The White Lady – neither a lady, nor white

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100 years later the White Lady may have faded, but is still famous.

The Brandberg is an open-air art gallery with more than 43 000 individual rock paintings. But it was a single painting that made the mountain famous and kindled a myth that refused to die for many decades. Willie Olivier recently followed in the footsteps of the man who discovered the famous painting to tell the 100-year old story and take fresh photographs.

white lady painting

On the 4th of January 1918 a party consisting of surveyor Reinhard Maack, high school teacher Professor Ernst Gries and Georg Schulz, was descending through the Tsisab Ravine after they had made the first recorded ascent of Königstein, the highest peak on the Brandberg and in Namibia, two days earlier.

Despite being overcome by exhaustion, hunger and thirst, Maack decided to look for rock paintings in the lower reaches of the Tsisab, while his two companions continued down the ravine. When he decided to rest in the shade of an overhang, now known as Maack’s Shelter, he was taken by total surprise at what he saw – a frieze that would not only become world-famous but also the subject of much controversy.

Maack carried a pencil and notebook with him and wrote down: “I decided to sketch only the remarkable middle group and some particularly striking figures in my log book, as well as note the main colours and mark their relationship to each other by means of simple symbols so that I could later reconstruct…” He was of the view that the central figure of the frieze had distinctly Mediterranean characteristics, and he had no doubt that it was male.

Enter the French priest and pre-historian, Abbé Henri Breuil, who at the time was considered an authority on cave art in Europe. Whilst attending the joint British-South African Congress for the Advancement of Science at the University of Johannesburg in 1929, Breuil saw copies of Maack’s drawings. He immediately concluded that the central figure depicted a young white female of Mediterranean origin and attributed the painting to foreign explorers that had ventured into Africa.

It was during Breuil’s second visit to South Africa in 1942 that he came across photos taken by archaeologist Dr Ernst Schertz ten years earlier. His secretary and assistant, Mary Boyle, immediately attributed Mediterranean origins to the central figure, now dubbed the White Lady, comparing it to the female figures in the bull-leaping fresco in Knossos, Crete.

Although Breuil travelled extensively to rock art sites in several southern African countries during his earlier visits it was not until 1947 that he and Mary Boyle managed to visit Maack’s Shelter. The Abbé delivered a paper – The White Lady of the Brandberg, South-West Africa, her companions and her guards – in his presidential address to the South African Archaeological Association in 1948. And with that address the myth of the White Lady was born – a mysterious figure of unexplained origin.

Breuil’s first volume of The Rock Paintings of Southern Africa was published in 1955 under the title The White Lady of the Brandberg. His controversial and romanticised interpretation of the central figure, the peopling of southern Africa and the age of the paintings did not go unchallenged, however, and was dismissed by several archaeologists.

Weisse Dame - Roter Riesen. Felsbilder aus Namibia. Rudolph Kuper. Publisher by Heinrich Barth Institute, Cologne. 1991 (p. 9).

Detailed analysis of the frieze has led archaeologists to conclude that the paintings in Maack’s Shelter were executed by indigenous people, the Khoisan, and not by visitors from a distant land. The central figure depicts a shaman, while the absence of breasts and the presence of a bow and arrows are seen as evidence that the White ‘Lady’ is a man. A detailed copy of the frieze made by Harald Pager clearly shows that the White Lady has a decorated penis, while the object in the hand of the central figure has been interpreted as half an ostrich eggshell. Professor David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dawson have argued that the white colour of the lower part of the figure in no way implies that it depicts a European, pointing out that elephants have been painted in red, black or white.

In their book, Images of Power – Understanding Bushman Rock Art, Lewis-Williams and Dawson describe Breuil’s interpretation of the White Lady painting as giving rise to his “… most spectacular blunder”. Despite the growing body of evidence that the White Lady was neither female nor male, the myth of the White Lady refused to die as it was perpetuated in popular literature for many years.

