San rock paintings

Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

The San people of southern Africa have created a profound collection of rock paintings.  At least 15,000 sites are known in South Africa, many of them hidden among rock shelters in the Drakensberg Mountains, a range extending northward between Durban and Johannesburg in the heart of the Kwazulu-Natal.

Figures part human, part animal, called therianthropes, portray the Shamans within their spiritual journey.

The paintings are thought to depict a ritualized interaction between the material and spirit world of San culture. Some of the artwork dates back 27,000 years (Namibia) and others from recent centuries.

By entering a state of trance, Shamans tap into a spiritual world where they harness the power to affect weather, heal sickness, and control the movements of animals.  Lasting all night, intense dancing to a rhythm of clapping and drumming induces these trance episodes.  The rock paintings present a Shaman’s privileged interpretation of the trance dance and the spirit world to which they are transported.

The eland, Africa’s largest antelope, possessed spiritual significance for the San and was often painted. Other subjects include a leopard, or lion, and dancing figures.

A dying eland stands with lowered head, bent front leg, crossed hind legs, radiating hairs, all symbols of its imminent death, while a Shaman holds its tail, absorbing the spirit of the eland. The Shaman begins a spiritual journey, with the aid of the eland’s spirit, soon showing signs of the elands features: the radiating hairs, the horns, and feet transforming to eland hooves.

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