Tlingit Shaman's Rattle

Tlingit Shaman's Rattle



Circa 1880

H. 10 1/2” x W. 4 1/4” x D. 4 1/4”

Wood, hair; human and seal(?), iron nails, brass rattler, cordage

Condition: Overall excellent. Typical patterns of use wear. Deep rich patina. Hair loss to hide on mustache. Minor hair loss to head.

No restoration.

Research Essay:

Shaman’s rattles on the Northwest Coast were often made in a globular form, due to their similarity to a human skull, the repository of a shaman’s spiritual power. Some were made in undecorated, plainly shaped versions, while other examples exhibit a human or animal face on one side, and the back embellished with two-dimensional formline design work. A few rare examples are like this one, with human faces on both sides of the rattle, in this case of nearly identical appearance. The two visages represent the shaman or his spirit helpers, who assist in identifying the causes of disease and revealing other esoteric information to the shaman. The shapes of the large eyes and formation of the nose suggest a Tlingit origin, and the large, somewhat diamond-shaped mouths indicate that the spirit beings are singing. In use, the percussive sound of the rattle would accompany the shaman’s healing songs, placating the spirits present and assuring a positive outcome for the ritual.

A further unusual trait in this example is that the two open mouths form a single round hole through the body of the rattle. These holes show evidence of having been carved through the rattle with a knife, not created with a drill.  One rare type of Tlingit shaman’s rattle is based on this characteristic, where a large hole passes through the rattle that is entirely separated from the internal cavity. The internal rattlers that make the noise are kept outside of and separate from the hole that passes through the rattle like a tunnel through a mountain. The source and the meaning of this characteristic have been lost to history, but the appearance creates a very interesting impression when one of these is encountered.

The subject rattle, apparently never painted, displays a certain degree of wear and patina, indicating that it was used in a traditional context before it became available on the curio market in the early twentieth century. The style of the carving suggests that the rattle was created in the beginning of the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, c. 1880.

Steven C. Brown

April 2019

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