The Whale-Watching-Web: The Bushman Art of Southern Africa

Early Races Communicate?

'Men of the early race'? A group of brutish creatures oppose a more gracile band of people.
The Bushman Art of Southern Africa by Bert Woodhouse, Macdonald General Books, 1979
Quotation from pages 46-48 of The Bushman Art of Southern Africa

"To write about folklore is to write about the whole body of stories and sayings passed from one generation of Bushmen to another. To write about mythology is to select from that folklore those stories which concern supernatural beings and, in particular, those which throw light on Bushman religion and his beliefs about the origins of man and his place in the cosmos.

Although there are common themes, as in the art, the details of folklore and myths vary considerably from place to place and the literature on the subject is bedevilled by the confusion caused by the likely misinterpretation of the same or similar-sounding words for 'mantis' and 'supreme being'- a confusion which is perpetuated by recently published books on the subject.

When were the original informants talking about the mantis and when were they talking about a supreme being? It seems likely that the latter meaning was intended in most cases.

Acceptance of this basic premise makes the stories much more sensible. If we revert to the Bushman name Kaggen instead of using the translation 'mantis', we find a creature with creative and supernatural powers whose exploits are recorded in some detail by Dorothea F. Bleek in her classic book The Mantis [Kaggen] and his Friends which is an edited version of some of the folklore collected by her father Dr W. H. I. Bleek and his sister-in-law Dr Lucy C. Lloyd, and in Bushman Folklore by doctors Bleek and Lloyd themselves.

Another basic premise of Bushman folklore is that the animals were once people: the opposite of the Australian aboriginal concept of the Dreamtime prior to which all people were animals.

One story in Dorothea Bleek's book opens with the words 'The Blue Cranes' friend was the Frog. The Frog was a person; her husband was a person; the Blue Crane was a person. They were people of the early race'.

The mention of an 'early race' raises speculation as to who was referred to - and are 'the people of the early race' represented in the paintings. Perhaps they are the brutish, ill-armed but human-like creatures represented in a painting near Warden. (116)

The concept that the animals and birds who figure in the folklore were once people is maintained throughout the stories by the consistent characters that they exhibit. The Blue Crane is protective and concerned. She is referred to as 'Grandmother' in one story where she protects the children from attack. Kaggen, on the other hand, is capricious, wayward, mischievous and unpredictable. In a society at the mercy of the vagaries of natural forces such as too much or too little rain, the non-arrival of expected game, the collapse of a rock shelter, attack by lions or an infestation of some parasite it is no wonder that there is a body of folklore which deals with such events and that observances and practices were developed to try to counteract them.

The eland and the hartebeest, however, appeared to prosper: 'The Hartebeest and the Eland are things of Kaggen; therefore they have magic power,' said the Bushmen. 'So, our parents used to tell the women who had young children to cut out a piece of the Hartebeest's foot between the toes, to thread it upon a sinew and make a charm and put it on the little child. For these are things upon which Kaggen sits, and Kaggen would smell the thing's scent on the child and would not press its head.'

According to a belief recorded by Bleek Kaggen sat between the eland's horns and 'Kaggen does not love us if we kill an eland'. But eland had to be killed to provide protein, to sustain life. What a marvellous influence to conserve! The necessary act of killing was hedged with onerous observances that ensured that there was no abuse, no unnecessary slaughter, A successful hunter who had returned to camp while the poison from his arrow was working on an eland must, for instance, not kill a louse that troubled him - that would be Kaggen seeking to protect 'his' eland by getting blood on the hands of the hunter which would get into his arrow and weaken the effect of the poison on the eland - a highly involved chain of relationships - but effective in ensuring conservation.

The emphasis on Kaggen's intimate association with the eland is accentuated by stories told to J. M. Orpen in the early 1870s by Qing, his Bushman informant in Lesotho who considerably raised the status of Kaggen [recorded by Orpen as Cagn], by saying that he created all things and describing how he nurtured the eland calf to which his wife had given birth.

One of Qing's stories describes the snakes, who were also men, and how they were saved from a big flood by building a 'high stage with willow poles'- an interesting parallel with Noah's Ark. Another is concerned with giants - perhaps a link with some of the tall people in the paintings.

A feature of mythology is the 'larger than life' characters - the heroes. Such a person was Qwanciqutshaa who found difficulty in getting a wife but eventually did so by hiding a young girl who was afraid of being taken to wife by a baboon. Qwanciqutshaa fought and vanquished the baboon with his knobkerrie, winning the affection of the girl in the process. This aroused the jealousy of the young men of the band who poisoned Qwanciqutshaa with snake fat. Blood gushed from his nose and he threw his weapons and clothes into the sky and himself into the river. But this was not the end. Below the water were villages and young women who wanted to catch Qwanciqutshaa but he turned himself into a snake and frightened them away. However, the girl who had been saved from the baboon remained faithful and charmed the snake from the water and back into his human form.

Qwanciqutshaa set up his home with his wife in a remote valley and at a time when those outside this valley were starving he lived in comfort, 'and the place smelt of meat'. A fitting reward for a hero in a hunting community.

That this 'hero' was able to throw his possessions into the sky indicates some concern with the origin of heavenly bodies. In fact there are one or two myths that are directly relevant. One of these postulates that the sun was under the armpit of a man and that it shone only when he raised his arm. Egged on by an old woman who required more heat to dry her Bushman rice (ant's larvae) some children threw the sun into the sky enjoining it to stay there!

The moon and certain stars are also dealt with in the myths collected by Dr Bleek and he records a greeting to the 'young' moon which was accompanied by the sounding of the horn of a male antelope. The milky way was made by a girl 'of the early race' who put her hands into the wood ashes and threw them into the sky. The stars were considered to 'sit in plenty' but they were not completely benevolent to man - they 'cursed the springbok's eyes'. One informant told Dr Bleek that his grandfather prayed to the star Canopus that they might exchange arms so that his aim, when hunting, would be accurate.

The notable feature of the moon was that it regularly 'died' and was born again - unlike man. The relevant myth attributes man's mortality to doubts expressed by the hare when the moon assured it that its mother would be born again. When the hare persisted in its doubts the moon smote it, giving it the cleft lip. At the same time the moon cursed mankind with mortality.

It will be observed that the pattern of thought revealed in the myths and the folklore is not in conflict with the paintings but neither is it always directly relevant. The two records communicate aspects of Bushman life. One complements the other. The art is illuminated by the folklore; only infrequently does it directly illustrate it."


A these: This amazing painting immedeately arises speculations. Could stories, where humans were originally animals or animals were once people, be explained by the fact that the physical and cultural gap was very narrow between those different human-like species as in a picture above? Such stories are symmetrical, human-animal/animal-human oppposite pair. It could reflect that human could not decide which was first. In a picture above, a group in right has better arms, spears and cross-bows. In left they seem to have only robust hammers. They are doomed to loose the fight, because thin people can attack more further. Could the brutish people be neandertal people?

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Rauno Lauhakangas