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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Natitas—Skulls and Flowers

Bolivia’s Fiesta de las Natitas, a Pre-Columbian tradition of skulls and flowers, went underground but appears to be returning to the public sphere.


Simona Quispe took part in a special mass to bless skulls, or natitas, yesterday at the General Cemetery in La Paz.

Photo: Juan Karita, for AP

Yesterday hundreds crowded into the central cemetery of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, bearing skulls capped with hydrangeas and roses. November 8 is the Fiesta de las Natitas, or Day of the Skulls, a spring rite long practiced in privacy and, more recently, a public observance of heritage and faith.

According to anthropologist Milton Eyzaguirre, the indigenous people of Bolivia’s Andes Mountains believe each person has seven souls, “and one of them stays with the skull.”  This particular soul can visit us in dreams and provide protection in waking life. On November 8th, the skulls are taken from home altars to a special mass for blessing. Meantime, the dead receive their due, with candles, cigarettes lit and poked inside their grinning mouths, and crowns of fresh flowers.

Though the Natitas custom has been folded into Bolivia’s current day Catholicism, it possesses all the attributes of an older, more magical religion, one in which the dead and living maintain contact and ritual propriety reaps rewards of prosperity and health. In newer religions, the problem of fate is left up to a god, and typically flowers serve only decorative purposes. But there is an old and reasonable human inclination not to take chances; these more interventionist faiths use flowers (songs and cigarettes, also) to turn the wheel of fate favorably.

“I was scared of them at first,” a woman said of the two skulls she had brought to General Cemetery for yesterday’s mass. “But now I realize I was scared because I wasn’t taking care of them…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.”

imageTaking a family skull to be blessed.

Photo: Christian Lombardi

For readers of Spanish, here’s an article from La Prensa about Day of the Skulls, 2003. And make sure to check out Christian Lombardi’s wonderful gallery of photographs, with accompanying essay, also in Spanish.

On its skeletal face, the natitas rite might seem to correspond with the 17th century tradition of vanitas paintings in Northern Europe, where a skull and overturned cup lurk in the shadow of huge flowers. We don’t think so. In the vanitas, flowers symbolize life’s brevity, the emptiness of worldly things. Al contrario, on the Day of the Skulls, the worldly bounty of blossoms has weight. If they can’t quite conquer death, flowers are still worthy offerings in the old bargain with eternity.

Imagine infinite baldness—too hard, sad. Hydrangea flowers do wonders for a bony head.

Posted by Julie on 11/09 at 11:55 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink