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The Spiritual Significance of the Religious Rituals of the Bushmen

For the Bushmen their religious rituals played a very important role in their daily lives. Through it they formed a strong bond with the supernatural world. For them is was very important to form a close bond with natural elements that influenced their daily lives like, water and rain, the sun the moon and stars and then of course wild animals like the like the Eland, that they have worshipped, and even insects like the praying mantis. They achieved a close bond with it through various rituals that gave them access to the supernatural world where they could interact with these elements. One such ritual, the rain dance, become well known. Through the rituals they bonded with these elements in the hope of them either influencing it, or being influenced by them so that it will have a positive influence in their daily lives. But how did it actually happen?

Photo from Documentary Educational Resources: "The central religious experience of the Red People is when the society is linked with the supernatural world. This experience is an altered state of consciousness known as the trance. The drama of the medicine dance moves to the ecstatic climax. They dance in a circle around a fire, which has to be made with fire sticks. In the medicine dance some participants !kia (pass into various stages of trance) achieved through breath control. This is typical of the kundalini form of yoga and the man in trance then receives the subtle energy called n/um. The n/um is heated by the dance in the lower stomach region and rises up the spine as a vapor until it touches the base of the skull. Energy (n/um) is diffused throughout the body like an electric current. Different types of n/um exist and the possessors can control it. It produces a prickling sensation when it is activated through warmth, sweating and dancing. N/um boils over when it reaches the back of the skull and the healing starts. The man in trance flutters his hands over the chest and back of the patient and finally throws the evil out with a backward gesture of the arms, back to the gods. N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen, Photo by John Marshall)

The following abstract are from: "Highway Through Africa - A prophetic journey retracting an ancient path in prayer and repentance". Unpublished, 2008.

Among one of the tribes, the /Xam, the curing involves the sniffing out of evil from a patient’s body. This practice is common among other African tribes and is called isanusi. After the medicine man has sniffed out the evil, he sneezes out the harmful things. As he does so, nasal hemorrhage can occur. He then experiences all the sensational effects of trance. Trance can induce shivering, trembling, sweating, nose bleeding and rigidity. It also produces visions or hallucinations. When the rising of the n/um breaks free through the vertebral artery, the man experiences out-of-body travel. In the curing ritual the medicine man takes his nasal blood and rubs it on the body of the patient, believing that the smell of blood will keep evil away. The dance is also called the dance of blood or mokoma. They liken the trance to an experience of death. The stages of deep trance in which the medicine man lies rigid or experiences trembling, accompanied with moaning and uttering short shrieks are called death. Some men cannot control the trance and have to be helped by the other tribal members. They lay hands under his armpits, and as his spirit has left his body, he is rubbed with fat and given buchu to smell, until he is revived. There is a relationship between snakes and the trance. The charm medicine, in which snake powder is burnt, helps them to control the level of trance. Buchu is also used to “cool” the “heat” of the trance. For some people there is a similarity between the death throes of an eland and the “death” throes of a man in trance.

But what is the significance of these rituals for them as a people group, and for the continent? The ancestors of the Bushmen believed in a creator, but in an effort to align themselves with this creator they entered into a trance world where they met other spirits whose lies caused them to live in spiritual darkness, a false hope and fear for hundreds, if not thousands of years. This is still influencing their destiny today.

During the trance they can also possess animal spirits. For example: When a man with eland n/um dances, the spirit animal is attracted and stands in the dark outside the light of the fire. The “animal” that possesses the man seems to be the medium through which the medicine man receives the unique power. The trance performance facilitates contact between the terrestrial world and the spiritual world. In the trance they “see” the animal over which they exert power. As the medicine man exploits the eland’s power, he interacts with the eland and shares it characteristics, even sometimes transforms himself into the form of the animal. Trance is a dangerous thing, and when uncontrolled, people can be possessed by “animals” such as a lion, that devours people. The lion is a symbol of antisocial possibilities of trance. The man possessed by such a spirit uses his power malignantly and can shoot arrows of sickness into people. The successive stages of trance performance are: dancing, bending forward, arms back (the position in which the n/um enters the body through the top of the spinal cord), nasal bleeding, falling to knees, caring for the man in trance and finally sitting beneath a karos resting and controlling the rising of the trance."

As it can been seen from this abstract, as well as many other writings, religious rituals formed a very significant part of their daily lives. These rituals today are rarely practiced and if so, it is mainly for the entertainment of visitors.

View the must see collection of Photos by by John Marshall and the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen n Flickr here

Visit our page with information about the Bushmen here