Stacks Image 153
Print No #13

Sandawe Bushman Simbo Dancers Transforming Into Lions


This painting from the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a rare depiction of eleven Sandawe shamans performing their major ritual, “simbo,” which translates to “the state of being a lion.” The dance is similar in several respects (but not precisely the same) to the so-called "trance dance" performed by southern San Bushmen. One researcher in the mid-1930s describes the Sandawe dancers in altered states of consciousness as running about "as if possessed," with sweat pouring down their bodies and foam around their mouths: "They dance and jump until they fall down exhausted. Then a woman takes a merra twig, dips it in beer and sprinkles the dancers with it" and puts in the their beer. Merra is a mild hallucinogen. Although San Bushmen do not usually use hallucinogens, this particular description is quite similar to accounts of modern Kalahari San Bushman trance dances and the following observations from a source published in 1846:
"The movements consist of irregular jumps... They gambol together till all be fatigued and covered in perspiration... The exertions which they make, are so violent that it is not unusual to see some one sink to the ground exhausted and covered with blood, which pours from the nostrils... The women gather around him, and put two bits of reed across each on his back. They carefully wipe off the perspiration with ostrich feathers, leaping backwards and forwards across his back. Soon the air revives him."
According to David Lewis-Williams, "The San medicine dance and the Sandawe simbo rituals... both involve violent trance experience as well as certain beliefs and metaphors like transformation into a lion."

In this print, the simbo dancers are grouped around a stylized hallucinatory representation of a male lion with a thick mane. All of the figures are bent over forward in postures indicating that their spiritual potency is “boiling” in their stomachs causing severe painful contractions of their abdominal muscles. Importantly, one of the dancers is touching the back of the lion, probably to draw out some of its potent spiritual energy. Its position on all fours, its protruding face, and the short thick lines on its head and neck, indicate that the individual is in the process of transforming into an adult male lion, which is the ultimate purpose of the ritual. Four of the other participants are also in a similar process of transformation judging from their four-legged postures and indications of growing manes on their heads and necks. The nineteenth-century southern /Xam Bushman shamans also reported lion's hair growing on the back of a dancer experiencing violent trance that is one of the physical sensations experience during altered states of consciousness.

Once transformed into felines, Sandawe shamans are said to have strutted around in a swaggering manner similar to the gait of mature black-maned male lions. Importantly, the twentieth-century !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert have a word that refers to “pawed creature” meaning “to go on out-of-body travel as a lion.” A !Kung shaman also stated that he was capable of even mixing with a lion pride when he had physically transformed into one. There are reports of this ritual still being performed in private by a few Sandawe residing around the Kondoa area. Although not precisely like the southern Bushman trance dance, the similarities between some aspects of the Sandawe ritual and other factors strongly suggest that these widely separated peoples and their spiritual practices developed from the same ancient traditional roots. Recent genetic studies now confirm the relationship between the Tanzanian and southern Bushmen as the earliest descendants of the ancestral population of modern humans that evolved in Ethiopia. (From M.D. Leakey, 1983. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).