anagnori

Linking the Living and the Dead by Paul Koudounaris

In anthropology, religion, society, sociology, South America on July 30, 2014 at 16:57

From: Linking the Living and the Dead: Skull Worship in Bolivia by Paul Koudounaris, United Academics, www.united-academics.org

In a corner of the interrogation room of the homicide division at the police headquarters in El Alto, the largest barrio of La Paz, Bolivia, two skulls sit in plexiglass cases on a table top. Respectively known as Juanito and Juanita, the latter has been kept in the room for over thirty years, while the former has been there for perhaps a century. They are not evidence in some unsolved murder, however, nor are they reminders of some grisly local slaying. Instead, they are there to solve crimes, the same as the detectives who use the room to question suspects. While it might seem unlikely that these silent crania can provide much assistance in criminal investigations, they are credited by Colonel Fausto Tellez, a retired commander of the department, with helping to solve hundreds of cases during his tenure. He even refers to Juanito as “longest-serving officer on the force.”
Identically dressed in knit caps and wide-band sunglasses, Juanito and Juanita are surrounded on the table top by various offerings. These include coca leaves, cigarettes, votive candles, and candy, all left by officers in thanks for services rendered. On difficult cases, homicide detectives traditionally write requests for information on slips of paper, which are placed in the shrines of the skulls. If need be, prayers may also be offered to the pair. Tellez estimates that the use of the skulls cuts investigative time in half, and notes that they also assist in interrogations. “They are brought in during the questioning of difficult people,” he explains, “and even if they want to lie, they cannot if the skulls are present. When the skulls are involved, people always tell the truth.”
To an outsider, this all sounds at the least unusual, if not downright bizarre, but it is not so here. Juanito and Juanita are ñatitas — the term literally means“the little pug-nosed ones,” but specifically refers to human skulls which house souls of the deceased, and act as protectors, helpers, and intercessors for the iving. While the veneration of these crania is little known outside Bolivia, within the country, and particularly in La Paz, their powers are renowned. Juanito and Juanita are merely two of thousands of similar skulls, found in homes or offices, their shrines familiar enough to be quotidian. Here, high up in the Andes, where traditional belief systems were never fully eradicated by European colonization, the ñatitas provide a unique insight into the bond
between the living and the dead.
Not every human skull is a ñatita. Those so designated are ones which have been adopted by individuals, families, or groups, who then perform rituals to honor the soul housed within the skull. The ñatita, then, is not simply the skull, but rather the  combination of the skull and a spirit which uses the skull as a locus, and provides various forms of supernatural assistance for its benefactors. Treated as close friends or family members, many ñatitas are passed down over several generations — it is not uncommon to find people who report that a skull has been with their family for many decades. In some cases, such as that of Juanito in the homicide division of the El Alto police office, a ñatita’s history of service may stretch back an entire century.

Read the essay (pdf)

Reposted with permission from: United Academics

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