The Route to Secular Art through the Kwakiutl Hamatsa Dance
“Magic preceded art, art served magic, and art was then liberated from magic.” This was among a number of sometimes controversial assertions made by Scottish anthropologist James Frazer in his 19 th century book The Golden Bough : A Study in Comparative Religion . Magical rituals were the source of what would become secular art. Here we shall analyze this assertion in the context of the Hamatsa dance of the Kwakiutl people of Canada.
Ritual Stripped of its Magical Value: Looking at the Hamatsa Dance
English folklorist Jessie Weston, in fact, tried to show magical rituals could be the source of secular art in the case of the grail story in her book From Ritual to Romance , an early 20 th century work that influenced T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland . A magical ritual would be created to bring about some natural goal beneficial to a community, but in the transition from the country to the town, magic would be largely abandoned. City-dwellers would have, nevertheless, remembered and taken these rituals with them to the city. No longer possessing magical value, the rituals now were found to contain meaning or the potential for entertainment and significance.
Think of how Picasso took masks that were meant to be used in African fertility rituals and used them, instead, to convey Western aesthetic experiences. Although not a perfect analogy, this is akin to what Frazer was talking about. His point was that art was not created in a vacuum, it developed out of magical rituals and paraphernalia which lost a magical function only to later gain meaning once again. When we look at the Hamatsa Cannibal Dance of the Kwakiutl tribe of the Pacific Northwest (also known as the Kwakwaka’wakw), we can perhaps get an even better sense of what Frazer meant.
The Hamatsa or Cannibal dance of the Kwakiutl People cannot simply be understood as a dance. It is the culmination of the winter ceremony and the most decisive winter dance. The image shows a painting by Wilhelm Kuhnert which was printed in the 1897 classic Kwakiutl Indian study by Franz Boas. ( Public domain )
The Hamatsa or Cannibal Dance of the Kwakiutl People
For the Kwakiutl people of the northwest coast of Canada, winter is the sacred season during which a long night which must be confronted with the effort of the entire community. Tseseka (the season of the shaman) meant a return to their winter villages and only the most essential work. Survival meant a complete community commitment to traditional magical practices meant to help bring an end to the darkness and cold. Indeed, in the winter villages, Kwakiutl society was transformed into a religious hierarchy with everyone’s name changed to allow a greater meaning to inhere and to reflect the urgency of communal action against the season. Everyone was now placed, based on family lines, into one of the many dance societies.
To describe the Hamatsa or Cannibal Dance as merely a dance is, however, to severely belie the significance of this ritual, which was the culmination of the winter ceremony and the most important and decisive winter dance. Yet, early anthropologists seem to have been perplexed by what they recognized as possible allegory. For example, Franz Boas was impacted by the fact that the Kwakiutl themselves told him the dance was a “fraud” and a “simulation” of real ancestral feats. Other anthropologists were taken in by the staging of the dance, like a theatrical performance, where ancestral spirits were impersonated so as to apparently convey various truths. The dance was, after all, performed with detailed scenery and the actors used sleight-of-hand tricks and other theatrical gimmicks.
Masked Kwakiutl dancers during the winter ceremony in an iconic photo by the ethnographic photographer Edward Curtis. ( