Venda Divining Bowl

13cm height x 34 cm width x 35 cm depth
This object is the property of Iziko Museums. Should you wish to make use of it in any manner, permission must be obtained from Iziko Museums.

The object itself should only be handled with gloves, be housed in low humidity, and be in a light controlled area. The object may not make direct contact with wooden surfaces.

Object Domicile

In E11/100 bottom
Iziko Social History Centre, Cape Town, South Africa -33.9253° S, 18.4215° E

Object Origin

Limpopo, South Africa
-23.4013° S, 29.4179° E Unknown

The VhaVenda people have a longstanding wood carving history. The wood carving traditions were either for royal families where rare and abstract items would be carved, or figurative carvings would be used for public rites of passage ceremonies. The ndilo was used only by special diviners. There are not many ndilo left, as the VhaVenda stopped making them in the 1900s. This particular ndilo was created in the Limpopo region in South Africa for these communal reasons, but it is unknown who the specific maker of the object is.

Reimagining Sacred Objects in the Colonial Archive

The Iziko Social History Centre (ISHC) holds the ndilo, also known as the ‘Venda Divining Bowl’ in its social history collections on behalf of the University of Cape Town’s anthropology department, where it is closely looked after by Gerald Klinghardt, the curator of social anthropology at ISHC. The ndilo is catalogued as ‘UCT 29/78 Venda Divining Bowl, Limpopo. Presented by H.A Stayt, 1929’. The creator of it is ‘unrecorded’.

The ndilo is circular in form, supported by three legs. It is made of wood and fibre, and has a cowrie shell placed in the centre. The rim is carved with semi-abstract markings that resemble reptiles such as pythons and crocodiles. These animals are symbolic to various VhaVenda clans. The cowrie shell is believed to represent female genitals, as well as the wealth of the chief.

When misfortune struck a family, such as a death that was believed to be caused by witchcraft, a mungome (diviner) would be called upon. It was required that a black goat be made a sacrifice to please the ancestors. The mungome would then use a ndilo to find the witch that had caused the misfortune. This process required that the ndilo be filled with water, and a seed would be placed to float in it. If the seed floated to the edge of the ndilo along the carved forms, this would indicate to the diviner which person had committed the murder. Witchcraft was perceived as a danger to the whole community. Where it was suspected that witchcraft had been committed, the chief would receive a report. Upon finding the individual who had committed the murder, that person would either be executed or banished from the village.

While the story of the ndilo is silenced in the museum storeroom and on the accession card, it has much to show and tell us. The narrative of the ndilo, despite its complexities of classification and displacement teaches that a (re)turn to the (re)learning from indigenous knowledge and wisdom is needed. The ndilo needs to be treated with respect, reflection and compassion, as it sheds light on the integral nature of spirituality in everyday life.

The Iziko Social History Centre (ISHC) has a ‘Venda Divining Bowl’ in its collections, closely looked after by Gerald Klinghardt, curator of social anthropology at ISHC. The divining bowl, held on behalf of the University of Cape Town’s anthropology department, is catalogued ‘UCT 29/78 Venda Divining Bowl, Limpopo’. The creator of the divining bowl is ‘unrecorded’. It is 13 cm high x 34 cm wide x 35 cm deep.

The divining bowl currently sits in the ISHC storerooms, stripped of its original function and displaced from space and time; its sacred historical and cosmological narrative rendered invisible. As such, it is difficult to avoid reading it through an anthropological lens. However, it is necessary to subvert the voyeuristic and invasive gaze by being cognisant of and paying homage to those it was initially meant to serve. My approach in doing this is to shift the focus from conserving its materiality to beginning to think about liberating its intangible cultural, epistemological and cosmological significance.

It is perhaps not possible to do justice to the object through cataloguing and display, as so much information has been lost, omitted or erased. Yet it also might not help to attempt to replicate its original function in this contemporary moment, because it has already been utterly decontextualised. A more reflexive and critical approach could be taken in its cataloguing, so my curatorial project is more restorative while being aware of its previous misrepresentations. This essay brings to the forefront larger issues that are embodied by the object, and its place in the ISHC’s collections.

