Mulungu (also spelled Murungu, Mlungu, and in other variants) is a common name of the creator deity in a number of Bantu languages and cultures over East and Central Africa. This includes the Nyamwezi, Shambaa, Kamba, Sukuma, Rufiji, Turu, and Kikuyu cultures. Today, the name "Mulungu" is also often used to refer to the Christian or Islamic God. The Swahili word for God, "Mungu", is a contraction of the original form "Mulungu", which still appears in Swahili manuscripts of the 18th Century.
In some Bantu cultures (for example the Ruvu culture) the same word "mulungu" is also used with a distinct meaning, to refer to certain forest spirits; this homonymy has occasionally confused ethnographers and missionaries.
In traditional Bantu cultures
Origin, diffusion, and etymology
The original early-Bantu name for the creator God was probably Nyàmbé, possibly from the verb root -àmb-, "to begin". With the diversification of Bantu cultures, other names came about, with "Mulungu" emerging in the ancient Southern-Kaskazi group (about 6000 BC). The etymology of the name is disputed. One hypothesis is that the name is derived from a verb root -ng-, meaning "to be rectified", "to become right"; in this case, the original concept of Mulungu is that of a creator god that established the original, right order on the world.
All traditional Bantu cultures have a notion of a "creator god", a concept which was already established in the Niger-Congo cultures. This creator god is usually seen as a remote deity, far and detached from men and living beings; in some cases, it is more of an impersonal "creating force" or a primum movens than a "God" in the usual sense of the word. Even when described as a personal god, the Creator is believed to be far and detached from men and living beings; this detachment is the subject of a number of Bantu myths describing how the creator left the Earth, moving to the sky, as a consequence of him being upset with men or annoyed by their activities. It is thus a common trait of Bantu religions that no prayers, and usually no worship, is actually directed to the creator; men interact with lower-levels gods and spirits that are closer and more interested in human affairs. These general lines are common to traditional concepts of Mulungu as found in Kikuyu, Ruvu, and other cultures. A Nyamwezi myth about the departure of Mulungu from the Earth involves Mulungu being upset of the fires set by men to the landscape, and asking the spider to weave a web for him to climb up to the sky.
With the advent of either Islam or Christianity, the word "Mulungu" was usually adopted to mean the Christian or Islamic God. Over thirty translations of the Bible in African languages use the word Mulungu to refer to the Father. As another example, Jesus Christ is referred to as mwana wa Mulungu ("son of Mulungu") in modern religious songs in chichewa language (Malawi). The word was also used in Swahili Islamic literature before the derivative name "Mungu" became more common.
As a personal name
Mulungu can also be a personal name, derived from a mispronunciation of "munungus" (a kind of pottery). A potter would call themselves "Munungu" (akin to the English name "Potter"), as occupational naming was traditional. The name is still used today, by the Lambya people of Tanzania. Some, however, consider it too holy to be spoken as the name of a human, considering its connections with divinity.
- Frankl (1990)
- Derek e Hinnebusch (1993), p. 620, and Ehret (1998), pp. 166.167
- Gonzales, cap. 3
- Mulungu, A new dictionary of Religions, Reference Online
- African Mythology
- Bleeker and Windengreen (1971), p. 556
- Mulungu on Myth Encyclopedia
- Bleeker, C. J. and G. Widengreen (1971), Historia Religionum, Brill. (On GoogleBooks)
- Ehret, Christopher (1998), An African Classical Age.
- Frankl, P. J. L. (1990), The word for "God" in Swahili, «Journal of Religion in Africa» XX (3) (Estratto su JStor)
- Gonzales, Rhonda, Societies, Religions, and History: Central East Tanzanians and the World They Created, c. 200 BCE to 1800 CE. Online text
- Nurse, Derek and Thomas J. Hinnebusch. Swahili and Sabaki: A Linguistic History. University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1993.