The Jewel of the Game Pass Eland Rock Art

In the well-known painting from Game Pass Shelter at Drakensberg, is commonly referred to as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of South African rock art, it was here that archaeologists first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of the Bushmen rock art paintings. A partly transformed shaman holds the tail of a dying eland. Its head is lowered and it has exaggerated, erect hairs. The man’s hoofed legs are crossed in imitation of the eland’s legs. Not shown, but on the right, another shaman with erect hair is also partly transformed into an antelope. Near him is a cloaked figure with an antelope head. In the centre, a shaman dances in the bending forward, arms-back posture. A short skin cloak hangs down in front of him.
By juxtaposing a number of figures, the painting shows how shamans are transformed by the n/om that they have obtained from the dying eland. That n/om changes them partially into eland. All people resort to metaphors when they try to express the ineffable and sometimes bizarre experiences of trance. Today Westerners speak of a ‘trip’ or a ‘high’. Bushmen shamanic dances and art were similarly given form by a set of metaphors that were peculiar to their own circumstances. In Bushmen thought and art ‘death’ in trance is closely associated with the physical death of eland which the Bushmen believe to have more supernatural potency than any other creature. When a shaman ‘dies’, he bends forward, bleeds from the nose, trembles, sweats profusely, staggers and eventually falls unconscious. Similarly, when an eland dies, it lowers its neck so that its head sways from side to side. Its hair stands on end, blood and foam gush from its nose and mouth. It trembles violently, sweats and staggers. Finally, it collapses. Bushmen artists were sensitive to these parallels and painted shamans in association with dying eland.

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