Friday, August 06, 2010

Lapita, Taotie and other Face/Head Motifs (Part 3 of 3)

Another strong evidence of the relationship between the Indian and European face motifs is the existence in Romanesque art of a feline face disgorging (or gorging) strings of beads from the corners of its mouth.  Similar motifs are found in India and Tibet with the apparent earliest example located at the Ajanta Caves dating to the 5th century.

Feline masks with strings of beads streaming from the corners of their mouth at Iffley Church in Oxford, England, 12th-13th century. (Source:

A Gupta era Kirtimukha with festoons of pearls disgorged from the corners of the mouth. Notice the double spiral "horns." (Source: Huntington Archive)

Traditional Tibetan bell (Source: Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs) and

A more elongated type of head disgorging various items from the upper part of the mouth with no lower jaw visible, Lincoln Cathedral, Norman period. Click on image for larger view. (Source: Wikipedia

More on the meaning of the face motifs

Face motifs continue to be used to this day in the Austronesian-speaking regions in tattoos, textiles and other art forms.  In the Marquesas, the mata hoata "face" and ipu "eye" motifs can be used to denote the etua, the deities and deified ancestors to include the pantheistic Fractal Being.

The Kala form of the face motif in Southeast Asia gives this design a connection with the deity of cosmic time.  In the Philippines, the pantheistic volcano gods are seen in some cultures as lords of, or personifications of time.  In medieval Tibet, the Kalacakra Deity was both lord of time and also a form of the pantheistic Adibuddha or "First Buddha."

In the Philippines, one of the closest matches to the face motifs under discussion are the decorations found on  boat prows, blade hilts, musical instruments, and other items known variously by names such as Bakunawa, Buaya, and Naga.   The Bakunawa motif is connected with a deity among certain peoples of Panay who in the past chose auspicious times for events based on the direction that the Bakunawa was said to be facing.  Almanacs were made that gave the direction of the Bakunawa's face for any time of the year, and these calendars also served a geomantic purpose in orienting the direction of the entrance of a home under construction.

The Bakunawa was thus related to aspects of astronomical time, although I have not seen information connecting this deity with any constellations or stars.  Viewed as a great winged dragon-like creature with a red tongue, the Bakunawa was also said to swallow the Moon during eclipses.  In this sense, the serpent may have been related to the Indian deity Rahu, who was also envisioned as a disembodied head that devoured the Sun or Moon during an eclipse.

Bakunawa blade hilts (Source:
The hilt on this blade from Panay is more like the buaya or makara motif (crocodile-like). (Source:

The idea of the Bakunawa devouring the Sun or Moon may connect with the earlier red-slipped, Lapita and Taotie face motifs.  In the tumpal face design, the "eyes" can also represent the Sun as discussed above but additionally they can represent the Moon also.  In an earlier post, I suggested that the crescent shape, and also the half circle shape found in some red-slipped and other early tumpal patterns could represent the "Crescent Sun."   The latter astronomical term refers to a Sun nearly fully eclipsed but with the non-eclipsed part forming a crescent shape.

In addition, the name "Taotie" is generally translated as "Glutton," while the Chinese term for "solar eclipse" 日食 means literally "to eat the Sun."  However, while some experts believe the Taotie may be linked with the eclipse, I have not seen any explicit literary or artistic reference making this connection.  K. C. Chang does provide literary evidence that the motif was linked with the concept of "devouring humans" though.

The concept of devourer is also found in the legends surrounding Kala, who as the personification of time consumes humans and also the entire world in his ceaseless march.   The depiction of Kala above gates in Indonesian temples gives the impression that the deity is devouring the pilgrims as they move from one part of the temple to another.

In Papua New Guinea and Melanesia, one commonly finds instances of masks representing "Ghosts" that devour and regurgitate initiates in sacred rituals.  A similar idea may have been present in the pre-colonial Philippines and nearby parts of Indonesia in relation to concepts of immortality.  Here we find the idea that the entrails represented human mortality and that removal of these entrails cause the subject to become immortal.

In relation to this we have the legends of what are now considered demons -- the Aswang and Manananggal -- that are able to detach their heads from their bodies when they go to search for "prey."  In most cases, they do not devour their victims whole but simply suck out their viscera.  While this myth today is used in horror stories, in ancient times it may have referred to rituals believed to confer immortality or long life.

Interestingly the Aswang and Mananaggal when detaching their heads were said to take their own viscera along with them trailing from their necks.   According to early Spanish records, the icon of the god Malyari of Pinatubo and Zambales, was said to consist only of a head and straw arms.  Possibly the straw arms were actually viscera as in the case of the legends of the body-less "demons," and these hanging entrails could be related to the depiction of foliage streaming out of the mouth of Kirtimukha and Kala images.  The protruding tongue motif widely found in Polynesia, Melanesia and Papua New Guinea, and less commonly in Southeast Asia, may also be related to the imagery of streaming intestines-vegetation.

The Green Man and the Green King

In Europe, the foliage spewer motif is often related to the medieval tales of the Green Knight as found in Grail and other literature of the same period.  However, an even better explanation might be found in the concept of the Green King found in Eastern Christian apocalyptic literature.

Most important of these is the Apocalypse of Bahira, a 9th century work in Syriac and Arabic that tells of a Green King from the East to come in the last days:

...a king dressed in green clothes will come from the East and through him there will be great peace and quiet in the world. Churches will be built and monasteries will be restored. And he is the last one whom the world expects to come at the end of the kingdoms of the Sons of Ishmael.

Barbara Roggema thinks the idea of the Green King is related to the Islamic al-Khidr, the Green One, who represents fertility and immortality.  However, she notes that al-Khidr was not destined to kingship and she interprets the concept as an early prototype of the king who would become known as Prester John.  She gives as evidence a passage from the Liber Otensor written by the 14th century Franciscan Jean de Rocquetaillade who equated the Green King of the Apocalypse with the King of the Tartars, who at the time was widely identified as Prester John.

According to Ibn al-Tiqtaqa, the Green King wore green clothing because that was the color of garments worn in Paradise -- another link with the Prester John kingship. In addition to having Paradise within or near his kingdom, Prester John's land was filled with many fruits and fountains that bestowed long life, and he ruled with a fabulous emerald scepter.

For another possible connection involving the Green King and al-Khidr, see my article on Qingtong, the Blue-Green Lad, (and here also) who was an early Daoist messianic figure expected to arise from a region to the southeast of China; as well as my article on Mount Qaf

Paul Kekai Manansala


Ambrosio, Dante L. "Bakunawa and Laho," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 02/08/2009,

Chang, Kwang-chih. Art, myth, and ritual: the path to political authority in ancient China. Cambridge, Mass. u.a: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983, 72-3.

Healy, Tim. "The Missing Link?" The Green Man Trail, 2007,

Roggema, Barbara. The legend of Sergius Baḥīrā: eastern Christian apologetics and apocalyptic in response to Islam. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Riesenfeld, Alphonse. The Megalithic Culture of Melanesia, Brill, 1950.

Scott, William Henry. Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society. Quezon City, Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1997, 252.