The Rock Art of Inner Mongolia & Ningxia (China) by Paola Demattè

Interpretative Theories: Religion & Shamanism

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Sources indicate that the populations of these areas worshipped a variety of spirits with different rituals, and that 'shamanism' was only one aspect of their belief system. According to Chinese documents, the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Tujue, Mongols and other populations who occupied the area before the introduction of Lamaistic Buddhism in the sixteenth century, worshipped heaven (mong. Tängri), earth, the sun, the moon, and the spirits of local mountains and rivers, and practised cults of the ancestors with varying degrees of complexity (Heissig 1970, 1992). Tängri was generally the focus of the belief system, and since humans could not approach it directly, the ancestors were essential in bridging the divide. To contact their ancestors or be cured, people employed a ritual specialist (the so-called shaman); there were however other rituals (such as propitiating the spirits of earth and water), which were carried out without shamans (Ishjamts 1992; Lin 1988, 117-128; Zhoushu Liezhuan 42, juan 50, 1971, 907-12, vol. III; Humphrey 1994; Soucek 2000, 103-16; Baldick 2000, 93-125). This overview shows that while there probably were shamanistic activities among the people of the Yinshan and Helanshan, the ancestors enjoyed a higher position than the shamans in the religious hierarchy and had greater power to connect with the supreme Heaven.

Before the sixteenth century, the local religion centred therefore on ancestor worship and the cult of heaven, with shamans as mediators (Fedorova 2001). With the introduction of Buddhism, the belief system was transformed into a syncretistic religion which combined Lamaistic and pre-Buddhist elements. Within this new system, the shamans either 'converted' and played a role as lamas, or were pushed to the margins (Heissig 1970).

Some evidence from the Yinshan-Helanshan rock art may indicate a ritual concern (the choice of special places, the presence of anthropomorphic faces or masks radiating rays, or the repetition of certain animals). Given the local religious circumstances, one would expect these signs to be associated with either ancestor/heaven worship or with Lamaistic Buddhism, rather than with some abstract form of shamanism. As we will see below, this appears indeed to be the case, even though it does not mean that petroglyphs were never associated with shamanistic activities. Visual imagery was of great im-portance for Inner Asian shamans (Siikala 1992c; Devlet 2001). Vilmos Diószegi (1998) has shown how the drawings inside Teleut and Baraba Turks shaman drums represent the cosmos and the animal helpers who guided the shaman in otherworldly journeys. Russian researchers have identified petroglyphs from the Tom' River (Siberia) which may depict shamans, though according to Hoppál (1992c, 139-40) only a few figures in costume holding drums and dancing can be positively identified as such.

One might accept the activities of the shaman (or other religious leader) as a significant force behind the production of rock art relating to a certain belief system. It is necessary, however, to keep in mind: 1) that the relationship between this agent and the making of the images need not have been direct; and 2) that the function of the imagery was very likely multifaceted, extending beyond the strictly religious.

The religious significance of petroglyphs, if present, may have resided in the offering or commissioning of images, rather than in their actual production, and the makers or commissioners of the images could have been devotees or specialists. The images' function may have been related to devotional practice, recording religious events, or didactic narratives with mythical, legendary, or even historical overtones (Hoppál 1992, 138; cf. also Salomon 1998). These uses of images in religious context are commonplace in much religious art of so-called 'higher' civilizations, but they are rarely taken into consideration in rock art studies. Buddhist rock art can be very informative about the processes which bring religious images into existence. Its different forms of expression range from representation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to portraits of donors and narratives about legendary and historic events. These open our eyes to the multiple meanings which could hide behind rock art. Interestingly, evidence of such devotional offering of images is found in the Helanshan rock art. At several sites in the counties of Qingtongxia, Zhongwei and Shizuishan there are engravings of small pagodas resembling the ceramic pagoda models which in acts of devotion were buried by pastoralists devoted to Lamaistic Buddhism.3 This evidence seems to indicate that, at least in this instance, the carving of an image on a rock corresponded to the act of offering by burying an object. In other places, such as Helankou, inscriptions of the Buddha’s name seem to be addressing or invoking this figure, so that the written characters became the actual focus of worship (Xu & Wei 1993, 83-5).

While there is indication that petroglyphs were sometimes associated with religion and ritual, other evidence shows that they were also the focus of more prosaic activities. Ethnographic sources for Inner Asia (Hoppál 1992), Europe (Siikala 1992), North America (Grant 1967, 28-39), South Africa (Jolly 1998; Salomon 1998), and Australia (Layton 1992) show that rock art was produced and used in a variety of contexts ranging from the ritual-religious to the mytho-historic to the utterly secular (mnemonic signs or even doodles). While the ritual-religious aspect may have been predominant, it covered a wide variety of subjects including rain, hunting, puberty, fertility and initiation rituals, which did not necessarily involve 'shamanistic' activities. In fact, in North America among the Thompson River Indians of British Columbia or the Nez Percé of Idaho, puberty pictures were painted by the boys and girls who were undergoing initiation rituals (Grant 1967, 28-30). According to Hoppál (1992), in Eurasia lay participants in open-air rituals often engraved their symbols on the rock to indicate that they had been there. Australian aboriginal culture provides another good example of the complexities associated with rock art and ritual-religious activities. The comparative wealth of knowledge about Australian rock art and about the significance of its iconography that comes from informed interpretation indicates that these images were created (in religious or secular contexts) to record clan myths and claim sacred locations or significant land resources by the idea of presence (Layton 1992, 74).

This shows that even if religion plays a role, other crucial aspects are involved in the creation of images on rocks, and these often have something to do with issues of group identity, land ownership, boundaries, and the semiotics of communication (Hoppál 1992c; Nordbladh 1979). In conclusion, even though Inner Mongolia and Ningxia are in a legitimate cultural and geographic context for shamanism, shamanism (and religion more generally) is a limited and insufficient framework for interpreting the rock art of these regions. The potential for an understanding of petroglyphs not only beyond shamanism, but also beyond the purely religious, is therefore apparent. While often connected to religion, visual imagery is a phenomenon which has ramifications beyond that narrow confine: the nature of petroglyphs as culturally significant signs produced and used in the landscape makes them likely candidates for a variety of other meanings and uses.
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