African Hunting Ritual

Tony Gerard Dolan

Pygmy Hunting Ritual

In the following we note the intriguing interplay of roles between men and women in hunting communities in Africa. Leo Frobenius' writes...

Modern map of Congo
Map of Congo basin
In the year 1905, in the jungle area between Kasai and Luebo [in the Belgian Congo], I (Leo Froebenius) encountered some representatives of those hunting tribes, driven from the plateau to the refuge of the Congo jungle, who have become known to the literature of Africa as Pygmies. Four of their number, three men and a woman, then accompanied the expedition for about a week. One day it was toward evening and we had already begun to get along with each other famously, there was again a pressing need for replenishments in the camp kitchen and I asked the three little men if they would get us an antelope, which for them, as hunters, would be an easy task. They looked at me, however, in amazement, and one of them finally came out with the answer that, surely, they would be glad to do that little thing for us, but today it would of course be impossible, since no preparations had been made. The conclusion of what turned out to be the very long transaction was that the hunters declared themselves ready to make their preparations next morning at dawn. And with that, we parted. The men then began scouting about and finally settled upon a high place on a nearby hill.
Since I was very curious to know whereof the preparations of these people might consist, I got up before sunrise and hid in some bushes near the clearing that the little fellows had chosen the night before for their preparations. When it was still dark the men arrived; but not alone. They were accompanied by the woman. The men crouched on the ground and cleared the area of all bits of growth, after which they smoothed it flat. One of them then drew something in the sand with his finger, while the other men and the woman muttered formulae of some kind and prayers; after which silence fell, while they waited for something. The sun appeared on the horizon. One of the men, with an arrow in his drawn bow, stepped over to the cleared ground. In a couple of moments, the rays of the sun struck the drawing and at the same instant the following took place at lightning speed: the woman lifted her hands as though reaching for the sun and uttered loudly some unintelligible syllables; the man released his arrow; the woman cried out again; then the men dashed into the forest with their weapons. The woman remained standing a few minutes and then returned to the camp. When she had left, I came out of my hiding and saw that what had been drawn on the ground was an antelope, some four feet long: and the arrow was stuck in its neck.
Female and Male Powers united in depiction of Ostrich Hunt
While the men were gone I wanted to return to the place to try to take a photograph, but the woman, who stayed close to me, kept me from doing so, and begged me earnestly to give up my plan. And so, the expedition went on. The hunters caught up with us that afternoon with a beautiful buck. It had been shot with an arrow through the neck. The little people delivered their quarry and went, then, with a few tufts of its hair and a calabash full of its blood back to their place on the hill. They caught up with us again only two days later and I that evening, to the froth of palm wine, I brought myself to speak about the matter with the most trusting of my little trio. He was the oldest of the three. And he told me simply that he and the others had run back to plaster the hair and blood on their drawing of the antelope, pullout the arrow, and then erase the picture. As to the sense of the operation, nothing could be learned, except that he said that if they did not do this the blood of the antelope would be destroyed. And the erasure had to be effected at sunrise too.
He pleaded earnestly that I should not let the woman know that he had talked to me about these things. And he seemed, indeed, to be greatly worried about the consequences of his talk; for the next day our Pygmies left us without saying as , much as good-bye, undoubtedly at his request, who had been the leader of the little team.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari

Writing afterwards of his somewhat ill fated trip into the Kalahari in 1957, Laurens Van Der Post wrote in his book The Lost World of the Kalahari (p236):

We were silent for a while, and then trying to break out of the gloom I said: I wonder what they will say at the sip-wells when they learn we have killed an eland?
Excuse me, Master,Dabé said bolder than I had ever known him,they know already.
What on earth do you mean?I asked.
They know by wire,he declared, the English word wire on his Bushman tongue making me start with its unexpectedness.
Wire? I exclaimed.
Yes, a wire Master. I have seen my own master go many times to the D.C. at the Gemsbok Pan and get him to send a wire to the buyers telling them when he is going to trek out to them with his cattle. We Bushmen have a wire here - he tapped his chest - that brings us news.

So it could be said that the Bushman women participate in a subtle way in the hunt of their male folk. In terms of ritual Van Der Post describes how in the evening at sunset the women would sit together at their shelters with a clumb of cut grass in their hand whose stalks they would caress, or strum,while singing the following loosely translated refrain over and over (p223):

This grass in my hand before it was cut
Cried in the wind for the rain to come:
All day my heart cries in the sun
For my hunter to come.

When the hunters did appear they would answer:

Oh look, like the eagle I come!

The interaction between the men and the women is interesting and suggests some common ground with both the Sahara rock engraving and the Pygmy ritual described by Frobenius. It is noteworthy that both the men and women use the singular even when they're singing together.

In The Heart of the Hunter p207 Van Der Post gives a longer version of the man's reply as:

Oh! Listen to the wind,
You woman there;
The time is coming near,
The rain is near.
Listen to your heart,
Your hunter is here.

First Cupid?

Van Der Post further observed (Lost World p245) that a Bushman in love carves a tiny little bow only 8cm long out of the sliver of a bone of Gemsbok Antelope . The arrows are made from a grass that grows near water (a reed). Its quiver is made from the (cut?) quill of the Kori Bustard. The bushman stains the head of his arrows with a special potion and sets out to stalk the lady of his choice. When the opportunity appears he shoots an arrow into her rear. If she destroys the arrow his suit is rejected if the girl preserves the arrow his courtship may proceed.