5 curious, religious and macabre things to do with a human skull

Skulls are fascinating and repelling, dead yet alive with those large eye sockets filled with shadow and that endless rictus grin. The skull has different talismanic meanings across all cultures, and the power to make a serious statement. Here are five curious and often macabre uses of a human skull.

Aghori Sadhus: an Indian holy man using a human skull for a religious ritauls

Aghori Sadhu uses a skull for religious rituals

Take a skull on a protest

It’s difficult to think of a better way of making your point at a protest than taking along some skulls. In politically troubled Haiti, supporters of presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse held up human skulls and bones during a voodoo ceremony before their demonstration in 2016, perhaps to counter the police officers waiting for them wearing skull facemasks.

In March 2017 desperate farmers in Tamil Nadu, India took skulls to protests and meetings with ministers. The skulls belonged to farmers who had committed suicide as debit, drought and stress took an increasing toll.

Use a skull for music and meditation

Human and animal bones and skulls have long been associated with musical instruments, either as decoration or as a key component.

The oldest playable instruments in the world are red-crowned crane-bone flutes found in the Henan province, China and date back to 7,500 to 9,000 years ago. Skulls of slain warriors slain were hung on Ashanti royal drums in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

The V&A Museum possesses an extraordinary 19th century Tibetan drum, made of human skulls. The drum is a sacred instrument known as a damru, a two-headed drum used in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, the damaru is used as an instrument in tantric practices and meditation rituals such as ‘Chod’, a type of meditation practice to cut through ego. The skull represents bliss, impermanence and union, where the union is personified by using the craniums of a boy and a girl.

One of the Metropolitan Museum’s more macabre pieces is a 19th century lyre made of a human skull, an antelope horn, skin, gut and hair. There’s no known tradition of the use of a skull like this so it’s probable that it was a sensational curiosity made by indigenous entrepreneurs for trade and profit with Europeans.

Use a skull as drinking cup

The oldest skull drinking cups come from the Ice Age and were found in Somerset, England. Throughout the world there are numerous accounts and legends of victors turning the skulls of their vanquished enemies in cups for drinking or for display.

A kapala (Sanskrit for “skull”) is a human skull cup made for rituals in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. They could be elaborately carved and decorated with precious metals and jewels. The skulls were collected from sky burial sites where the bodies of the dead were scattered over open ground to ‘give alms to the birds’ and allow the soul to ascend into the next phase of reincarnation.

In Tibetan monasteries, the kapala was used to hold dough cakes or wine, and used symbolically as flesh and blood offerings to wrathful deities of Hindu India and Buddhist Tibet. The dough cakes were not just pieces of bread, but were shaped to resemble human eyes, ears and tongues.

The Aghori sadhus are a notorious Hindu sect who revere death in the belief that godliness and purity are achieved through necrophilia, necrophagy and coprophagy. The sadhus often use human skulls to eat anything they can scavenge along the banks of the Ganges around Varanasi: rotten food, faeces and putrefying human corpses. It’s worth reading this fascinating article on the history and beliefs of the Aghori.

While skull cups were used as signs of power, or for religious purposes, or as a warning to enemies only in Britain could a skull be used by a poet for drinking, wit and as a centrepiece of an aristocratic drinking circle.

When a gardener dug-up a skull in the grounds of what was once an Abbey his aristocratic poet master, Lord Byron, concluded it once belonged to a “jolly monk or friar of the Abbey”, had it cleaned and polished “of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell” and wrote a drinking poem to it, Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull. He founded the Order of the Skull and filled it with claret for his friends to carouse and drink from like the Goths of old. “Many a grim joke was cut at its expense”, Byron recalled to Thomas Medwin.

Use a skull for a mystery

It’s back to our ancient friends in Tibet for more uses of a skull where it should be pointed out that the identity of the skull’s original owner is not considered significant, as ritual purity in death has separated the human soul from its physical form.

This extraordinary skull (see image above)  features Dharma (teaching guardian) protectors, goat-heads, an unknown ancient script and other deities and symbols. The mystery is that there are no other skulls like it and no-one seems to know anything about it other than a Tibetan monk professor who claims that similar skulls were carved in ancient times to remove a ‘curse’ from a family, or to guide the soul of a lost human onto the right path.

Diamonds and sunglasses: Day of the skulls

Dia de los ñatitas (“Day of the Skulls”) is an indigenous Andean festival giving thanks to the dead for their service and duty to family and home. Families keep skulls of family members at their home for protection, domestic harmony and even to provide advice and company.

In November the ñatitas are decorated with flowers, dressed in garments and sunglasses and offered cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves in thanks. They’re paraded to the cemetery in La Paz for a special mass and blessing.

Further information and links

The practices and rituals of Tibetan Kapala skull caps

Mystery behind the an ancient Tibetan carved skull

Meet the fantastically bejeweled skeletons of Catholicism’s forgotten martyrs

The bone church of Kutná Hora

The curious case of the Tibetan skull drum

Last fact: The English word skull probably came from the old Norse word skulle.

If you like this article why not read about the chapel of death in Victorian London and the macabre Swiss mortuary that was used by Dickens for a scene in Little Dorrit.

