Emperor butterflies in Namib Desert rock art shed new light on shamanic ritual
Not all archaeological discoveries are made by opening the tomb of a long-dead king. Indeed, some important findings seem unimportant at first glance. Like ocher-stained ostrich feathers, a leather bag containing Emperor moth cocoons and a strange container made from the skull of an African wild dog that I unearthed from a sterile layer in Falls Rock Shelter. The site is located just below the summit of the remote Dâures (or Brandberg) massif in the desert region of western Namibia.
Puzzled, I recorded these findings, first buried 4,500 years ago, in a box under my desk. They stayed there for another 40 years until, in a flash of awareness, I saw that the Emperor’s moth cocoons were pierced to be strung like rattles worn around the ankles of the emperor. ‘a shaman during a ritual dance.
As stated in my new book Namib – The Archeology of an African Desert, these delicate and brittle things were to provide a new understanding of shamanic ritual performance as depicted in rock art in Namibia and elsewhere in southern Africa.
The role of the shaman as a ritualist and healer among the hunter-gatherer societies of southern Africa is known primarily through representations of rock art. So far, no archaeological evidence of shamanic ritualistic paraphernalia has been found in southern Africa.
A new era
When I excavated the site, rock art studies had entered an exciting new era. They left behind ancient reflections for a theoretically rigorous approach. This was informed by modern anthropology and the great treasury of historical ethnographic material from the late 1800s on the inhabitants of the region compiled by German linguist Wilhelm Bleek.
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Scholars were able to offer detailed and compelling explanations of mysterious rituals in which shamans tapped supernatural sources of power to heal, guide and protect their people. Paintings that had seemed inexplicable – some were dismissed as irrational fantasies – gave their meaning. The spiritual world of southern African hunter-gatherers has opened up to investigation.
Many puzzles remained, of course, but there were some cave paintings that offered such a depth of insight that one even became the Rosetta Stone of rock art studies. The key to deciphering rock art was the trance dance, a public ritual in which the shaman reached an altered state of consciousness through a rhythmic dance, accompanied by applause and chanting.
Namib Desert Evidence
Southern African scholars argue that rock art and shamanic practice was not hidden – it was open to everyone. An egalitarian hunter-gatherer society had no place for specialized ritual practitioners. Other shamanic traditions are described by scholars of religion as being essentially “polyphase”. It means having a phase of occultation, when the shaman is hidden or concealed, followed by his emergence or reappearance.
The rock art of the Namib Desert has many hidden sites, including paintings in dark crevices that cannot accommodate more than one person. These sites were part of a preparatory process that preceded a ritual performance. A striking feature of rock art is its highly individualized figures, clearly shamans, predominantly male, and filled with specialized ritual equipment, including fly whips, rattles dancing moth cocoons, and long cloaks of skin. animal almost concealing the body. Significantly, these characters are not depicted as participating in a community trance dance.
Evidence suggests that the Namib shamans were individual specialists who traveled from place to place. They prepared for the ritualistic action in places of physical isolation, rather than during the large community trance dance events which rock art scholars believed were the fundamental social mechanism for the trance experience. throughout this region.
Enigmatically, no trace of ritual paraphernalia had been found elsewhere in southern Africa. This led researchers to suggest that there probably were no such objects, and that rock art represents concepts such as power and control rather than actual elements of material culture.
So what about the dancing rattles of the emperor butterflies? Are they nothing more than an unusual and accidental find, adding a bit of texture to our understanding of rock art? On the contrary, they show that occultation, as an element of performance not previously considered by researchers in the region, is of fundamental importance for the understanding of the art and ritual practice of the hunter-gatherers of the region. Southern Africa. Rattles exhibit a critical weakness in conventional explanations.
The emperor butterfly dancing rattles
Moth cocoons with small pebbles placed inside and strung around the lower limbs, emit a characteristic rustle, a rhythmic accompaniment of the ritual dance. Their meaning goes much further, as the cocoon represents the stage of occultation where the butterfly larva is hidden from view. The butterfly itself is the emerging scene represented by the dancing shaman: once hidden, now apparent.
Paintings of emperor butterflies are rare but those of the Dâures massif are represented with outstretched wings as in the emerging stage. The painted moth represents the shaman with his knee-length animal skin cloak that resembles wings. The cocoon rattle, the moth and the masked shaman thus combine the two essential stages of the ritual performance: concealment and reappearance.
Masked figures are of course not limited to rock art in the Namib Desert. The fact that they occur over much of southern Africa shows that they refer to a basic trope in this ritual tradition, neglected until now.
The occultation and emergence of the emperor butterfly also has other ramifications. This explains the importance of physical isolation, such as in deep rock crevices found in the desert, as sites of ritual preparation from which the shaman emerges to do his work. This also explains why the cocoons and other ritual objects were buried at the site; they are objects imbued with supernatural power and therefore kept hidden, in a state of latency, lest their powers be abused.
We now see that these small objects are more important than they first appear. Indeed, they provide the first integration of Southern African rock art and hunter-gatherer ritual practice based on solidly dated archaeological evidence. They mitigate a long-standing and counterproductive separation between rock art studies and the less glamorous realm of “dirt” archeology.
Perhaps the Namib’s evidence is not unique after all; there may well be cocoon rattles elsewhere and dark crevices with hidden rock art still waiting to be found.
Namib – The Archeology of an African Desert was originally published by the University of Namibia Press. It is available from Wits University Press and is also available internationally from Boydell & Brewer.