Namibia: Emperor Moths 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 discoveries seem inconsequential at first sight. Like ochre-stained ostrich feathers, a leather bag containing emperor moth cocoons, and a strange vessel made from the skull of an African wild dog that I unearthed from a barren bed. at Falls Rock Shelter. The site is located just below the summit of the remote Daures (or Brandberg) massif in the desert region of western Namibia.
Perplexed, I recorded these finds, first buried 4,500 years ago, in a box under my desk. They sat there for another 40 years until, in a flash of realization, I saw that the emperor moth’s cocoons were pierced to be threaded like rattles worn around the ankles of a shaman in a ritual dance.
As outlined 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 ritual specialist and healer in southern African hunter-gatherer societies is primarily known from rock art depictions. Until now, no archaeological evidence of shamanic ritual paraphernalia had been discovered in southern Africa.
A new era
When I excavated the site, rock art studies had just entered an exciting new era. They left behind antiquarian reflections for a theoretically rigorous approach. This has been informed by modern anthropology and the large trove of historical ethnographic material from the late 1800s on the region’s inhabitants compiled by the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek.
Scholars have been able to offer detailed and compelling explanations of mysterious rituals in which shamans tapped into supernatural sources of power to heal, guide, and protect their people. Paintings that seemed inexplicable – some were dismissed as irrational fantasies – made sense. The spiritual world of southern African hunter-gatherers has opened up to inquiry.
Many puzzles remained, of course, but some cave paintings offered such depth of insight that one even became known as the Rosetta Stone of rock art studies. The key to deciphering the rock art was the trance dance, a public ritual in which the shaman achieved an altered state of consciousness through rhythmic dancing, accompanied by clapping and chanting.
Evidence of the Namib Desert
Southern African scholars argue that rock art and shamanic practice were not hidden: they were open to all. An egalitarian hunter-gatherer society had no place for specialized ritual practitioners. Other shamanic traditions are described by scholars of religion as essentially “polyphase”. This means having a cloaking phase, 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 the rock art is its highly individualized figures, clearly shamans, predominantly male and replete with specialized ritual equipment, including fly whips, moth cocoon dancing rattles and long cloaks of animal skin. animal almost concealing the body. Significantly, these characters are not depicted as participating in communal trance dancing.
Evidence suggests that Namib shamans were individual specialists who traveled from place to place. They prepared for ritual action in places of physical isolation, rather than at the large communal trance-dancing events which rock art scholars believe was the basic social mechanism of the trance experience. throughout this region.
Enigmatically, no trace of ritual paraphernalia had been found elsewhere in southern Africa. This has led scholars to suggest that there were probably no such objects and that the rock art depicts concepts such as power and control rather than actual elements of material culture.
So what about the Emperor Moth’s dancing rattles? Are they just an unusual and accidental find, adding some texture to our understanding of rock art? On the contrary, they show that occultation, as an element of performance not previously considered by scholars of the region, is of fundamental importance for understanding the art and ritual practice of southern African hunter-gatherers. The rattles expose a critical weakness in conventional explanations.
The Emperor Moth Dance Rattles
Moth cocoons with small pebbles placed inside and strung around the lower limbs emit a characteristic rustle, rhythmic accompaniment to the ritual dance. Their meaning goes much further, as the cocoon represents the occultation stage where the butterfly larva is hidden from view. The moth itself is the emergent stage represented by the dancing shaman: once hidden, now apparent.
Paintings of emperor butterflies are rare but those of the Dâures massif are represented with their wings spread as if in the emerged stage. The painted moth represents the shaman with his knee-length coat of animal skin resembling wings. The cocoon rattle, the moth and the masked shaman thus combine the two essential stages of ritual execution: concealment and reappearance.
Masked figures are of course not limited to the rock art of the Namib Desert. The fact that they occur over much of southern Africa shows that they refer to a basic trope in this hitherto neglected ritual tradition.
The occultation and emergence of the emperor moth has other ramifications as well. This explains the importance of physical isolation, as in the deep rock crevices found in the desert, as sites of ritual preparation from which the shaman emerges to perform his work. This also explains why cocoons and other ritual objects were buried at the site; they are objects imbued with supernatural power and therefore kept hidden, in a dormant state, lest their powers be misused.
Now we see that these small elements are more important than they seem at first sight. Indeed, they provide the first integration of southern African rock art and hunter-gatherer ritual practice based on well-dated archaeological evidence. They mitigate a long-standing and counterproductive separation between rock art studies and the less prestigious field of “dirt” archaeology.
Perhaps the Namib evidence is not unique after all; there may well be cocoon rattles elsewhere and dark crevices with hidden rock art still waiting to be discovered.
Namib – 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.
John Kinahan, Honorary Scholar in the School of Geography, Archeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand