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Observations placeholder

Laubscher, B J F – The amaxhwele herbalists, the amagqira healers and the isanuses



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

B J Laubscher – Where Mystery dwells

The herbalists are known as the amaxhwele, and constitute the lowest rank of those who participate in the art of healing. Some of them are extremely good business men and have become wealthy even by western standards. When however they are not successful in their prescriptions the amagqira are consulted, and the latter form the real doctor class.

The amagqira employ psychic means for diagnosis and treatment, such as clairvoyance and telepathy. These are called divination because of the ritualistic requirements on which the fees are based.

The amagqira however are superseded by the highest class of diviners and these are known as the isanuses.  They form the head or highest level of the hierarchy of healing and are often known by the term amatola.

In the Eastern Cape there is a range of mountains known as the Amatola, the mountain of the diviners. No doubt they foregathered there in years gone by for their secret initiation rites.

It is accepted that those who constitute the true amagqira and isanuse group, possess psychic faculties in varying degrees. The isanuses especially have impressed me with their mediumistic powers and most frequently with clairvoyance. During the time that I did field work for my book Sex, Custom and Psychopathology (A Study of South African Pagan Natives), I met and associated with several isanuses and was often quite astonished by their telepathic and clairvoyant abilities. They believed that these faculties are inborn and could only be cultivated if present in the person.

In other words if the constitution permitted development.

It was during this period of my study of Amaxosa culture and its mental illnesses that I met and became friendly with Solomon Daba who was an amagqira, but in many ways he could have been raised to the rank of an isanuse, since in my experience I found his spontaneous parapsychic powers most outstanding.

There is an exaltation associated with the isanuse class. They form the guardians of the mystic knowledge, as well as the contact with the ancestral spirits, and the amagqira look up to them and frequently consult them. The isanuse prescribes medicines, but he does not himself dig them or carry them about with him. He makes his diagnosis by means of his psychic faculties clairvoyantly or telepathically, and with regard to the latter I have known of cases where the isanuse diagnosed what the patients believed were their illnesses.

Telepathic impressions especially among the amagqira often run this risk of receiving the patient's morbid imaginations. The isanuses are usually venerable men, and they like all good psychic sensitives even in our culture are rare. If there is an isanuse in a district he usually resides near a chief's kraal. The outstanding isanuses are excellent clairvoyants, and I do believe from what the famous isanuse Xagalalegusha told me, that they practise astral travel in their sleep.

During his consultations the isanuse does not as a rule employ the same ritualistic procedure of the amagqira. These … consist of chanting, handclapping and the beating of the drum. It is known by the name of ukwombelela. The isanuse only participates in these forms of seance techniques when he is called into consultation by an igqira. On such occasions the ukuwombelela precede the announcements of the isanuse of his communications with the onomathotholo or guardian spirits. They describe the nature of the illness of the patient and the medicines required.

Once a person decides to become an igqira he is required to experience a psychic condition known as ukutwasa. This condition in no way differs in its genuine form from those mediumistic manifestations which people experience in the western and other cultures. Many histories of ukutwasa cases contain early precognitive dreams, telepathic impressions and sometimes clairvoyance.

…Both Solomon Daba and Xagalalegusha described a genuine ukutwasa as consisting of some of the following experiences, namely

  • cataleptic states,
  • dreams of visiting other places with clear memories of these visits on waking, as well as
  • seeing visions of coming events, and at times
  • hearing the voices of the ancestral spirits known as the izinyanya.

The state of ukutwasa is characterised on the whole by such phenomena as I have described. The faculty of clairaudience or hearing the voice of an ancestral spirit is apparently not a frequent experience. Dream travelling and conversation with spirits are by far the most common experience.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items


Activities and commonsteps