The sacred lake of the white python
Hidden in the mountains in the far north of South Africa lies one of Africa’s most sacred sites: Lake Fundudzi. The sacred lake of the white python. This is a place where magic is alive, where myths, legends and day-to-day reality seamlessly intertwine. A place where the white python rules and where a white crocodile guards the lake. Where once virgins were sacrificed. Where today the Vhatatsindi, the ‘People of the Pool’, still use traditional law to protect the lake.
A place where you as a visitor have to show your respect to the White Python God by performing the ceremony known as Ukudola: before looking at the lake, you have to turn your back to it and then bend down and look between your legs at the lake. Only then can you approach the lake.
Lake Fundudzi is a special place. It is the only natural lake in South Africa. It’s more than 140 hectares in size. It was formed by a landslide between ten and twenty thousand years ago. There are three rivers flowing into the lake, but there is no outlet – and still it never overflows. According to the locals, one of these rivers actually does not flow into the lake, but underneath it without moving the surface water. And it is full of crocodiles, so nobody baths or swims in the lake.
This is the land of the Venda people, considered to be the most traditional and spiritual of all the different ethnicities that make up the Rainbow Nation. They tell about the White Python God that lives underneath the water. Once though, it lived on the surface. At night it would visit his human wives so they would not know it was a python. These visits also spread fertility over the surrounding country.
One day, one of his wives was so curious that she followed him until she could see him by the first day light. She was terrified he was a python and screamed out aloud. This terrified the python so much that he fled deep into the lake and refused to come out. Since he no longer took care of the rains, a terrible drought hit the land. This lasted until the curious wife, filled with remorse, walked into the lake to join with her husband.
Ever since, every year young maidens were sacrificed in the same way so no more droughts would hit the land. Later, this evolved in a less blood-thirsty ceremony: each year the newly initiated maidens perform the Domba-dance on the shores of the lake and sacrifice traditional beer to appease the White Python God.
The Venda have a strong respect for their parents and believe that old age brings great wisdom. Wisdom that helps them make the correct decisions. This doesn’t stop when you die. You don’t go to heaven, but remain around as an ancestral spirit to help your family. Of course, you not only deserve the best home around, but also protection against evil spirits that want to harm you and your descendants. In this part of Venda there is only one place where the ancestral spirits go: the lake. The ancestral spirits can be grumpy if they are disturbed, so amongst the many crocodiles living in the lake, there is a mythical white crocodile who guards the lake and the ancestors from harm. This crocodile has not been seen in a long time, but traditionally it will appear when a Venda King dies. They are buried in a sacred forest next to the lake. During this ceremony the crocodile comes to the shore and coughs up a stone, which the new Venda King needs to swallow.
The ancestors help in many ways. For instance, the locals can forecast the weather by looking at the colour and behaviour of the water, which is a reflection of the mood of the ancestors. It is these swings in mood that cause the weather to change. Also, the ancestors don’t like pollution: if you throw something in the lake, they will throw it back.
Legend also has it that there are other people living in the lake. If you look into the water, you might see villagers living there. A long time ago, a leper visited a village, looking for food. He was refused food and forced to flee. That night the village sank to the bottom of the lake, where the Python God forced the villagers to live forever under water. If you walk on the banks of the lake and are lucky, you might hear them singing and playing drums under the water.
Modern times are not kind for the lake. Local people still come to the lake to thank their ancestors and the White Python for the rains and the harvest and still offer traditional beer to the lake for continued good spirits. Though these annual rituals continue, the rainfall is less than it was before and there are many more people living on the slopes surrounding the lake. Farming, erosion and deforestation all take a hefty toll on the rivers feeding the lake, as does pollution from laundry soap and garbage. Fortunately, there are new initiatives to rehabilitate the area and raise awareness of the ecosystem within the local communities. These initiatives offer both hope as well as jobs for the locals. Still, these days, many of the old traditions disappear and the younger generation no longer strictly believes in the powers of the lake – though they do take care not to mention that at the waterside.
As a visitor, you can now freely visit the lake. Just to be on the safe side, do perform the Ukudola ceremony and for even more luck, walk to the waterside and just like the Venda, throw some hairs into the water of the sacred lake of the white python. After all, magic is alive here!