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My Mother And The Shrunken Head

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

The head-shrinking (or tzantza) tradition among the Jivaro tribes of the Amazon was alive and well when my parents and I arrived in Ecuador in the 1950s.

We first saw a couple of tzantzas inside a glass case in Quito\’s folk-art museum.  They were fist-size, the eyes and the grotesquely large lips sewn shut, the skin black and leathery, the hair–which had retained its length–streaming down the non-existent back.  

They were like puppets out of a nightmare, and I could barely stand to look at them, especially after reading the description of how they were made. The captured enemy\’s head was cut off, its contents were removed and replaced with a small wooden sphere, the skin was tanned, and the resulting object was dried and shrunk by covering it with hot rocks and sand.

My mother badly wanted a tzantza.  She admired all things Indian, and had a number of pots of various shapes and sizes, a chief\’s regalia made of pounded tree bark covered with tropical bird feathers, a nine-foot blowgun with its quiver full of curare-tipped arrows.  A tzantza would have made an exciting contribution to her collection.

But there was a problem:  real shrunken heads were not only expensive, but the Catholic Church forbade the faithful to own them.  Fortunately, there was a lively trade in fake tzantzas, made from monkey heads, or goat skin, or who knows what else.

When we moved to the U.S., my mother\’s Indian artifacts came with us.  (Those were the days when you could travel on a plane with a nine-foot blowgun and a supply of paralyzing arrows and nobody asked any questions.)

The first thing my mother did in our new house was to mount her collection.  The delicate, earth-colored pots went on a shelf.  The blowgun and the arrows–whose tips she had snapped off to prevent mishaps while dusting–hung on the living room wall, with the chief\’s ceremonial garb arranged below.  The tzantza, however, lived inside a brown paper bag in the hall closet.

This was Birmingham, Alabama, and I was fourteen years old.  When guests walked into our living room, their mouths would fall open.  My mother loved this, and would proceed, in sketchy English, to relate the origins and uses of each object.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, I would wither with embarrassment.  Why, I wondered, did she have to make us seem even more weird than we already were?  My survival strategy among my peers in those days was to try to blend in as best I could, but my mother seemed to delight in being different.  

As she neared the end of her lecture, I would begin to pray–God please, don\’t let her bring out the tzantza!  But usually she did.  She would fetch the brown paper bag from the closet, thrust in her hand and bring out the head with a flourish.

The guests would gasp and step back as she stood there triumphant, holding the thing by the hair, like Judith with the head of Holophernes.  Only after she had given a detailed description of the shrinking process and let the company sweat a while would she disclose that this particular head was a fake.

Where, I wonder, is that brown paper bag with its grisly contents after all these years?  Where are the blowgun, the quiver, the chief\’s outfit?  I don\’t want to know.  But I do have one of my mother\’s beautiful Indian pots in my living room.  It doesn\’t scare the guests.

11 Responses

  1. I love this post and\”Those were the days when you could travel on a plane with a nine-foot blowgun and a supply of paralyzing arrows and nobody asked any questions.\”was my \”quote of the day\” on my face book page…I credited your blog, of course!

  2. Huh. Delighting in shock value must skip a generation. I love wearing that fancy emerald & gold pendant she had made for me, just so that when people are holding it in their hands and saying how beautiful it is, I can say \”It's made of gold from my grandmother's teeth.\” They gasp and step back in just the same way as those guests almost half a century ago!

  3. You, of course, know I was 14, you 16, when I first entered your house and saw all these artifacts. It just made your whole family more exotic and foreign to me. I do remember some sort of religious artifacts that your Dad explained to my Dad were in a false cavity in the trunk. Is that true? And where are those also?

  4. mrb, religious artifacts? No idea. My parents did bring some 18th century polichromed wood statues of a religious sort, but not in a false cavity, that I know of.Elizabeth, the cleaning lady just broke the lip of that pot, but Ed glued it back together. I hope the spirits aren't too upset.

  5. I love this story. I hope you find the shrunken head.Alison — I always wanted to make something out of the gold from my father's gold tooth (he lost his teeth years ago). I wonder if I could combine it with the gold from his wedding ring (that had to be cut off him many years ago for some reason or the other) and make small charms for my brother and me.

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