Emperor moths in the rock art of the Namib Desert shed new light on shamanic ritual

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Not every archaeological discovery is made by opening the tomb of a long-dead king. In fact, some of the important discoveries seem illogical at first. Like ocher-coloured ostrich feathers, a leather bag containing emperor butterfly cocoons and an exotic bowl made from the skull of an African wild dog I discovered from a sterilized bed at Falls Rock Shelter. The site is located below the remote summit of the Dâures (or Brandberg) mountain range in the desert region of western Namibia.

Confused, I sent these finds, first buried 4,500 years ago, in a box under my desk. They lay there for another 40 years, until I saw, in a flash of realization, that the cocoons of the Emperor’s butterfly had pierced to hang like rattles worn around the ankles of shamans in ritual dance.

As shown in my new book Namib – Archeology of the African Desert, these delicate and fragile objects were supposed to provide a new understanding of shamanistic ritual performance as demonstrated in rock art in Namibia and elsewhere in South Africa.

The shaman’s role as a ritual specialist and healer among South African hunter-gatherer societies is known primarily from images of rock art. To date, no archaeological evidence of shamanic ritual tools has been discovered in South Africa.

new era

When I excavated the site, rock art studies had just entered an exciting new era. They left behind archaeological musings for a rigorous approach to theory. This was informed by modern anthropology and the large body of historical ethnographic material in the late 19th century about the population of the region compiled by German linguist Wilhelm Blick.

Read more: Slave thieves in South Africa and the rock art of resistance

Scholars have been able to provide detailed and compelling explanations for the mystical rituals in which shamans relied on supernatural sources to heal, guide and protect their people. Paintings that seemed inexplicable – some of which were dismissed as irrational fantasies – yielded their meaning. The spiritual world of hunting and gathering in southern Africa has opened up to investigation.

Many mysteries remain, of course, but a few rock paintings have provided such depth of insight that one has even become known as the Rosetta Stone for studies of rock art. The key to deciphering rock art was the ecstasy dance, a public ritual in which shamans achieved a state of altered consciousness through rhythmic dance, accompanied by clapping and singing.

Guide from the Namib Desert

Southern African scholars argue that rock art and shamanic practices were not hidden: they were open for all to see. A society based on the equality of hunting and gathering had no place for specialized ritual practitioners. Other shamanic traditions have been described by religious scholars as essentially “polyphasic.” This means that there is a phase of the unseen, when the shaman is hidden or hidden, followed by his reappearance or reappearance.

Drawing in red on a rock depicting a character in a cloak, moving forward, with an arm outstretched.  Around them are cattle and people.
Shaman figure wrapped in animal skin cloak, Snake Rock, Dâures massif.
Joris Komen

The rock art of the Namib Desert contains many hidden sites, including paintings in dark crevices that can accommodate no more than one person. These sites were part of a preparatory process that preceded a ritual performance. An amazing feature of rock art is its highly individual characters, and the shamans, overwhelmingly male and filled with specialized ritual equipment, including flying beaters, dancing moth-shaped rattles, and long animal-skin cloaks almost obscuring the body, are clearly shamans. Significantly, these characters do not appear as participating in the collective trance dance.

Evidence indicates that the shamans of the Namib were individual specialists who traveled from one place to another. They prepared themselves for ritual action in places of physical seclusion, rather than during the large mass ecstatic events that rock art scholars have insisted is the primary social mechanism for experiencing ecstasy throughout this region.

Mysteriously, no trace of ritual paraphernalia has been found anywhere else in South Africa. This has led scholars to suggest that there may have been no such elements and that rock art represented concepts such as power and control rather than the actual elements of material culture.

So, how about the dancing emperor butterfly rattles? Isn’t it more of an unusual and accidental find, that adds a bit of texture to our understanding of rock art? On the contrary, they have shown that magic, as an element of performance not previously considered by scholars of the area, is of fundamental importance to understanding the art and ritual practice of southern hunters in Africa. The crackle reveals a serious weakness in traditional interpretations.

Emperor moth dancing

Cocoons of moths with small pebbles placed inside and hanging around the lower limbs, make a characteristic rustling sound, a rhythmic accompaniment to the dance ritual. Its importance goes even further, because the cocoon represents the occult stage when the moth larva is hidden from view. The moth itself is the emerging stage represented by the dancing shaman: once hidden, it is now visible.

A rock drawing of four butterflies, in red, has spots on their extended wings.
The emerging emperor moth with outstretched wings, Wadi Al-Naib, Massif Doris.
Rodney Lichtman

Paintings of emperor moths are rare, but those in the Dâures series appear with wings extended as in appearance. The painted moth represents the shaman with his knee-length wing-like cloak. Thus the chrysalis rattle, the moth and the hooded shaman combine the two basic stages of performing the ritual: concealment and reappearance.

Of course, figures covered in cloaks are not limited to the rock art of the Namibian desert. The fact that it occurs in most parts of South Africa shows that it indicates an essential metaphor in this ritual tradition, which has hitherto been ignored.

The absence and appearance of the emperor butterfly has other repercussions. He explains the importance of physical seclusion, such as in the deep rock crevices found in the desert, as ritual preparation sites from which the shaman goes out to perform his work. It also explains why cocoons and other ritual objects were buried at the site; These are things imbued with supernatural power and thus are hidden, in a state of latency, lest their power be misused.

Now we see that these little elements are more important than they might appear at first glance. In fact, they provide the first integration of southern African rock art and ritual hunting and gathering practice based on strongly dated archaeological evidence. It mitigates the long and fruitless separation between studies of rock art and the less glamorous field of “earthy” archaeology.

Perhaps the evidence from Namib isn’t unique after all; There may be cocoon rattles elsewhere, and dark crevices with hidden rock art still waiting to be found.

Namib – African Sahara Archeology was originally published by Namibia University Press. It is available from Wits University Press and also available internationally from Boydell & Brewer.

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