analysis. And yet, for the Aruwund, statements that appear contradictory to the Western mind co-exist peacefully. What is escaping our understanding then?
Ruwund mythical figures are perpetuated nowadays—through a system of “positional succession” similar to that pointed out by Audrey Richards (1940, 1950) for the Bemba of Northern Zambia—by living dignitaries who inhabit the capital of the Ruwund kingdom as well as villages in the outlying domains. A new incumbent to a “position,” or to an office, so to speak, inherits the status and past experiences of earlier incumbents, as well as the kinship relationships that linked his predecessors to other titled dignitaries (this system, named “perpetual kinship” by Ian Cunnison , was first described by this author for the Luapula peoples or Eastern Lunda). It is so that the chiefs and close relatives of Ruwej, who are said in the myth to have ruled with her before the arrival of the foreign hunter, are represented nowadays in Ruwund land by a set of dignitaries called atubung.
The atubung, together with the noble who perpetuates Ruwej at the court (the Nswaan Murund), embody the autochthonous and ancestral power, that is, the original social system. These chiefs follow an egalitarian ideology and set themselves aside the complex and highly hierarchized political system that the first Mwant Yaav, son of Yirung, would establish with the foundation of kingship and the state. For the “original chiefs,” the Mwant Yaav will forever remain, as Cibind Yirung himself (his father and predecessor), a being coming from outside, alien to the primitive and local culture that they themselves represent. As a result, the atubung do not participate in the life of the royal court at the capital. They inhabit the distant lands between the rivers Nkalaany and Kajidij, considered the cradle of the Ruwund kingdom and the scenario of the events recalled by the oral traditions as leading to the emergence of kingship.
Notwithstanding the fact that the atubung represent an order that they often claim to be “non-submissive” to that of Yirung and the Mwant Yaav, they are—“paradoxically” once more—the ritual investors of the king. It is the atubung who officiate the healing and purification ceremonies that will make the heir a new king, and it is them who, in the enthronement ceremony, hand over to the king to be the sacred bracelet, symbol of royal power. The “opposition” between the autochthonous system and the hierarchy of the new order can only be, therefore, part of the whole picture. It is the atubung who initiate the heir into kingship and the Nswaan Murund, the ultimate representative of the autochthonous order, exhibits in her regalia some insignia that connects her directly to the new order of the Mwant Yaav (a crown, for instance). Most conclusive of all is the fact that the term “kabung” itself, used to designate a chief who ruled with Ruwej before the arrival of Cibind Yirung, means “he who performs ubung,” that is, “he who performs the ritual action at a king/chief’s investiture,” thus implying that the category of “atubung”—and the term itself—did not exist prior to the installation of kingship. The intrinsic overlapping between the two orders becomes undeniable. Only occasionally—and artificially—can they be separated, as they are indeed part of one and the same whole.
These ritual officers, the atubung, are—just like all other titleholders of the kingdom—linked to each other, and to the king, by symbolic kinship ties of a perpetual nature. In trying to register, while doing fieldwork, the maze of relations generated by the perpetual kinship system, I came across a contradiction which baffled me. In different moments of the research—and as I talked to different informants—I had written in my field books two statements that seemed to me entirely irreconcilable. Some of my informants had told me that the atubung were, at the symbolic level, the “brothers-in-law/cousins-in-law” (ankwed) of the Mwant Yaav. On other occasions, however, other—or even the very same informants—would state that they were the king’s “maternal uncles” (amantu). The two avowals sounded to me incompatible: Were they, after all, in-laws of the sovereign, or else his “maternal uncles” (and, therefore, of his own kin)?
