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Adrian Koopman Examines How “Words of Power” are used in Conjunction with Plants in Zulu Culture

Zulu Plant NamesAdrian Koopman’s 2013 paper entitled “The interface between magic, plants and language” is available to read online.

Koopman, Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is the author of Zulu Plant Names.

The article begins by investigating how the meaning of the word “magic” changes in different contexts, and then examines the “power” of plant names in different cultures, especially in Zulu botanical nomenclature.

According to Koopman, there is a clear distinction, in Western thinking, “between a herbalist’s use of plant medicines with proven healing properties based on scientific observation and chemical analyses, and ‘magical’ plants that link to a belief system but not necessarily to scientific evidence”.

Read the extract:

This article looks at the interface between magic, plants and language. After examining various conceptualisations of ‘magic’, the article focuses specifically on the manipulation of materia, particularly when accompanied by the ritual use of language. The emphasis in this part of the article is on incantations, recitation of spells, curses and similar utterances. Examples are given first from various cultures in Europe, then from Africa as a whole, and finally from Zulu culture. In examining these ‘words of power’ and the way they are used together with plants and other materia, the articles explores the notion that the name of a plant may often contain as much power as the plant itself. The article then goes on to look specifically at Zulu plant names, and concludes that in addition to their power in various forms of magic, such names may also have a mnemonic function, assisting traditional healers and diviners to remember not only the name of a particular plant, but its various functions in society as well.

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