Stacks Image 153
Print No #9

A Trio of Shamans in Altered States of Consciousness


This print is a rock painting from Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania of three shamans that exhibit several physical signs of altered states of consciousness. They include: large swollen heads, abnormally elongated bodies, foreshortened limbs, hands with only three fingers, and long, thin tails. The tails are an indication that they are in deep trance and in the process of transforming into animals just prior to embarking on their out-of-body journeys into the spirit realm. The individual on the left is wearing a pouch. Nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts of the southern /Xam Bushmen mention the shamanic use of aromatic herbs kept in containers that were used as charms to lure out and capture powerful “rain animals” from their lairs in the depths of waterholes. Waterholes and rock shelters were passageways into the spirit realm beneath the earth. The shamans then led the animal up into spirit realm in the sky to a place above a drought-ridden area. There they butchered it and the blood and/or milk is said to have fallen to earth as rain.

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. 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.”

(Redrawn from M.D. Leakey, 1983 by J.A. Cavallo).