Had it not been for the persistence of the Aruwund in affirming that both assertions were accurate, I would never have ventured into trying to make them intelligible. But indeed, puzzles of this sort are not uncommon when dealing with the system of perpetual kinship. Jeffrey Hoover (1978) refers to this particular feature when he writes,
. . . perpetual kinship ties among individual titles are not structured in a logical, coherent system. Each title has its own maze of relationships with its peers, ties which become contradictory when pursued as in a once popular American song: “I Am My Own Grandpa.” (p. 121)
Contrary to what we could be led to believe at a first glance, however, apparently incompatible statements (such as the one just mentioned about the perpetual kinship tie between the atubung and the sovereign) are not the result of incoherent and ludicrous thinking. Instead, as I hope to demonstrate, they form—as well as emanate from—a scrupulously structured whole, responsible as it were for a vast and elaborate array of meanings.
As we try to make sense of this twofold symbolic relation between the atubung and the sovereign, we should be reminded that, according to the oral traditions, the first Mwant Yaav (whom the present incumbent represents) was Cibind Yirung’s son, not the hunter himself. This statement, however, does not invalidate the fact that the Mwant Yaav is equally avowed by the Aruwund to represent Cibind Yirung himself bearing in mind that, being his heir, Yaav identifies with his father (and predecessor) by means of the system of positional succession.
In the light of what has just been said, the double nature of the tie that unites the king to the atubung becomes easily intelligible. Should we consider the Mwant Yaav as the successor of Cibind Yirung, then the dignitary who, at the court, represents Ruwej is expectedly seen to perpetuate the relationship of “spouse” of the king. As a consequence, the atubung, whose perpetual kinship relation toward the princess is that of “siblings/cousins” (anamaaku), are “affines” (“brothers-in-law/cousins-in-law,” ankwed) of the sovereign. However, should we consider the king as being the son of Yirung instead (a statement which, due to positional succession, makes equal sense to the Aruwund), then Ruwej becomes his maaku (a kinship term used for both “mother” and “aunt”). Even in the versions in which it is Kamong the biological mother of the first sovereign, Kamong’s son would address both her mother and Ruwej by the same kinship term for Kamong is said to be Ruwej’s “sister/cousin” (mwanamaaku). Hence, if Ruwej is maaku of the Mwant Yaav, then the atubung, as her “brothers/cousins,” become the king’s kin (his “maternal uncles,” amantu).4
In fact, the ambiguity and ductility generated by the perpetual kinship system allow Ruwund dignitaries a wide margin of maneuvering when in need of stating their link to the king and other court notables. But, above all, this ambiguity is a vehicle of meaning. As the king’s “brothers-in-law/cousins-in-law,” the atubung proclaim a relationship of alliance or affinity toward the sovereign, in this way emphasizing that the new order installed results essentially from the alliance with a foreigner, an alliance marked by difference. As his “maternal uncles,” on the contrary, they declare themselves engaged in an order in which the king is seen as their close relative, that is, as an autochthonous being, “son” of Ruwej and, therefore, a direct descendant of the local chiefs (the atubung) and a native of the original lands at the Nkalaany. The universe of symbolic thinking of the Aruwund takes up constantly the idiom of “kin and affine,” of the “identical” and the “different,” to highlight what are two absolutely inextricable sides of the same ideology: that the king is both an “outsider” and “one of us.”
Do “Culture Heroes” Exist?
However, the discourse built on ambivalence, apparent paradoxes, enigmas, and seemingly logical ruptures unveils other insights into the Ruwund ideology of kingship.
Contrasting Ruwej and Cibind Yirung in his analysis, de Heusch considers the alien hunter to be what became commonly named in the specialized literature as a “culture hero.” In his view, Cibind Yirung appears as the bearer per excellence of the new royalty, conceptualized as a more refined and culturally higher system of organization. This theme of the “civilizing hero” (héros civilisateur) indeed crosses all literature on Central African oral traditions of foundation of kinship. As a result—and as an outcome of the structuralist standpoint, as seen before—the contribution of the autochthonous power to the foundation of kingship is, by opposition, minimized, the role of Ruwej being seen of a passive kind. De Heusch’s argument, consequently, has us believe that kingship is conceived in the myth as an order alien to the indigenous population which, coming from outside, penetrates one other more rudimentary civilization, presided over by the Ruwund princess. It is as though the two orders are of a totally different nature, and the process is essentially carried out by the foreigner himself.
