Head-Shrinking and the Purpose of Tsantsa
In pre-Columbian times the art
of shrinking heads was widespread in the Andean area. Early
chronicles have given us excellent descriptions of shrunken
heads and the methods of their preparation among the Indians
of the Ecuadorian Coast.To understand the motives behind the
preparation of tsantsa it is necessary
to realize that the tsantsa itself possesses tsarutama
or magical power. Immediately following the battle the head
was taken as a trophy, which indicated that the maker had properly
fulfilled the obligation to his lineage in taking blood revenge.
Most Jivaro Indians would consider
any victory over the enemy as incomplete, and perhaps the whole
war expedition a failure if they were unable to return without
one or more trophies. Furthermore, possessing the tsantsa itself
would benefit the warrior's good fortune as well as please the
spirits of his ancestors. The warrior could expect the spirits
of their dead relatives to bestow them with good crops and fortune.
Consequently, one could anticipate corresponding misfortune
if their murders were not properly avenged. The Jivaros gave
much more thought to the harm that might come to them through
the ill will of the neglected dead relatives ghosts, than they
did to the malevolent actions of enemy ghosts.
More importantly, the reason
behind the preparation of the tsantsa is to paralyze the spirit
of the enemy attached to the head so that it cannot escape and
take revenge upon the murderer. This also prevents the spirit
or soul from continuing into the afterlife where it could harm
dead ancestors. When the warrior kills his enemy, he is not
only after the victim's life, but more importantly he seeks
to possess the victim's soul. Acquiring trophies after a battle,
was also an instrument of increasing a warrior's own personal
power, known as arutam. The idea behind killing the enemy
and taking his head as a trophy, brings the victim's arutam
to the warrior. The power of the dead man's soul is still considered
dangerous to the victorious tribe and therefore the motive behind
shrinking the head of the enemy is to conquer and destroy the
spirit or soul.
In addition to satisfying the
notion of blood-revenge and possessing
the dead man's soul, the transformation of the head into a tsantsa
implies a deadly insult not only to the dead man himself, but
also to his whole tribe.
The head means to the warrior
what the Medal of Honor means to an American soldier.
Celebration of the Tsantsa
After a successful attack on
an enemy village, the victors were quick to cut or mutilate
the bodies of the slain enemies. Having satisfied their desire
for vengeance, the warring party made a hasty retreat before
their opponents could recover from their surprise. Messengers
were sent ahead to announce the outcome of the expedition to
the waiting people at home.
A series of tsantsa feasts were
held which marked a successful raid. The rituals which followed
unfolded in three episodes, each lasting several days with the
last feast separated by an interval of approximately a year.
The reason for the separation between feasts is to allow the
for the re-harvesting of crops for the subsequent celebration.
The first of these feasts is referred to as "his very blood"
or numpenk. This feast is held at the house of a previously
appointed wea, or master of ceremonies who had agreed
to act as the host. The second feast is known as fulfillment
or amianu, which is celebrated approximately a year later
at one of the killer's houses. The host of this celebration
usually builds a new house more worthy of the occasion. The
third and final of these feasts is called the napin,
which is the largest of all feasts with the head-takers supplying
all the food and drink for the next six days. Abundant food
is required or the head-taker may lose the prestige and notoriety
he had acquired during their wartime. The Jivaro warriors smeared
themselves with blood and danced with the shrunken heads of
their enemies dramatizing the killing.
The reasons behind the ceremonies
held with the tsantsa are for the benefit of departed relatives
in order to show that the Jivaros are fulfilling their obligations
of blood revenge as well as to increase their own prestige.
The possession of the trophy enabled the warrior to be singled
out in admiration amongst his peers. During this victory celebration,
the women captives stood around weeping. Accordingly, if no
female captives were taken, proxies were appointed from among
their own women to mourn for each tsantsa.
In spite of the grandiose celebrations
and the prestige acquired, that the warriors held to celebrate
the tsantsa, the host's resources were often depleted during
Surprisingly, despite the amount
of care and diligence that went into the preparation trophy
and feasts, immediately following the final celebration, the
heads were often discarded with relative indifference to the
children or eventually lost in surrounding swamps.
Substitute Tsantsa Used During
Often during an inter-tribal
war an Indian may kill his enemy but us unable to take his head.
This occurs usually for one of two reasons. The first reason
occurs when a counterattack launched by the dead man's tribe
forces a hasty retreat by the attacking party leaving no time
to take a head. Secondly, the victim may in fact turn out to
be a relative of the opposing force in which case, taking the
head of the slain Indian is deemed unethical. In these cases,
the warrior is still entitled to a tsantsa, so he will kill
a sloth and prepare its head in absentia of the dead Indian.
The use of a sloth's
head is almost as common as the actual head of human. (According
to the native beliefs, these tribes believed that all humans
were the direct descendants of all animals. The Jivaros claim
to trace most of their ancient human qualities to the sloth,
who they believe is a direct survivor of ancient times.) This
idea makes it acceptable to use a sloth's head as it was once
considered to be an Jivaro Indian.
Another acceptable substitute
is known as a untsuri suara which can be employed in
place of the actual human head. To make this particular tsantsa,
the killer simply pulls out some of his victim's hair rather
than actually decapitating them. The hair is later applied with
beeswax and attached to a tree gourd and used as a substitute
tsantsa. It is believed that the dead enemy's muisak or
avenging soul is in it because of the presence of the hair.
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