Eland, Woman and Serpent Site

Associated Archaeology

This site faces East over the Skulpspruit in a high and unusual location. It does not appear to have been a living site, but a special purpose venue. Only re-located in 1983, this site is unlike the vast majority of Bushman or ‘San’ rock art sites in that it is difficult to access and is uncomfortable. There is no depth of archaeological deposit and no artefacts were noticed as surface scatter.

Meaning of the rock paintings

The rock painted imagery at this site cannot be considered in isolation from the site and its situation in the landscape. The imagery at this site is extremely specialised, suggesting a special purpose usage. We know today that the Bushmen rock art is religious and symbolic and not just a simple record of what people ate and saw. For example, from Archaeological excavations we know that many dassies (rock hyrax – Procavia capenis) were eaten. Yet, among the many thousands of known rock art sites in southern Africa, we know of only two rock art depictions of dassies. Rock art were concerned with what people thought.

In Bushman society the type of religion they practiced was known as ‘Shamanism’ and revolved around the relationship the Medicine Person or ‘Shaman’ had with the Spirit World. The Bushmen believed that the Spirit World was located behind the painted and engraved rock surface. Only the Shaman could open the gap between worlds and in order to be able to make the journey – which we call an hallucination or altered state of consciousness – he or she needed to use a supernatural essence that the Great God, (whom the Bushmen sometimes called ‘Kgaggen, the trickster - sometimes simbolysed by the praying mantis - or Gu//awa,) had placed into a restricted range of animals and things. The greatest source of such supernatural potency was the Eland.

The Eland contains large quantities of fat, which the Bushmen believed contained supernatural potency that the shamans could use to make their supernatural journeys and also to heal people, make rain, promote social harmony, fight evil influences and so forth. The butting behaviour of the Eland at Leliekloof is also seen in the Lady Grey Area. That it seems to be a male and female eland butting – a very unusual occurrence – suggest a deeper signification, perhaps something along the line of the ‘battle of the sexes’ though the Bushmen gender construction was different to ours and also had Spirit World overtones.

The female figure holding the serpent continues this gendered theme. Females are not often painted in Bushmen rock art, accounting for about 5% - 8% of known imagery while male figures account for about 15%. The majority of human figures are thus apparently ‘asexual’ but probably represent a third gender – that of the shaman while in an altered state of consciousness unable to maintain a distinct gender allegiance. Female figures are consistently associated with serpents in Bushmen rock art, but the meaning of this association is as yet unclear. Perhaps part of the answer is to be found literally by looking out from the shelter and seeing the thin and sinuous Skulpspruit’s winding passage below.

The clapping human figures surrounding the female suggest that a Medicine Dance is underway. The Medicine or Trance dance was – and remains – the central most important religious ceremony for the San – the equivalent of taking communion in Christianity. At the Dance – where everyone took part irrespective of age, status, gender and such – people clapped hands – as is depicted at Leliekloof – sang and danced. This would continue for many hours, usually at night, fostering social harmony and goodwill. At the same time, the Medicine Dance functioned as a physical resource that enabled the shamans to enter the Spirit World or, in our understanding, to go into a trance state. This trance, or altered state of consciousness was facilitated by the dense soundscape created by the Dance, combined with extreme physical exertion and, of course, faith. The bleeding ‘buck’ heads may be explained as shamans who have completely transformed themselves into their source of animal potency. Shamans often bleed from the nose in such states and they wipe their blood and sweat onto their patients to ensure wellness.

In our understanding, this wellness comes from the endorphins and opiate-like peptides contained within the shaman’s bodily fluids. Nasal bleeding may also be a sign of greater indigenous use of pshycoactive substances (hallucinogens) that has previously been realised.

The long low fight taking place below the female is similarly not a depiction of a real arrow fight – there are impossibly too many arrows. In fact, the Bushmen believed that sickness was caused by small arrows. The many white flecks painted thus represent these ‘arrows of sickness’ and are indicating an archetypal battle between good and evil. The Leliekloof rock paintings at this site are thus most interesting and specialised and worthy of a great deal of further study.