Witwatersrand University - Rock Art Research Institute


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In half-death the shamans battle with malevolent spirits of the dead, who come to the dance and try to shoot small, invisible, 'arrows-of-sickness' into people. Attracted by the beautiful singing and dancing, the spirits lurk in the African night beyond the small circle of firelight. Balanced precariously on the edge of oblivion, experienced shamans move from person to person, laying hands on them and drawing known and unknown ills out of them. Then with a high-pitched cry they cast sickness and strife back into the darkness whence they came.
Rock Art South Africa San Trance Dance
Painting from KwaZulu-Natal
depicts a typical San circular dance
This painting of a curing ritual, a sick person is lying with knees drawn up. Bending over the patient is a kneeling shaman who is laying hands on the patient to draw out sickness. Scattered around are depictions of arrows. These are probably not real arrows. The San never leave their extremely dangerous poisoned arrows where anyone may accidentally step on them or where children may find them. More probably, they are invisible arrows-of-sickness.
Sometimes, at the height of the dance, when the atmosphere is charged with n/om and the world is beginning to spin, some of the shamans fall unconscious in trance, sometimes casting themselves headlong into the fire. Their spirits have left their bodies on a dangerous, frightening and painful mission to protect their people. The most powerful shamans reach the terrifying abode of god himself, and there they remonstrate with him, pleading for the lives of any who may be critically ill.
People care for shamans who have entered trance, rubbing them with sweat and flicking them with flywhisks to deflect approaching arrows-of-sickness. Later, the unconsciousness of deep trance fades into natural sleep and the dance breaks up. In the morning, life goes on, cleansed, and the people, united by the great cathartic experience of the dance, return to the real life world of hunting and gathering.
The painting below from the Eastern Cape Drakensberg shows a bird connected to an eland by a line of supernatural potency. Note that foam is depicted falling from the mouth of the eland to indicate that the animal is dying. Dying eland are common in San rock art. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the San word for dying is the same as the San word for entering deep trance.
San Shamanic Rock Art
The San describe their experiences of
out-of-body travel as like flying
San Rock Art Eland
Bird connected to an eland by
a line of supernatural potency
Many San painters depicted dying eland in close association with 'dying' dancers. The experiences of trembling, sweating and bleeding from the nose before finally collapsing were common to both; beyond this the eland was the supreme source of the potency sought by San dancers. The way that the bird is connected to the eland suggests that it is part of this same trance symbolism. The San describe their experiences of out-of-body travel as like flying. This bird painting seems to capture this metaphor.
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