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Cultural Analysis: !Kung San

Annotated Bibliography

Religion in the !Kung culture

Seeing a praying mantis means that the divine spirits--symbolized by the sun, moon, morning star and the southern cross--are sending an important message that needs to be interpreted. Dancing near a sacred fire gives the power to heal. The Tsodilo Hills were created by the Great God, Goaxa, who turned a man and his two wives to stone.12

Just a few of the different beliefs that the !Kung hold onto, there is a deep feeling that the spiritual world is a part of all aspects of their life. It determines health, death, as well as the abundance of food and water. It is believed that misfortune, death, or even sickness are all results of invisible arrows shot by spirits.

Rituals and Ceremonies

Dancing and ceremonial smoking are the only types of religious ceremonies that the !Kung have. In fact, one of the !Kung's favorite pastimes is dancing, which is used to bring luck during the hunt, curing sickness, bringing rain as well as for religious ceremonies. In order to stop the spiritual arrows that harm the village, they perform a healing dance. In this ritual, they dance around a fire until they reach a trance state which activates a powerful force called n/um. In this state, they are able to heal everyone around the fire.9

Another dance that they perform is to aid in the removal of evil spirits. Because it is believed that women are weaker than men, women are the only ones who generally have evil spirits in their bodies. During this dance, men circle around a crouched woman pulling the evil spirits from the woman and into their bodies. At the height of the ritual, the men collapse into a trance falling, whether it be in the fire or on the ground. When they awake, they scream and cry freeing the spirits.1


The spiritual leaders in the !Kung are considered diviners and healers. In theory, both men and women can become healers by going through an apprenticeship with an experienced healer. In practice, though, !Kung women usually spend rituals clapping and singing supporting the spirit and protecting the healers from hurting themselves.9 The healer uses trances to both heal and communicate with their ancestors.


They believe that their ancestors are involved in curing rituals, but strangely they do not revere the dead.12 In fact, if someone dies at a specific camp, the village will move away and never camp at that spot again. If they can avoid it, they will never cross the place where someone has been buried. If the must pass by a grave-site, they will throw a pebble on the grave and mutter under their breath to the spirits for good luck. They believe that a spirit will remain active on the spot above the grave-site, so they will not step on the spot to ensure that they do not offend the spirit.13

Functionalist Perspective

Functionally, religion serves many purposes in the !Kung culture. The !Kung rituals provide a community bonding experience as well as serve as medical services to the community. Again, the roles of men and women become very apparent from the viewpoint of the religious ceremonies (or the roles people play in these ceremonies). Women serve as a support structure to allow the male healers to safely achieve their trance states and perform the rituals that are needed.

Conflict Perspective

Within the !Kung society, there doesn't appear to be any conflicting views on religion. Religion was less a belief or set of rituals, it was ingrained in everything that they did. It served as entertainment, communal activities, and even for medical needs. Because of the need for reliability on each other to ensure survival, questioning religious beliefs is generally the least of the worries that surrounded the !Kung's lives.

Symbolic Perspective

Religion is a very important part of the !Kung way of life. They do have the standard religious symbology (e.g. divine symbols representing various gods), but religion also represents a way that the !Kung can interact with the spiritual world to affect their life. Viewing healers as communication gateways with their ancestors, they can not only have a chance to cure their ailments, but in addition this interaction provides them a way to actively influence their own fate. With this perceived influence, the symbols are very important to the core community spirit within the !Kung village.

This site was created for SOCIOLOGY 1 SEC DE1 (21594) FALL 2005.