Negotiating womanhood: the bird metaphor in Southern African folklore and rites of passage

  • Jean-Marie Dederen University of Venda
  • Jennifer Mokakabye University of Venda
Keywords: animal symbolism, gender constructs, folklore, rites of passage, bird metaphor


In spite of its evident presence in Southern Africa’s rich cultural heritage, the bird metaphor has received surprisingly little attention. The cultural materials analysed in this article include children’s stories, songs, heroic poetry and ethnographic accounts of rites of passage. At first the data seems to suggest that bird symbolism could be interpreted in terms of a simple dual conception of gender identity. Some magical birds signify the prowess and authority of men. Others could be linked symbolically to the procreative powers of women. On further reflection, however, we identified a third category of more ambiguously gendered birds. It is contended that this additional bird type can be explained in terms of the female-male dialectic that shaped gender relations in small-scale societies. It is further proposed tentatively that the bird metaphor could have provided women with a symbolic means to negotiate their identity.

Author Biographies

Jean-Marie Dederen, University of Venda

Jean-Marie Dederen is a senior lecturer in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Venda. His research involves the study of symbolic representations in the indigenous cultures of the Vhembe region.

Jennifer Mokakabye, University of Venda

Jennifer Mokakabye is a candidate in the M. A. Archaeology programme at the University of Venda. Her project explores the meaning of animal symbolism in hunting societies.


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