SAMUTCHOSO and the SPIRITS
“In many parts of the world,” writes Colin Wilson, “the reality of spirits is taken for granted.” Many European whites have come to appreciate this in a different way. Maybe it’s a lesson those of us who live in upstate New York - Iroquois country - could learn.
In 1955 South African travel writer Laurens Van der Post tore off through Botswana in search of a tribe of the mysterious, ancient Bushmen often called these days “the San.” Van der Post’s expedition ran into psychic trouble in the fabled region of the Tsodilo Hills, and his book "Lost World of the Kalahari" (1958) holds a story about them. Little wonder that he would encounter wonder.
Africa was humanity’s cradle, and these San were Africa’s dawn people, presumed to represent an unbroken cultural, linguistic, and even genetic link that goes back to before the last Ice Age. These “Bushmen” – or “San” - are the “oldest” humans that can be found on the planet. Their DNA is more diverse than that of any single population group on the globe, meaning, in a greatly simplified way of saying it, that they could be the genetic “parents” of all of us. They have also been in their place for a very long time. They should understand their landscape.
Van der Post’s countrymen knew this region as “the Slippery Hills.” Today called the Tsodilo Hills (sometimes “the Mountains of the Gods”) it lies in the Okavango Panhandle in Botswana’s northwestern regions. This is generally low and arid country, sometimes with rolling dunes, sometimes dead flat, sometimes with isolated rocky hills popping up like bumps out of nowhere. These hills, if you call them all that, are not impressive at a distance, and indeed the biggest of them is only 1390 feet. A World Heritage site because of its ancient and enigmatic carvings and paintings, this realm also called “the Rock That Whispers” is the holiest zone of the San. It is their Bethlehem, their Olympus.
Van der Post’s African guide was a slightly built, mystical fellow named Samutchoso. He knew a lot about the San traditions and may have had a bit of San blood in him. He warned Van der Post’s colleagues not to do any hunting in the holy region. All life was supposed to be sacred here, and no good would come of it if “the gods” were angered. Word didn’t register with a small advance party, who, to Samutchoso’s alarm, shot an antelope and a wart hog. Before long a plague of calamities started that impressed even the skeptics among the whites.
Soon after the shooting Van der Post’s team was attacked by a horde of wild bees, and every last member was stung. A movie camera jammed repeatedly as they tried to capture some ancient rock paintings. They kept replacing the moving parts and getting the same result, as if a certain image just didn’t want to be filmed.
Samutchoso sensed already what was happening. He drew off by himself to a natural clear space and knelt to pray on behalf of the group. He’d hardly started when he rocked over backward suddenly and unnaturally and fell completely flat on the rock. To the rest of the expedition it looked as though some invisible force had taken hold of Samutchoso’s clothing and jerked him off balance forcefully enough to skin both knees. Samutchoso gave up trying to pray.
The crew spent a gloomy night. In the morning they were attacked by bees again in their camp, and during the day plagued by more camera mishaps. A tape recorder failed, and even simple mechanical parts like the steel swivel of a camera stopped functioning. The bees, of course, came again.
Samutchoso offered to try a different and method of intervening with the spirits. He asked if anyone had a needle, and, when one was found, took it a ways off. He placed the ordinary sewing needle on the lifeline of his palm and sat calmly looking at it. Before long he was talking to it in his own language like it was a little friend in his hand, then looking up into the air around him as if listening for melodic answers. To Van der Post’s party the remarkable routine gave all the appearance of a conversation with soundless, invisible presences. When he had his answers, Samutchoso came to Van der Post.
“It is as I thought,” he said. “The spirits of the hills are very angry with you, so angry that if they had not known your intention in coming here was pure they would long since have killed you. They are angry because you have come with blood on your hands.”
At this point Van der Post and just about everyone else was willing to consider playing ball with whatever forces might be at work. Van der Post decided to wing it in his own way. He wrote a humble note of apology addressed to “The Spirits, The Tsodilo Hills.” He got everyone to sign it, folded it into an empty gin bottle, and buried it in a ledge below an impressive ancient painting. After this was done, Samutchoso got his needle working again. All would be well, he reported to Van der Post; their efforts at appeasement had worked. Still, “the spirits” warned, a price would have to be paid: Van der Post would hear bad news at the next place he went to. It was true; when the party came in reach of communications with the outside world, Van der Post learned that his father had died.
