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Star Beings In Stone? —A Rock Art Site In Central South Africa (cont.)
By Gary A. David

Aye, there’s the rub.

But what is the meaning of these enigmatic dream-symbols carved into the bedrock? David Lewis-Williams, cognitive archaeologist and specialist in South African rock art, says that these engravings were not merely representations of the natural world or abstractions of inner space rendered on static stone. Unlike the modern artist’s canvas, they were instead “windows on other worlds”— veils between the physical world and the spirit world. Like the interactive screens of a sacred video game, the petroglyphs were in fact “reservoirs of potency” that came alive the moment the San people trance-danced in front of them.[5]

Lewis-Williams is also the major proponent of the theory that the geometrics found at Driekopseiland were a depiction of the entoptics created by the optic nerve in the initial stages of an altered state. The shaman experienced these varied abstract shapes via intense drumming and dancing, sometimes in conjunction with hallucinogens. Just rub your eyes hard to get a mild sense of this phenomenon.

Even the academic Professor Morris admits to sacrosanct function of the engravings. “As a powerful portal between spiritual realms, a point of breakthrough perhaps second to none in the area, Driekopseiland would have been the kind of place where !Khwa was appeased, where protections were sought, so that ‘the rain comes down gently.’”[6]

Like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest, the San distinguish between (1) “male rain,” or lightning, fierce winds, and thunderstorms that pummel the earth, causing floods; and (2) “female rain,” or gentle rains that slowly soak into the earth.[7] Morris believes that the ancient people who made these carvings conceptualized the river as the mythic Water Snake named !Khwa, a figure prominent in San mythology.

“The regular emergence and submergence of images from the waters of the Gama-!ab [San term for Riet River] seems to us a crucial element in the power of the engravings and, arguably, a key to their meaning. Like the body of a large beast living in the depths of the river, the rock surfaces appear to rise from one medium to another, glistening, striated and engraved. Using a related analogue, the artist Walter Battiss spoke of ‘great whales lying in the mud’ of Driekops Eiland, their backs ‘decorated with innumerable designs.’”[8]

Arching its engraved back, the giant Snake breaks the surface of the water—then plunges back into the stream. This vertical undulation has cosmological significance due to the fact that “to go under water” is a San trance metaphor for death or “to die.”

Likewise, the Hopi describe a subterranean water serpent known as Pálulukang, which lives in springs, waterholes, or rivers and controls thunderstorms and floods. Hopi cosmology also identifies the underworld with a pluvial afterlife where departed spirits reside.

A Hopi drawing of a mudhead katsina (also spelled kachina, associated with the nether realm) wrestling with Pálulukang, the horned water serpent, which is akin to the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl.

Phallic engravings with cupules next to river (dark area to the left).
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  1. David Lewis-Williams and Geoffrey Blundell, Fragile Heritage: A Rock Art Fieldguide (Johannesburg, South Africa: Witwatersrand University Press, 1998), pp. 24-25.
    —The trance dance is a curing ritual whereby spirits are contacted. Resembling the Native American Ghost Dance of the late 19th century, it is performed by dancing in a ring, using hyperventilation in order to create a state of transcendent exhaustion. “The !Kung [San] medicine man gradually works himself up into a state of trembling and sweating. When he approaches trance, he feels a rising sensation which he ascribes to the ‘boiling’ of his medicine (n/om); as he enters deep trance, he falls to the ground, sometimes executing a somersault.” J. David Lewis-Williams, A Cosmos In Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society Through Rock Art (Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press, 2002), p. 59.[back to text]
  2. David Morris, “Introducing a new interpretation of Driekopseiland,”[back to text]
  3. Lewis-Williams and Blundell, Fragile Heritage, op. cit., p. 21.[back to text]
  4. John Parkington, David Morris, and Neil Rusch, Karoo Rock Engravings: Marking Places in the Landscape (Cape Town, South Africa: Southern Cross Ventures, August 2008), p. 78.
    —The San used to call out to the mythical Water Snake: “Your breast gurgles because it is full of water. The Stars love you—therefore the gemstone gleams on your head.” Was this gemstone a diamond? “/Xam [San] astronomical references in G R von Wielligh’s Boesman-Stories,”[back to text]

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