Interpreting San Rock Art

Introduction to interpreting San Rock Art

The San used many natural elements or symbols in their rock art in the Drakensberg. The purpose of this section is to assist readers in Interpreting San Rock Art or the meaning thereof. This article will be developed further on the next few months.

Three most important elements:

The three most significant elements or items in their art were firstly Eland, then Rhebuck and then human-like images. This section briefly introduces some of their most famous images or symbols depicted in their frescos. This article will be embroidered on further in the near future:

  • ·The Eland, this was a beloved animal of the San as they believed it was an intermediary of God and their ancestors. Eland could assist them in engaging with their ancestors and God. Eland is often depicted as entering a crack in a rock face. San believed that rock art sites were ‘veils’ to the spiritual world. These sites are thus sacred and should be treated with respect.
  • Rhebuck. The San believed that this buck had links to rain. Shamans would very often paint Rhebuck when they were imploring their ancestors to bring rain in times of drought;
  • Therianthropic and elongated human images. This nation believed that they morphed with animals when they entered the spiritual realm. The theory is that these images represented the experiences of Shamans when they entered the spiritual world.
Interpreting San Rock Art.
The Drakensberg the World’s largest repository of San rock art. (Photo: James Seymour)

Other symbols and their meanings

Bees and honey
The San often painted bees realistically or as little crosses. they are often painted around a shaman, therianthropic figure or around a beehive. These were regarded as messengers of God. Bee stings were symbolic of potent arrows. The San would often perform trance dances in the vicinity of bees and a honeycomb.

Leopards are commonly painted in San frescos. They represent menacing forces that must be chased away by shamans.

Water was a metaphor for a trance. When one is underwater you experience blurred vision, weightlessness and a lack of oxygen. This is similar to a trance. The San regarded water bodies as an important portal to the ancestral world.

Horses and Cattle
Images of horses and cattle were painted more frequently in rock art shelters in the Drakensberg as colonial farmers began to reside in the valleys of this region. These animals, like Rhedbuck, were associated with rain.

San images of giraffes are uncommon in the Drakensberg. However, there are some excellent examples of such symbols. The San believed that giraffes had harsh weather changing abilities.

Similarly, the baboon is not frequently observed in San Rock Art. Baboon was believed to have magical powers.


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