San – Also known as Bushmen (both terms are problematic). The San are the descendents of the original indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa. Currently, San communities are focused in the Kalahari Desert, but there are people of San origin across the south of Africa. The San originally lived as hunter-gatherers in a relatively egalitarian society, but this way of life has adapted in regions where Bantu farming predominates, and they have been consistently persecuted, from the European colonizers who perceived the San as childlike if not actually animals to the present-day forcible relocation of San communities to make way for transnational diamond mining.

San religion is associated with shamanism primarily due to the nature of the trance or healing dance that is central to San community life, takes place on a regular, sometimes nightly, basis, and may last for many hours. Members of the community gather around a fire, with mainly women seated as they sing and clap out a monotonous rhythm. The dancers may be men or women (although they are mainly men) who shuffle and dance in a wider circle around the fire in the desert sand. The effect of the rhythmic singing and clapping, and the dancing which induces hyperventilation, contextualized by cultural expectation and interpretation, is to induce a trance or altered state of consciousness. San healers describe how a supernatural potency termed n|om boils painfully at the base of the spine and shoots up to the head, resulting in !kia, a trance state. In !kia, healers collapse to the ground apparently unconscious, while others rally around to rub the limbs of the shaman and thereby rouse him. While “unconscious,” shamans transform into and communicate with animal helpers such as the giraffe and eland, may experience out-of-body travel in the form of birds, control game animals and the rain, or combat rival shamans. Jan Platvoet (2001) discusses shamans’ responsibility for “chasing off” God and the ancestors who made the world a difficult place, that is, one that contains illnesses that require the difficult work of healing. San shamans in !kia sweat profusely and may experience nasal hemorrhaging due to the intensity of the experience, and these two substances are used in healing. The exquisite rock art produced by the ancestors of today’s San depicts various aspects of their shamanic cosmology and performance, such as entoptics and elands. Thomas Dowson also discusses the depiction of the shamans’ ability to bring rain, which is an important and valued part of San relations with surrounding Bantu pastoralists and agriculturalists.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007