1. Introduction: on the Presence of Snakes in Southern African Rock Art1
- snakes could “fill the country with water” (p. 5);
- snakes, health and healing are entwined, such that ill-health is associated with dangerous snake potency, and healing—via the ministrations of a healer who is also snake-like—is akin to the emergence of a new state following shedding of the skin of a snake;
- snake fat is a potent substance that when applied to a healer (p. 7) can facilitate their transformation into the snake-associated and potent altered state of perception needed for healing to occur;
- the use of “charms”, i.e., potent substances, that include “burnt snake powder” (p. 10) both strengthens trance-states (p. 10) (associated with being snake-like), and supports healers in their return to the everyday consciousness of “normal” human-being (p. 7);
- “rhebok men”, supported by charms and the healing trance dance, are those who could tame and catch eland and snakes (p. 10).
2. The Present and the Past: on Ethnographic Analogy and Archaeological Interpretation in Southern African Rock Art
3. Triangulating a KhoeSan “rainbow snake assemblage” from rock art and ethnography
3.1. Snakes could “fill the country with water”
3.2. Ill-Health Is Caused by Dangerous Snake Potency; Healing is a Transformative Emergence Signalled by the Shedding of a Snake Skin. Snake Potency thus can be both “Good” and “Bad”
… the chief and his young men were saved (from the wall of water described in 3.1 above)... and Cagn sent Cogaz (his son) for them to come and turn from being snakes, and he told them to lie down, and he struck them with his stick, and as he struck each the body of a person came out, and the skin of a snake was left on the ground, and he sprinkled the skins with canna,10 and the snakes turned from being snakes, and they became his people (p. 5).
3.3. Snake Fat is a Potent Substance that can Facilitate Transformation of a Healer into the Snake-Associated Potency through Which Healing can Occur
those men took fat from a snake they had killed and dropped it on the meat (a rhebok), hunted by Qwanciqutshaa, another son of Cagn, who was hated by these young men (because they desired his wife), and when he (Qwanciqutshaa) cut a piece and put it in his mouth it fell out; and he cut another, and it fell out; and the third time it fell out, and the blood gushed out of his nose (signalling entrance into an altered state of consciousness). So he took all his things, his weapons, and clothes, and threw them into the sky, and he threw himself down into the river... (where) he turned into a snake (p. 7).
3.4. The Use of “Charms”, i.e., Potent Substances, Including “Burnt Snake Powder” (,p. 10) both Strengthens Trance-States (, p. 10) (Associated with being Snake-Like) and Supports Healers in Their Return to the Everyday Consciousness of “Normal” Human-Being (, p. 7)
made a hut and went and picked things and made cannā, and put pieces in a row from the river bank to the hut. And the snake (i.e., Qwanciqutshaa in his transformed trance state) came out and ate up the charms, and went back into the water, and the next day she did the same; … And when the girl saw he had been there she placed charms again, and lay in wait; and the snake came out of the water and raised his head, and looked warily and suspiciously round, and then he glided out of the snake’s skin and walked, picking up the charm food... (, p. 7).
Some fall down; some become as if mad and sick; blood runs from the noses of others whose charms are weak, and they eat charm medicine, in which there is burnt snake powder. When a man is sick, this dance is danced round him, and the dancers put both hands under their arm-pits, and press their hands on him, and when he coughs the initiated put on their hands and received what has injured him (, p. 10, emphasis added).
3.5. Rhebok Men, i.e., Men with the Heads of Rhebok (cf. Figure 1a), Lived Mostly under Water (i.e., Indicating Their Submerged Trance State) and, with the Assistance of “Charms” (see 3.4. above) and Riems (Pliable Ropes of Leather) could Tame and Catch Eland and Snakes (, p. 10)
the paintings from the cave Mangolong represent rainmaking. We see here a water thing, or water cow... They then charm the animal, and attach a rope to its nose,—and in the upper part of the picture it is shown as led by the Bushmen, who desire to lead it over as large a tract of country as they can, in order that the rain should extend as far as possible,—their superstition being that wherever this animal goes, rain will fall. The strokes indicate rain. Of the Bushmen who drag the water cow, two are men (sorcerers), of whom the chief one is nearest to the animal. In their hands are boxes made of tortoise (!khu) shell (containing charmed boochoo)… 15
4. Conclusion—What an Extraordinary Snakey World We Live in...
- 1We first presented this paper in June 2009 as “Shades of the rainbow serpent: a KhoeSān animal between myth and landscape in Southern Africa’, at the Conference Living Landscapes, Aberystwyth University.
