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Ukubhula – A South African divination practice [Divination in the East, West, & Africa]

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What is ukubhula?

Ukubhula is the main divination method that is used by izangoma (the plural term for isangoma or a sangoma), South African psychic diviners.

Just to clarify, isangoma is not the same as inyanga and inyanga is not the same as a herbalist. But all three (isangoma, inyanga, & herbalist) are traditional healers. A sangoma is what you call a psychic healer, they use divination to heal people. Inyanga is a traditional medicinal healer, they use traditional medicines made from plants, animal extracts, and minerals to heal people. A sangoma also knows how to concoct medicine, but divination is their main method of healing. The same is true for inyanga, they can divine but mainly heal with concocted medicine. A herbalist is a plant specialist, this can be a person that deals with herbs or a person that uses plants to heal people.

The innate knowledge that izangoma and izinyanga (the plural term for inyanga) possess is not really their own. The innate insight they have about plants (in the case of izinyanga) and situations (in the case of izangoma) is imparted to them through their intuition (or sixth sense) and their dreams, this can be lucid and vivid dreams. Later in the post, I will discuss how izangoma induce lucid and vivid dreams. Even though insights about plants and situations are imparted on izangoma and izinyanga, they can still be guided to learn more about certain plants or divination practices. A herbalist on the other hand obtains their information purely from the five senses. And for them, healing is more of a profession than a calling. Umthakathi, or a witch, is also a diviner that knows about traditional medicines and their insights are also imparted on them, but they choose to use the knowledge to cause harm rather than heal.

To simplify, a sangoma, inyanga, and a herbalist are all traditional healers. They just heal using different means. Umthakathi is a healer that rebels and chooses to use their gift of healing to inflict pain and affliction on others. If you need further clarity on the differences between a sangoma, inyanga and umthakathi consider following this link to a Youtube video African spiritual terminology.

Ukubhula is a divination method used by izangoma. Divination is an esoteric practice of gaining insight about a situation (or obtaining answers to a question) using unorthodox means. There are different types of divination.

Types of divination

Ukubhula is a divination method that is most prominent in South African traditional medicine. However, it is not the only method of divination. There are many other methods of divination, some are more prominent in certain races, cultures, and countries. The divination methods in the West are more mainstream than African methodologies. A quick search on the internet for divination methods generates the following mainstream methods:

  • Astrology, a type of divination that is based on the observation and interpretation of celestial bodies. There are different types of astrology. There’s western astrology that is more popular in Western societies such as the U.S. In the east, countries such as India, Vedic astrology tends to be the more popular type of astrology.
  • Cartomancy makes use of cards to gain insights about the past, present, and future. There are different types of cards that can be used in cartomancy namely: tarot cards, lenormand cards, and oracle cards.
  • Numerology is a divination method that uses the symbolism of numbers. A numerologist interprets numbers to gain insights about everything pertaining to your life.
  • Chiromancy is a method of divination that works by reading the lines on the palm of the hand. It’s also known as palm reading. A palm reader gains insight regarding a person’s life and future by interpreting the lines on their hand.
  • Scrying, this is when a person looks into a medium like a crystal, water, or a mirror. Western movies with witches often depict witches using a medium such as a crystal ball to look at the other character’s past, present, and-or future.
  • Pyromancy is a method of divination that uses fire or heat. This is when a person gains insight about a situation or answers to a question using fire or heat as a medium.
  • Tasseomancy is a method of divination that uses tea leaves. It’s also called tea leave reading.
  • Sciomancy is divination that involves the evocation of the dead, it is almost similar to necromancy, another method of divination that uses the dead. Both sciomancy and necromancy divinations channel the dead but unlike necromancy, sciomancy does not need a physical dead body.