There are a number of literary writeups of this incident involving Laurens Van der Post (1906-1996), the liver of a most colorful life. I came across it first in the books of one of my favorite paranormal authors, Englishman Colin Wilson. But Samutchoso said something else interesting to Van der Post at some point during their time together. He lamented the signs that “the spirits” of the place were losing their power, suspecting that even ten years before that moment, Van der Post wouldn’t have had a second chance.
It makes me wonder if, as development and environmental contamination crash in for the first time on even these wild places in Africa, it might affect the power of site, landscape, or whatever you call “the spirits.” In many parts of Europe and the United States, asphalt, crowding, noise and pollution have had at least a century to work. I also wonder how many of these power-places we might once have had about Western New York, and how many of our haunted zones and houses could be atop them.
By this measure “the Spirits” of Tsodilo ought to have been tapped out by the 1990s. They may not be losing their clout quite as fast as Samutchoso thought.
“Chris Ryan” is the pen name of a former British SAS (“Special Air Service”) operative who wrote a best-selling book about his adventures during the First Gulf War in Iraq. “The One That Got Away” (1995) is the story of the failed special-forces mission known as Bravo Two Zero. Warrior-turned-author Ryan was the only member of this eight-man team to escape death or capture.
While on the ill-starred operation in 1991, Ryan passed through a part of northwestern Iraq that gave him and his colleagues the outright creeps. His team had no incidents there, but the general conspiracy of mood and landscape reminded Ryan of the one place in the world that had given him a similar feeling, no less than Van der Post’s “Slippery Hills” in Botswana. Three decades after Van der Post’s adventures, Ryan and a troop of his fellows had done some training exercises there, and he recalls them as a digression in “The One That Got Away.”
The Tsodilo/“Slippery” Hills region was probably attractive as a military training site because it’s so easy for outsiders to get lost there. Very few places in the world can rival it for that. It’s also equipped with middle-sized, rocky stairstep hills that are great for practicing technical climbing. During this training venture Ryan’s troop was accompanied by some native African soldiers and a handful of Bushmen.
At the end of day the British soldiers rested by the fire in their camp. One of them decided to go out shooting and came back with the carcass of a small, furry animal that had doubtless loved its life. He offered it to the native African soldiers, perhaps thinking they might cook it and eat it. The Bushmen launched into virtual hysterics at the sight. Through the Botswanans, the Bushmen delivered the message that the Whites had better not kill any more animals. It would anger the spirits of the mountain.
The next morning Ryan’s troop got evidence that the spirits were already pissed. There were two accidents as the team practiced climbing on one of the rocky stairstep hills, one of them was fatal. Their respected staff sergeant fell 75 feet and cracked his skull like an eggshell. Accidental indignities were visited on his body during the attempt to lower it to flat ground, and a helicopter got more of the same medicine during the efforts to transport it home. Word about a curse got round pretty fast, and that night someone hauled out a copy of Van der Post’s old book about the region and read salient passages aloud.
A sense of persecution grew in the following days. A herd of goats swept through Ryan’s camp and created general havoc. A soldier broke his collarbone in a motorbike accident. A hippo attacked an inflatable raft, bit off one of the tails, and deflated the thing with a bang. The engines of a plane caught fire as men were parachuting out of it. They tried to tribute their departed sergeant by dropping a memorial wreath over the hill on which he had died, and circled “the Mountain of the Gods” in a gigantic Hercules transport aircraft for that purpose. Pitching a wreath out the open cargo door should be as easy as tossing a Frisbee, but three times the act failed; the blast of the draft – or something - blew the floral ring back into the plane, as if the forces of the mountain rejected the attempt to pay tribute. They got tired of making useless passes over the mountain and decided to unload the wreath where they could. Author Ryan himself digresses upon the prodigy. “You could, at a stretch, explain that in terms of air turbulence,” he writes; but he has no theory for the fact that not until they were three or four miles from the mountain did the wreath behave normally and the simple memorial could be completed.
Ryan, one of his British comrades, and a Botswanan soldier went to visit a witch doctor in the nearest village and offered him a couple boxes of military rations for his counsel. They watched the thin old man come out of his mud hut with his fetish bag, clear a space in the dirt, drop a handful of bones onto it, and stare at the configuration intently, muttering to himself. Through their Botswanan translator the message came back that the mountain spirits had already made their point and that there was nothing more to worry about. Ryan’s troop started to feel more at ease about things; but as they left in a Land Rover caravan and the mountain receded from their sight, Ryan mentions the sense of something ominous watching them, glad to see them go.