However, whereas the above interpretation—that kingship is construed ideologically as an order introduced from the exterior—has indeed clear echoes in Ruwund context, the opposite idea is maintained by the Aruwund with equal forcefulness. As a matter of fact, the oral narratives do not present the process of “foundation” of kingship as a mere—if undesired—submission to a foreigner and the principles of an alien civilization. Ruwej is actively involved in the project, so I claimed. Also, despite the fact that in some versions Ruwej is herself willing to entrust the symbol of power to Cibind Yirung (Dias de Carvalho, 1890, p. 75; Duysters, 1958, p. 83; Struyf, 1948, pp. 374-375), the Aruwund do not make of the foreign hunter their first sovereign. Kinship ties have to be forged with autochthony, that is with the native people and land, before kingship is founded and a king proclaimed. The sovereign who inaugurates the dynasty of the Ant Yaav is not Cibind Yirung, but his son. Moreover, if the descent from Yirung confers to the king, no doubt, a strong element of otherness, he is also seen as a native being for he is able to claim unquestionable links, on the maternal side, to Ruwej, her sister/cousin Kamong and the original people of the Nkalaany. The Aruwund, hence, find sturdy grounds on which to contend both the king’s alien nature and his filiation to the autochthonous culture.
Ruwund ideological thinking, thus, due to its richness and intrinsic ambiguity, cannot be made to fit submissively de Heusch’s statement that the myth conceptualizes the king and kingship itself as “coming from elsewhere” (as re-asserted in his 1991 article). This being so, the concept of “culture hero”—central as it has become in the relevant literature—might call for some serious rethinking.
Further to what has been said, Dias de Carvalho’s version of the myth tells us that Cibind Yirung arrives at the land of the Aruwund in possession of the Luba insignia of royalty (the cimbuuy, a small hatchet). However, the hunter explicitly renounces this hatchet (which he returns to his brother in Luba country) to embrace instead, as insignia of the new sovereignty, the sacred bracelet of the Ruwund ancestors called rukan (Dias de Carvalho, 1890, p. 69). It is therefore in the old society of Ruwej and the atubung that Yirung finds the ultimate source of the “new” power!
In previous writings, I have set forward a whole argumentation to justify why, in view of these and other apparently paradoxical data, it is no longer legitimate to conclude, with de Heusch, that the Ruwund myth speaks of the introduction of a new civilization (de Heusch, 1972, p. 187; 1991, p. 115), in the sense that the essence of sovereignty would be symbolically conceptualized as having penetrated from another place, a place exterior to society (de Heusch, 1972, p. 276; 1982b, pp. 26-27). If an element of otherness is indeed essential to the founding of this renewed order, it is the symbol of the autochthonous power (the bracelet called rukan) that is taken to become the insignia of kingship. Instead, I have argued (on the basis of other lengthy empirical data which I am unable to resume here, see 1996, pp. 49-55, 124-127) that this narrative is, in Ruwund symbolic thinking, less of a “foundation myth” and more a tale on re-creation or re-building of the autochthonous society.
Some Additional Data
Ruwund kingship ideology is not solely characterized by blurredness and merging of characters and by the intricate interplay between conjunction-disjunction, fluidity, and ambiguity. The Aruwund speak constantly of ujindj, “secrecy.” Statements contained in symbolic formulae and the dignitaries’ praise-names (nkumbu) often conceal a double reading, a secret meaning which only some are aware of. They are two-faced statements, or else they resort to deceiving forms that conceal an unspoken truth, not to be disclosed to all. Multiple discourses can hide behind each other or within each other and be constantly played against each other. Let me illustrate with some data.
