The eland is, like the goanna (as I have explored here), an example of an intersection between nature (as an ecosystem engineer) and culture (as an important animal totem), with the latter – as it happens – able to work as a metaphor for the former. Indeed, we shall see below that the cultural associations of the eland are also connected to a process for both rewilding yourself (back to nature) and recivilising yourself (back to culture). Theres’ also a video below showing the rock art creation of the eland.
Eland as Large Herbivore Ecosystem Engineer
The eland is the largest African antelope, and it’s so big and chunky that it appears more like a cow than like smaller antelopes such as, say, the springbok. There are areas in Southern Africa where eland used to roam until a couple of hundred years ago, and where now they are being reintroduced as part of a natural bush management approach to increase biodiversity. As large herbivores that naturally grazed and browsed these areas in the past, they are part of the natural balance of the ecosystem here. They graze grasses and browse trees and turn this food into dung which, with the help of dung beetles, brings nutrients into the soil. They are hardy animals, so can get on with the job without medication, and by keeping the bush in check as well supporting many insect populations with their healthy chemical-free dung, they help to restore biodiversity. (I explore the role of large herbivores more here.)
The Eland as San Totem
The indigenous hunter gatherers of Southern Africa, the San, hold the eland in very great esteem. For them, this is the first animal that the creator god made. At the time he did so, there were already animal-people (people with animal heads) and people-animals (animals that walked and talked like people), but there were no proper animal-animals and people-people. This was the time of First Creation when things had not been given names and so had not assumed fixed forms. The San group known as the !Kung or Ju’hoansi believe that their ancestors were eland-headed. Then the non-human eland was the first true wild animal created without human-like personhood, the first animal made to be a game animal for humans to hunt and eat. This creation of animals that were like they are now (as opposed to ones that walk and talk like people) was also the time of the creation of people that are like they are now: not half animal, and less wild. It’s as if those original eland-people split out into two directions, one going down the path of wildness (the eland) and one down the path of manners and civility and personhood. During special dances, though, the !Kung elders say they feel themselves to have gone back into First Creation and to have become those eland-headed ancestors once more. There are also accounts of !Kung who believe that when the creator made the first eland, he did so by first taking red mud out of a waterhole, and then using this to make the animal, and then using different coloured muds for other animals. This parallels the way that the !Kung’s ancestors took red haematitic clay from river beds and used it as a pigment for rock art painting. The Tsodilo hills are held to be the place where the first animals were made. The creator placed the animals on these hills, and the rock art images of animals still to be seen there are the marks left behind when he did so. There’s an ethnographical account of how the paint was made to make the red figure paintings on these hills, where red clay was taken from a river some way to the north of the hills, and then this was mixed with the fat from around the heart of a cow (in older times, before the arrival of cattle, this was probably an eland, since the fat from around the heart of an eland bull is believed by the !Kung to have magical potency.) It was also said that the first man, the first ancestor of the Red People (a way the San speak of themselves) was also placed on the Tsodilo hills at this time, and indeed the San have created many red figure rock art paintings of themselves.
Some of the main criteria for a particular animal being a totem for a particular people (according to the anthropologist Tim Ingold) are: there’s an ancestral connection to the animal, and this is achieved via a physical consubstantiality. Very frequently in Australia (the classic totemic culture) this consubstantiality is achieved through red ochre paint. The ochre deposits in the landscape are seen as residues of the blood of the animal totem (the Dreamtime being) from when it was spilled in the events of the Dreamtime. The local clan then use this ochre to make paints, and decorate their bodies with the paint, and by doing so come into direct contact with the Dreamtime essence or potency of the animal. Thus, they maintain their quasi-ancestral connection to the totem. The San seem to meet these criteria: as we have just seen, the !Kung see their first pre-modern human ancestors as eland-headed, and they see their first modern human ancestor as having been painted into being using the same ochre-paint that was used to paint the first eland into being. I.e. they are consubstantial with the eland, having been made from the same stuff, the red ochre. And any painting that shows both the eland and human figures (or the bull and human figures) using the same paint for both, becomes a re-enactment of the creation of the first eland and the first people from the same potent substance.
