Driekopseiland - a powerful place
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Driekopseiland - a powerful place - extracts from a new interpretation
The argument behind a new interpretation of Driekopseiland draws together the strands of what is understood of the environmental history here; the archaeological presences; and the way rock art and landscapes may have been implicated together in processes of 'dwelling', in the "reproduction and transformation of social relations" (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1994:219), and in linking people to the land in ritual contexts (Deacon 1998). Specifically, it is suggested that, as the striated blue-grey glaciated andesite was exposed by geomorphological processes in the last two and a half millennia, so these striking expanses of smoothed rock, lying length-wise in the bed of the river, came to be identified, not quite as the "great whales lying in the mud," as Battiss memorably described Driekopseiland, their backs "decorated with innumerable designs" (1948:58), but indeed as !Khwa, the 'Rain/Water' in the form of an immanent giant Great Watersnake (Schmidt 1979). As such it appears to emerge from the depths in the channel of the Gama-!ab, and to dip down beneath the riverbed again a few hundred metres further downstream. Stow, too, had sensed that the "perfectly polished and striated" rocks, with "their wonderful and unwonted appearance" and "unexplained smoothness" might, in terms of these qualities, have moved the Stone Age engravers. Beautiful stripes, fat, and smoothness are amongst the celebrated attributes of a fecund python, the subject of Ju|'hoan tales (Biesele 1993:97,121,134,137). Mythic snakes and watersnakes feature widely in Khoisan repertoires, with particular prevalence in the Northern Cape, at least during the last century (e.g. "OSC" 1874; Engelbrecht 1936; Green 1948:126-128; Van Vreeden 1955; 1957; 1959; Carstens 1975; Schmidt 1979; 1998; Waldman 1989; 2001; Hoff 1995; 1997; 1998; Lange 1998 - although some of these authors, such as "OSC." and Green, sought to explain the myths in terms of real snakes or large fish swimming in shoals).

At Driekopseiland, the river swells and sometimes floods in response to summer rains, and the engravings are temporarily submerged, but in the dry season the somewhat reduced flow is confined in a narrow side channel or ceases altogether, the engravings 'rising up' on the rock surfaces that 'bulge up' out of the river bed. The combination of geological features and riverine processes - in a semi-arid region often parched by drought - make for a potent congruity with beliefs associated with !Khwa and the watersnake. Imagery engraved at Driekopseiland arguably reinforced an inherent power of place, directly at the intersection, one might suggest, of the structural axes in relevant Khoisan cosmology.

To the extent that Stow's account of Driekopseiland might have been an embellishment upon some form of late nineteenth century oral testimony relevant to this idea, his use of the word 'palace' to describe the site could well be significant. When van Vreeden collected folklore in the region in the 1950s, one of his informants told him that it was in a 'palace', underwater, that the watersnake dwelt (Van Vreeden 1959:15; Schmidt 1979:210):

"Doer bo die eilandte ees deep seekoegat. Dat ees Keinaus sa blyfpleek. Deep, deep oender die water by die groot kleepgate deet ees aand-donker (skemer). Daar ees hy-se paleis an die lekkewaan ees hy-se badiener...Hy soek an soek die beesmis an hy smeer die vloer van die paleis"

[There above the islands is a deep hippo pool. That is where Keinaus (the Watersnake) lives. Deep, deep under the water at the deep stone pools it is gloomy like dusk. That is where his palace is, and the leguaan is his servant...he searches and searches for cow dung to smear the floor of his palace].

Van Vreeden's account (which has the narrator make two further references to the word 'palace' - for additional such evidence, see van Vreeden 1955) is noteworthy additionally for capturing in print something of the local idiom and performance style of story-telling by one Ou-oupa Moos, a Griqua, apparently at Barkly West.

Although the |Xam from the Upper Karoo interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd spoke only of !Khwa, the 'Rain/Water', and of !Khwa:-ka xoro, the 'Rain Bull', and did not mention !Khwa's personification as the Great Watersnake, other sources affirm a link. 'Kou'ke, an informant quoted by Stow (1905:131-132) in the eastern Free State, referred to an animal "of enormous size" named 'Kou-teign-'Koo-rou, which meant 'Master of the Water'. There was also a horned serpent of former days - depicted in rock art - which 'Kou'ke named 'Koo-be-eng, "a monstrous creature" more than 20 or 30 feet in length, "that lived in the water, and sometimes lurked near its edge in the reeds." Von Wielligh's (1919; Schmidt 1979) stories showed that the Great Watersnake played a prominent role in San folklore in the western regions of the Northern Cape, while |Hankass'o (Bleek 1933a:303) spoke of snakes, along with the tortoise and terrapin, as being the "rain's animals". The attributes and power of !Khwa given by the /Xam, and the rituals and related symbols linked to !Khwa, correlate exactly, as Schmidt points out, with those associated with the watersnake in other Khoisan accounts. Van Vreeden's view, from the ethnography and his own enquiries, was that indeed the water, the water bull and the watersnake were but three expressions of a single spiritual concept (1957:175). Ou-oupa Moos, the old Griqua cited above, said of Keinaus, the Watersnake, that (Van Vreeden 1959:15):

"Hy ees groot. Hy ees die groot bul van die slang-goet. Hy ees sterk...aihetse! Hy ees bul- ollefant van die waters, an hy ees reyk, baja reyk. Keinaus ees koning van deeske ravier"

[He is big. He is the big bull amongst snake-like things. He is strong...Oh! He is the bull- elephant of the waters, and he is rich, very rich. Keinaus is the king of this river].

