The Bushmen or San were southern Africa’s original inhabitants. Known as ‘The First People’ they roamed the plains and sheltered in the caves and overhangs of the sub-continent for tens of thousands of years. They were traditional hunter-gatherers and neither grew crops nor kept animals but lived off the land in small nomadic bands, in harmony with the natural world around them. Incredibly there are today a few remnant communities of these remarkable people, living mainly in the Kalahari sandveld regions of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
The Bushmen have always loved storytelling, music and dance, which they link to their religious beliefs, to their folklore and to their experiences in nature. The older generation, men and women, are particularly skilled in telling stories and delight in repeating them around the campfire at night, when in the flickering light they conjure up vivid images of various characters and events. Many of these stories have been handed down through the ages, the underlying theme in most tales being their belief that in ancient times all animals were once people like themselves.
According to one legend this changed when their Great God moulded the different forms of man and beast in the flames of the Everlasting Fire and branded each animal with different markings, using irons heated amongst the coals. The brown hyena, the last animal created, is associated with death and in every set of divining tablets that are still thrown by a traditional Bushman before an important decision or a hunt, there is a tablet called a ‘brown hyena’, which brings bad luck and death if it falls upside down.
But there is a different myth about the origin of death that involves the wild dogs. In a bitter quarrel between the Moon and the Hare, the Moon maintained that just as he died and was reborn when he waxed and waned so too would Man be. The Hare, grieving the death of his mother at the time, vehemently declared that this could not be so as his mother was well and truly dead and showed no sign of coming back. A terrible argument ensued during which the Moon slapped the Hare in the face and split his lip and the Hare scratched the Moon’s face, causing great disfigurement. This so enraged the Moon that he declared that the Hare would forever after be hunted and eaten by wild dogs and that Man would die and not be reborn. And so it is that the Hare has a split lip, the Moon is permanently scarred and Man is not immortal. It seems however that only the wild dogs got the best of the bargain because they still pounce on a hare with alacrity whenever they see one, for a quick and tasty snack!
Another story tells of their god known as Kaggen who fell out with a group of his friends and decided to take revenge on them. Now Kaggen was a great magician and trickster with the power to transform himself into anything he wished, to change men into animals and to bring them back from the dead. So with a flick of his wrist he changed a group of men into a pack of wild dogs and set them against his friends who he transformed into giants. Who won the fight is not recorded, although the dogs probably acquitted themselves well.
In parts of Botswana today the Bushmen believe that before going on a hunt, their shamans or medicine men can sometimes transform themselves into wild dogs, considered to be nature’s ultimate hunter. Prior to setting out however, they wrap their feet up in strips of bark taken from the silver terminalia tree (Terminalia sericea) so as to leave no scent or tracks in the sand, which might lead other predators to their kill. After they have hunted they change back into men, remove the bark from their feet and walk away, leaving only human footprints behind. (The silver terminalia is deemed sacred by many local people and is said to be a conduit through which they can communicate with the ancestral spirits). Admiration for the wild dogs’ hunting skills extends to the belief that if they smear some of the animal’s bodily fluids under their feet they will become better hunters, infused with the same agility and boldness that the dogs display during a hunt
The early Bushmen were prolific painters and left behind thousands of rock art paintings and engravings across southern Africa. Of these only a handful depict the wild dogs, perhaps the most spectacular being a frieze in the Erongo Mountains in Namibia. The scene portrays a pack of dogs hunting down two antelope and the stance and attitude of the buck and the individual dogs shows a keen eye for detail. The frieze is considered an exceptional piece of rock art, as wild dog portrayals are generally small and insignificant and usually positioned towards the outer edge of the painting. This is possibly because the Bushmen believed that the depiction of larger animals like the gemsbok, giraffe and particularly the eland, (the latter considered to be Kaggen’s favorite animal and indeed his creation), would imbue their shamans with greater power during their trance or healing dance, so they could more easily enter the spiritual world to take on the spirits and chase away illness and misfortune.
After some 10 000 years Bushman rock art came to an end around the mid to late 1800’s when colonial expansion was at its height - both the Boers and the British aggressively pushing into what had hitherto been Bushman domain, their gentle hunter-gatherer culture all but exterminated by the onslaught. Although the Bushmen of today no longer produce the art of their ancestors or even identify with it, they still recognise their role in nature and show a reverence for wild animals and the environment, something that sadly many of us have ceased to do, as the plight of Lycaon pictus can testify to.
http://www.africaimagery.com/wild_dogs_ ... tion_6.php
Discuss other canids (dogs, coyotes, foxes, dholes, etc.).
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The parallels with (some) Native American beliefs are striking:
I cannot see that wolves are in any way nobler in character than hyenas- Frederick Selous