Eland Painting as Ritual Re-Enactment
Another characteristic of totemists, as found in Australia, is that they hold it important to ceremonially re-enact the events of the Dreamtime by which the World was created. By re-enacting these events, they invoke the creative potency of the Dreamtime, which infuses the current world and keeps the natural landscape abundant and providential. Again, the San traditions fit the pattern. We know from the accounts given to the anthropologists Brad and Hilary Keeney that the !Kung believe that their eland dance invokes First Creation and in doing so allows the potency of First Creation to revivify their world, and further to this we may observe that whenever a rock artist took red clay from the ground and used it to make paint and then painted an eland onto a rock shelter in the hills, they were re-enacting the process by which the creator painted the first eland into being.
There’s another San myth of the creation of the eland which also mirrors this process. In this version, while the creator was still making the first eland, giving it the qualities he wanted it to have, it was hunted by his sons while he was away. The eland was then recreated in a magical way: its blood was churned together with its fat in a pot, and then this mixture was used to make a herd of eland. This parallels a number of ethnographical accounts where eland blood and eland fat (together with red haematite) are mixed together to make a paint that is then used to create rock art images of eland. Here too, then, it is easy enough to re-enact the process. And we can still do this now, potentially tapping in by resonance to the morphic fields of the rite – if you’re open to such ideas – to experience the cultural essence at an ethereal level. In one of the accounts, the paint was to be mixed at full moon. Well, there we go, we can easily enough replicate this: get some reddish clay from a river bed, mix it with bovine dripping in a pot at full moon, and then use this to paint a rock art image of an eland. Or a bull.
That is what I have done here, and on this occasion I decided to make it an eland. For the reddish brown, I and my daughters collected soft red-brown pebbles from the bed of the little river that runs through Stoney Littleton, south of Bath (as shown in the video above).
The Eland leads to the creation of the other animals – An Ecological Metaphor
In the version of the myth where the first eland’s blood and fat are used to make a mixture from which an eland herd is made, the first attempts to remake the eland didn’t go according to plan, but did result in the creation of other animals. Since other versions of this myth are cosmogonic in scope (leading, for example, to the creation of the Moon), we may see in this a certain similarity to the widespread Proto-Indo-European myth of the creation of the World and the animals from the bodily substance of the first bovine. These stories have the theme of the animal being the first sacrifice and providing the first meat, as with the eland. (I explore this myth here in the context of the bison as a keystone species and looking at the possibility that in its early origins this was a myth of the cave painters who used paint containing the fat of the bison when creating the animals through their rock art.)
A late example of the latter is the Mithraic myth. Mithras captured a live bull, took it back alive to his cave where he killed it, and had a feast with the Sun God while seated on the hide of the animal and the blood and other bodily substances from the bull brought the world to life, creating and vivifying the plants and animals. The Mithraeum temples were rooms used by Mithraic initiates that were seen as being the cave of Mithras, and an image on the wall of these known as the Tauroctony showed the world-creating sacrifice of the first bull and the other animals and plants that came into being as a result. As it happens, there are San ethnographic accounts that are quite similar. For example, there was a rite during which an eland was driven back alive to a cave, sacrificed, and then its blood and fat and other ingredients were used to make a paint, and this was used both for body decoration and to create rock art on the walls of the cave. Another San tradition relating to a rite where an eland was hunted ended with a meal of eland broth while sitting on the hide of the slaughtered animal – another curious Mithraic parallel.