In the threads of VhaVenda belief that stretch back into the past, distant time was not comprehended through the daily processes that we commonly understand to work in linear time. The justification for this understanding is the VhaVenda belief that the supernatural world’s sequence of events, which is cyclical, has a direct impact on the historical events in the world of linear time. This view is different from the linear view of European notions of Enlightenment. A strong relationship exists between political power and religious status among VhaVenda people. They believe in a supreme god called Raluvhimba – the ‘Ra’ refers to a figure of respect – father – and ‘luvhimba’ is an eagle, a bird that soars high amongst the heavens. Raluvhimba is believed to be in tune with astronomical phenomena. The natural happenings of the earth, such as floods, thunder, lightning, pests and epidemics are believed to be revelations of his greatness. Raluvhimba is perceived as a figure that provides; his nurture stretches over the tribe in its entirety, not only over individuals.

The VhaVenda have a long-standing wood-carving history. The wood-carving traditions were either for royal families, when rare and abstract items would be carved, or figurative carvings used for public rite-of-passage ceremonies. The ndilo falls under the former, with its abstract designs used only by special diviners. The ndilo is made from wood, bone and fiber, and its use dates back to the late 1800s. The carvings on the bowl can best be seen from above and include images of animals and animal parts, such as python, crocodile, elephant tusks, etc., and the bowl has a cowrie shell in its centre. The cowrie is believed to represent female genitals, as well as the wealth of the chief. Three very short legs hold the bowl up. Similar divining bowls have been found around Shona and north-eastern Sotho territories. In the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a bowl made from soapstone was identified and dated back to the 14th Century.

The mungome (diviner) are thought to have been the only individuals who were permitted to access the ndilo. When the ndilo was in use, the bowl was filled with water, and seeds were placed inside. The bowl would tell the diviner a story based on the movement of the seeds on the water, in relation to the carved images beneath. When the ritual was performed, the mungome uttered their interpretations of the movement of the seeds, and their conclusions would be based on the dynamics of the community, such as who could be considered a witch.

When misfortune, such as an inexplicable death, strikes a family, a mungome is called upon. Generally it is required that either a black or white cow or chicken be made a sacrifice in order to please the ancestors. The mungome will then use a ndilo to find the witches that caused the misfortune. In some instances, a seed floating above an image represented displeased ancestors. If the seeds stayed in the centre of the bowl and did not come into contact with the rim of the bowl, the death in the family was not caused by a witch but through the wrath of the ancestors. When the seeds did touch the sides of the bowl, the images that the seeds were floating upon represented the maternal lineage of the witch.

Witchcraft was perceived as a danger to the whole community. Where it was suspected that witchcraft had been committed, the chief would receive a report. The investigation of the witch would begin as soon as the family lodged a complaint with the chief. The mungome were considered capable of solving the case, and would be called upon by the chief’s messenger. The ritual around its use commonly took place in the chief’s court. If a seed floating in the bowl touches any of the figures carved on the rim, which represented the family’s totem, it indicated the presence of a witch in the group. When the witch had been found, a discussion of their fate would be held. A witch would either be banished from the village or executed. In instances where a witch was not found, the relatives of the deceased would have to please the ancestors by gifting them (Loubser, 1989).

The ndilo also had generational significance, as it was an heirloom passed down from father to son. The mungome were with the family of the deceased when the ndilo was in use. The standard procedure required each participant to rub their eyes with owl droppings to prevent them from going blind when they looked at the bowl.

There are not many ndilo left, as the VhaVenda stopped making them in the early 1900s. Its anthropological classification in the ISHC archive has led to a dissonance between the ndilo’s original context and its embedded spiritual and cultural meaning. I want to make sense of the ndilo as part of a larger narrative that reimagines sacred objects in the colonial archive. This involves seeing it outside of the colonial lexicon, which is simplistic, reductive and problematic. The ndilo, once a living and breathing part of a community, instrumental in carrying out community rituals, has been left in the storerooms of the ISHC, leaving very little room for it to be remembered or revered as an object instrumental in cultural and religious traditions.

The narrative of this ndilo, despite its complexities of classification and displacement, teaches us that a relearning from indigenous knowledge and wisdom is needed. It also sheds light on how integral spirituality is to everyday life. The ndilo should be treated with respect, reflection and compassion.


Further Reading

Loubser, J. H. N. 1989. Archaeology and Early Venda History. Goodwin Series 6 (June): 54–61.

Stayt, H. A. 1931. The Bavenda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


H.A Stayt, the anthropologist who collected and donated the object to UCT. Gerald Klinghardt, curator of the Anthropology Collection at the Iziko Social History Centre. Contribute information to this page