Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Harpoon/Spear and the Underworld

Earlier we mentioned the ornamental motif on the end of Old Bering Sea harpoons which may have represented an entrance to the Underworld inviting prey to join their ancestors through self-sacrifice. In the Pacific Northwest we also find that the whale is said to offer itself in willing sacrifice.

Okladnikov suugests that throughout the Pacific littoral we find "a specific kind of inventory including harpoons of the toggling type with a socket and barbs at their base and unique slate points unknown in Siberia and, in general, to the north of the Amur river and the Chinese wall."

S.I. Rudenko stated that the distribution of toggling harpoon heads in both the northern and southern parts of the western Pacific matched that of ancient shell mounds.

The spear overtook the bow and arrow among many southern peoples particularly after the development of the iron point.

The connection between the spear and harpoon and the Underworld is rather widespread. In the Philippines, ceremonial spears are used to frighten away malevolent anitos or spirits from the land of the dead. In ancient Egypt, the deceased Pharaoh carried a harpoon for protection in the Underworld.

The lord of the dead is often associated with a spear or harpoon. Osiris is said to "preside over the harpoon" and Hades is said to carry a two-pronged fishing spear.
Neith, the counterpart of Wepwawet, the original Egyptian lord of the dead, often is shown holding a harpoon.

The ceremonial spear is often used in sacrificial rites and is particularly linked with the idea of self-sacrifice. In the Pacific island of Rotuma, a myth exists of a malevolent ruler who possessed invincible spear-throwing ability. He could only be defeated if someone offered to sacrifice themselve to the spear. In the end, a warrior volunteered so that his family could 'live in peace.'

In the New Testament, Christ is finally dispatched with a spear. In later Christian lore, this weapon became associated with supernatural powers. The story reminds us of the legend of Odin whose self-sacrifice involves impaling himself to the World-Tree with his spear Gungnir, made of wood from the same tree (the ash tree). The ash tree spear also occurs in Greek myth were Chiron offers one as a gift to Peleus for his wedding to the nymph Thetis. An ash tree spear was also the weapon of Hector in the Iliad.

Gungnir is portrayed with U-shaped prongs around the main point. This is similar in some respects to the decoration shown below on a spear-head from Mindanao.

A spear head from Mindanao, Philippines on the left, and the Gungnir spear motif

The ornaments on the Mindanao spear are of the mythical rooster-like bird the Sarimanok. This bird is often associated with the local concept that the human soul is transformed into a beautiful bird, the Sarinamok, at death.

In both cases, I believe the ornamentation, which serves no real practical purpose, represents the opening of the Underworld often thought of as the gaping mouth of a reptilian or bird-like creature.

Torsten Pedersen's article on distribution of "spear" and "arrow" words

Paul Kekai Manansala