Severed heads that germinate

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an entertaining article by this name, Derek Freeman undertakes to explain why Dyaks take heads.

Unsurprisingly it turns out — to assure fertility.

(Everything the primitive man ever does — or thinks about — it would seem — is fertility.  Is this why we call him primitive — or is it just the imagination of the anthropologists that is?)

How does Freeman arrive at his conclusion?  Not by asking the Dyaks themselves, who, he says, were not very helpful in establishing this conclusion (p. 234).  Rather, he argues by way of Greeks and Romans who thought that sperm originates in the brain (not an especially wild assumption, if you consider male behavior carefully) and descends into the genitals through the spinal column.

As a group of English scholars once said:  and therefore a witch.*

Freeman’s refusal to take a no for an answer is important if only because other anthropologists suffer from the same misconception:  homo is sapiens, according to the profession, and therefore all his actions must arise from thought.  To coin a phrase, thought germinates action.  In fact, the business stands the other way up:  man acts and only then thinks up good reasons for doing so.

The actual reason why Dyaks take heads stares Freeman in the face on the pages of his own article, but, a true scientist that he is, he does not notice.  The reason is, in short, that the taking of heads assures that” the forest will abound with wild animals” (p. 237).  Which it sure does:  every head taken means one less competitor for food.  Head-taking is an early form of environmental protection.


Incidentally, the article mentions another anthropological argument:  that of McKinley, that heads are taken as a way of “winning souls for humanity” by “the ritual incorporation of the enemy as a friend”, the enemy’s head being chosen as a “ritual symbol of social personhood”.  I have news for McKinley:  the reason why heads are the preferred trophy world over is that the head is the only proof positive that the victim is really 100% dead.

For all this, it is a brilliant article; the description of the ngelampang ceremony, in which the daughters of the god petulantly ask to be given a head, an infant whose head is about to be taken confides in his mother that he “dreamt of being bitten by a huge and threatening snake, from which his head hurts even more than if it had been struck against an upstanding stump” (to which the mother answers “I fear my child that you are about to be speared and your head about to be carried off in a cane container”), the taken head is rocked gently like a baby and sung lullybies to, and when it is let slip out of its wrappings and dropped on the floor, it causes the women of the long house to jump up in (pretended) revulsion — the ceremony has all the precious worth of all superstructure — which is not, as per Marx, the weed grown upon economics, but weed grown on the evolved, mechanical, unconscious, hard-wired behavior.  (The explanation; perhaps the justification; but not the reason).

One only wishes the description provided more details of lighting, dress, colors, music.  Life and ideology are alright, but theater, well, that’s really interesting.


*Cf. proof that if she floats, she is made of wood (or maybe a duck), Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail


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