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.

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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.

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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.

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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)  
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