Before the days of cellphones and tablets, there was the handwritten letter, written with strenuous passion and sealed with heartfelt sincerity. But for the Zulu women of South Africa, a letter is assembled, crafted, worn – but not written; for Zulu love letters are actually necklaces of brightly coloured glass beads.
Handed to a lover, Zulu love letters are constructed to express feelings of love and affection, or even heartache and discontent. Each colour is carefully selected to communicate a specific message, as each colour possesses both positive and negative symbolism. The ‘letters’ are also used to signify marital status relating to gender.
Say how you feel without uttering a single word.
While red communicates passionate love, it also signifies anger and heartache. Blue is used to signify fidelity or longing – an exclamation of the old adage, “If I were a dove, I would fly through blue skies to reach you.” (LOL) However, blue can also be used to express feelings of loneliness.
Green expresses love-sickness, conveying the message that “you’ve become as thin as a blade of grass because of love”. Yellow means that you are jealous and withering away. On the other hand, yellow also communicates wealth and fertility, while green can express contentment. Turquoise indicates impatience, while purple symbolises new friendship. Black is used to signify marriage and rejuvenation, while at the same time, it can exhibit grief, death and despair.
White has no negative connotations and is used to symbolise purity, virginity and faithfulness.
“The inherent purity of the colour white elicits notions of innocence and virginity… In some cultures, white is death while in others, white represents light.” – Read more about ‘The White of Santería’ here.
So how do you interpret the message in Zulu love letters?
Well, that all depends on how the colours are used together.
The letters are read from the outer edge to the core. A beaded rectangular flap contains the message. The flap is sometimes attached to a narrow chain of beads that is hooked behind the neck like a normal necklace, or it can be worn by itself using a safety pin.
Black and white are used in unison to reveal marriage; while blue with white expresses fidelity. When yellow is combined with black and red, it reflects the fear that your closeness is withering away, while red used with black conveys heartache.
The Zulu Triangle
The triangle is a common feature in traditional Zulu beadwork, with the three corners representing Father, Mother and Child. If the tip of the triangle is pointed up, it reveals that a woman is unmarried – a downward pointing tip announces an unmarried man. When two triangles are combined to form a diamond shape, the figure signifies that a woman is taken or married, while when the two tips of the triangles meet in the middle to form an hourglass shape, it signals a married man.
Zulu love letters were traditionally given to young men by their women when they left their villages to find work in the cities. The women would construct the beaded love letters as a token of their love, but also to ward off any potential female admirers that they might encounter while at work.
Zulu love letters are a unique way of expressing your feelings through creativity. Are any of you inspired to create one for your special someone this Valentine’s day? Leave us a little love note of your own in the comments section, and please include pictures if you actually decide to make one!! 😘