Stacks Image 153
Print No #11

Three Highly Elongated Shamans In Altered States of Consciousness

These unusual figures in this print from a cluster of rock shelters in the northern Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are three of several images that are the tallest yet recorded; some measuring over one meter in height. They dramatically illustrate many physical sensations experienced by shamans during altered states of consciousness. The most obvious is the feeling that their bodies are becoming extremely tall. Foreshortening of their limbs is another indication as are hands with fewer than the normal number of fingers as seen on the single hand of the individual on the left with only four fingers. The figure on the far right has an elongated staff, possibly a dancing or digging stick, leaning against its outstretched right arm. Finally, there are the enormous swollen heads on two of the figures and short lines bristling lines radiating from the exteriors of all three heads. The interiors of the heads contain short scattered lines, nested curves, and parallel straight lines interpreted as “entoptics,” meaning “within the human optic system.” They consist of zigzag lines, dots, grids, sets of parallel lines, meandering lines, and U-shaped curves or nested curves.

These visual phenomena can be induced in a number of ways that include: the ingestion of psychotropic drugs, sustained rhythmic dancing and drumming, hyperventilation, sensory deprivation, and pain. Among the Bushmen, altered states were traditionally induced by sustained vigorous all-night dancing. The images appear as self-illuminated, pulsating, or flickering phenomena originating in the eye and brain and they are common to all humans. In basic form they consist of zigzag lines, dots, grids, sets of parallel lines, meandering lines, and U-shaped curves or nested curves. In the early stage of trance, the images occur alone. In the next stage of trance, the observer attempts to make sense of them or elaborates them into something resembling a real (iconic) object. In the final stage of trance they appear as fully iconic images. However, the entoptics observed in the early stage of trance can occur along with them either in juxtaposition, as a repeated pattern, a fragmented pattern, or directly superimposed over the iconic image. The swollen heads and bristling lines on the three Kondoa images are interpreted by archaeologist John Cavallo as representing the shamans’ supernatural potency “exploding” in their heads when entering trance. Finally, there are the group of short dashed lines emerging from the head of the individual on the left. It was originally interpreted as indicating that the person was “singing.” However, given its other trance-related physical characteristics, the numerous lines more likely depict the falling of nasal blood as experienced by many shamans participating in trance dances.
(Redrawn from M.D. Leakey,1983 by J.A. Cavallo).