Dreams of Eland: San Myth and Rock Art


Jeremy Solnick introduces a discussion of the dreams of eland as represented in rock paintings by the Southern San who inhabited the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains in Africa.

The eland features prominently in San myth and was felt to have great spiritual power. The story contained in J. D. David Lewis-Williams’s article “The Imagistic web of San myth, art and landscape” (2010) deals with the resurrection of the dead eland by the mythical chief Qwanciqutshaa.

The medicine dance was the central ritual of the San belief system. It was frequently performed around the new moon or after the killing of a major animal like an eland, by the men and women of the tribe. The dance was led by a shaman. In San communities a number of men and women might be shamans and many would participate in a dance. During the dance, the shaman enters into a trance state, which grants the ability to cross realms and to communicate with gods and ancestors. The dance is performed to secure the life of the community and to heal people who may be ill. In the centre of the circle made by the dancers is the activated potency and healing power of the shamans and the dead eland. In the darkness beyond the firelight are malevolent spirits of the dead (including dead shamans) who seek to harm the people and ‘shoot arrows of sickness into them’.

During the session we will look at the writing down of this myth as told to the nineteenth-century anthropologist and politician Joseph Orpen by the young San Qing. We will also explore how the myth is interpreted by later anthropologists in the nineteenth century and by twenty-first century scholars such as Lewis-Williams who have studied it in the context of other complex rock paintings.

J. D. David Lewis-Williams (2010), “The imagistic web of San myth, art and landscape”, Southern African Humanities, 22: 1-18. [essential reading: pp. 10-12]
J. D. David Lewis-Williams (1987), “A dream of eland: an unexplored component of San shamanism and rock art”, World Archaeology, 19 (2): 165-177.

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 28 January

12.00-1.30pm     Room 3.318

Poster and text:

The imagistic web of San myth

Additional reading:

A dream of eland


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