The major court dignitary Rukonkish, heir of Kamong (the second wife of the hunter who was to give birth to the first king), is considered the symbolic “mother/aunt” (maaku) of the sovereign by the perpetual kinship system. However, as some of my informants remarked, this perpetual tie aims at concealing that the Rukonkish, being the heir of Cibind Yirung’s second wife, is also the sovereign’s spouse (as by positional succession the king is both the son and the father, to whose office the former succeeds). In this view, the Rukonkish is indeed a rival of the Nswaan Murund, the notable who represents Ruwej at the court, for they can both be seen as “wives” of the sovereign. Only by playing down the Rukonkish’s role as “wife” and emphasize that of “mother” can the system obscure her importance and elude the clash with Ruwej. In her turn, the heir of Ruwej (the Nswaan Murund), who can again be seen as both the king’s “wife” and his maaku (Kamong being Ruwej’s sister/cousin), sees her first role highlighted in detriment of the second. By doing this, the perpetual kinship system deals with the intrinsic ambiguity of Ruwund ideological thought. Nevertheless, the underlying complexity remains the knowledge of many and is never meant to be completely dissolved. One of my informants bluntly stated that the Rukonkish is “a hidden spouse, cloaked as a mother.”
Ruwej, we saw, is a two-faced heroine. Likewise, two-faced are the chiefs (ayilol) who constitute the group of the iin mazemb, the descendants of the original people of the Nkalaany who inhabit the quarters just behind the royal palace, at the capital. They represent, in Musumb, the Ruwund ancestors and the local rule and are considered the original owners of the rukan. After the death of a king, it is the people of the mazemb (with Ruwej) who select the new king, and it is their main chief (the Sakawaat Nkwaany) who will occupy the Mwant Yaav’s throne during the interregnum. Being the successor of Cibind Yirung, the foreign hunter, the king is seen by the mazemb as an “intruder” in Ruwund land and, therefore, the former represents a constant threat to the Mwant Yaav. It is from the mazemb that the Ruwund sovereign fears betrayal, and this is the reason why the people of the mazemb are praised as ampumb a mazu maad (“the two-faced traitors”).
This built-in ideological conflict between the people of the Nkalaany, said to be at the origin of Ruwund power (and considered the legitimate holders of its utmost ancestral symbol, the rukan), and the rule which came to be installed in association with an alien figure, the foreign hunter Cibind Yirung, produces an overriding duplicity and concealment in the way praise-phrases of Ruwund dignitaries are often verbalized and construed.
The dignitary from Nkalaany Mwant Kawungul, for instance, is praised as cipepil da mazemb, ikuny wapepa kasu, ing kukamekeneaku ant ajim (“the lighter of the mazemb, the man who lit the fire from which the big chiefs originated”). The fire is inextricably associated with chiefship and kingship. It is indeed around the fire, inside the seclusion hut called masas, that the heir to an office is to undertake the therapeutic process which will make him or her a chief, or a king. The ceremony lasts all night, and the fire should never extinguish itself. However, this praise is often uttered differently by notables at the royal court (at the capital), interested as they are in hiding or minimizing the major role of this Nkalaany chief, who may be seen to question the decisive and crucial character of Cibind Yirung’s action in the foundation of kingship. It is so that this nkumbu is often recited as cipepil da mazemb, ikuny wapepa kasu ni matakwa (“the lighter of the mazemb, the man who lit the fire with his buttocks [through the release of intestinal gases, it is meant]”). Still, disguised in these shameful words, intended to ridicule, is the idea that the essence of royalty should ultimately be traced to the original and autochthonous chiefs of the Nkalaany, not to the foreign hunter, as it could appear at first sight or be implied on other occasions.
