Drums were beating in the pitch-black night and people were screaming. It was my first day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the upcountry town of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1965 and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I knew was that the house had no electricity, my flashlight batteries were weak, and there was no kerosene to light a lantern. It was time to circle the wagons. I put the three folding metal chairs that served as my furniture up against the house’s three screen windows so they would come crashing down if anyone tried to break in. And then I laid down on the house’s only other furniture, a moldy mattress, hoping that whatever was outside would stay there.
The next morning, I learned that someone had died the day before. I was right to be frightened. The newly dead among the Kpelle people are dangerous unless they are given a proper going away party. They hang around and do really bad things. A great amount of cane-juice, rum, had been consumed during the night to assure that wouldn’t happen. I had entered a world where offerings were left under giant cottonwoods for the spirit that lived in the tree, the lightning man could make lightning strike people, justice was determined with a red-hot machete, chickens were sacrificed to carry messages to the dead, and Sam, the young man who worked for us, had scars marching up his chest from the teeth of the Bush Devil who had eaten him as a child and spit him up as an adult.
The reason I am relating this story here is because the experience was so different from anything I had ever known (you can read about it in my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam) that it was very difficult to comprehend. When you begin to explore the petroglyphs, or rock art carvings, that are found throughout the southwestern United States, the experience is similar. You enter a realm that existed from several hundred to several thousands of years ago among the early peoples of North America when there was no written language to explain what they were thinking or doing. At best, we can guess or get hints from modern day Native Americans about the meaning of the rock art.
No one exemplifies the difficulty of comprehending the world of early Americans better than the shaman, a powerful figure who utilized trances and mind enhancing drugs to enter other realms and do battle with monsters that brought sickness, death, hunger and bad weather into our world. It’s a scary, dangerous place. Like Sam’s Bush Devil, the shaman was part doctor, priest, policeman, leader and judge. You didn’t want one as an enemy.
In the Southwest, the shaman’s drug of choice for his or her journeys into other realms was the plant Datura, which you have already met on recent posts of mine. Georgia O’Keeffe liked to paint the flower and I included one on my Valentine’s Day blog. Beside the plant’s beauty, it is a member of the nightshade family and a powerful, dangerous hallucinogen that may cause death (don’t try it at home). One of the characteristics of the drug is that it enlarges your pupils. European women once used one of its cousins to enlarge their pupils and increase their power over men (whoops, I meant appeal). Peggy has naturally large brown eyes. I get it. They named the plant belladonna, which translates beautiful woman.
The enlarged pupils the shamans would have had experienced from consuming datura gave me an insight about the numerous large eyes we found staring at us out of the rocks at the Three Rivers National Recreation Petroglyph site in south-central New Mexico. We visited there in October as part of our Southwest tour. Could it have been that the shamans were watching us, warning us to be on our best behavior? We treaded carefully among the petroglyphs, making sure that we didn’t do any damage to the ancient rock art.
Today’s photographs by Peggy and me will reflect the large eyes and other petroglyphs we found at Three Rivers that might relate to the shamans. Future posts over the next two to three weeks will feature different rock art themes (like snakes, for example) that we found at Three Rivers and other Southwestern sites we visited in October.
NEXT POST: Wednesday’s photo essay (if I get to it since it’s my birthday week) will journey north to Sego Canyon in Utah and some very unworldly (UFO- alien-type) shamans. On Friday it is petroglyph snakes. Lots of them!