San religion

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The San religion is the religion of the San people.

Mythical figures

  • Cagn (also known Kaang or /Kaggen) is the supreme god of the San. He is the first being and the creator of the world.[1] He is a trickster god who can shape-shift, most often into the praying mantis but also takes the form of a bull eland, a louse, a snake, and a caterpillar.[1][2][3][4] In some variants of the San creation story, Cagn receives so much opposition in the world that he moves his abode from the earth to the top of the sky. Cagn is said to have created the moon which holds special significance to the San people; the phase of the moon dictated when rainmaking rituals were to be performed.[5]
  • Coti is the wife of Cagn. She gave birth to the eland, and Cagn hid it near a secluded cliff to let it grow.[6] One day Cagn's sons, Cogaz and Gewi, were out hunting.[6] Not knowing their father's love for the eland, they killed it.[7] Cagn was angry, and told Gewi to put the blood from the dead eland into a pot and churn it.[8] Blood spattered from the pot onto the ground and turned into snakes.[8] Cagn was displeased. Next, Gewi scattered the blood, and it turned into hartebeests.[8] Again, Cagn was unhappy. He told Coti to clean the pot and add more blood from the eland, with fat from the heart. She churned it, and Cagn sprinkled the mixture on the ground. It turned into a large herd of eland.[8] This was how Cagn gave meat to his people to hunt and eat.[7] The San attribute the wildness of the eland to the fact that Cagn's sons killed it before it was ready to be hunted, spoiling it.[7][9] The scholar David Lewis-Williams recounts a variation of the eland myth involving the meerkats. Cagn's daughter the porcupine married Kwammang-a, a meerkat. They had a son called Ichneumon (a mongoose).[2] Ichneumon was close to his grandfather Cagn.[10] Cagn used to take honey to feed his favourite, the eland.[11] The people were curious as to what Cagn was doing with the honey, so they sent Ichneumon to spy on him and find out.[11] When Ichneumon saw Cagn giving honey to the eland, he reported his discovery to his brothers, the meerkats.[12] While Cagn was out gathering honey, the meerkats persuaded Ichneumon to show them where the eland was.[13] They called the eland out of its hiding place and killed it.[13]
  • Heitsi-Eibib is usually as a culture hero, but his role is fluid.[14] He is sometimes called a trickster. In other contexts, he appears as a patron of hunters and in some stories he even had a part in creating the world, impressing specific characteristics into different species. For example, he cursed the lion to walk on ground instead of nesting on a tree.[14][15] The multiple roles of Heitsi-eibib have been called a reflection of the fluidity of San religious resources and rituals, which are usually ambiguous and lack in standardization.[14] Heitsi-eibib was also a life-death-rebirth figure, dying and resurrecting himself on numerous occasions.[16] Resulting from this, his funeral cairns can be found in many locations in southern Africa, and it is customary to throw a stone onto them for good luck.[17] In different accounts, Heitsi-eibib is born from either a girl or—more often—a cow, who got pregnant by eating a magical grass.[18] Heitsi-eibib was a legendary hunter, sorcerer and warrior.
  • Tsui'goab is a sky deity associated with the phenomena of thunder and lightning.[5] His name translates to "bloodied knee", and he is said to dwell in a red heaven located somewhere in the east, as opposed to Gaunab's black heaven.[19]
  • Gaunab is a god of sickness and death who is locked in constant battle with Tsui'goab.[5]
  • Utixo or "Tiqua" is the name used by missionaries as a translation for the Abrahamic God.
  • The 'Ga-Gorib is a beast who lived on the edge of a pit. It would trick people into throwing stones at it, but the stones would always bounce back from the creature's hide, and the thrower would fall into the pit. When the hero Heitsi-eibib met the beast, he refused to throw stones until Ga-gorib turned away from him, whereupon he cast a stone that knocked Ga-gorib into its own pit.[16] In another version of the same story, Heitsi-eibib wrestled with the Ga-gorib and was thrown to the pit repeatedly, but could not be kept down. In the end, the Ga-gorib is again thrown to his own pit by Heitsi-eibib.[20] Gorib is "the spotted one" (meaning leopard, cheetah, or leguaan) in Khoe languages, so the Ga-gorib probably has some connection with this formidable species. The element "ga-" remains to be explained. Possibly, it is a negative, "not-a-leopard", not only on comparative morphological grounds, but also because its adversary Heitsi-eibib is connected symbolically to the leopard.
  • The Aigamuxa (singular Aigamuchab) are a race of man-eating, dune-dwelling creature that are mostly human-looking, except that they have eyes on the instep of their feet. In order to see, they have to go down on hands and knees and lift one foot in the air. This is a problem when the creature chases prey, because it has to run blind.
  • Hai-uri and Bi-Bloux are man-eating creatures which have only one leg and one arm, and travel by jumping, similar to the monopods in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia. Hai-uri is the male variant, while Bi-Bloux is female.
  • !Xu is considered a benevolent and omnipotent supreme being.[21] He is also the sky god to whom the souls of the dead go. He is said to "Summon the magicians to their profession, and gives them supernatural powers." The San add that he provides the rain and is invoked in illness, before hunting and before traveling.[22]


To enter the spirit world, trance has to be initiated by a shaman through the hunting of a tutelary spirit or power animal.[23] The eland often serves as power animal.[24] The fat of the eland is used symbolically in many rituals including initiations and rites of passage. Other animals such as giraffe, kudu and hartebeest can also serve this function.

