Magic, Metamorphosis and Medicine

Learn about the Therianthropes in San rock art

Origins Centre

Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

What is a Therianthrope?

Therianthropes are beings which are portrayed in the art of many groups across the world, including the rock art of the San in southern Africa. They are depictions of mythical beings which are part human and part animal. 

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

Where are these images found?

Therianthropes are depicted in San rock paintings across southern Africa - in South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.  

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

What do San therianthropes look like?

The majority of San therianthropes portray beings which are part antelope and part human - a being which stands on two legs and has a human torso and antelope head. It is difficult to always tell the precise type of antelope, but eland are common, and rhebuck have also been identified. 

Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

What therianthropes tell us

|Xam San healers were believed to turn into animals or birds when in trance. From this it has been argued that these beings in San rock art are possibly depictions of healers who are undergoing out of body flight into the spirit realm, having merged with their animal helpers.  

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

Undergoing transformation

When asked about going into trance, one Ju/'hoan man said 'You feel like the wind. Your breath turns into an animal, and your soul changes' 
(Lewis-Williams 2011).

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

"When you see the animal in the fire, it changes you. You become that animal"

(Ju/'hoan man, quoted in Lewis-Williams 2011)

Half-human, half-antelope painted figure experiencing polymelia (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Ongoing debate

There is debate about the anthropomorphic figures in rock art. Some researchers argue that they depict hunters wearing antelope masks. Others argue they depict spirits-of-the-dead or mythical beings.

Understanding San belief systems has aided interpretations of these figures.

Wartrail panel (2006) by Origins CentreOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

|Xam informant, Dia!kwain, on bird-like forms

 “..he turns into a bird, he comes to see us where we live and flies about our heads. Sometimes he sits on our heads…If we are wise people we recognize him and see him sitting above us peeping at us, then we talk to him" (Bleek 1935:18).

While the most commonly found therianthropes portray antelope heads on human torsos, in some cases archaeologists have found rock art which depicts winged therianthropes.

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

Threads of Light

Red lines, lined with white dots or 'threads of light' are often associated with anthropomorphic figures, possibly linking them with spiritual travel.

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

Trance states

The regular association of therianthropic figures in the rock art, with postures experienced during trance, such as with arms back, crouched over and bleeding from the nose, suggests these are complex experiences of someone in trance.

 (Lewis-Williams 2011)

Threads of Knowing: The Trance Dance (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Therianthropes in thread

This embroidered panels designed by Tamar Mason, illustrate San beliefs about the ‘Origins of People’. A parade of therianthropes are depicted at the bottom in bright colours, and half human - half antelope figures inhabit the skies and the water. The images are based on figures portrayed in rock paintings.  

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

The inspirational beauty of therianthropes

As we have seen, therianthropes are seminal figures not only within rock art but within San spirituality too. By studying these remarkable paintings archaeologists, artists and writers have not only learned about San beliefs but have also found inspiration in the beautiful forms and spiritual meanings. 

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe peoples of southern Africa
Rock Art Research Institute
South African Rock Art Digital Archive
Bleek,  D. F. 1935. Beliefs and customs of the |Xam Bushmen. Bantu Studies 9(1): 1-47.
Hollmann, J. 2001. 'Big Pictures": Insights into southern African San rock paintings of ostriches. South African Archaeological Bulletin 56(173/4): 62-75.
Lewis-Williams, D. 2011. San Rock Art. Jacana Media: Auckland Park.
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.
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