A Call for a New Approach to Myth
I have highlighted the main arguments that point to the insufficiency of the structuralist approach in the analysis of Central African “foundation myths.” De Heusch seems to think, however, that my view of the Ruwund narrative as conveying more of a “process of social renewal” than an “act of foundation” is an assertion on my part about the specificity of the Ruwund epic within the wider set of other Central African homologous narratives, which, in his opinion, I fail to consider. In his words,
. . . she refuses to believe that the ideology conveyed by this narrative [the Ruwund epic], recurrent in the rather diverse (fort diverse) mythical history of Black Africa, could be susceptible of the same interpretation everywhere. She thinks that the providential arrival of Tshibinda [“Cibind,” in my text] can only be interpreted by going deeper into the Lunda [Ruwund] epic itself. She therefore opposes my approach, which consists in taking a look (jeter un regard) at neighbouring peoples or even at a whole continent. (de Heusch, 2009, p. 121; my translation).
Although my analysis in Of Alien Kings was mainly centered on Ruwund material, I did not lose sight of neighboring contexts, as I claimed at the beginning of this text. The ambiguity, suppleness, pliability, and blurredness of Ruwund mythical characters and discourse, as well as their consequent disavowal to fit models of a dichotomous nature, are not necessarily a specificity of the Ruwund context. Indeed, I dare making the bold suggestion that it might be an intrinsic feature of “mythical thinking,” wherever we may find it.
Allen Roberts, in an article written in 1991, elaborates on the dual nature of Mbidi Kiluwe’s plastic representations. Mbidi Kiluwe is, in Luba oral traditions, the counterpart of Cibind Yirung in Ruwund narratives. Also a hunter coming from elsewhere, Mbidi Kiluwe marries—just like his homologous figure—two autochthonous princesses and, by this token, originates a new Luba dynasty founded by his son, Kalala Ilunga. The statues representing Mbidi Kiluwe are also Janus-faced (Roberts, 1991), just like Ruwej’s mask collected by Manuel Jordán in Zambia, to which a discourse on ambiguity is explicitly associated. The latter and similar other data make us suspect that deeper fieldwork—and, in particular, one unconstrained by binary models of thinking—might indeed reveal data pertaining to analogous conclusions in Central African contexts other than that of the Aruwund.
The structuralist concept of “opposition” appears to be too rigid a concept to be able to grasp the complexity of Ruwund thinking: mythical heroines who are at once “mothers” and “spouses” of the king; perpetual titleholders who can be defined both as the sovereign’s “kin” and as his “in-laws”; a king who is simultaneously declared an alien and a native, the son, and the father; an order in which power can be viewed as “coming from outside” as well as generating “from within”; autochthony both preceding and being the outcome of kingship. It is indeed as if the ideological universe of the Aruwund would claim this intrinsic ambiguity (what to Western eyes appears as “contradiction” or sheer “paradox”) as the very mechanism on which their thinking is built. Derrida’s deconstruction of the logic of opposition based on the endlessly imbricated interplay between différence and différance could find here solid grounds for existence: Signs forever merging and overlapping each other; signs that appear to produce—and yet are also the effect—of other signs. In this philosophical frame, kingship could be said “autochthony deferred,” “the other deferred,” as the “old” order is simultaneously the origin and the effect of the installation of the “new” order.5
One cannot play down such lushness of data (along with all the intricate and subtle meanings it conveys) in the name of a comparative structural analysis with “homologous” contexts. Instead, meticulous attention has to be devoted to this kind of material, and new research in contexts neighboring the Aruwund may indeed unveil similar mechanisms of thought. In fact, authors working with mythological constructions in geographical areas very distant from the Central African contexts have disclosed ways of building mythical thinking that recall—and some even resemble—those pointed out here for the Aruwund. Manuel Ramos (2006), for instance, points out similar mechanisms in Christian mythology epitomized in the merging of the God-Father (the Creator) and the God-Son (Jesus Christ, the Savior). In the context of Indian narratives, Gomes da Silva (2010) talks of characters fading into one another, about “consubstantiality” of apparently opposed mythical heroes and deities repeatedly involved in tales of “mutual creation” or “mutual parenthood” (pp. 88, 162, for example), about stories built within stories. Indianist authors try to grasp the astounding intricacy of devices used in the creation of mythical thought in oral and written texts by resorting to such multifaceted configurations as the hologram (Gomes da Silva) or the growth of crystal strata (Ramanujan, cited by Gomes da Silva, 2010). Blurredness, ambivalence, “consubstantiality,” fluidity, and suppleness appear to constitute, in Central Africa as elsewhere, the array of logical and symbolic instruments able to convey—as well as create and recreate—the prodigious intricacy and sophistication of meanings that emanate from mythological thinking.
