Mutter Museum, Philadelphia (Source: NBC News)
Before we begin, take a wild guess of the following “riddle”:
Do you know what was designed by a professional medical doctor, and drafted and finalized by a pianist?
No Clue? What if I told you the doctor’s last name was Guillotin?
That’s right! It is the famous guillotine. It was created at the dawn of the French Revolution, which is aimed to take away lives equally, quickly, and correctly.
History of the guillotine can be found easily online (or here). I am bringing this up because the guillotine brought one and the most important question upfront: Why beheading is as powerful? Why beheadings horrify us that much? And eventually brought us to the question: When a head is a thing, and when it is a person?
Guillotine, like any other public execution, the key is on the audiences but not the person who is being executed. One may say the execution is a staged performance, and the one who is about to be executed is the climax of the whole performance. The yelling, screaming, and shouting before being executed from the prisoner is a bliss for the dictator, and is a dark and gloomy everlasting image that will imprint in the audiences’ mind. This terrifying image has successfully declared the power of the dictator, or the power owner.
On the other hand, beheading is also a form of emotion expression. Back in the 19th century, Westerners called the Ilongot man of northern Luzon, Philippines cut off human heads because of rage, born of grief, impels one self to kill fellows. They claimed that this act is to find a place “to carry his anger.” Instead of keeping the victim’s head as trophy that most of known some tribes and civilizations in history did, Ilongot men would toss the head away. The act of tossing away the head, “they claim by analogy to cast away their life burdens, including the rage in their grief.” (Rosaldo 174)
In Tibet, there is a Biru Skull Wall near the Duoduoka Charnel Ground. Some artists call the ground the “skull pyramid”. Archaeologists and anthropologists see the wall significant in anthropological research.But for the Tibetans, it is a way to get closer link to the nature and their Buddha. For outsiders, it would be a creepy tourist spot, or an irresistible attraction in the world.
Western anthropologists and explorers in 19th century collected the head os other people as avidly as the “headhunters” they studied. Among all, the tattooed Maori heads were highly prized. Dr. Samuel Morton, a professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania had more than 1200 skulls to study human cranial measurements. The Shuar heads from the all over Amazon in the 1880s, could be used to trade Western goods.
The ambiguity status of the heads–they are objects that can be owned, traded, displayed and used as a tool for emotion expression. But at the same time, it is still an identifiable person. It represents the power and morality at the same time. It could be an entertaining but also depressing object.
When would it be a thing, and when would it be a person? It seems like the boundary is not that sharp after all. Skulls are so powerful that even with tons of colors, and festive decorations, still would remind us about death.The alert of everyone at the very end would be just bones threatened and haunted the audience, just like the guillotine. Without mentioning the bodies of the skull, and only with the skull alone, we are disturbed by the images.
Skull: A thing or a person? Pt.1
Heller, Steven. 2014. “The Immortal Mortal Appeal of the Skull,” The Atlantic.
Jay, Mike. 2014. “Book Review: Why Beheadings Horrify Us So Much,” The Wall Street Journal.
Rosaldo, Renato. 1993. “Introduction: Grief and a Headhunter’sRage,” Culture and Truth: Remarking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press; London: Taylor & Francis.