Whatever the reason for these parallels, I think that both the Indo-European and the San rituals and myths derive from the same thing: the fat of the animal in question (whether eland or bull) was used to create a paint, and then images of other animals were made using this paint. Correspondingly, they conceived of other animals as having been painted into being by the creator in the same way using the substances of the eland or bull as the case may be. In Australia there is a myth where sacred red paint was to be made by mixing red ochre – perceived of as blood spilled in the Dreamtime – together with the fat of a sacrificed emu, so that’s another example. The Sandawe people in Africa also have rituals connecting the sacrifice of a cow with the creation of the first people and animals at the site of a rock shelter by means of rock art and the use of the sacrificed animal’s fat together with ochre to make paint.
And from this we can also derive an ecological metaphor. Just as the creation of the eland leads to the creation of other animals in myth, the reintroduction of the eland leads to increases in biodiversity in nature: the creation of other animals.
Hunting as part of the order established in the Early Time – and the ecological parallel
Another characteristic of totemists, according to Tim Ingold, is that they have a particular way of looking at hunting. The right kind of hunting is seen as part of the right way of living on the land in accordance with ancient ancestral precedent, as established by the formative events of the very early time. This has resonances with ecology and the idea of how apex predators are needed for balanced ecosystems. Some kind of hunting needs to be going on in natural ecosystems for balance to be maintained, otherwise you get trophic cascades leading to a great loss of biodiversity. In southern Africa, humans and animals evolved alongside each other. In other words, there was a time during which human hunter gatherers were actually a part of the ecosystem of this area. And sure enough in this San myth there is a strong element of this totemic attitude to hunting as something which was established back in the early, formative period. In the myth, according to an ethnographic account, it is explicitly said that when the creator created the first eland herd, this was when meat was first given to people and when the nature of hunting was established. There is also a strong theme that hunting should be done in the right way, as established during these events. This is the classic totemic view of hunting.
So far then we’ve seen eland as ecosystem engineers, being reintroduced to “rewild” (in the paradoxical sense of “naturally manage”) the bush, restoring biodiversity, with ecological concepts also reflected in San myth; we’ve also seen how the eland is a totemic animal for the San and how the traditions relating to it involve the re-enactment of its creation in rock art. Next we’ll look at how the culture centred on the eland also relates to a way of periodically rewilding and then re-civilising ourselves for the purposes of psychological hygiene and, in that sense, revivifying our world.
Not too easy to hunt – maintaining the balance
There’s a further aspect to the San eland myth which is not merely something that we can make work as an ecological metaphor, but which seems to have been connected with the idea of preserving natural resources by the San themselves. When the creator made the first herd of eland, he made them huntable but not too huntable. They would be difficult to hunt, and hunters would need to become footsore in the process. He did this when he saw how hunters broke the rules and hunted the first eland when it was still small and was asleep. In yet another version of the San eland myth, this creator is concerned with taking away a hunter’s leather shoe. This, I think, may be connected to the same idea: when he originally designed the eland, it would be hard to hunt because hunters would become footsore while chasing it. But when hunters found out how to take the eland’s leather and make it into shoes to protect their feet, suddenly they could hunt without becoming footsore. In the myth it sounds like eland were made hard to hunt as a punishment for something that occurred long ago, but I think we ought to understand that the relevance is ongoing and it is not so much an ancient punishment as a continuing counterbalance to hunting intent; the anthropologist Ansie Hoff has written a paper exploring evidence that San culture included the concept of guardians of nature, with the eland creator being one of them. So it seems quite likely that the San themselves had a concept of natural balance, whereby eland were supposed to be hunted, but not too much.
“Rewilding” Yourself…temporarily: Cyclical, Periodic Return to First Creation
One or two anthropologists have suggested that the San ontology (the entirety of their way of being in the World, comprising beliefs, mindsets, attitudes, culture, mythology and so on) is a type of animism. Animists don’t see hunting so much in terms of a right order established by tradition originating in a far off time of origins, but rather see it as something that must be done in order for life force to be circulated from creature to creature, and which should be negotiated in the realm of spirits. Other animals are seen as being like people in their spiritual interior, which is why shamans can negotiate with them. The argument is that the San have stories where animals are like people, so they must believe animals are people on the inside. But it’s a faulty argument.
