THE SHAMAN HEALING DANCE IN SAN ROCK ART
The most important San ritual was the healing or trance dance. These dances continue to be practised amongst San groups living in the Kalahari today. Dancers stomp in a circle around the campfire for many hours. The women clap the rhythm of the dance and sing powerful songs. After hours of stomping, some dancers start to slip into trance or half-trance. In this altered state of consciousness many have out-of-body experiences. They describe travelling to the spirit realm.
Dancers stomp in a circle around
the campfire for many hours
The rock art paintings reflect the San
travelling to the spirit realm
Those dancers who practise and utilise out-of-body experiences on a regular basis are termed shamans. Up to 40% of the members of any one group may be practising shamans.
The Healing dance performed by San shamans to find and cast out sickness starts at night and carries on until dawn the next day. As well as living dancers, it was believed that the dancers were also attended by grotesque spirits of the dead.
The dance starts with a few women singing snatches of songs different from ordinary, recreational songs. These special, medicine songs contain n/om, a supernatural potency that permeates the cosmos but that resides particularly in large animals, such as giraffe and eland, and in the shamans themselves. The figure (below left) from the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, is part human - part animal. We call these creatures therianthropes. These paintings depict dancers/shamans who have taken on the potency of a particular animal. This person has taken on eland potency.
Women seated in a tight circle around a fire
Therianthropes - part human - part animal
Soon the men start dancing around the women who have seated themselves in a tight circle around a central fire. The shamans push themselves towards an altered state of consciousness; they enter 'half-death'. They attain ecstasy simply by means of their dancing, concentration and hyperventilation, with the help of the women's insistent, complexly rhythmic singing and clapping.
The rock painting shown below from the southern Drakensberg, shows a shaman surrounded by clapping women with individually drawn fingers. Grotesque spirits of the dead can be seen, some of them extending their talons in the direction of the shaman.