One of the most important rituals in the San religion is the great dance, or the trance dance. This dance typically takes a circular form, with women clapping and singing and men dancing rhythmically. Although there is no evidence that the Kalahari San use hallucinogens regularly, student shaman may use hallucinogens to go into trance for the first time.[25]

Psychologists have investigated hallucinations and altered states of consciousness in neuropsychology. They found that entoptic phenomena can occur through rhythmic dancing, music, sensory deprivation, hyperventilation, prolonged and intense concentration and migraines.[26] The psychological approach explains rock art through three trance phases. In the first phase of trance an altered state of consciousness would come about. People would experience geometric shapes commonly known as entoptic phenomena. These would include zigzags, chevrons, dots, flecks, grids, vortices and U-shapes. These shapes can be found especially in rock engravings of Southern Africa.

During the second phase of trance people try to make sense of the entoptic phenomena. They would elaborate the shape they had 'seen' until they had created something that looked familiar to them. Shamans experiencing the second phase of trance would incorporate the natural world into their entoptic phenomena, visualizing honeycombs or other familiar shapes.

In the third phase a radical transformation occurs in mental imagery. The most noticeable change is that the shaman becomes part of the experience. Subjects under laboratory conditions have found that they experience sliding down a rotating tunnel, entering caves or holes in the ground. People in the third phase begin to lose their grip on reality and hallucinate monsters and animals of strong emotional content. In this phase therianthropes in rock painting can be explained, as heightened sensory awareness gives one the feeling that they have undergone a physical transformation.[26]

A San trance dance featuring the San of Ghanzi, Botswana appeared in BBC Television's Around the World in 80 Faiths on 16 January 2009.

Rock art

Pictographs can be found across Southern Africa in places such as the cave sandstone of KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and North-Eastern Cape, the granite and Waterberg sandstone of the Northern Transvaal, the Table Mountain sandstone of the Southern and Western Cape.[27] Images of conflict and war-making are not uncommon.[28] There are also often images of therianthrophic entities which have both human and animal traits and are connected to the notion of trancing, but these represent only a fraction of all rock art representations.[23] Most commonly portrayed are animals such as the eland, although grey rhebok and hartebeest are also in rock art in places such as Cederberg and Warm Bokkeveld. At uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park there are paintings thought to be some 3,000 years old which depict humans and animals, and are thought to have religious significance.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hastings, p.522
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lewis-Williams (2000), p.143
  3. Moore, p.113
  4. Meletinsky, p.169
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Reconstructing the Past - the Khoikhoi
  6. 6.0 6.1 McNamee, p.52
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Solomon, p.63
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 McNamee, p.53
  9. Lang, p.146
  10. Barnard, p.84
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lewis-Williams (2000), p.145
  12. Lewis-Williams (2000), p.146
  13. 13.0 13.1 Lewis-Williams (2000), p.148
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 David Chidester, Chirevo Kwenda, Robert Petty, Judy Tobler, Darrel Wratten (1997). African Traditional Religion in South Africa: An Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood Press. pp. 68–70. ISBN 0-313-30474-2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Andrew Lang (1901). Myth, Ritual and Religion vol. 1. p. 172.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 Arthur Flagg Cotterell (1986). A Dictionary of World Mythology. Oxford University Press. p. 242. ISBN 0-19-217747-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. James George Frazer, Robert Fraser (1994). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Oxford University Press. p. 224. ISBN 1-85326-310-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Edwin Sidney Hartland (1909). Paternity Or the Myth of Supernatural Birth in Relation to the History of the Family. p. 4. ISBN 0-7661-6710-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Lang, p.124
  20. Hahn, Theophilus (1881). Tsuni-Goam: The Supreme Being of the Khoi-Khoi. Routledge. pp. 64–67.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Richard Katz, Megan Biesele, Verna St. Denis. Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy: Spirituality and Cultural Transformation Among the Kalahari Ju\'hoansi, p. 43, at Google Books
  22. Dorothea F. Bleek, Bushman Dictionary, p. 502, at Google Books. ISBN 9785882327261
  23. 23.0 23.1 Jolly, Pieter (2002). Therianthropes in San Rock Art "The South African Archaeological Bulletin", 57(176):85-103
  24. Lewis-Williams (1987). A Dream of Eland: An Unexplored Component of San Shamanism and Rock Art "World Archaeology", 19(2):165-177
  25. H. J. Deacon, Janette Deacon. Human Beginnings in South Africa: Uncovering the Secrets of the Stone Age. David Philip Publishers, 1999, p. 170.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Fagan, Brian M (1998). From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites. Basic Books ISBN 978-0-7382-0141-2
  27. Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (1973)
  28. Campbell, C (1986). "Images of War: A Problem in San Rock Art Research "World Archaeology", 18(2):255-268


External links