The cultural and symbolic significance of the African rhinoceros

A review of the traditional beliefs, perceptions and practices of agropastoralist societies in southern Africa

Jan C.A. Boeyens and Maria M. van der Ryst 

Department of Anthropology & Archaeology, Box 392, UNISA, 0003 South Africa;;


Excerpts from article in Southern African Humanities 26: 21–55 July 2014.


A study of ethnobiological, archaeological, linguistic and historical ethnographic data shows that notions about the cultural and symbolic significance of the African rhinoceros were widely shared among southeastern Bantu speakers and had considerable time depth. African farming communities could draw upon the traits of both the more aggressive and solitary black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the more sociable and territorial white rhino Ceratotherium simum) in their conceptualisation of the qualities of leadership. The Mapungubwe gold rhino served as an emblem of sacred leadership in a class-based society. In less-stratified Sotho-Tswana society, the importance of this pachyderm was reflected in its appropriation as a leadership referent in chiefly praise poems, the use of rhino figurines as didactic tools during initiation schools, as well as a plethora of vernacular names and a complex folk taxonomy. Meat cut from the breast of therhino was the preserve of a chief and a special club of rhino horn was widely employed as a marker of chiefly status. Rhino horns and bones also featured in rainmaking rituals. Monoliths adorning the central courts of nineteenth-century Tswana towns, as well as the walls or courts of Zimbabwe culture and Venda capitals, most probably signified rhino horns, thereby architecturally encapsulating the key qualities of power, danger and protection traditionally associated with African leadership.

Horns, praise poems and monoliths

Ethnographic information gathered among the Tswana, too, shows that a rhinoceros horn symbolised leadership and political power. Research among the Bakgatla of Mochudi established that a chief used to possess two rhino horns, a small one, known as lenaka la pula (‘rain horn’), for holding the medicines used during various rainmaking ceremonies, and a larger one, known as lenaka la bogosi (‘horn of chieftainship’) or as lenaka la ntwa (‘war horn’) (Schapera 1971: 32, 49 & plates 8a, 8b). The large horn of chieftainship was considered particularly sacred and kept separately (Schapera 1971: 26–32). The different dimensions are most probably reflective of the differences in the size of the anterior and posterior horns of rhinos, implying that the smaller rear horn was employed as a rain horn (Ouzman 1995: 60).

Praise poems of Tswana chiefs, regents and other aspiring leaders or heroes abound with references to the rhino as a leadership symbol. At least fifteen praise poems have been documented in which such dignitaries are either addressed or referred to as a rhinoceros, or are associated with characteristics or powers attributed to the rhinoceros…. As examples, we cite passages from two praise poems of nineteenth-century Tswana chiefs. The first refers to Kgamanyane, who ruled the Bakgatla ba ga Kgafela between 1848 and 1874, and whose disputes and clashes with the Transvaal state and Commandant General Paul Kruger led him and a large following to leave the Rustenburg district in 1867 and settle in present-day Botswana (Schapera 1965: 68–9):

“The chief ’s Poker, Black Rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, brother of Makgetla the Rolong;

when you poke, brother of RaMphelana, don’t poke as if you are anxious, …

when you poke keep the horns facing, the horns must face each other, Dodger,…

now that you’ve seen the Slasher fighting, the Slasher with the bloodstained horn?

The Brave One pokes and pokes again; he then draws out the victim’s entrails….”

The second excerpt is from a praise poem composed in honour of Ikaneng, the chief of the Lete, who repulsed an attack by the Ngwaketse on Ramotswa, located in present-day Botswana, in 1881 (Ellenberger 1937: 30):

Black Rhinoceros of the Maratadiba! Black Rhinoceros of the salt-lick, what shape are your horns?

When they began to curve they curved inwards, your horns grew close together without any space between them, they took up most of the room of your face.

…Say that the Black Rhinoceros has created havoc over there. Black rhinoceros of the curved horns, brother of Mokgojwe! Black Rhinoceros bull of the upright horns, relative of Kobuane!