The abovementioned divination methods are predominantly mainstream and popular in the west. The divination techniques used in Africa are less conventional and not as ubiquitous. For example:

  • Cowrie-shell divination is a type of divination that is used in West Africa and some parts of India. Cowry is a common name for a sea snail and a cowrie-shell is the shell of a sea snail. An example of cowrie-shell divination is sixteen cowries’ divination that is practiced by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. This is a type of divination that uses sixteen cowries. In Yoruba mythology, the number sixteen represents the number of Yoruba deities that are believed to have established life on earth. Yoruba people also practice what’s called Ifa divination which is a type of divination where the diviner will cast the opele (a type of divining chain) on a divining mat.
  • The Algerian people’s divination practice is called būqālah poetry rituals. Būqālah is the name of a porous clay water pitcher with two handles and is used to divine the future. Algerian women use this method of divination to predict the fate of their male children, their husbands, and to predict their future lovers.
  • The people of Ethiopia have their own method of divination that uses astrology and numerology known as Awdunigist— a divination method that works by counting stars in the sky at night.
  • In the Butaleja district in Uganda, there are the Banyole people amongst these people are what you call Lamuli — these are diviners who practice divination in one of two ways:
  • The first type is divination by invocation. This is divination through spirit mediumship.
  • The second type of divination is divination by examining Arab books such as the Holy Quran, the Sa’atili Habari, and the Abu Mashari Faraki. This type of divination was first inspired by Ali bin Nasoor, a trader from Oman (an Arabian country in southwestern Asia) who settled in the Butajela district. This type of divination is very similar to bibliomancy.
  • In Kenya, female diviner healers are known as Chepsageinik. Their divination technique is similar to osteomancy, a divination practice that uses bones as a medium. Kenyan diviners use small pieces of round stones called Barbarek that they put in a calabash. They shake the calabash with the stones and cast (throw) them on the floor. The other type of diviner in Kenya is called aganga, who divine through mediumship. Ajuoga is another type of diviner in Kenya. Ajuoga divine using the following three methods:
  • Ga^gi — divination using pebbles.
  • Mbofua — divination using a board.
  • Ajawu — divination with gourd (or calabash).
  • In Swahili, they have Falak, an astrology and numerology diviner that practices divination using a science known as ‘ilm al-Falak. This was the science that was used by the Arabic and Omani people to teach Africans astronomy and astrology.
  • In Sudan, the faqih fulfills the role of a diviner. Faqih are Muslim theologians and jurist.
  • In Congo and Angola, the diviner among the Bayaka or Yaka people are known as ganga (or Ngoombu) and they divine through spirit mediumship. During the divination process the mokoku (a type of carved slit drum) is used. The diviner taps the drum to evoke spiritual forces.

  • Oneiromancy is divination through dreams. South Africa diviners will often use psychoactive plants such as uvuma omhlophe (scientifically known as Synaptolepis kirkii) and ubulawu (Silene capensis) to either produce or enhance dream-like states of consciousness. Of the two plants, ubulawu is considered a sacred psychoactive and is often used by traditional healer initiates and novices to induce vivid and lucid dreaming. During these dream-like states, a traditional healer’s sixth sense is heightened enabling them to gain insight that is not accessible using the normal physical senses.
  • There’s also the extra sensory perception (ESP) that is considered as divination. ESP is also known as the sixth sense, it is the ability to gain insights and answers to questions, without relying on the normal physical senses. ESP is a type of divination that is based on information, examples include clairvoyance and clairaudience.

In Africa, there are 54 countries and over 3,000 cultures and tribes with most tribes having their own method of divination. If I had to write about all the methods, this article would turn into a book.

I hope by now you can appreciate that there are countless methods of divination that vary to a certain degree. But even though the methodology of divination varies across the world. The mechanism of divination is the same (i.e., how divination works is the same).

How does divination work?

Divination is a type of cross-communication. Cross-communication is any communication between different entities. For example, cross-cultural communication is communication between people of different cultures. With divination, the cross-communication is between entities of two different worlds, the living and the non-living, hence divination is cross-world-communication. This cross-world-communication can occur using any of the divination methods mentioned earlier. The process of cross-world-communication is very similar to communication between two or more people who are worlds apart.

How “normal” communication works?

Communication between people who are worlds apart typically occurs through various mediums such as instant messaging, phone call, email, or a letter delivered through snail mail. For communication to take place via a phone call for example, one person has to call the other person and the other has to answer. When the other answers the phone, one person must speak while the other listens, vice versa.

