tattooed maskette
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Tattooed Maskette
Naturalistic human faces, such as this maskette carved of walrus ivory, are rare in Old Bering Sea art, which usually portrays humans as transformed animals.


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Tattoo Magic

Although found in an Old Bering Sea grave, this maskette has designs common in Punuk and later phases of Eskimo art: rosette, Raven's foot, and spurred line - the latter one appearing later as an identifying mark on hunter's harpoons and arrows. The maskette probably represents a real person's tattooed face; body tattoos have been used for at least the past 2,500 years in Eskimo prehistory.

Eskimo woman with tattoos ,1954Eskimo tattooing of the chin, nose, cheeks, legs and arms was performed at puberty, and an ability to stoically endure the pain of the procedure was considered proof of a woman's readiness to bear children. The chin marks shown in this photograph from 1954 were a charm for fertility, but no explicit meanings were known for the elaborate and varied cheek patterns of the Asiatic Eskimo, beyond their aesthetic value.


Tattooed lines marked not only the physical and spiritual limits of the body, but also openings and passages that were conduits for communication and transformation. The "Raven's foot" marking on the maskette in this exhibit refers to one of the central mythological figures of northeastern Asia, named Koshkli by the Siberian Eskimos. Raven has a place in the traditions of cultures throughout the Crossroads region. For the Eskimo, Koshkli was first of all the primeval figure whose major exploit was obtaining light for the people. In Chukotka, the tradition states that, entering the lighted world, Raven steals from a little girl, the daughter of an evil spirit (kele), her ball containing the celestial bodies. By breaking the ball, Raven frees and puts into the sky Sun, Moon, and the stars.

The Chukchi used tattooing as a form of spiritual protection. When sick, the Chukchi tattooed their hands and faces with humanlike figures to chase away the spirits of disease. A Chukchi might tattoo on his shoulders a representation of the soul of someone he had killed, to turn the soul into his helper.

The nucleated circle motif associated with puberty tattoos denoted enhanced vision. Joints were thus marked with "eyes" as a sign of social transformation; actually cutting an animal or human on the joints was also associated with spiritual transformation. Thus a shaman might be ritually dismembered prior to his or her journey to the spirit world, as a sign of transformation as well as a method of ensuring that an evil spirit could not return to reanimate the body.

- Valerie Chausonnet, Ann Fienup-Riordan, ed. J. Prusinski

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