Tuesday 26 February 2013

Stories that Float from Afar – Dianne Hofmeyr

Slipstreaming Celia’s wonderful blog Shadows in the Cave, I’ve kept to the realm of the cave with Stories that Float from Afar. 

An entrance into a coastal cave in the Robberg Peninsula in South Africa 
a cave entrance into the Pyrenees evokes a passage in another world
The concept of the rock face as a veil separating man from the spiritual world is evidenced in the paintings often being found in the deepest, darkest, almost inaccessible places, with animals often painted disappearing or reappearing from a crack in the rock surface. The artist seems suspended between two worlds and the animals are embodiments of power. They bring rain, they transform, they bring ill fortune, also luck and are often seen walking along a thread of light, probably a symbol of energy, that in modern times might be seen as a current of energy.

The paintings have been linked to ritual moments that induce an almost hypnotic state of trance. One can imagine as Celia mentions in her blog the flickering shadows cast on the rocks from burning tallow, creating atmospheric affects. The animals must have appeared to come alive. The lighting, together with the music, drumming and dancing that accompanied the ritual, must have created what can now be seen almost as the first audio-visual representation of storytelling. In fact it has all the essentials of modern film… all very real.

Quoting from The Shaman of Prehistory –Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves by David Lewis-Williams retired Professor of Cognitive Archaeology and Jean Clottes, the renowned French expert on Rock Art:

Shamans from many parts of the world, acquire an association with a spirit-animal and the supernatural potency that it bestows. It is this potency that empowers them to heal the sick, control the movements of animals, change the weather and preform other shamanic tasks. 

The eland - a southern African antelope has long been associated with potency
sketch of above shows clearly shaman with same crossed-leg posture - his head transformed an eland

I tried to capture a moment of transformation in my novel, Fish Notes and Star Songs where two teenagers are given shamanic powers:

The rock was starting to gleam. Layer upon layer of men and animals came floating up towards us. Surrounding us. Dancing and chanting. The cave wall had grown vaporous. I reached out to touch it. There was nothing there… only music filling the space.
Music… and the feeling of my body changing. Out of the darkness a cheetah stared back at me. Eyes reflecting amber. Sleek shoulders spotted with black and gold. High, honeyed cheekbones ridged with black. 
‘Come!’ The word was more a pant than a word. 
I stepped forward. Felt the strange weight of my flanks. Felt the heaviness of horns on my head. I flicked my head from side to side. Snorted the dust from my nostrils. The earth seemed to reel. 

Much of what we know of rock art and shamanistic belief has come from discovering the stories of the San through the voice of a man called //Kabbo in the Lloyd and Bleek manuscripts. In the 1860’s – 1870’s //Kabbo was truly suspended between two worlds… captured for so-called sheep stealing from his home deep in the interior of Southern Africa, he was brought to Cape Town and committed to hard-labour building the new Victoria breakwater. His name //Kabbo means ‘dream’ and through him and the painstaking work of William Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, the first people to find a way of transposing the San spoken word into written English, he was able to tell of the beliefs of the early rock artists.

And in the words of //Kabbo explaining our place on earth:
Therefore we are stars –we must walk the sky because we are heaven’s things.
And explaining the concept of story, or kukummi, as his people called it:
Story is like the wind, it floats from afar’. 

tools of the trade - oyster shells and ochre, quills and feathers


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - in particular for the sketch of the painting - I'd just looked at it and gone, "Wow!" without seeing the detail.

Ms. said...

And in the words of //Kabbo explaining our place on earth:
‘Therefore we are stars –we must walk the sky because we are heaven’s things.’
And explaining the concept of story, or kukummi, as his people called it:
‘Story is like the wind, it floats from afar’."

I shared this on Face book. Thank you.

adele said...

Lovely post! I remember Fish notes etc with great affection. A super book. And such splendid pictures here as ever.

Julia said...

I share your enthusiasm, Dianne. In Bergen there's an exhibit about the cave where the Sami would go and meet their spirit guide. Inspired by that, I used it in a book as a way of challenging the prejudices of my main character. Caves are brilliant places for revelation. (However I would not actually go in it myself as it was about the size of an MRI machine and I'm claustrophobic!).

Leslie Wilson said...

I too love: 'We are stars. We must walk the sky because we are heaven's things.' I need to keep that in my head and ponder on it. Thank you, Dianne!

Sue Purkiss said...

I like the sound of your book, Dianne. The cave paintings are so beautiful, aren't they? Simple, pure lines, and yet so alive.

Unknown said...

Fantastic post and glorious images, thank you for this. Manda

Gavin McL said...

I spent probably too long exploring caves in my youth and if you've spent a longish time underground there is something about caves that become apparent that might not be obvious to the casual visitor.
They often play a trick in show caves of turning off the lights to show how really realy dark it is underground. They generally switch them back on pretty quick. If you spend longer in the dark strange things start to happen. Many caves have water in them and your brain starts to turn the water sounds into snatches of barely heard conversation, footsteps and other auditory hallucinations. You sometimes see flashes in your eyes even though there is no light. I've lasted about 15 minutes until I turned my light back on half expecting to see people standing around me.
The acoustics underground to people who had no experience of living in a building must have also been quite a revelation. Caves always seemed magical places to me even when I understood so much about their formation and why I was experiencing strange hallucinations. How much more magical when everything was a mystery.
My favourite story about cave art is described in a book by a Frenchman Norbert Casteret called 10 Years Under the Earth where he describes diving into water filled passage in the Caverne de Montespan and finding a chamber with a clay model of a cave bear. A great adventure - terrible archaeology
Enjoy the Blog


Katherine Roberts said...

I have a spooky photograph taken in the sea-caves beneath Tintagel castle in Cornwall. It shows a strange rainbow coming out of the shadows, which was probably just light getting into the film (old camera!), but for me it will always be Merlin's cave...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Sorry I was out of the country when this was posted... thanks for the comments. Your Merlin's cave sounds marvellous Katherine.

And thank you for your fascinating insight into hallucinatory experiences in caving Gavin. I wish I'd had you at my shoulder when I was writing my book. I'm going to look out fro 10 Years Under the Earth. Imagine finding that bear! A nephew of mine died cave diving solo in the Sinoia Cave in Zimbabwe which is the most surreal blue. He was trying to be the first to reach the cave floor. It's not sure what happened. His divetimer read 165 metres so he went down really far but his body was found at 61m under a sloping roof. I'm always amazed at the ability some people have to push themselves beyond the limit.