A similar process applies to instant messaging, email, and snail mail. In general, communication requires two or more entities, a medium, and a message (something that is communicated).

How cross-world-communication works?

For cross-world-communication to occur two or more entities are required. The number of entities involved will depend on the method of divination. I’ll explain how cross-world-communication happens by using the divination that occurs via spirit mediumship, as this is the more prominent method of divination in Africa.

In African divination, this communication mostly occurs via spirit possession. Here the diviner calls or evokes a spirit and asks a question or enquires about a situation. The diviner then surrenders to the spirit entity. The state of surrender is what my teacher calls “thoughtlessness”. This is when you relinquish all control in order to act as a conduit. A conduit is a person that acts as a channel for transmitting messages from spirit entities. The spirit entity possesses the diviner and speaks through them. When the spirit speaks the diviner listens, and when the diviner speaks the spirit listens.

Spirits do not only communicate by possessing a person, but they can also possess an inanimate object such as a weegee (ouija) board.

Another means of cross-world-communication is via dreams and visions. To Nguni people in South Africa, dreams and visions serve as a medium through which diviners establish communication with their ancestors.

Whether it is the diviner acting as a conduit, or the weegee board, or through dreams the cross-world-communication between the living and non-living requires a medium to transmit the messages.

It’s important to note that cross-world-communication with ancestor-spirits is multisensory, meaning it makes use of most if not all the senses. This also means that ancestors communicate in various ways which are adapted to be more effective to the diviner. For example, if the diviner is blind the cross-communication will be adapted to account for the person’s lack of sight. Same thing if the person is deaf or both blind and deaf.

For people who do not understand the concept of ancestors. I will use the relationship that a friend of mine has with his guru to help clarify this misunderstanding.

I have a friend in New Delhi, India who is a yoga and meditation teacher. My friend didn’t go to a yoga and meditation school to learn yoga and meditation, instead he met a guru after suffering from a devastating heartbreak. The guru helped my friend to see “the soul in soldier on” and my friend decided to remain with the guru and learn from him. While with the guru, my friend learned yoga, meditation, and various sadhanas — from which he gained a number of siddhis like the ability to scan a person’s aura. Eventually, the guru passed away but when he was still alive, the guru and my friend created a link that allowed my friend to channel and communicate with the guru. When the guru passed on, he no longer had the physical limitations of human brain capacity and efficiency, time, and space. According to my friend, the guru ascended and affixed to the source — the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

All the guru’s students, including my friend and everyone that my friend initiates — become the guru’s disciples. And when the disciples channel the guru, they are actually channeling what he is affixed to, which is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresence.

To Christians the guru is what’s called the holy spirit. Jesus said he goes away so the holy spirit can come. According to Jesus, “the holy spirit will teach you all things and will remind you of everything He has said”. The holy spirit is part of the holy trinity. Making it affixed to the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresence.

To a sangoma the guru is called a spirit-ancestor. The ancestors are ascended God-agents. Ancestors are people who (like Jesus, Muhammed, or Buddha) gained enlightenment while on earth and ascended to be affixed to the source. Ancestors are not evil or from the devil like some people have been taught. A person who is bequeathed with a gift by the ancestors who then decides to go rogue and use the gift to do the most diabolical things, that is the devil incarnate — not the ancestors.

When it comes to divination, because I’ve oversimplified how it works, it might sound easy. It’s actually not easy and not everyone can become a diviner.

Who can be a diviner and how to become a diviner?

Who can become a diviner and how a person becomes a diviner is different in the East, West, and Africa.

  • In the East, whether or not someone becomes a diviner is linked to their dharma (life path or life’s purpose). If you ask an Indian person for their full name, you will notice that the full name includes their caste. In the past, it was believed that a person’s caste was spiritually linked to their dharma. Meaning depending on your dharma you could belong to one of the following castes: a Brahmin (spiritual teacher), Khsatriya (warrior), Vaishya (owner), or a Shudra (commoner).

A brief explanation of the concepts: dharma, karma, samsara, and moksha.