- 2Challis et al. (, p. 1) say the only time. We know of at least one other occasion. The South African archaeologist Revil Mason visited rock art sites on the Brandberg/Dâures, Namibia, in 1995 with San people from Botswana’s Kuru Arts project (http://www.kuruart.com/). They visited and spent a night at Snake Rock shelter in the Upper Hungorob. Unfortunately, no enquiry was made as to what the San artists from Kuru thought of the rock art in the shelter. It seems, however, that the art did provoke a significant response. That night the San artists danced, sang, clapped and no doubt tranced all night at the shelter, suggesting that they were moved to do so by their connection with the content of the art (Revil Mason, personal communication to Sullivan, 2009; and Andrew Botelle, personal communication).
- 3Nb. The consecutive ordering of these themes in Orpen’s 1874 text may be an artefact of the way he pieced Qing’s narrative together, i.e., rather than reflecting the order in which Qing related these stories.
- 4Nb. Differing views existing regarding the frequency of the appearance of snakes in southern African rock art, with one reviewer of this paper noting that on the basis of 16 years’ fieldwork, snakes are a relatively common rupestrian motif. They certainly tend to feature relatively prominently when they do appear in this context.
- 5By “onto-epistemology’ we mean reasoned knowledge flowing from particular cultural and historically situated assumptions regarding the nature of reality, and the methods through which, given these assumptions, it is possible to know this. We derive the term “onto-epistemology’ from .
- 6We use neologisms “socionature’, “culturenature’ and “ecocultural’ to emphasise an onto-epistemology in which “social’ and “natural’ realms are entangled and muturally constitutive rather than distinct and separate (cf. [57,58,59], , p. 27). Such an approach seems to us to be well attuned to our focus in this paper, given what we understand as KhoeSan appreciations of such entanglements.
- 7Following , for terms in Khoekhoegowab a full-stop is used to demarcate the word stem from the male, female and plural markers .b, .s . and .n or .i respectively.
- 8Strictly speaking the term “buchu’ indicates a particular aromatic species known to the settlers in South Africa (Agathosma betulina), but is frequently used as a designation for an aromatic powder used by KhoeSan throughout southern Africa and made from a mixture of aromatic plant parts from a number of species (cf. [30,69]).
- 9Termed“/awi!nana.b’, literally “falling-/rain-colours’, by Sesfontein Damara (Sullivan personal fieldnotes).
- 10Probably leaves and stems of Sceletium spp., (according to analysis by , pp. 43-46).
- 11Thus some Khoe-speaking Naro , influenced by European missionary thinking, consider that the snake tongue stings in ways reminiscent of lightning and also that the split in the tongue exists because snakes are associated with the side of their deity that does not always speak the truth.
- 12See  for a fuller discussion of KhoeSan praxes in relation to generating immunity.
- 13Nb. drawing on the /Xam archive and Ju/’hoan ethnography, Challis (, p. 17-19) argues that the notion of taming snakes does not equate to wider ideas of possessing the potency of a snake, eland or another animal, but simply to the “luck” of having “influence’ over snakes. Our own ethnographic research, however, indicates that the way people have influence over the weather and animals is by being in intentional relationship with them and thereby sharing a kind of kinship with them. In this sense “taming” fits within a wider family of ideas that include ideas of “possessing”, “owning” or “working with” certain animals and/or the rain, as well as with the notions of “luck” that Challis links to ideas of “influence” and decouples from potency acquired through directed action and intent (discussed further in ).