By the early 1950s, the White Lady was becoming a popular tourist attraction as an ever-increasing stream of people made their way up the Tsisab Ravine. The Brandberg National Monument Area was declared a national monument in August 1951 and the overhang was subsequently enclosed by a rather unsightly metal grid to prevent people from defacing the paintings or tampering with them. The enclosure was finally removed in the early 2000s.

The guiding system to the White Lady dates back to 1995 when the Dâureb Mountain Guides organisation was formed after learners of Uis Secondary School were introduced to the rock art of the mountain by an Irish teacher at the school, a Mr Moore. This was followed by an introductory course by a team from the Heinrich Barth Institute of Archaeology and Environmental History of Africa, based in Cologne, Germany. A formal guiding system was introduced in September 2005, following the enactment of the National Heritage Council Act which had vested official responsibility for managing the mountain in the National Heritage Council of Namibia the previous year.

Alfons Uwuseb is regarded by his fellow Brandberg guides as ‘the veteran’. He has been a Brandberg guide for the past 24 years. Alfons completed a level three guide course. During the walk to and from Maack’s Shelter, he takes time to explain with authority the various uses of trees along the route, the geology of the mountain and other aspects. At Maack’s Shelter, he gives an insightful explanation of the various paintings, including the White Lady. His fine sense of humour and his excellent way of interacting with the group adds to the enjoyment of the walk.

For the past few years, a lone elephant bull has become a regular visitor to the Tsisab Ravine from around August. The attraction, Alfons says, is the sweet smell of the Brandberg Acacia flowers which are relished by the bull. According to Alfons, the elephant is a good-natured chap.

Alfons is one of five male and four female guides employed by the National Heritage Council of Namibia which is responsible for managing the Brandberg National Monument Area.

Following a submission for the inscription of the Brandberg National Monument Area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the property was placed on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites.

white lady
Venturing down the Tsisab Ravine
Maack's Shelter
Guided walks are conducted daily from 08h00 to 17h00

DEBUNKING OR PERPETUATING THE MYTH?

Namibian architect and artist Linus Malherbe put the proverbial cat among the pigeons when he gave a presentation, Debunking the Myth, at the Namibia Scientific Society in early July. Linus advanced the hypothesis that the White Lady was painted by a second generation young Viking girl, whose ancestors had immigrated to Iberia (Spain) from where she sailed to explore and trade along the African coastline and the interior. He proposed that the central figure is a playful self-portrait which does not necessarily depict how her people dressed in Iberia.

He became interested in the White Lady after examining a copy made by the renowned archaeologist Harald Pager. His research of the central figure and the other human figures in the frieze led Linus to conclude that the painting depicts elements from three cultures: Viking, Iberian and Ovahimba.

His hypothesis is based on eight details of the White Lady painting which according to Linus correspond to elements of the Viking, Iberian and Ovahimba cultures.

A: The footwear of the central figure – shoes.
B: Large metal-tip arrowheads.
C: (Medieval) Viking belt with the end hanging down.
D: Asymmetrical recurve bow.
E: Hunting knives.
F: Red hair of the central figure with medieval European chain maille.
G: Iberian marigold, poppy or long-stemmed fower from the Arctic region.
H: Archer’s cuff with clasps worn by Vikings.
I: The Viking chest strap is another detail which Linus has identified.

FAST FACTS

  • The site can only be visited in the company of a guide accredited by the National Heritage Council of Namibia.
  • Guided walks are conducted daily from 08h00 to 17h00.
  • The last walk departs at 16h30.
  • The 6 km walk there and back takes about two-and-a-half hours. Wear comfortable walking shoes and a hat and take water along.

About the author: Willie Olivier is a freelance travel writer and has published several travel books on southern Africa. He has contributed to Travel News Namibia since 1999.

You might also enjoy reading: A Nomad Explores Namibia’s Living Desert

This story was first published in the Spring 2018 edition of TNN.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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