Monday, July 2, 2012

learning about the San

We just visited two sites in the Central Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, Giant’s Castle and Kamberg, which are both known for their Rock Art as created by the San or Bushmen, the indigenous people of South Africa who predated the black farmers and the white settlers.

The pictures below illustrate San beliefs.

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In these two, the second of which is a close-up of the middle section of the first, two women can be seen.  One woman, at left, receives a baby from another woman, at right, who herself carries a baby on her back.  In the first picture, these figures are clearly overshadowed by two large, dark figures which are medicine people or shamans, the holy people of the San.  The shamans, who themselves did the paintings, appear with the heads of elands, the most sacred animal of San religion.  The San depended on the eland, which still exist in the area.

The San shamans depicted themselves as according to their experience in a dance-induced trance.  After dancing for hours, they would see themselves with the head of the eland, which signified for the San hunters that a successful hunt was coming.

Eland were important to the San for marking entry into different stages of human life.  For example, a male did not become a man, able to provide for his clan, without first killing an eland.  Likewise, in the ritual of child dedication, the meat of the eland was consumed as a blessing upon the life of the family.

In the third image (below), a shaman receives the life-force of the eland by gripping its tail.

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As a Christian visiting these sites, I’m reminded of the tradition of ritual animal slaughter in our own religious tradition.  Though Christians generally do not sacrifice animals, the Bible contains stories and laws from the time when our spiritual ancestors did mark life with the blood of sacrifice.

If animal sacrifice seems strange to Christians today, it is likely so because we have inherited from the early Christians a departure from the practice in light of their understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Even that departure, however, did not come so much as a new revelation in human history as a rearrangement of beliefs about sacrifice and its benefits.  Jesus did not abolish the necessity of sacrifice but became the sacrifice whose life we also might receive, becoming ourselves, “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1).  Unlike the San, the blood of bulls (Heb 9:13) or elands is not necessary for us, but the work of living in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural world goes on.

-Joe

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