Believers worship souls in the skulls
By Fiona Smith
The Associated Press
LA PAZ · It's a tradition people outside Bolivia might find creepy: Families perch human skulls on altars, revering them and asking them for protection and good luck.
On Tuesday, the skulls were taken to cemeteries, where the families crowned them with flowers and filled their jaws with lit cigarettes.
The chapel in La Paz's main cemetery was filled with hundreds of people jockeying to get their skull, or "natita," in a good position for a special annual Mass. Thousands more people gathered outside.
"I was scared of them at first, but now I realize I was scared because I wasn't taking care of them," said Shirley Vargas, who brought two skulls -- Vicente and Maria -- to the Mass. "Now I keep them in my room with me. I love them a lot, and they have helped our family when we've had problems."
Vargas said she got her skulls from a medical student.
Milton Eyzaguirre, an anthropologist, said Bolivians are now more willing to bring out their skulls than before.
"People are bringing back the idea that we're not separated from the dead ... but that life and death are always connected," said Eyzaguirre, a curator at La Paz's Museum of Ethnography and Folklore.
The tradition reflects the force of pre-Hispanic belief in this poor country whose population is predominantly Indian; the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to recognize this and other non-Catholic traditions as a way of retaining its influence.
On Tuesday, people of all ages entered the chapel carrying skulls in fancy glass boxes or on silver platters. Others used plastic bags, shoeboxes or baskets. Most of the skulls were decorated with bright knit caps, cotton wool in the eyes and crowns of red roses and hydrangeas.
Vargas believes her skulls helped her father recover from a chronic back problem.
The ancient Andean belief is that people have seven souls, and one of them stays with the skull, Eyzaguirre said. This soul has the power to visit people in their dreams and protect them.
Eyzaguirre said he began believing in the skulls when a building at the museum collapsed, killing four construction workers, after he moved out some skulls without a proper ceremony. The museum staff held a ceremony, offering food and drink, and he's had no problems since, the curator said.
Some Bolivians also credit the skulls for success in business and with family.
Rubita Montano believes her natita helped her recover $4,000 in stolen money. On Tuesday, she sat in a grassy patch in the cemetery and handed bags of coca leaves to strangers who prayed to the skull, named Tatiana Dumas.
Montano said she bought the skull at a cemetery. It's common for cemetery workers to take skulls from graves when relatives either abandon their dead or stop paying cemetery bills, said Eyzaguirre. It's illegal, but officials turn a blind eye to it.
"She's like a daughter or a sister in my house," said Montano as she chewed coca leaves and arranged lit cigarettes in the skull's mouth.
Others, like Viviana Martinez, use the skulls of relatives. "This is my cousin Juan Jose. I've had him for 30 years and he helps me with everything," Martinez said.
The Rev. Jaime Fernandez, who has given a Mass for the skulls for 10 years, acknowledges the challenge of reconciling Catholic teachings with this ancient Indian belief. "I use my time today to teach them Christian values and symbols, but I have to watch what I say or the people will get upset," he said.
In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The Latin word means "emptiness" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term. The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless by the New International Version of the Bible.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre, and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still-life paintings without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.As a symbol of toughness or machismo
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