Whatever a person does in this life whether it be good or bad it will come back around, that’s karma. If you sow bad seeds, you will reap bad fruits, and vice versa. And different seeds take different amounts of time to grow into full-fledged adult trees with fruits. For some seeds the fruits may show up in a year, for some it might take 50 years, and for others the fruits might show up in a different life. This means when you take an action the consequences may be immediate or delayed. Whether an action is immediate or delayed depends on many things including the action and the person you are doing the act on. Delayed consequences can be carried over to the next life — meaning in your next life you still have karma to workout. When you still have karma to work out, you will go through another cycle of death and rebirth, and this is known as samsara. When you’ve worked out all your karma (i.e., when you’ve paid your karmic debt), you break the cycle of death and rebirth, and this is called moksha. It is believed that people that achieve moksha are the ones that eventually ascend to become affixed to the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresence.

  • In the West, how a person becomes a diviner varies by method of divination. For example, to become a tarot card reader you need to learn and understand the meaning and interpretation of the different cards and a fair amount of practice. Being highly intuitive is an added benefit that can help to distinguish you from the other readers. Some people have decided to pursue a career in astrology after getting a birth chart reading. Apparently, some aspects and placements in a person’s birth chart make for a good astrologer.
  • In Africa, the Yaka people in Congo and Angola see divination as a gift that is passed down in the family. The gift is usually passed down along with other necessary skills and aptitude.
  • In Southern Africa, a diviner is called to the profession by the ancestors. When a person decides to ignore the call from the ancestors. The ancestors may see this as a sign of disrespect and may send illness and misfortune to the person. When a person decides to answer the call from the ancestors, they go through an initiation process called ukuthwasa (the process of becoming a diviner). Ithwasana is a person that is training to become a diviner. Intwaso is a condition or state of the person undergoing the process of initiation. This condition is characterized by inkathazo (trouble), illnesses, dreams, and psychiatric disturbances. To become a diviner, the initiate (ithwasana) must first be cured of the intwaso condition. The cure involves the use of plant-based medicine, undergoing training in divination and healing, and using ubulawu (Silene capensis) — to concoct an emetic mixture. The emetic mixture is used to induced emesis (known as ukuphalaza in Zulu). The emetic is prepared by adding ubulawu in water and twirling with a stick until white form froths up. Every morning the initiate (ithwasana) must drink the emetic until the stomach is full and ready to vomit. When the training is done, the novice sangoma gets an apprenticeship with a practicing healer who teaches them the right way of indigenous healing.

When a person is called to be a sangoma they can employ different mediums for their divination or ukubhula.

Different mediums for ukubhula

The different mediums that izangoma can use for ukubhula include:

  • Ukubhula ngamathombo (osteomancy) — divination using bones.

Ukubhula ngathambo or divination using bones works by casting. Casting is when bones are tossed onto a cloth, board, sacred divination plates made of wood, or on the ground. Before tossing the bones the sangoma will ask a question or inquire about a situation, shake the bones, blow on them, and then toss them on the ground. After tossing, the position or pattern of the bones relative to each other tells a story that is interpreted by the sangoma to gain insight.

In South Africa, casting is done with bones. In other African countries it is done with runes, cowrie shells, stones, pieces of wood, strips of leather and others.

  • Ukubhula ngabalozi is divination by ventriloquism or whistling

This is by far the most advanced type of divination. This is when the ancestors directly speak to the diviner using whistling sounds made by the divining medium. A lot of training is required for a diviner to become umlozi (a diviner who divines using whistling sounds).

This link to a Youtube video shows an example of ukubhula ngabalozi.

  • Ukubhula ngesibuko is divination using a mirror, also known as mirror scrying.

This is type of divination is also popular in West. In the movie “Snow White”, the evil queen said the famous line “mirror mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all?” on her scrying mirror.

  • Ukubhula ngamanzi is divination using water. This is called hydromancy or water scrying. You can use a cup, a bowl, or a bucket of water to do this type of divination. You can also scry on a much larger body of water such as a pond, lake, river, or an ocean.

Divination might sound like the latest mainstream trend, but the art of divination is an old practice that has existed for thousands of years. The prophets in the bible used various forms of divinations. It’s also been said that in the New Testament of the Bible, the Magi or the wise men used divination to find Jesus Christ.


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