Stacks Image 153
Print No #21

Two Shamans Entering Altered States of Consciousness

The individuals in this print from Kondoa have abnormally swollen heads filled with entoptic forms of horizontal parallel lines and nested curves. The figure on the right has four vertical dashed lines inside its torso that could represent the movement of its spiritual potency from its stomach in the form of steam that traveled up its spine toward its head. Its foreshortened arms are another indicator of trance. The two long parallel lines inside the head of the left hand figure terminate with a row of short bristling vertical lines on the top and bottom of its head signifying the “explosion” of its spiritual potency.

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