Real Horror: The Art of Tsantsa [Shrunken Heads]

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What a week! From working every few days to calling many different places for the Internship I need to secure in January, I’ve had a very busy few days. This, of course, would explain my absence on the blog. As I said in the post before, I will be posting, but it won’t be as frequent – and with a job opportunity that might happen tomorrow, I have the possibility at full time employment before the Internship. So you can understand my frustration and extreme workload as of late. But you aren’t here to listen to me whine, you’re probably here because of that Facebook post last night. You know – the one that had a picture of a shrunken head!

Let’s get right to the gritty bone of it: If you are reading this, expecting this post to be an instruction manual on the ancient practice of head shrinking, or “Tsantsa” – the making of an actual shrunken head – then you have come to the right place! This post is going to look into the process by which severed human heads are “shrunk” to roughly the size of an apple, and the reasoning behind this process. As you could probably expect, it’s also possible that this post could be considered to be NSFW, as it is based on actual head shrinking so please; be advised of this ahead of time! Otherwise if you’re still here, let’s talk about some shrunken heads.

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Although many would follow this “exercise”, the main tribe known to practice head shrinking are the Jivaroan tribes – found in forests of Ecuador and the Peruvian Amazon. These Jivaro Natives were brought to the attention of the world because of their unusual custom of shrinking the heads of their enemies, but also because of them being one of the very few societies to have revolted against the Spanish Empire. There are various dialects in the Jivaroan tribes such as  – the AShuar, Aguaruna, Huambisa, and the most famous of them, the Shur; which will be the group we’re looking at today. These natives were highly superstitious and even impulsive, which would often lead to wars between themselves. The Shamans and medicine men would normally fall victim to attack, usually due to being accused of sorcery and/or black arts. Be aware that, at the time, these people did not have any concept of natural death and saw each [and every] death as having had a supernatural cause and therefore, the individual needed to be avenged. Scarily, at the ripe age of six, young Jivaro males were taught to hate neighboring peoples/tribes, and that the death of an opponent had meant reward in blessings, long life, riches and ultimately: the death of one’s enemies.

Even though it varies, the original reason behind the practice was a religious one; the tribes often believed that by shrinking the head of their enemy, they could “harness” that person’s soul and make it do their bidding. It was also a way to stop the soul from returning to our world in order to hurt the living and avenge his or her death. It is important to note that The Shuar tribe believed in 3 fundamental spirits:

Arutam – A vision or power that protects a person from a violent death.
Muisak  – A vengeful spirit who comes into being when a person carrying an Arutam spirit is murdered.
Wakani – Innate to humans and is a guardian spirit.

In order to stop a Muisak from using its evil powers, the head of a victim is [quite literally, as seen in pictures] shrunk and the mouth and eyes are sewn together as a way to paralyze the spirit. This method prevents that person’s soul from leaving the head and take revenge upon the murderer. This would also help to stop the victim’s soul from entering the afterlife and harming the murderer’s dead ancestors along the way.

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Now for the main event of this post: the process of shrinking the head. It wasn’t a complicated process per say, but a lengthy one. Taking up to 14 steps, it starts with the actual decapitation and ends with making them “wearable” pieces. Let’s break it down, step by step:

01 – After an attack on an enemy the members of the Shur tribe would kill their victims and quickly decapitated them with a machete. On a rare occasion, the captured enemy would still be alive while the head was removed.

02 – The head is removed below the neck and a piece of skin from the chest and back is also taken off with it. The entire process is meticulously carried out in order to preserve the original likeness of the victim.

03 – A slit is made up through the nape of the neck and up the back of the head, the warrior now peels the skin and hair very carefully off the skull. The victim’s skull is discarded by the warrior and left by the river as an offering the anaconda or “Pani”.

04 – The eyes are sewn shut with a natural fiber, the lips are also sewn together but these are later skewered shut with little wooden pegs. The pegs are then later removed after the boiling process.

05 – The head skin is then transferred to the cooking jars and cooked for around 90 minutes; any longer and the hair falls out so it is important to remove before this time.

06 – The skin takes on a dark color, becomes rubbery and is about a quarter of its original size.

07 – The skin is then turned inside out and any flesh that is still sticking to the inside is scraped off.

08 – The skin is then turned right side out and the slit at the back of the head is sewn up.

09 – Stones from the fire are then placed through the neck of the skin and rolled around to stop them from burning the inside. This makes the skin shrink even further, and when the point comes that the neck becomes the same size as some of the smaller stones, they are removed.

10 – Hot sand is then poured into the head through the neck. This gets into all the smaller areas in order to shrink the skin even further and shape the detail in the heads features.

11 – Any excess hair is burnt off and the skin hung above the fire the harden and turn to black.

12 – Then three “Chonta palm pins” are put through the lips and they are sewn together with a natural fiber.

13 – The whole process from start to finish takes around 1 week, usually with the warriors working on them on their way back to the village.

14 – Before the warriors enter the village for the Tsantsa celebration, they make a hole in the top of the head so that it can be hung around the neck.


As proven by this list, it wasn’t a pretty process. As expected, it’d be a dirty, and complicated situation that took great care. Although their reasoning wasn’t exactly sound – such as teaching young tribe members to hate others at an early age – it’s still something that is interesting to think about. If the list above is too long for you to read, you can also watch a video recreation of the process.

 

So now I turn to You. What are Your thoughts on Tsantsa – or head shrinking? Is it an interesting concept, or is it something that should be considered “dark magic” and shunned away from? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! If you find yourself to enjoy what I do on here, then please take a minute and follow me over on my Facebook page [it’s at over 145+ likes – only a few more and we’ll have reached over 150!] By clicking that “like” button, you’ll see every post from warrenisweird the very moment it’s been posted online; and I also share links to articles and pictures/videos that will not be featured here on the blog. Every “like” helps me a ton, giving me the ability to write more posts for you to read, so be sure to tell the horror enthusiast in your life to do the same, and share The Facebook Page with your family and friends! I’ve also been writing way more reviews on my Letterboxd account, I’m trying to review every movie I watch, [both new and older] with my most recent reviews including newer films such as  Deadpool and The Revenant!

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THANKS FOR READING.

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