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  • Writer's pictureBeth Linton

Shrunken Heads & (Romance) Novel Curiosity

As a nation, we have always loved the improbable and the different. In the nineteenth century, collecting everything from stamps to butterflies was an incredibly fashionable hobby, but a love of the paranormal fuelled by a rise in spiritualism, and a focus on scientific advancement, led to a Victorian fascination with amassing improbable objects: Narwhale tusks bought as unicorn horns, ‘exotic’ human bones, and shrunken heads from the Amazon, to name but a few.

Each of these objects may have jostled for prime position upon a crowded shelf in a well-to-do gentleman's library, but the truth behind these collections could sometimes be more sinister than scientific interest. Behind the selection of some of these ‘oddities’ was an Imperial attitude to the world at large, a way of gathering ‘curiosities’ from ‘savage’ cultures seen as ‘other’ than the predominantly white ruling class of Great Britain.

There is disturbing evidence, for example, that at least one collector dug up graves of Aboriginals in Western Victoria, Australia, for the skulls of these “exotic” people. Living humans were also put on display in ‘exotic’ zoos at this time. Pick a city-break dream location in Europe or America and the chances are humans were on display there in the 1870s. Queen Victoria even had private viewings of some of the people placed on display.

Of course, such practises are now illegal, and rightly so for many, many reasons. (Human remains obtained in the nineteenth century were respectfully retuned in the twentieth and early twenty-first century to their country of origin.)

As I research mythology, fantasy and paranormal romance themes for my writing, my reading has sometimes taken me down unexpected paths. I’ve blogged about Narwhales and Unicorns, Vampires, and the world’s fascination with Dragons, and while some magical and marvellous aspects of my research finds its way into my romance books, some of the paranormal fascinations I’ve come across are a little darker.

As a writer, I consider myself as somewhat of a magpie, a ‘collector’, if you will, of ideas and knowledge. I hoard facts, soak up little bits of history and allow those little gems to germinate in my brain until they present themselves in a usable idea.

It’s these little details that I love. Little touches of real life I believe adds depth to a story.

At first thought, the Victorian (and modern?) fascination with shrunken heads seemed harmless. Certainly, images and references to shrunken heads can be found frequently in popular culture. Remember the Knight Bus in Harry Potter? The shrunken head voiced by Lennie Henry that dangled from the mirror that made jokes?

I’ll confess, I found that scene a little strange but I didn’t think much of it… until I took a moment and thought about what that shrunken head represented. A shrunken head is a head – so who did it belong to?

I adore Harry Potter, and the shrunken head in this scene clearly isn’t real, but on the bus the shrunken head is treated as a joke. The scene might have been written for comedic effect, but the head character is inspired by the macabre objects popular with Victorian collectors in the nineteenth century, and from my twenty-first century sofa, I find the fact a real head was displayed in a collection (rather than buried or cremated, or treated in another suitably respectful fashion) deeply unsettling.

As readers, writers and viewers of fantasy and paranormal literature, we like the odd curiosities of the genre, but is that interest blind?

In a twenty-first century world of changing ideas, and at a time when colonial ideologies are being challenged by #blacklivesmatter, are scenes like the one on the Knight Bus harmless or culturally insensitive?

Here’s some information about how shrunken heads changed from being a tradition of an indigenous people to an object of commercial titillation so you can make up your own mind.

The tradition of severing the heads of an enemy and shrinking them has been documented in the north western region of the Amazon rainforest, in a practice completed by the Jivaroan peoples (including tribes from Ecuador and Peru). I won’t go into the shrinking process here, but if you’re interested visit Wikipedia. Rather than the physicality of shrinking heads, what interest me is how this religious ritual designed to harness the energy of the enemy, and to prevent him from seeking revenge for his death, became a commercial curiosity.

Have you ever been headhunted for a job?

As the demand grew for shrunken heads, hunting people for their heads increasingly became about satiating Western demand. The practice of hunting for victims so their heads could be shrunk and sold (rather for the religious reasons outlined above) is where the term 'headhunting' comes from.

An economic demand for these ‘curiosities’ by Westerners led to an increase in killings – for money.

The shrunken head business became a type of mass production. The payment? A gun for a head. Killings increased and guides refused to enter certain areas for fear of being killed and decapitated. An indigenous ritual had been highjacked and innocent people were paying for Western demand quite literally with their lives. (Despite the terrible cost of acquiring a shrunken head, they were still being advertised in the Times Newspaper as late as the 1950s in the UK.)

While killings increased, so too did other crimes. Heads were acquired from morgues, or even from animals like monkeys and sloths, until the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments stepped in to outlaw the gruesome traffic of shrunken heads.

Historian, Kate Duncan has written that it is estimated that eighty percent of shrunken heads in museums are fake.

In 1999, Ecuador repatriated genuine shrunken heads to its museum collection and, thankfully, most countries have now banned the trade.

I mentioned above the shrunken head on the Knight Bus, but this isn’t the only reference in Harry Potter. There’s a line of mounted House Elf heads in the Black’s house; Crabbe has a shrunken head confiscated off him by Filch; and there are also three shrunken heads in the Three Broomsticks.

With shrunken heads appearing in everything from Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean, from The Princess and the Frog to Hotel Transylvania, it seems shrunken heads are – thoughtlessly? – entrenched in popular culture.

Because of their enduring popularity, it is perhaps a good job for all heads still firmly attached to shoulders, that the shrunken heads on sale in the twenty-first century tend to be made from leather.

A final word…

As I type on my laptop and flick from Word to Google to research this blog, it is easy for me to look back in judgement at these collections, but I think I should mention before I end that the most famous Victorian collector was Charles Darwin who sailed around the world for five years collecting samples of the different species he encountered. Motivated by science, he is still a revered figure today, and while I may think him eating many of the creatures he ‘discovered’ a tad too much for me to stomach (Ha!), it is worth remembering that people of that era didn’t have tv, i-Pads or the internet. Their perspective of the world was very different.

I wrote in a previous blog how Europeans didn’t believe in the existence of giraffes until one was put on display in France in 1827. Until then, a horned horse – a unicorn – was far more plausible. Likewise, until the 1860s Europeans thought Gorillas were mythical creatures until Paul De Chaillu killed a gorilla on a trip to Africa. Today, we take the existence of African wildlife for granted, so it’s hard to imagine a world where a unicorn was more plausible than a giraffe or a gorilla. It is in this context that the collections I mention above were made. The world was very different – but that doesn’t mean their ideology was right.

I am glad the real shrunken heads were repatriated with respect and these human remnants are now treated with dignity within museums… even if the macabre fascination with these ‘objects’ hasn’t left us yet.

Collecting things is still popular today, but hopefully most of us are now a lot more careful about what we collect and have a greater bank of moral and ethical questions in mind before we make a purchase - and hopefully that purchase is never human!

You can find @bethlintonauthor on Instagram and also on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

  • To find out about my novels click here and visit my books page where you can find the blurb for the first five books in the romance series.

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