Stacks Image 153
Print No #17

Southern Bushman Shamans In Ecstatic States Of Trance


This print of a South African rock painting depicts two /Xam Bushman shamans restraining a fellow dancer who is probably experiencing an episode in which the body shakes and trembles uncontrollably as he is about to enter a deep state of trance. Historic accounts from southern Africa and Tanzania speak of such events occurring during trance rituals when a shaman becomes emotionally overwhelmed from receiving his supernatural potency and accompanying hallucinations. Historic accounts mention some dancers staggering, frothing at the mouth, screaming from pain, and executing somersaults that could result in injuries if the person were not subdued. 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.”

The focal point of the painting is the tallest elongated individual who has an erection resulting from ecstatic arousal and is falling over forward as he enters trance. He carries a dancing stick in his outstretched right arm. His other hand holds a curved stick that might represent a bow. The two companions who are restraining him have similar elongated bodies and erect penises are also in altered states of consciousness. However, accounts of modern !Kung Bushmen documented by Bradford Keeney that describe what takes place in the shaman’s bodies seem a more likely explanation for this painting:

“They shake and quake, jerk and jolt, tremble and vibrate, and they make noise and sing music. As the music and rhythms of the dance help the [shaman] enter into deeper shaking, their bodies bend over and their arms extend behind their back…”

“In addition, the [shaman’s] shaking body is not separated from other bodies. The shake is shared and passed on to other non-shaking bodies and combined with the shaking of other bodies. Bushman [shamans] hold on to one another and shake together, increasing the ecstatic arousal of all who are shaken.”


The figure standing on the far left is also in an altered state. He wears a stylized eared-antelope cap identifying him as a “possessor” of game animals capable of controlling their movements. On his back is a possible quiver for arrows, a dancing stick, and what appears to be a bow without a string. All four individuals have what appear to be sticks inserted through their penises. In fact, however, they are a shaman-artist’s way of showing that these individuals had abstained from having sex prior to participating in this trance ritual.