one star per head

The Kenyah head hunters of Borneo didn’t like to have more than 30 heads hanging in their homes at any one time. When they moved house they took advantage of the upheaval to get rid of any surplus ones. These were placed in a specially built hut not far from the old house, but in case the spirits who surrounded those heads thought they were being abandoned, a fire of smouldering logs was kept burning.

Different tribes had different tattoo markings indicating their achievements.

Muruts – Men who have fought, or who have gone on risky expeditions (headhunting I presume) are tattooed from the shoulders to the pit of the stomach, and all down the arms three-parallel stripes to the waist.


Rundum Muruts – stars on the front of the shoulder, above the breast, are often seen… each star denoted a head having been taken. When the third had been taken, another star was placed on the throat; then the forearms and thighs were tattooed, but with no special design.


Kayans – A man is supposed to tattoo one finger only, if he has been present when an enemy has been killed, but tattoos hands and fingers if he has taken an enemy’s head.

For the Dayak of southern and western Borneo, tattoos and death were inextricably bound. When the soul left its human host, it journeyed through the murky depths of the afterlife in search of heaven. Dayak souls encountered many obstacles on their supernatural flight: The River of Death the most formidable. According to tradition, only the souls of tattooed women who provided generously for their families and headhunters who possessed hand tattoos – a token of their success – were able to cross the log bridge that spanned these dangerous waters.


Here is a description of the women’s tattoos written by William Henry Furness who travelled to Borneo early last century

“I was utterly amazed at their costume and rubbed my eyes to make sure I was not dreaming. The women who were descending to the river’s edge wore on their thighs and legs beautiful blue silk tricots or tights of an elaborate openwork pattern, and on their hands and arms delicate black silk mitts; I was not prepared for an elegant toilette in the jungle and my bewildered amazement continued until, on nearer inspection, I found that all the tracery I had mistaken for silken tights was tattooing.”

image by Mark Madden

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 7:38 am  Comments (38)  
Tags: , , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

38 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I sell all my surplus heads on eBay.

    • What? You’ve got more than two?

      • Well two heads are better than one.

  2. Heads can be a real problem at times, especially when you have to pull out the teeth with pliars in order to make the identification that much harder should they ‘pop up’ again after a few years being home to the wee fishies in the loch.

    So they say… >

    • Jimmy I don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of you. Or Siobhan.

  3. The third Mrs Affer had several tattoos,prominent amongst which was the one on her pudenda which said “No representatives seen between 23.00 and 08.00”

    • hahahahahahahahahahahahaha……

    • “pudenda” what a great word.

  4. this gives me an excellent solution to store my head collection. And should I get tattoos to celebrate each speaking role I land?

    • Have you got enough skin? I see a bright future ahead, but not if you’re too inked up…..

      • Better I not get too inked up. It hurts my chances of getting roles. One or two but more than that hurts you. Unless you want to play a thug.

  5. I have many doll’s heads. 🙂

  6. When I finally move, deciding what heads to take with me is one problem I won’t have. Thank God.
    This post has all the makings of a bad dream – and if I have one, it’s on your head… 😉

  7. oh great. now the ‘style police’ are telling me that my 35 head collection is tacky? last year it was all the rage…

    • Reduce your collection to 31 daisyfae, prime numbers are all the rage this year

  8. I actually knew a Kenyah dude for about four years when I was studying. His ancestors were head hunters indeed. Sadly, he lives in a terrace house and is a electronics engineer at the moment.

  9. One of these days I’ve have woken up and said “Lord have mercy, I’m so thankful I wasn’t born in Borneo.”

  10. I like the description of the tattooed stockings. One way to make sure your seams are always straight, I guess.

  11. My tattoo artist is Iban which is also a headhunter tribe….and they really are the best tattoo artists! If they have taken someone’s head, they are allowed to tattoo their necks. Otherwise most of them tattoo their shoulder blades

    • I knew there was a good reason not to like neck tattoos

  12. Is that last tattoo telling me where I should begin cutting? Apparently she’s got prizes hidden in her thighs.

    • Think metaphorically RF. Like you usually do 😉

  13. going to the all-night convenience store for cigarettes at the same time that the bars are closing is also a risky expedition.

    • So is smoking

      • yeah yeah yeah.

      • That’s not an expedition. That’s an ill-advised lifestyle choice. 😛 Stick to the subject. 😀

  14. I am glad not to have the problem of too many heads. We have enough trouble storing our junk as it is…

    As for the Tats, wow but I think I’ll stick to getting a third one on my left arm to match the three on my right

    • Wotcha got Jams? Are there photos somewhere on your blog?

  15. The folks from Borneo seem to display a kind if depth sadly lacking in some of our sports starts, like that footballer that had “Justify Your Existance” misspelt and blazoned across his chest! There was a whole raft of other examples in the paper the other day, but i cant find the link – was hilarious though….

    • How embarrassing. And it gives other tattoo artists a bad name too 😦

  16. Wow. I certainly agree with others – glad I won’t have the problem of too many heads when I move next!

  17. Tattoos are almost as sexy as scars

  18. You know I’m loving this ppost, right?

    • Consider it dedicated to you AM

  19. I’ve always found tattoos and especially tattoos on indigenous tribes absolutely fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever told you but I used to give tattoos for about a year in college.

    • How interesting – can you blog about it?

  20. I find body ink disgusting and tacky, especially the ones on my chest. Bidda-boom. I’m actually unmarked, but love good ink work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: