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Museum Mondays: Student’s research uncovers object’s hidden use

February 16, 2014

Brightly colored macaw and toucan feathers bob up and down as this object is danced in conjunction with a boys’ initiation ceremony in the Brazilian Amazon. When acquired by the Logan Museum, the object was represented as a headdress, but on closer inspection, it was clear there was no way to actually wear this tall feathered contraption. The featherwork is attached to a woven palm-raffia frame, inside of which is a dried gourd attached to a short black wooden board engraved with abstract designs representing jaguars or other powerful animals. A small ornament made of macaw feathers, smaller feathers cut into designs, and spider monkey fur is attached to the tip of one of the long macaw feathers.

MM feather headress 021714 

So what is this if not a headdress? A fascinating story emerged as a result of research conducted by Emily Starck’14, an anthropology and museum studies student who works at the Logan Museum.

Emily discovered a nearly identical object in a book. Her discovery enabled her to accurately catalog the object as a rare tacema prayer scepter used by the Wayana-Aparai people of north-central Brazil. The scepter is used during the tocandira ant-shield initiation ceremony for young boys. After leaving their mothers, the boys are made to dance all day, without food, water, or rest, in the village plaza. At some point, the tacema scepter makes an appearance, held in the boy’s right hand and serving as a ceremonial war-club.

Meanwhile, a shaman collects stinging ants and wasps that have been stunned with smoke and weaves their bodies into feathered shields in the shapes of jaguars, spider monkeys, and mythical feathered serpents. At the end of the day, the shaman startles the insects by striking the shields against the poles of buildings and attaches the shields to the arms, calves, backs, shoulders, chests, and thighs of the exhausted boys. Those who faint or cry out from the pain of the insect stings must undergo the ordeal again; the boys who successfully complete the ceremony, however, are now considered men. The ceremony is named after the tocandira ant, also known as the bullet ant, noted for having one of the most painful stings in the world. The pain can last up to 24 hours and is said to be equal to being shot, hence the name bullet ant.

Rites of passage, or transitions from one status to another, occur across cultures and throughout human history. Baptism, high school graduation, Bat Mtizvah, and marriage are just a few rites of passage that signify important transitions in American culture, for example--our own versions of tocandira.