Encounters with the Eland

Discover the importance of the eland in San mythology, culture and art

Origins Centre

Eland (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre

The Majestic Taurotragus oryx

The eland, the largest antelope in the world, plays a prominent role in San ritual, belief and rock art. 
It is one of the most frequently painted and engraved animals in some parts of southern Africa.

Eland (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre

The dying eland in San spirituality
00:00

Many painted eland are portrayed in dying postures – and may symbolize a ritual or spiritual death of a healer, rather than the real death of an eland.

Eland and supernatural potency by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Painted eland

The eland was |Kaggen’s (god’s) favourite animal, according to the beliefs of the |Xam San of the Karoo. In 1873, Qing said that it was the first animal that |Kaggen made. Through trance, the San harness the power of the eland so that they heal the sick, bring rain or influence the movements of game. 

Copy of Sebaaieni Cave, Ndedema Gorge (2006) by Harold PagerOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

Introduction to southern African rock art
00:00

A polychrome brush-painted eland forms part of a large rock art panel at Sebaaieni Cave, Ndedema Gorge, Drakensberg, South Africa. Most of the dated rock art of the Drakensberg area is between 5000 and 1000 years old. This is a print of the replica, meticulously painted by Harold Pager in the 1960s.

The painted panel depicts various mythical and physical activities and transformations, in which eland often played a part.

The Pager panels are curated by the Rock Art Research Institute, Wits University, South Africa.

Associated with the powerful eland are mythical beings with human bodies and antelope heads. The figures are wearing karosses and carry bows and arrows.

Painted eland and rhebok (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

This San artwork, painted on sandstone, was discovered in the southern Drakensberg, South Africa. It is estimated to be between 3000-1500 years old. This panel is displayed at Origins Centre.

Wartrail panel. Dying eland (2006)Original Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

The upside-down animal on the right, possibly an eland or rain animal, is bleeding from the nose. This symbolizes ritual or spiritual death of a healer in the spiritual realm. 

The human-like figure with feathered wings, likely refers to the sensation of flying that people experience during altered state of consciousness.

Pecked rock engraving of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Eland Engraved in Stone

The eland form has been perfectly captured in numerous meticulously made engravings in southern Africa. 

Pecked rock engraving depicting an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

An eland engraved on a stone boulder. This example is curated and displayed at Origins Centre.

Pecked rock engraving of an eland, indeterminate and graffitti (Poul 1962) (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Eland engraved (pecked) in stone. Note the intricate skin folds around the neck.

Pecked rock engraving of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Juvenile eland engraved on a stone boulder. This boulder, removed from its original landscape in the early 1900s, now forms part of the Origins Centre Rock Engraving Archive.

Eland-headed snake (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Eland in Contemporary Art at Origins Centre

Much art has been inspired by the graceful form and majesty of the eland

Eland-headed snake (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Eland-headed snake

The San believed that the rock surface was a veil between the real and spirit worlds. Some painted images are painted as though appearing from or entering into cracks or crevices in the rock surface. 

Sculpture by Russell Scott.

Eland bones from 'Double Vision' (2006) by Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne, with poetry and phrases by San (/Xam) individualsOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

!Kung and |Xam folklore phrases are written on the bones of eland, portraying both the power of the words as well as that of the eland. Installation by Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne

Double Vision (2006) by Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm PayneOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

"I am the rock surface on which the other world is figured" 

The words of the !Kung and |Xam peoples written on the bones of eland. 
Installation by Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne

Eland, San rock painting by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

The eland in San rock art
00:00

One of the most exquisite examples of an eland (brush) painted on a rock face.
Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe people of southern Africa
The Rock Art Research Institute, Wits University
South African Rock Art Digital Archive (www.sarada.co.za)
Harold Pager
Russell Scott
Pippa Skotnes
Malcom Payne
Narrator: Gcina Mhlophe
Online Exhibition Curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps