Capturing an Hallucinatory Rain Animal in the Spirit Realm

This painting in this print was originally traced by archaeologist Mary Leakey from a rock shelter in the Kondoa District of Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Leakey described it literally as an “elephant dance.” According to her, the images consist of:

“…parallel dashed lines in groups of four or five, which completely surround the fallen. The elephant is small in comparison to the size of the humans, and because it elephant, may represent a trap or the edge of a game pit into which the animal has lacks tusks, may be a young individual. The pads of the feet are shown detached. The scene conveys a great sense of triumph and high spirits. Each human is in a different posture; some are bent forwards, one is balancing on tip-toe with both hands raised, another is on all fours, another is doing a handstand and kicking its legs in the air, and yet another is lying prone, apparently exhausted.”

However, viewing the scene from the perspective of the shamanistic model provided John Cavallo with the following alternative explanation that removes it from the material world and places it in the spirit realms where it undoubtedly originated. In that context, Leakey’s “captive” elephant becomes a spiritual captive, a rain animal that possessed supernatural potency the shamans were attempting to harness during trance to produce rain. Rather than a “trap or the edge of a game pit,” the circular series of short parallel dashed lines become footprints left by the nine shamans pictured in the scene during their trance dance prior to entering the spirit world. The idea that these are human footprints is supported by the tracks of two tall individual humans (see Figure 1) who were traced by Leakey from the same rock shelter. In the context of the model, what she viewed as triumphant postures are more likely shamans floating and swimming about in the underwater realm of this and other powerful rain animals located in the depths of waterholes. Some are bent over from receiving their potency. Others are attempting to make contact and capture it as the tall individual standing at the elephant’s rear is about to do by touching its rump and tail. According to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of the southern /Xam Bushmen, when a rain animal was captured in the underwater spirit realm, the shamans then led it out and up to a place in heavenly spirit realm over a drought-stricken area. The shamans then killed and butchered it and the creature’s blood and/or milk then fell down over the area in the form of rain.

Finally, there are the issues of the elephant’s small size, detached footpads and missing tusk. First, the physical attributes of the elephant more closely resemble those of a mature rather than young individual. Second, San accounts of the ritual indicate that the size differences between it and the shamans are likely a result of the shamans feeling they were growing taller during trance. Third, the detached footpads suggest the shamans may have immobilized it and led it up into the spirit realm in the sky to a place above a drought-affected area. As the early ethnographic accounts indicate, the shamans would then kill and butcher it and its blood and/or milk would then fall to earth as rain. Finally, it is not at all uncommon to see adult elephants with a missing tusk. (From M.D. Leakey, 1983. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).


PRINT NUMBER: 1
40 x 65 cm






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Each image has been silk-screened on one-of-a-kind handmade papers made of local vegetation and crafted by Seppo Hallavainio.

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