8 thoughts on “5 curious, religious and macabre things to do with a human skull

  1. My father had a Tibetan kapala that used to sit on a window sill. The skull was sawn transversely, leaving just the top-half of the cranium, and was, by all accounts, very old, with a dark brown patina. As a child, I thought it was a turtle shell or similar, and was horrified to learn its true provenance. When I asked my father what it was for, he explained that ancient monks used it as a rice bowl. I found this highly disturbing, and when passing it on the stairs, felt the object was cursed in some way. How my father came by it, I do not know, but he grew up in India as his parents served in the Raj. The item vanished in my late twenties when I suggested it should be buried because it was responsible for much bad luck.

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      • Alex, that is a very leading question, and one I cannot answer without appearing ignorant and superstitious on one hand, or flippant and profane on the other. Nevertheless, I still believe in certain transcendental forces which operate for good or bad. As for the curse itself, who knows? That kapala was a horrid thing, and I was glad to see the back of it. There are certain ritual objects and fetishistic totems that reside in the Pitt Rivers museum of Oxford, which have similar dark aura’s, and I would not want them in my house. Of course, the post-modern materialist takes no notice of such things, and regards them all as hocus pocus. But I am not a post-modern materialist.

        With regard to fortune itself, I count my blessings. Thomas Taylor wrote: “The doctrine of the genuine Stoics and Platonists, concerning the constancy of the wise man, is no less paradoxical to the vulgar, though perfectly scientific, than the examples which they have given of the endurance of calamity are magnanimous and sublime; for what to the apprehension of the multitude can be more incredible, than the dogma, that a wise man can neither receive an injury nor contumely? That he may be a servant, and deprived of all the necessaries of life, and yet not be poor; that he may be insane, and yet his intellect remain uninjured? For the vulgar conceive that the wise man is not to be adorned with an imaginary honour of words, for such, in their opinion, are these assertions, but that he is to be situated in that place where no injury is permitted. Will there, however, we ask, be no one who will revile, no one who will attempt to injure him? But there is not any thing so sacred which sacrilegious hands will not attempt to violate. Divine natures, however, are not less elevated, because there are those who will attack a magnitude placed far beyond their reach. The invulnerable is not that which may not be assaulted, but that which cannot be injured. And this is the mark by which a wise man may be known.” [Thomas Taylor: The Triumph of The Wise Man Over Fortune].

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      • I agree with a lot of what you say. I’ve been to places and seen paintings and objects that have drawn my admiration as well as shivers of dread. Interesting to see, but would not want them near my home. It’s impossible not to allow ancient fears or transcendental forces to mingle with rational beliefs, ideas or the imagination. We are only human – but we should enjoy that tension, it is enriching and puts us in touch with our ancestors. Thomas Taylor sounds like a wise man! Thanks for the answer which was neither flippant nor ignorant.

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  2. Thank you Alex. Your response was a breath of fresh air. It is always a tricky answering such questions, especially in a secular age like ours. It is a curious situation. Modern science accepts the reality of the placebo effect but scoffs at matters of faith and relegates them to the dark ages. During my youth I handled many anatomical specimens from skulls and spines to pelvises (my father was an osteopath), and I was never bothered by these bones at all. But this kapala was different. Clinical psychologists would argue that the psyche alone imbues an object with power, and any “subjectively perceived effects” are simply due to belief in the power of that object. So belief in a curse just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather like the placebo effect. I am sure that most people reading this will take that view. But the psychic contents of the human mind cannot be disposed of so easily. At the most basic level, psy has been proven to effect the roll of a dice, bend metal, and cause telekinetic effects. The poltergeist phenomena, usually associated with adolescent girls, is just one example. It is often theorized as an as yet unknown force, generated by suppressed emotions in the sub-conscious mind. However, in some cases it is obviously the work of a discarnate entity – an actual “noisy ghost”.

    Being human is to live betwixt two worlds – the Material and the Spiritual. The evidence for the Spiritual world is real and irrefutable, and despite being scientifically verified, is under constant assault by unscrupulous “sceptics” who seek to debunk anything that conflicts with their own reductionist paradigm. Psychics are actively used to help solve crimes world-wide by the police and such organisations as the FBI. (Noreen Renier is an excellent example). Near Death Experiencers have returned with veridical evidence concerning people and places that they could not possibly have known whilst “clinically dead”. The blind have been proven to see whilst out of the body, accurately describing objects and locations that were physically impossible to access whilst in the physical. The psychic background of the unconscious is little understood by post-modern man; it is arguably better understood by the primitive shaman. But whether you believe it or not, psy is real. As Doctor Edward Kelly of UVA Department of Perceptual Studies once said: “Psy is real: you can take it to the bank”.

    Yes, Thomas Taylor was a wise man indeed, and a species of scholar that is almost extinct in the modern age. In his treatise “On The Cave of The Nymphs” he writes: “As soon, therefore, as the soul gravitates towards body in this first production of her self, she begins to experience a material tumult, that is, matter flowing into her essence. And this is what Plato remarks in the Phaedo, that the soul is drawn into body staggering with recent intoxication; signifying by this the new drink of matter’s impetuous flood, through which the soul, becoming defiled and heavy, is drawn into a terrene situation.”

    You are right about our ancestors. Primitive cultures would often invite ghosts to participate in the lives of the living; hence an ancestral skull was placed at the meal table during festivals. The words “ghost” and “guest” derive from the same Germanic word “Geist”. I suspect the kapala on our window sill brought a Geist of some kind.

    I have probably said too much, and will now retreat back into my shell for a couple of months. In closing, I would like to say that have read most of your site and found it fascinating—especially the hidden history of England, which would make a fantastic volume that I would certainly buy. Keep up the great work.

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