New Guinea Skull Worship: Close to Home

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Overmolded skull of Papua New Guinea woman, pre-1950Where does the spirit reside? If you lived in ancient Egypt, you knew your soul lived in your heart. After you died, the jackal-headed god Anubis would weigh this organ. Woe betide you if it was heavier than a feather! The crocodile-headed god Ammut would eat you on the spot. No after-life for you, buddy!

Some ancient Chinese traditions placed spirits in five major organs... these human-shaped beings came complete with names, costumes, and duties.

The 17th century European philosopher Rene Descartes believed a person’s soul set up shop in the pineal gland. Makes a sort of sense, as this little pearl is smack dab in the middle of your brain.

Skull rack from Papua New GuineaBut the Kerewa people of Papua New Guinea brought their respect for the human spirit to a new level. The skulls of enemies, friends, and family members alike were believed to contain the spirits of the dead, and these powerful spirits could benefit or harm the entire community. If the individuals embodied in the severed heads were honored and respected, it was thought, their spirits would protect and enrich the living.

So that villagers could benefit from their powerful magic, skulls were kept close by. Some were even used as pillows. Specially carved and decorated wooden racks provided a place for skulls to hang. Stories of group homes described many hundreds of skulls on display.

The faces of the dead were often carefully preserved by applying fine local clay to the skull. In a process called “overmodeling,” the stylized features of the deceased were recreated. Cowrie shells could be used to represent eyes, and the hair was left free. We have been told our example -- belonging to a young girl -- is exceptional. She was probably preserved long before 1950, when Australian missionaries put a stop to many traditional practices.

Which makes us wonder. Where do the spirits of the Kerewa live now?

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

Follow Ye Olde Curiosity Shop's board Curiosities at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pinterest.

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →



Sold Out