12 November 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Sacred rock art

Rock art, created by the San or Bushmen, is now accepted as having spiritual significance. And while you may admire the polychromatic eland and other animals, so lovingly depicted, the strange patterns and splotches have huge significance too.

Eland have special significance in rock art. Photo Chris Marais

For centuries, the images of animals and humans created by the San or Bushmen in the overhangs and caves of South Africa’s mountains were thought to be simple depictions of their lives.

For the Bushmen, the rock face seems to have been considered a veil between this world and the spirit world.

In fact, they are the equivalent of images in the stained-glass windows of cathedrals.

Artist Stephen Townley Bassett, who has spent years of his life reproducing the Cederberg’s rock art to preserve it for posterity, says: 'The San had a definite concept of a divine creator and of there having been a first race, which lived before creation was completed. That was a time when animals and people were indistinguishable, when animals could talk.'

Eland antelope are lovingly depicted in rocky overhangs from the Drakensberg mountains right through to the Cederberg range on the other side of the country. They were seen as one of the creator’s first creatures. They were bringers of rain and fertility.

But it is only recently that the more obscure patterns and images, some quite abstract, have taken on new meaning.

For the Bushmen, the rock face seems to have been considered a veil between this world and the spirit world.

In his book Cederberg Rock Paintings, John Parkington notes that some areas in these mountains have paintings where blotches of paint are so well rubbed that they are smooth.

Once they were thought to be palettes, where colours were mixed. Now it seems they were considered power points, places where the shamans would have drawn power from inside the rock, where they could enter the rock as if through a tunnel, and look outwards through it.

'It is quite likely,' says Parkington, 'that some of the paintings had a potency which could be harnessed ... rather like the smoothed, much-kissed feet of statues in medieval churches across Europe.'

Category: Culture & History

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