Figure of a shaman's spirit helper

Yup'ik, 19th century AD
From Alaska, United States of America

Shamans are believed to have the power to heal the sick and to communicate with the world beyond. Shamanism thus involves transformation, and the possession by an animal or non-human spirit. This ritual figure of the Alaskan Yupiit, made of wood, sinew and fox teeth, represents a shaman's spirit helper. The Yupiit depict such predatory and carnivorous creatures on their ritual equipment. They are shown with fearsome mouths, in the body as well as the head.

Masks with large toothy mouths are also related to a deformed creature called Hammer Child: the large mouth indicates that the creature may eat people who break taboos. Cecilia Foxie, from Emmonak, Alaska, told Ann Fiennup-Riordan in 1993 the tradtional story of a boy who explored a house after having been forbidden to do so. Consequently he was given a bowl which contained a baby with the stomach slashed open to form a mouth with teeth.

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More information

Bibliography

J.C.H. King (ed.), Human image (London, The British Museum Press, 2000)

Dimensions

Height: 30.000 cm

Museum number

AOA Ethno 1855,11-26.169

ENA759

Barrow Collection

Location

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