As I’ve said, the San view of hunting is totemic (which contraindicates animism), and these tales are more like the stories of totemic peoples, because the animals that walk and talk are limited to an early period, a time of origins, and indeed many of the stories explicitly explain – and indeed take as their main theme – the changes that occurred that led to current animals no longer being like people, and people no longer being like animals.
The San do make a point of returning to First Creation (the time of eland-headed humans before the creation of the first game animals) but not as part of everyday experience, but rather as something that is done as a counterbalance to everyday experience. So the blurring of animal boundaries is not a feature of San ontology, not a feature of their all encompassing view of the world including everyday experience, but a feature of, specifically, shamanic experience, and an indication of what their everyday experience is not. As the Jo’hoansi elders informed the anthropologists Hilary and Brad Keeney, in order to heal, it is necessary to periodically return to and then return from First Creation. One of the main ways this is done is through the trance dance, and as the Keeneys point out, this is about a change of mental state.
In the !Kung mythology, during First Creation, things did not have names. It was when names were given to things that they assumed fixed forms. During the trance dance – and this is not trance in the sense of a totally hypnotised state, but rather a shift to a somewhat altered state of consciousness where there is full awareness – during this dance, the trance quietens the part of the mind that is constantly constructing narratives that define the present moment through limitations and fixed natures. Hunting anxiety is based on the idea that there are things called hunters that want but don’t have eland, and things called eland that are separate from them. All that tension dissolves into euphoric elation when the sense of hunter and eland being sperate fades away. The sense of chronological time goes away, as you’ve returned to a former period when the desired and the desirer had not yet been separated: people were half eland. According to the !Kung, this return happens when blood is released and lands on the ground. This can be the sense of relief when hunting anxiety releases, because the eland has been shot and its blood spilled. Or it can be the sense of tension lifting when premenstrual tension ends as a women’s period starts: when she bleeds, she is said to have shot an eland, these two types of release being equated with each other. Blood-like red ochre paint is associated with menstrual blood by the San, as we can see from its use in rites related to women starting their periods. So the eland was made from red mud, and then when it is hunted its blood spills by on the ground, staining it red, as if making ochre (red mud), and then ochre was used in paint to create eland through rock art images of the animal, replicating the original creation of the eland; I call this the totemic circle of creation, as opposed to the animist’s circle of life.
Although a return to First Creation is needed for healing to take place, the aim is not to stay in First Creation, however; the idea of getting stuck there is explicitly warned against by the San elders. Following the return to First Creation, there should be a return back to Second Creation, whereby humans become modern humans, civilised and polite and mannered.
For insight into why they need periodic returns to First Creation as a counterbalance to their everyday life, it’s important to understand that San society is, in a certain sense, very civilised, more so than the societies of many ‘developed’ cultures. The sense in question is that of manners. The San avoid direct social conflict at all costs, as Elizabeth Thomas Marshall learnt from living with them. This is not so surprising when you consider that hunter gatherer bands are small, tightly knit communities where it is essential that people get on with each other. As such, they’re not so different from the people who live on small, crowded islands such as the British and Japanese, who have similarly found that life works better if you live according to manners rather than direct expressions of emotion. But wait, before this sounds repressive, you need to remember that flip side: the return to first creation via the dance. The Early Race of First Creation were not mannered and polite, they didn’t have customs nor human things like clothes, but they did have euphoric potency. By returning to First Creation periodically, cyclically, San communities are able to resolve and release all those tensions that naturally build up when you don’t express your emotions directly to the people around you. And I think that, pragmatically, realistically, this is the best way forward for human societies. Some degree of emotional authenticity should be in there too in our dealings with others, of course, but polite manners counterbalanced by controlled cathartic release has to be the foundation. If you think that sounds Victorian, I would say: how often did the Victorians get involved in trance dancing?