Hoff (1997:33) has found that, for people in areas of the Northern Cape where the /Xam once prevailed, "the Water Snake is the water" (her emphasis). As Schmidt (1979; 1998) suggests, it is these equivalences that resolve the conundrum of Dia!kwain's identification as a water bull that which Qing had said was a snake. In some contexts the position of the watersnake was evidently occupied by the eland - an association hinted at in Hahn's (1881:81) observation that amongst the Nama the snake called ||Huitsibis was said "to live on the forehead of the eland-antelope." In one of the |Xam Kukummi, |Hankass'o told of !Khwa taking the form of an eland (Hewitt 1986:86). !Khwa:-ka xoro, the water bull could be represented in rock art by other large mammals or mammal-like creatures such as those described by Stow (1905:131-132; cf. Schmidt 1979).

The watersnake is linked specifically with rivers in several instances. Hoff (1997) records that perennial rivers were believed to have enormous resident snakes, that would travel upstream and down, and had the power to withhold water (cf. Schmidt 1998:274). Van Vreeden (1955:6) reports similar beliefs amongst the !Kora, of the watersnake controlling the water, sometimes causing a kuil or a spring to dry up, or a river to come down in flood. In addition to making rivers rise, the watersnake could supply the springs in the surrounding landscape, ensuring a good year (Van Vreeden 1957:187-8). Qing, in the previous century, indicated to Orpen (1874:5) that snakes could "fill the country with water." As one of Hoff's informants explained, "it is because of this snake that we have water to drink" (1997:23). Appeasing !Khwa was thus crucial: Hewitt notes that at the conclusion of |Xam menarcheal rites, ochre was sprinkled on to the surface of the water, as an act of association, lest !Khwa should cause the water source to dry up (Bleek 1933a; Hewitt 1986:281; cf Van Vreeden 1955:6; Schmidt 1979:204; 1998).

One !Kora legend (van Vreeden 1955:6) relates how, long ago, a river had dried up so that only a few pools of water remained. Suddenly, it is said, the great watersnake stirred and took to moving upstream, churning the water and pushing it along as it went. Within days the river came down in flood: it began to rain, and the river rose so high that even the biggest trees were submerged.

At Driekopseiland, the greatest exposure of arguably potent, glacially smoothed rock coincided with the river sinking to its lowest level - defining a moment approaching maximum material - and spiritual - stress. Some of the geometric engravings in the western part of the site are well below the modern low-water level, suggesting that "the river was prone to drying up almost completely at the time the bulk of the geometric designs were produced" (Fock & Fock 1989:143).


Driekopseiland and 'the rain's magic power'

In his review of the "non-representational" engravings and finger paintings of the Northern Cape, Fock (1969:126) suggested that some of these kinds of geometric images might "indicate water or rain or have some connection with puberty ceremonies." His observation was based on a reading of Silberbauer's (1965) account of G/wi girls' puberty rites. As it turns out, it is argued, Fock was probably close to the mark, at least for some of the sites in question.


Within a shamanistic context, Lewis-Williams and Blundell (1997:53) have addressed the possibility that "gender- or age-differentiated responses to image making and the supernatural" are implicated in some painted images - specifically finger dots. They allude to a direction of research pioneered and elaborated by Solomon (1992; 1994; see also Parkington 1996; Anderson 1997; Manhire 1998; cf. Morris et al. 1994), who notes that female initiation is "an extremely prominent feature of San ritual and particularly prominent in narrative collections such as the Bleek/Lloyd corpus" (Solomon 1994:345-6). Just as the place of female initiation - its symbols and meanings - is clearly to be situated at the very intersection of the axes in Lewis-Williams's (1996) |Xam cosmological model, so Solomon links it centrally in social and political relations and power, critical to the material well-being of the group; and to both female and male production and reproduction (Solomon 1994:349; cf. Lewis-Williams 1981).

