Two Unusual Examples of Shamans Entering Altered States


The two images in this print were traced by archaeologist Mary Leakey from the same rock shelter in the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). In her earlier literal interpretation, the figure on the left was characterized as a human with “spiky-hair” that also “appears to wear a kudu horn,” referring to the two parallel vertical wavy lines on the top of its head. From a shamanistic perspective, however, the image represents another unique way that a Sandawe shaman-artist depicted the intense ecstatic sensation he experienced when his spiritual potency “exploded” in his head and propelled him into the spirit real (i.e. and altered state of consciousness) during a trance ritual. The shaman used a series of V-shaped parallel lines to vividly depict the cerebral explosion.
His altered state of consciousness is also indicated by the single isolated downturned line on the lower left side of the image just below the V-shaped cluster of lines. Archaeologist John Cavallo interprets it as a symbol of nasal bleeding that can occur during a deep state of trance resulting from vigorous all-night trance dancing. Similar indications of nasal bleeding are common in many southern Bushman rock paintings. In Tanzania, however, they were overlooked or completely misinterpreted from a literal perspective such as indicating that a person was “singing.” Below the shaman’s fragmented head, his torso is composed of an interior inverted U-shaped cluster of long discontinuous parallel vertical lines. Cavallo contends that these illustrate some Bushman accounts of some shamans who reported that immediately after their spiritual potency exploded in their heads, the potency radiated back down again through their entire bodies. Similarly, ethnographic accounts also indicate that the so-called kudu horn head-dress, is more likely a depiction of the shamans spirit (or soul) exiting his body through his head or a hole in the neck and embarking on an out-of-body journey. The departure of a shaman’s spirit was something only other shamans in trance could see.
The figure on the left is also a unique way a shaman-artist depicted the cerebral explosion and an altered state of consciousness by drawing its head as a circular cluster of small dots resembling the bursts of aerial fireworks during a celebration. Dots are one of several universal geometric forms, called “entoptics” (meaning within the human optical system) that are commonly seen by all persons in the early stages of trance. If we look down to the bottom of the individual’s elongated torso just above its legs, there is a stack of interior horizontal lines. Moving up above them there is a lengthy series of primarily discontinuous vertical parallel lines that end where the neck should be. The illustrated neck, such as it is, consists of six short lines connected to the lower dots on the interior of the individual’s head. Collectively, these groups of lines within the figure’s long torso could be depicting his spiritual potency boiling in his stomach, then into turning to steam, traveling up his spine, and finally exploding in his head as a cluster of dots. (Redrawn from M.D. Leakey, 1983 by J.A. Cavallo).

PRINT NUMBER 14
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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