Academic journal article Ethnology

The Maasai Ornithorium: Tropic Flights of Avian Imagination in Africa

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Maasai Ornithorium: Tropic Flights of Avian Imagination in Africa

Article excerpt

During the transition following ritual circumcision, Maasai boys kill, stuff, and mount decorative birds and wear the pelt rack as a headpiece. Recalling Evans-Pritchard's question of why Nuer equate twins and birds, this article asks why Maasai initiates kill birds; moreover, decorative birds, not birds of character with adult personality. The former index the liminality of initiates, in contrast to the lion-mane and ostrich-feather headdresses worn by warriors. But in the form of birds skinned and mounted, we also see an iconic replica of the initiates' symbolic death and rebirth in the experience of circumcision. (Initiation, transition, Maasai, ritual symbolism, identity, ethnoornithology)

Just prior to his circumcision, which takes place in early to mid-adolescence, a Maasai boy begins to kill birds for practice to signal readiness to undergo the ordeal. If he begins too soon or his family wants him to wait before being initiated, the boy will be told by his father to stop. But after circumcision, following seclusion, boys kill birds for real. Decorative birds, small but not too small to be hit, are stunned and killed with clubs thrown or blunted arrows shot by the young initiates (Il-aibartak).(2) The birds are gutted, cleaned, and skinned with the feathers and tail left on; the skin is turned inside out, then cut from the head, with the beak still attached. Then the pelt, rolled over a bundle of stiff grass (ologor oing'ok), is tied, the upper beak forced through the lower to form a hinge, and the trophy is anchored by a small stick inserted through the bird's nostrils. Such birds are attached to a string and mounted on a wooden rack that the initiate wears on his head when strolling about the neighborhood with his mates; initiates compete to see who kills the most birds, and who fashions the most attractive display. Before an initiate procures any birds, he will cover his head with a cloth "so God won't see him naked."

The rack of beautiful birds is only the most vivid piece in the remarkable apparel worn by initiates during the months of transition, before emerging as fully initiated young men, Il-murran.(3) Like women who have just given birth, a male initiate wears a dirty, black robe (enanka narok) infused with fat, and allows his hair to grow unkempt. He adorns himself with two swirls of copper wire, usually worn by women, at the ears, a necklace of blue beads, and a headband of reeds. He must wear sandals made of skin, rather than the usual rubber-tire variety. The initiate must have no contact with metal weapons, so he carries a wooden club and a bow and arrows. His fingers, first the left hand, then the right, are adorned with small skin rings (Il-gisa), small gifts from girls as signs of friendship. If the girls refuse to offer them rings (as of course they often do), the initiates shoot at them with arrows blunted with wax to win their mock trophies.

The Ol-aibartani's dress is seen as strange, in contrast to the normal pose he will strike after shaving, when he will replace black and dirty robes by bright, clean, red ones. Instead of female ear pieces he will wear colorful beaded earrings, and he will discard his wooden armaments for an iron sword and spear. After the shaving ceremony that marks the end of the initiation process, the rack of birds is deposited safely behind the initiate's mother's bed, along with his shorn hair, and for some time she proudly wears the robe and decorations he has discarded. Once shaven, the young man treats this garb as enturuj; not only forbidden but deeply repulsive and dangerous (Rigby 1979).

The Maasai practice of killing birds and wearing their colorful pelts during initiation may be culturally unique in Africa. What does this marvelous association of birds and initiates tell us about the Maasai ornithorium (the complex of notions about and practices concerning the avian world), and how does the ornithorium illuminate forms of Maasai identity and self in relation to a circumcision process central to Maasai culture? …

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