In the case of early southern African farming communities, this symbolic link between the rhino and political power also became manifest in their architecture through monoliths that reference the horns of the rhinoceros bull or leader. The palace areas of Shona and Venda capitals are characterised by the presence of monoliths on walls and at entrances. Two monoliths stood and are still standing at the entrance to the private court of the chiefs of the Magoro dynasty at Mbwenda, their nineteenth-century capital in southern Venda (Boeyens 2012: 25–9). Upon enquiring about the significance of the monoliths on the palace walls of Great Zimbabwe, Shona informants told Huffman (1996: 35) that the monoliths were called “‘the horns of the mambo [king]’ because the king was metaphorically like a bull and defended his people with his spear (his army) as a bull defended its herd with its horn”.

The monoliths in the entrance to the central chiefly court of Kaditshwene, the capital of the Hurutshe between c. 1790 and 1823, most probably carried a similar symbolic load. One monolith is still standing today, while another of almost equal length lies a few yards away (Boeyens 1998: 213, 2000: 8, 10). The Hurutshe’s erstwhile mountain stronghold in present-day Marico in the North West Province is flanked by the Ratshukudu (‘Mr/Father of Rhinoceros’) stream. Genealogically, the Hurutshe are widely acclaimed to be the senior grouping among the Tswana and, as such, the court at Kaditshwene would have been imbued with considerable political and ritual status in the wider region (Boeyens & Plug 2011: 1).

Altogether the evidence suggests that notions about the nature of leadership and the symbolic meaning of the African rhinoceros were widely shared among southeastern Bantu speakers and had considerable time depth. Leadership has many attributes, and in patrilineal Eastern Bantu-speaking societies was intertwined with the well-being of the community and associated with political power, military prowess, defence, security and fertility. Such symbolism extends back many centuries and marked not only the institution of sacred leadership as expressed in the Mapungubwe kingdom, but also applied to lesser-stratified Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms of more recent times. In general, the fortunes of a community depended on the political wisdom of its leader and his intercession with his chiefly ancestors. The chief had to defend his subjects, lead them in military campaigns, adjudicate in court cases, and oversee the performance of the necessary ceremonies and rituals to ensure good rains and harvests, as well as the enculturation of the youth. While the evidence for the leadership symbolism of the black rhino is unambiguous, the symbolic load of the white rhino is less evident. Nonetheless, several strands of evidence suggest that, at least during the late precolonial and early historical period, African farming communities drew upon both the black and the white rhino in their conceptualisation of the essence of leadership.

The cultural and symbolic significance of the African rhinoceros manifested itself in numerous ways. We can now affirm the somewhat tentative observation that the iconic golden rhinoceros from Mapungubwe “was most likely an emblem of royal power” (Hall & Stefoff 2006: 35). Rhino figurines were also used as didactic tools during initiation ceremonies in which knowledge about values, laws and mores was imparted. Rhino horns were employed as receptacles for rainmaking medicines, whereas rhino bones, especially foot and leg bones, became important elements of rainmaking rites. Rhino horn clubs functioned as markers of chiefly status and the epithet ‘rhinoceros horn’ served as an honorific title for a leader. Meat cut from the breast of a rhinoceros was the preserve of a chief and was received as tribute from his subjects. The presentation of a cut-off rhino head to a defiant leader or a subject chief conveyed a clear message that subordination would not be tolerated and that magic would be applied to restore the political order.

The cultural significance of the rhino is also borne out by Tswana nomenclature and folk taxonomy. Besides the generic term tshukudu, Tswana speakers had no fewer than five different names for the black rhino and two for the white rhino. These names were coined mainly to distinguish between variants of each species on the basis of horn and body size. The rhino metaphor also features prominently in praise poems of Tswana chiefs. In this regard, too, there is a strong emphasis on rhino horns as the key anatomical trait that epitomised the danger, aggression, authority, protection and military success of a leader. The front horn was not only a weapon of attack and defence, but its cutting action symbolised the final authority and decision-making responsibilities of the chief. It is argued that this metaphorical association found material expression in monoliths that functioned as rhino horn/leadership referents and adorned the walls and entrances of Venda and Zimbabwe culture palaces, as well as the courts of nineteenth-century Tswana capitals. Rhino horns and monoliths are phallus-like objects and, as such, could also symbolise male status, fertility and procreation.

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