“All this could have been coincidence,” reflects Ryan of the events in the Tsodilo Hills, “but there was no doubt that the Bushmen believe in the power of the mountain spirits, and by the end of the exercise, I was well on the way to doing the same.” Ryan seems to have developed a belief in “forces at work which we Europeans simply didn’t understand.” But once, Europeans did… And places like these exist in all parts of the world in which people live.
While this motif - holy ground violated by outsiders, followed by accidents, placated by ritual - could quite well have been coincidental in all the cases we’ve heard of, this is a most familiar 20th century pattern. Reports come to us from all the inhabited continents. I can talk off the top of my head about other incidents from Africa, England, Iceland and North America. When enough coincidences pile up, the matter may no longer be coincidental. It does seem as if there are some places that, under some circumstances, something - “the spirits,” possibly - will defend.
There had to powerful and forbidding places with all the clout of Slippery Hills in North America before the whites got here. I can mention a handful of them around the state of New York, and this to me is one of the most interesting avenues of paranormal study. Countless other spots with regional Native American tradition have to have been forgotten as the native population of New York was displaced. Doubtless many of these sites are paved over now – strip malls and city streets included – and I bet many of them acted up when first disturbed. I also bet that the potential source was not universally recognized.
“Native American Burial Ground” (or battleground) is one of the most facile clichés in the contemporary ghost industry to “explain” hauntings. It’s only one of the many possible factors, and there is so much else of interest out there to talk about, but still they fixate on it so obsessively. I have seen the way this theme develops out of nothing at certain famous haunts: someone mentions the possibility based on no evidence at all and forever after others voice it as a certainty based on that. I’ve heard it rumored baselessly about the famous and truly silly “Amityville Horror” case. I was involved with a bit of TV at a haunted house in Hinsdale, NY, and everyone insisted on turning the focus of the program to the “Native American burying ground.” There is no mention in any of the town or county histories of native battle or burials anywhere near the MacMahon Hill site in Hinsdale, but I just couldn’t talk anyone out of it. I also know that no exorcism was ever done there by Father Alphonsus Trabold, the church’s lead investigator; as if what he said to me isn’t enough for me to rely on it, we have him on film saying it. By now other shows have been done about the Hinsdale site, some of them doubtless based on earlier ones, and all of them love the massacre/burial ground/possession theme.
This does not mean that the influence of ancient sacred ground isn’t occasionally relevant to psychic outbreaks, and that there can’t be some contemporary powerful act-ups. When you go back in the old histories and talk to living Native Americans you often spot a connection and find out that the Iroquois had tradition about the spots. The trick is that you have to validate site-tradition from the old documents and native traditions first, not observing a suspected haunting and deducing backward that there must be “burial ground” there.
I can cite some potentially psychic flare-ups at sites or regions about New York State. Many of them took place under general landscape-disturbance like mining, railroad construction, or road building. They don’t all happen to be trauma-sites, either, like battlefields or burial ground. In fact some of them are holy, not cursed – spots or regions considered sacred by the preindustrial people of New York State. Sometimes you can spot natural features like springs and wells that might make them geologically distinctive. They react not because they are evil but because they are being ravaged.
One fine example of power-ground that has no apparent direct connection to the cursed or holy is the region of the Allegany Reservation. As the Kinzua Dam was being litigated and built, there was a five-year cycle of spectacular psychic and paranormal reports. It was as if the landscape itself was rebelling at the outrage being perpetrated upon Seneca sovereign land.
The medicine man and author Ted Williams used to talk about a legendary grove on the Tuscarora Reservation that frequently pitched up echoes of the False Face healers’ clan. A whole valley in Onondaga territory near Syracuse was once dedicated to the Little People. These days it seems as if regions like these only act up when there is some massive outrage to the physical environment like power lines or road construction. Like the Ents of Tolkien’s Ring-cycle, these power-places are harder to wake these days. You can’t bother them just by going through. Three hundred years ago, though, everyone in the area would have known where they were.
My Algonquin friend Michael Bastine is no spiritual snob. “Your ancestors had this tradition once, too,” I heard him tell a roomful of admiring whites. “All native peoples everywhere had this understanding of the ancestors and the hidden forces in the world. You don’t need to look at us Native Americans like we’re gods. It’s just that we held on to it.” I wouldn’t mind seeing us recover a bit more of it, this reverence for the power of the landscape. That’s a big part of what my work is about.