San Myth

words by Raffaella delle Donne

My first encounter with San mythology was as an undergraduate student of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town. Inspired by my numerous field trips to the Cedarberg, in my final year, I specialised in mythology and rock art. I began my research by drawing up an inventory of all the animals that appear in the mythology as well as a description of how each animal features in the stories. Initially, I was extremely frustrated at having to do something so tedious. For weeks, I sat in the university’s African Studies Library trying to make sense of the stories told to Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the early 19th century. Because the myths were told and translated word for word, in an attempt to record San language, the stories seemed to me fragmented, repetitive and incoherent. However, the longer I spent immersing myself in the world of the First People, the more I begun to understand the language and the style of the stories. Through these stories, I met an array of fantastic characters that were simultaneously kind, daring, mischievous, bad tempered, clever, rude, violent, and helpful. There are no inherently good or bad characters in San mythology.

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