- 14Although this idea has received some prominence in the literature, the majority of references are to one claim made by a Ju/’hoansi man interviewed by Biesele. This specific description is absent in the authors’ experience (particularly in Low’s research on the healing trance dance). This absence suggests the expression may be more idiosyncratic than representative, and should be treated with some caution as an interpretative metaphor in rock art. It is notable that Biesele (, p. 70-72) in fact introduces this story as an example of the role of idiosyncrasy in accounts of Ju/’hoan trance journeys. Although the term might be used by dancers, in the authors’ experience it seems less a specific reference to “trance’ and more an indicator of when the normal order of life is messed up and boundaries become unclear in ways that might also be dangerous or unpleasant. In Khoekhoegowab, overlaps between gao, meaning rotting, decay, musty smelling, gao-gao-aob, meaning spoiler or corrupter, and gaogaosib, meaning ruined and spoiled state (, p. 249), thus may give better indication of the wider context of the broader uses of the term “spoilt’ than that emphasized in rock art analysis. Sugawara (, p. 94) makes a similar observation amongst the Gui and Gana Bushmen for whom the term !năre carries the multiple meanings of to be drunk, to sense and to have a hunch. Brody (, p. 239-242) among others has also argued that native American enthusiasm for alcohol might be based on a cultural embrace of the value of altered states of consciousness, an argument that might be pertinent to KhoeSan contexts where alcohol has a close, if problematic, relationship with many healers. One of us (Low) recently observed a not untypical but extreme example of this relationship when a Ju/’hoansi healer proclaimed that he needed to drink a crate a beer before he could commence healing. He described this requirement as his special technique.
- 15Small tortoise shells from young tortoises are used by KhoeSan for storing sâ.i (e.g. Sullivan, personal observation for Damara and Ju/’hoan San). The powdered mixture of aromatic plants that they thereby contain is strongly associated with menarche, menstrual blood, and with female life-giving power , but is also used to support (normally male) healers as they direct their will towards entering the primal, mythological world associated with trance and the ancestors (see 3.4, also ). The relationship between blood and women is developed in a metaphorical string that results in a tortoise becoming a metaphor for a woman’s genitals and having sex, and tortoise shells thereby being seen as able to cleanse menstrual blood. At the same time, the /Xam described tortoises and snakes as “rain things”, denoting a sense of mutuality (cf. Bleek-Lloyd-/Xam archive). So, for example, both tortoises and snakes are observed to head for high ground when it rains. Thus there is an association of potency here between rain, snakes, tortoises, menarche, menstrual blood, and sâ.i, affirmed etymologically through the Nama term written by Theophilus Hahn as au.b to describe “snake”, “the one who flows” and blood, as well as to bleed—“au”, and rain—“au-ib” (, pp. 78-9).
- 16Associated by /Xam informants with the embodiment of !Khwa as rain, water in waterholes, eland, rain bull, rain animal and attracted to secluded menarcheal females, see summary in Solomon (, p. 5).
- 17See http://travel.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/world-heritage/chichen-itza/ accessed 22 January 2013.
- 18An anecdote serves to illustrate this point. When we presented this paper at the Living Landscapes conference in 2009 (see endnote 1) Low made an unrehearsed reference to being told by a San healer that the most potent things to see in a healing ceremony were the snake, the cat and lightning. This provoked an interjection from Sullivan, who not long previously had returned from a short period of fieldwork with ayahuasca healers in Ecuador and Peru. In one of the ceremonies in which she participated the healer, Don Lucho, introduced the medicine by saying: “of the things you may see three are the most potent for healing. They are the snake, the cat and lightning’ (Sullivan, personal fieldnotes, 2008).
- 19The particularly constructed nature of this interpretation of the serpent in Genesis is indicated by records that second-century Gnostics worshipped Jesus “as the perfect serpent’ who celebrated dance as the way of knowing life: thus, “who dances not knows not the way life’ (in , p. 606).
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