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