Negotiating womanhood: the bird metaphor in Southern African folklore and rites of passage
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.
Keywords: animal symbolism, bird metaphor, folklore, gender constructs, rites of passage