Onset of menarche in |Xam and other Khoisan societies was regarded as a dangerous condition. Its resonances in ethnographies link the female initiate with the rain, water, blood, and with snakes. Hahn (1881:78-9) records that the same Nama root word is shared for "snake", "waterhole", "rain", "blood", the colour "red", as well as "to flow", and "to milk". In the |Xam context, Hewitt observes that !Khwa's name was used (in one recorded instance) to mean "menstrual fluid" (1986:284; cf. Guenther 1994).4 Taboos in relation to the "new maiden" (Lewis-Williams 1981) were to be respected lest the wrath of !Khwa be incurred. Her menstruation placed her in the conceptual no man's land, between culture and nature (Hewitt 1986); she occupied a place of ambiguity along the horizontal, camp to hunting-ground, axis. There, !Khwa, as water, or watersnake - or looming up as the angry "male rain" - operated as an impersonal force, greatly feared, that mediated and required to be appeased. The proper ritual observances and respect for taboos (failure in which would affect also the male domain and the hunt) would restore the balance. For violation of taboos, a girl and her family and female elders could be swept up by a whirlwind and deposited, transformed as frogs, in a pool; their material possessions reverting to the raw materials from which they were made (karosses to springbok; arrows to reeds). Lightning could strike people down; they could be turned to stone - or into stars; a glance from the "new maiden" could fix men to the ground as trees. Springbok could similarly be made "wild" (Bleek & Lloyd 1911:77; Lewis-Williams 2000). Ju|'hoansi tell of men being killed by elephants after failing to observe taboos relative to menstruating girls (L. Marshall cited in Biesele 1993:92). In the century after the |Xam myths were recorded, some cautionary tales even permeated into the white farming community of the Upper Karoo, as evidenced by a farmer from Brandvlei recounting the proscription against looking up at the water-bull in the clouds, lest it should strike one down with lightning (van der Merwe 1987:28).

Significant at the conclusion of female puberty rites, in a cross-section of Khoisan groups, were the uses, variously, of tonsure, tattoos and scarification, and of ochre, buchu (two potent substances sometimes employed interchangeably - Rudner 1982) and mud, to mark, paint or daub - or to sprinkle over - the body, objects, and water (e.g. Hoernle 1918; Bleek 1928a; 1937; Maingard 1932; Engelbrecht 1936; Silberbauer 1963; 1965; 1981; Hewitt 1986; Schmidt 1979; Waldman 1989; 2001; Hoff 1995; 1997; Lange 1998). These practices ensured protection, and the 'cooling' of dangerous potency, in various rituals to associate the "new maiden" with !Khwa or its equivalent manifestations, following her period of seclusion. As regards the engravings at Driekopseiland, on a glaciated rock support that is pregnant with symbolic possibilities, a case can be made for a link with the beliefs surrounding menarcheal rites. These are themselves bundled together with beliefs about rain and the weather, if not rain-making per se; and the "new maiden" is said to possess "the rain's magic power" (Dia!kwain in Lewis-Williams 2000:273). Given the role of marking or image-making in these rites, the engravings could have been part of the rituals, constituting, perhaps, a "residue of a ritual sequence", as Lewis-Williams and Blundell (1997) suggest in a potentially analogous instance. It could even be, in these terms, that clustering of certain image forms on different parts of the site at Driekopseiland indeed represent discrete events of ritual performance, the practices of perhaps several generations, that invoked ritual meanings in this extraordinary setting.


As a powerful portal between spiritual realms, a point of breakthrough perhaps second to none in the area, Driekopseiland would have been the kind of place where !Khwa was appeased, where protections were sought, so that "the rain comes down gently." It is a particularly palpable instance of what Ingold (1993) refers to as the "temporality of the landscape" - "the world as it is known to those who dwell therein" (ibid.:56) - where people arguably invested, in the changing geology and the seasonal rhythms of the river, metaphorical and ritual significance relating to some of the central concerns of their society. That the extraordinary, smoothed rock bulging out of the riverbed, and seeming to regulate the flow of the water, came to be identified as a literal manifestation of the great watersnake, concerning whose "doings" such ritual care was necessary, is entirely consistent with understandings of landscape features in the |Xam myths.

[Complete version of this chapter available from the author]

  On the concept of the temporality of the landscape

Advocating a 'dwelling perspective', Ingold expressly rejects the notion of 'layered' histories upon the landscape; of a cultural veneer covering a natural substrate (in stratigraphic terms, after all, deposition is often less than half the story). Rather, by way of a progressive collapsing of conventional dichotomies - "insistent" dualisms as he calls them - Ingold arrives as what he terms a landscape (which is not merely 'land' nor 'nature' nor 'space', but a qualitative, heterogeneous 'enfolding' of processes, both living and non-living, and the relations between these) and a taskscape (neither 'chronology' nor 'history', but again a qualitative, heterogeneous resonance of activities that carry forward the processes of social life). Where Ingold likens the taskscape to an orchestral performance, the gestures of individual players resonating with each other, for the landscape he uses the analogy of a painting - not in its finished form, but in the act of being painted (Western thought, he notes, tends to privilege form over process). The temporality of the landscape, ultimately, consists in the merging of these two concepts of landscape and taskscape.

In these terms a place might owe its character "to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there - to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its specific ambience" (Ingold 1993:155). "And these, in turn," adds Ingold, "depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people's engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance."

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