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What Does the Church Say About Shrunken Heads?

February 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Church Teaching, Dignity, Fr. Bartunek, Magic

Dear Father John, I know a Catholic who has a genuine shrunken head in their home on display. It’s a little creepy to me, to say the least. I have prayed for all involved. Can you shed some light on what the Church has to say about this? Is voodoo involved with shrunken heads?

Let’s both hope that you are somehow mistaken, that this item is in fact not a “genuine shrunken head”! And if it truly is, let’s hope that the person displaying this in his home is doing so out of ignorance. A faithful Catholic who understands the meaning that primitive religions give to shrunken heads would think twice about using one as house décor. Let me explain.

Pre-Civilized Religion

With the term “primitive religion” I am referring to religions that are part of pre-civilized cultures, cultures that consist of small communities who live from hunting and gathering, or from a mix of hunting, gathering, and horticulture. Although the material circumstances of these cultures are simple and primitive, they often have highly developed moral codes and religious sensibilities. In fact, some “primitive” religions are much more in harmony with the truths of human nature than some religions that developed with the first civilizations. Yet, they remain devoid of the wisdom that comes from God’s revelation in Christ. Some of their practices and beliefs, therefore, are clearly misguided.

Since these pre-civilized cultures consist of small communities, and each community develops its own ethos and religion, it’s hard to generalize about their religious system. Nevertheless, primitive religions do share a few common characteristics, like more or less developed shamanism, fetishism, and spiritism. If you are curious about these religions, I highly recommend Fr. John Hardon’s chapter on the subject in his remarkable work, Religions of the World (available online here).

Religious Use of Shrunken Heads

SouthAmericanIndianMarketPlaceTrznicaGuamote(27)In most cases that I have studied, shrunken heads are used in primitive religions as vicarious atonement for sin. When members of one tribe commit a sin, they recognize their guilt and their violation of the divine law. They feel a need to make up for their transgression and reestablish communion with the offended gods – some reparation needs to be offered for the sake of justice. Among the many methods of reparation that primitive religions espouse, we find the offering of a sacrificial victim. Sometimes an animal, sometimes a human being – a captured member of an enemy tribe, for example. In this latter case, certain rituals developed by which the prisoner was executed and the head was ritually preserved and shrunken, and then used as an atonement offering. This may not be the only use of shrunken heads (in some cases they may simply be considered warrior trophies), but it is one that we can understand conceptually, if not emotionally.

It is worth noting that sometimes atonement offerings of this sort were manufactured. A sculpture or a small figurine could be offered in place of a real human victim. With proper rituals and ceremonies, this type of vicarious sacrifice could also be effective, according to some primitive religious creeds. This kind of practice is connected, at least indirectly and vaguely, to certain forms of voodoo, which uses charms and objects not for worship, necessarily, but for magic. As far as I know, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the atonement-use of shrunken heads and the magic-use of voodoo.

Shrunken Heads and Home Decorating

Clearly, human sacrifice of that sort contradicts the very essence of our Christian faith. Christ alone, the voluntary priest, altar, and victim, can atone for our sins. And the sacrifice on the cross is the one sacrifice that has reestablished communion with God. Our participation in that sacrifice happens in an un-bloody manner, through the sacraments of the Church. Therefore, a Catholic could never accept the religious significance of a shrunken head without abandoning his own faith in Jesus.

But even if the person you mention in your question expressly denies the religious significance of the artifact, keeping the shrunken head on display seems to show a lack of respect for the human dignity of the person from whom the head was taken. One of the corporal works of mercy, in our Christian tradition, is burial of the dead. A proper burial expresses both our sorrow at the loss of a human life, and our faith in God’s saving grace and his promised resurrection of the dead. A Christian way of dealing with a genuine shrunken head might be to give it some kind of burial and to pray for God’s mercy on the soul of the person who died to supply it, as well as the person who made it.

In conclusion, would it be morally reprehensible for Catholics to display a genuine shrunken head in their home? The action itself, as you can see, is definitely not edifying. But the moral weight of that action would depend on knowledge of the genuineness of the artifact, as well as the person’s awareness of the issues involved. Certainly, some artifacts used in primitive religions can be appreciated simply for their cultural and artistic value, and putting them on display would not in any way indicate an espousal of erroneous beliefs (excluding, of course, un-purified objects used explicitly in satanic worship). But a genuine shrunken head is not just an artifact; it is human remains, and we should treat human remains with proper respect.

Thank you for your question. I hope this answer helped clarify some of the issues involved.

 

Art: Indian Market in Guamote – Ecuador, Ljuba brank, 29 December 2011, own work, CC-SA, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Warwick Onyeama

    I find this sort of reply arrogantly (western) ethnocentric and disrespectful even disparaging to the “primitive” cultures to which the ‘reverend being’ refers. Apart from anything else it presupposes that the individual in whose home this artefact was displayed regarded it as anything more than an interesting curio used for purely decorative purposes. There seems little reason to assume that the person displaying this likely tourist artefact actively participated in satanism, devil worship or voodoo. It seems sanctimonious, even presumptuous when the Church’s representatives seek to adjudicate on matters relating to cultures alien to their own.

