Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, National
Date of Observation: December-January
Where Celebrated: Swaziland
Symbols and Customs: Bull, Gourd


The most sacred national ceremony that takes place in the independent kingdom of Swaziland in southeast Africa is the annual kingship ceremony known as the Incwala. It is held around the time of the SUMMER SOLSTICE, which falls in late December in Africa, and lasts for about three weeks. In addition to marking the beginning of a new year, the Incwala features rites aimed at strengthening the king's authority and increasing the strength and cohesiveness of the nation as a whole.

The phase of the moon and the positions of the sun and stars are constant topics of conversation as everyone waits for the precise moment when the sun appears to stand still, rising and setting in the same place for several days. The Swazi believe that the full or waxing moon brings strength and health, while the waning moon is associated with weakness. It is important, therefore, that the ceremony coincide not only with the SUMMER SOLSTICE but also with a favorable phase of the moon. If the wrong day is chosen, it is considered a national calamity because it means the king will not be strong enough to endure the trials of the coming year. Since the new moon that marks the beginning of the festival rarely coincides with the solstice, special rituals have been devised to compensate for the unfavorable timing.

The Little Incwala, which lasts for two days, begins when the moon is dark and the king is at his weakest. Because one purpose of the ceremony is to temporarily separate him from society and make a symbolic break with the old year, the king is sequestered in a special enclosure-just as the sun is said to be "resting in its hut" at the solstice.

The Big Incwala, which begins on the night of the full moon and lasts for six days, marks the symbolic rebirth and revitalization of the king. On the first day, a group of young, unmarried (and therefore "pure") men is sent to gather branches from a magic tree and bring them back to the king's councilors, who use them to build the sanctuary in which the king's powers will be symbolically reborn. On the third day, the king strikes a black BULL with a rod that is believed to possess the power of fertility. The pure young men must catch the animal and kill it with their bare hands, after which it is dragged into the sanctuary and sacrificed. All of this is considered preparation for the fourth day, when the king symbolically overcomes his rivals and gets rid of the evils and pollution of the old year. He comes out of his enclosure dressed in a frightening costume of green grass and wild animal skins, his body gleaming with black ointments. While the people sing and dance in the background, the young men or princes alternately drive the king back and beg him to return. The climax occurs when the king throws a bright green GOURD toward his warriors. Then he is led back to his hut.

On the final day of the Incwala, all of the ritual implements that have been used in the ceremony are burned in a huge fire, symbolically ridding the kingdom of evil. The king is bathed, and the drops of water that fall from his body are believed to attract the coming rains, which will reenergize the forces of nature.

It was common in ancient cultures to associate the health and vitality of the king with the health of the kingdom. In some cases, old kings were removed at the time of the solstice. Getting rid of an old king was a common means of ridding the kingdom of bad influences and cleansing the country as a whole.



The main event of the third day of the Big Incwala is the killing of the bull, who symbolizes potency. Parts of the bull's body are used to prepare royal medicines, and the rest is given as an offering to the dead ancestors. The "Day of the Bull" is believed to fortify the king for the following day, when he appears in his terrifying costume and must "overcome" the young princes who symbolize his rivals.


The bright green gourd used in the climax of the Incwala ceremony is known as the "Gourd of Embo"-"Embo" meaning North, or the direction from which the royal clan originally came. The king throws the gourd carefully on the upturned shield of one of his subjects, who must not let the fruit touch the ground. The gourd symbolizes the continuity of the past. In discarding it, the king proves his strength and opens the way to the future.


Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


Swaziland Government Ministry of Tourism

Swaziland Tourism Authority id=168&Itemid=77
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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