The author thanks Gomes da Silva and the anonymous reviewers for the valuable contribution of their perceptive comments, in particular the reviewer who drew her attention to the eventual confluences between her analysis and Derrida’s framework of thought.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: I am grateful to the following institutions for funding research which served as a basis for this article: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, The University of London Central Research Fund, Instituto Nacional de Investigação Científica, Junta Nacional de Investigação Científica e Tecnológica, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian and the University of Minho.
↵1. The Aruwund (or Northern Lunda) inhabit the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), spreading also across the northeastern edge of Angola into DRC southwest Bandundu province, where we find a smaller group speaking a different dialect. They are organized as a kingdom under the rule of a paramount chief who holds the title of Mwant Yaav. In this text, I shall use “Aruwund” as the noun that denominates these Lunda peoples, and “Ruwund” as the adjective.
↵2. Bearing in mind this second statement of mine, I find it difficult to understand the following remark made by de Heusch in his commentary on my work: “She therefore opposes my approach, which consists in taking a look (jeter un regard) at neighbouring peoples, or even at a whole continent” (de Heusch, 2009, p. 121, my translation). By adopting as a starting point for my own reasoning de Heusch’s analysis of these narratives (without ever questioning its comparative nature), I acknowledge implicitly (as well as explicitly, see, for instance, Palmeirim, 2006, pp. 43-45) the merits of the latter. Indeed, although my book does not aim at a horizontal analysis of Central African material (once more, even if recognizing its fruitfulness and value), I myself resort to other contexts to enlighten Ruwund data. This is particularly obvious in the “Epilogue” where I recall Luba and even Hawaiian ethnography to emphasize the crucial importance of the wandering quality of the hero hunter (Palmeirim, 2006, pp. 125-126).
↵3. In the Luba homologous foundation narrative, Bulanda and Mabela, the hunter Mbidi Kiluwe’s two wives, are also close relatives.
↵5. Some moments of Derrida’s 1968 conference on Différance are magnificently clarified by the Ruwund material here presented and, in turn, help out in making the latter more intelligible. Derrida (1982) states that the differences are themselves “effects” (p. 11). They are “the one in difference with itself” (Derrida, 1982, p. 22), but this does not mean that the différance—as a “system of referral” that “produces” the differences and constitutes them “historically”—is originated before them (Derrida, 1982, pp. 11-12). “It is because of différance that the movement of signification is possible only if each so-called ‘present’ element . . . is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element . . .” (Derrida, 1982, p. 13) It is so that kingship, as “autochthony deferred,” elects for its greatest insignia the rukan, the ultimate symbol of the “old” order. Hence, as claimed before, only momentarily—and somehow artificially—can kingship and autochthony be split up into two separate entities: “One is but the other different and deferred, one differing and deferring the other . . . This is why every apparently rigorous and irreducible opposition . . . comes to be qualified, at one moment or another, as a ‘theoretical fiction.’”(Derrida, 1982, p. 18)
- © The Author(s) 2016
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Manuela Palmeirim is professor of anthropology at the University of Minho, Portugal, currently on leave of absence to work at The State University of Zanzibar, Tanzania. She is the author of Of Alien Kings and Perpetual Kin (2006), among other publications. Having conducted extensive fieldwork among the Aruwund (Lunda) of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on foundation myths and kingship ideology, she is currently working on sorcery and the building of knowledge in Zanzibar.