    • LizEst

      No, that is not what Father John is saying. Please re-read this post thoughtfully and carefully. Thank you, Warwick…and God bless you.

    • JustAnOldBear

      For the sake of argument, if he did participate in the ritual then he is guilty of a serious offense to God. But I did not take that from Father’s writings. But it really should not matter if this person knew about the origin of the shrunken head or not. If he was a man of faith, common sense says that something like that should not be displayed, because of the evil they represent. Would you hang pentagrams and artifacts that are predisposed to Satan; even though you are a Christian? I don’t think so because of what they represent. It just seems to be common sense to me.

  • Jo Flemings

    First of all, I am always impressed with how Fr. John maintains an unflappable and engaged decorum when approaching these more difficult topics. (My first reaction was SHRUNKEN HEAD? ACK-what the heck?! WHO has these?) After thinking through how something like this might be a type of souvenir of some aspect of an experience somewhere in the world where what Father has taken time to explain one might have meaningful encounters with indigenous peoples and this could be some form of a symbol of their culture or something I can compose myself somewhat to contribute to the conversation I hope.

    I think one might use something like this- the souvenir version, not a real shrunken head, with some kind of mounted, posted explanation for the viewer like what one would find in a museum of sorts, in an instructional or artifact type display in one’s library, with the intention of being able to appreciate the differences in people around the world or to reflect on travel adventures etc.

    But as a type of decoration, I think displaying a shrunken head is in poor taste and not a little gruesome, even if it is only a souvenir variety- perhaps not well considered, or just poorly displayed.

  • Than you Father. This article gives me food for thought. My paternal grandmother is Chinese and has a lot of Chinese antiques in her house. Most of them are jars and porcelain for cultural and artistic purposes. But some of them can be somewhat disturbing, snakes and dragons designs. I dont know if any of them were burial jars once. More so the antiques of buddha or an animistic god. I have nothing against Chinese culture or mythology but they can be kinda creepy. I hope there isn’t any danger posed by these antiques. She also has a lot of religious images etc. I do recall hearing stories of ghosts and sensing evil spirits as a child or maybe that was just my imagination?

  • Patricia

    “Notwithstanding the existence of so many works of art that beautify the Basilica of St. Dominic, what really attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists to it evey year is the presence of the Reliquary containing the Sacred Head of St. Catherine. ”

    It is not a shrunken head, but this posting reminded me of St. Catherine of Sienna’s head which is separated from and in a different physical location from her body, each in separate Reliquaries which are “on display” and are places of pilgrimage.

    There are two separate religious concepts and purposes here: one being delibertily obtained for sacrifice/penance, then displayed and one being honored for holiness in relic form, after a natural or sacrificial (martyred) death……nevertheless less both are ways people have kept bones of humans for the religious purposes of living people, the first as decoration, the second of veneration, reverence, and respect.

    And sadly, it also reminds me of the Christain Martyrs who have been beheaded by ISIS for invalid “religious” purposes, and are held up and put on display as “trophies of power”.

    The Catholic Faith, universal and relevant to believers in all cultures around the world, stresses the dignity of the human person, a soul made in the image
    and likeness of God, the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, veneration of the relics of the holy saints, and the resurrection of our human body to reuniting with our souls on the
    last day for eternal life. These beliefs are the guidelines for our actions in life and for our bodies after death.

  • Kate

    It’s interesting how one question and one comment can unsettle the soul.

  • Curious One

    So, why then do they STIILL preserve the detached head of St. Catherine of Sienna? I have personally found this ALWAYS morally reprehensible, and I never understood why the Church ever permitted it in the first place.

  • Robert Obayuwana

    The response to this question is very revealing, but it erupt another question in me. Father John said ”One of the corporal works of mercy, in our Christian tradition, is burial of the dead. A proper burial expresses both our sorrow at the loss of a human life, and our faith in God’s saving grace and his promised resurrection of the dead. What about cremation, is it humble and is it acceptable in our faith (Catholic)?

    • LizEst

      Yes, while it is not the preferred way of honoring the dignity of the body after death, cremation is accepted by the Church as long as–and this is very important–as long as it is not a denial of the resurrection of the body.

      Here it what is says in the “Order of Christian Funerals with Cremation Rite” ritual (this is official), paragraph 413: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites.” Paragraph 415: “Sometimes, however, it is not possible for the body to be present…pastoral sensitivity must be exercised…” The full coverage of this is from paragraphs 411 through 431, so it is too lengthy to include here in its entirety (it is four pages long). If your pastor has a copy of this, you could respectfully request that you be permitted to read it in order to understand better. Hope this helps…and God bless you, Robert.

      • Joan

        Am I right in thinking the that the church does not approve of the scattering of ashes after cremation but that they should be buried in the ground preferably?

        • LizEst

          Thanks for asking, Joan. You are correct. The ashes, also known as cremains, must be reverently disposed according to Church requirements.

          This is what the “Order of Christian Funerals”, which is normative (normative essentially means “a rule” or “required” in Church parlance), says in paragraph 417: “…The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires…”

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