This is why I think books about “Rewilding Yourself” are lacking in nuance. As well as rewilding yourself, it remains essential I think that you also Re-civilise Yourself. Art ‘n’ culture and all that. What’s important is that you do both as part of a healthy cycle.
The Moon is a useful reminder for this, particularly for men. Women, prior to the menopause, have their monthly cycles, which are a constant reminder that tensions build up and then release. But they also build up for men, as a result of the need to be polite. Remember how the paint for painting the eland was mixed at full moon. Imagine a cycle where each lunar month we unmake ourselves through the trance dance (the return to First Creation) and then make ourselves afresh, painting ourselves back into being like the painting into being of the First Eland at the moment of Second Creation that inaugurates the arrival of civilised human culture.
All humans, I believe, have the latent ability to enter trance through music. People in different cultures find it works best with different types of music. Personally, I use the genre of electronic music known as Uplifting Trance. I find this very effective. Here’s a playlist with some beautiful music of this type. Trance-dance is not an ego-destroying psychedelic experience. It’s pleasant and you’re full aware and you can end it at any time, but you can definitely feel that narrative-constructing part of your mind quieten down, and it does indeed feel like returning to “pre-temporal time”, and you can feel rushes of liberating euphoria as you stop constructing limiting self-images. It is a joyous way to release many social tensions, and then when it’s over you feel a renewed interest into returning to the world of human culture and the everyday.
Making Art in a Flow State
For the San, rock art images of are reservoirs of potency that can help with future trances – you place your hand back on the image and allow that potency to help you deepen your trance. Certainly, I have found that when focussed on creating a piece of rock art, I can get very into the zone. Everything else falls away and it’s just me and the rock and the emerging image, and it feels good. So it’s a type of trance and it’s a type of meditation. And I’ve noticed that the image then becomes a reminder of the state you achieved while creating it. One thing that can detract from this a bit is when I film myself painting in order to be able to put the videos up on this site! So with this one, I made the focus of the video the collecting of the red-brown stones and the grinding and mixing of the paint, with just a few stills of the painting process at various stages, so I could focus on ‘raising eland potency’ while painting. The part of me with metaphysical leaning likes to believe that the passionate flow state of the artist could even be picked up transpersonally by sensing morphic fields, and I think any artist with a bit of romanticism in their heart should on some level have this same belief. It’s the escape route from the traps of twentieth century art where all art can do is “make you think”.
All this has lead me to an image of what for me could be, in the ideal, a lunar cycle. Prior to full moon, you go out and get some Earth pigment from the landscape. Another thing you do before full moon is choose the rock canvas and draw the outline of your painting. Around full moon, you mix your paints. Also around this time you ideally have a trance dance experience, allowing the tension between your self-image and what you want to dissolve. During or shortly after this, you mix the paints further, and you imagine the energy of the elated resolution and liberation you achieved in the trance being infused into the paint. You then apply a little of this to your skin, taking that energy within yourself and letting it infuse into your refreshed self-image, so the new quality becomes a part of you, so that now you feel more able to have the thing you want. You also use your paint around this time to create some rock art, getting into the zone and using it as a mindful meditation to add further potencies to the paint and to the image. This rock art then becomes a kind of talisman, reminding you of that energy that is now a part of you. This is an ideal, as I say. How far it is possible in any given month to have that all go swimmingly is, perhaps, another matter, but all the same it’s good to have something to aim for.
So there we go. Rewild Yourself by means of the trance dance, throwing off the shackles of modern manners, and then return refreshed, willing and ready to embrace civility once again with renewed enthusiasm.
If you’re interested in a way to have effective trance dance experiences (without drugs) but just using your body’s own endorphins (“getting high on your own supply”) plus maybe a little caffeine, check out my other blog site, The Confessions of a Hungry Dawn Raver. For an overview, see for example this page.