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At War With God: Ju/'Hoan Curing Dances

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image of Journal of Religion in Africa

In the 1950s and 1960s, only a few !Kung speaking San, or Bushmen, continued to follow the traditional way of life of nomadic food gathering in the Kalahari semi-desert of Southern Africa. One group were the Ju/'hoansi of the Nyae Nyae and Dobe areas of the Northwestern Kalahari. It is their religion that is discussed in this article. Their central rite was the curing dance, an all-night ritual which they often practised (and practise now, after they have settled permanently, even more commonly than before).2 It served as their major means of maintaining solidarity within their egalitarian bands3 and of removing conflict from it__another means being the sharing of the food they had collected and the meat they had hunted. Solidarity was maintained through the curing dance, partly because the dance was itself a process of sharing, of n/um, 'curing power', and partly because it served as a ritual of exclusion. God and the deceased were blamed for the evil present in the group, were declared personae non gratae and refused admission to the dances as unwelcome aliens, the !Kung waging a continual ritual war upon them as their sole enemies. The special interest of this religion and this ritual for the comparative study of religions is highlighted by an examination of the link between the anthropological study of the !Kung curing dances and recent archaeological research on San art, especially the thousands of rock paintings which have been found all over Southern Africa, and which are interpreted now as reflecting a tradition of San curing dances dating back for many millennia.

Affiliations: 1: Leiden University


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