Southern Bushman Shamans In Ritual Dancing Postures


A rock painting of four southern /Xam San Bushmen in similar postures while performing an all-night ritual healing or trance dance. Importantly, the key for entering the spirit realm was the highly energetic ‘healing’ or ‘trance dance.’ According to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of southern Bushmen, the ritual took place at night around a large bonfire and involved the whole community. Sometimes the carcass of an eland or some other animal served as the focal point. The women, who rarely participated in the southern San dance, gathered close to the fire in a tight circle and began singing and rapidly clapping ‘medicine songs.’ The pulsing rhythms, together with the heat and flickering of the fire, opened the gates for supernatural experiences.

The men, including shamans and those seeking their first trance journey, began their intense dancing and breathing in time with the rapid clapping and singing. The ritual is said to have lasted up to 24 or more hours. After several hours of sustained dancing, shamans began suffering the effects of overheating, heavy sweating and exhaustion. The physical stress and dehydration made them stagger about and fall down as they began entering a state of trance. The exertion also caused their delicate nasal blood vessels to rupture and bleed profusely as depicted in many San paintings, including the four shamans in this print. Shamans often mixed nasal blood with underarm sweat and smeared it on the bodies of community members in the belief that the smell of the potent blood would drive away evil spirits. When shamans entered deeper states of trance they collapsed and began having out-of-body experiences. They claimed they were transformed into part human-part animal beings that left the “real world” and entered the spirit realms where they harnessed potent forces within certain species of “rain animals.” For example, the eland, particularly a dying one, was believed by the San to be charged with power that shamans could draw out of them as they also “symbolically died” during trance.

Because there is no Khoisan word for “trance,” San shamans used metaphors, or symbolic substitutes, to describe the experiences which they later painted on the walls of rock shelters. According to Lewis-Williams, they depicted some of the outward physical signs of trance as:

• Part human-part animal figures.

• Humans, part human-part animal figures and eland bleeding from their noses.

• Human figures bent over as if in pain with their arms thrust out behind them, lying prone, or floating.

• Unusually elongated human bodies and foreshortened limbs.

• Elongated male figures with erections.

• Lines emerging from a human figure’s head or back of its neck.

• Shamans touching potent rain animals.

• Human and part human-part animal figures in flight.

Oral descriptions of the sensory effects of trance by San informants contribute significantly to interpreting the South African and central Tanzanian paintings. For example, at the height of all-night dancing, San shamans reported that their “spiritual potency” began to “boil” or “steam” inside them; beginning in the pit of their stomach and causing them to double over in severe pain. In San paintings, the arms are often held out behind them. The “potency” was then said to have traveled up their spine and culminated by “exploding” in their head. This propelled them into full trance and the spirit realm. Informants of Bleek also described feeling as if their bodies were becoming taller or they were levitating or that their normally close-cropped hair was growing during trance. Others reported being transformed into animals.

Based on his long-term study of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, Bradford Keeney describes what takes place in the bodies of shamans during the performance of these intense all-night rituals:
“They shake and quake, jerk and jolt, tremble and vibrate, and they make noise and sing mu sic. As the music and rhythms of the dance help the [shamans] enter into deeper shaking, their bodies bend over and their arms extend behind their back…”
(From D. Lewis-Williams, 1987. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo)
PRINT NUMBER 29
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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