Our species has an ancient relationship with water. Early rock art depicts the journey that shamans took into their spirit world, which they likened to going underwater.
Art from southern Africa, the greatest rock art gallery on earth, shows fish encountering a shaman in trance. The art record also shows how shamans transformed into therianthropes such as half human/half fish beings. This shows a deep understanding and association with creatures from the underwater realm. Even San shamans living deep in the Kalahari, who have never been underwater, have experiences of being underwater during trance or altered states. This suggests that water has incredible symbolic relevance and power in our collective unconscious.
A) The famous Linton panel from which the South African coat-of-arms is derived. This shaman is lying in the classic prone position (fallen in trance) with fish and eels feeding on and around his body. It would seem that the underwater realm is the realm of spirit for many hunting and gathering peoples. An entry into this world is an entry into a world filled with power, inspiration and healing. Early San mythology also speaks of giant water snakes and water-maidens.
B) This image is from the Kammanassieberge recording courtesy of Stephen Townley Bassett). It depicts a half human, half fish creature. It is a common during states of trance that shamans change into these half human, half animal beings. We see these creatures in all mythologies, including western mythology; the most well known being the werewolf, spiderman, batman etc.
C) This image is from Karringmelkspruit (recording courtesy of Stephen Townley Bassett.) It shows a blesbok headed therianthrope (i.e. a shaman in trance) surrounded by intricately painted fish, eels, turtles and snakes. This is another underwater scene, and it raised some interesting questions for us: are we remembering our time in the sea-like womb, or are we remembering an ancient immersion in the sea 100,000 years ago? No matter what the answer is, it is clear that we are deeply attracted to water, and especially the sea. This is probably why the most expensive real-estate is on the coast, and why people flock in their millions to the ocean for vacation.
“People the world over who take drugs, or enter a trance, say the experience is like being underwater. When people enter a trance they experience weightlessness, altered vision, distorted sounds and shortness of breath – all of which happens when a person is under water. Bushmen shamans often talk of being underwater, just as K’xau did: “But I was under water! I was gasping for breath!” By looking carefully at the experience he is describing we know he is not literally talking about being underwater. Rather, he is speaking metaphorically: we would say that K’xau has entered trance; K’xau himself and the Bushman people would say he has entered the spirit world.” Thomas Dowson – Rock Engravings of Southern Africa.