Stacks Image 153

Mother of the Bees

Archaeologist John Cavallo recently reanalyzed the highly unique painting of a human figure associated with bees shown in this print. The painting was initially traced in a rock shelter in the Swara District, adjacent to Kondoa, and described and published by the famous geologist Henry Fosbrooke in 1950. It consists of a partially complete human figure whose right arm is obliterated and only the thigh of its right leg remains intact. There is also some damage to its left shoulder, forearm, and hand. Cavallo argues that the bulging, pear-shaped torso strongly resembles that of a heavily pregnant woman in the advanced stage of gestation. Furthermore, the figure’s widely spread legs depict what Cavallo argues is a “birthing position.” The position of its legs also suggest that if this was the image of a male, some indication of male genitalia would surely be present. Since there is none, the pear-shaped torso most certainly is that of a female. The enormous “head” is also unique among the many other large-headed human figures illustrated by Mary Leakey in both its unusually large size and oval shape. Cavallo contends that the so-called head is actually a bee’s nest and that the numerous, nested entoptic curves inside of it were construed by a shaman, during altered states of consciousness, as honeycombs filled with honey. Buzzing is one of the audio hallucinations experienced during trance.

Both nineteenth and twentieth-century accounts of Bushman beliefs show that bees and honey were considered as powerful potent entities. The halo of bees surrounding the female figure, represented as small chevrons, occur in somewhat similar fashion in another of Mary Leakey’s paintings from Kondoa. It depicts what is probably a traditional Sandawe honey bag made of animal hide in association with the same chevron symbols of flying bees. The presence of the bees in the Swara image, and the enormous bee hive full of potent honeycombs attached to the body of a pregnant female suggest that this was no ordinary woman. But just how extraordinary and, perhaps, even who she represents is suggested by ethnographic evidence that reveals a close association between bees and God. For example, the modern Kalahari Bushmen believe that bees are “the messengers of God” but, more significantly, nineteenth and twenty-century sources both identify the wife of God as “The Mother of the Bees.” Cavallo argues that this is a representation of her and that what she is carrying inside her huge stomach is not a human fetus, but bees! The bees encircling her huge head are possibly her offspring.(From H. Fosbrooke, 1950. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).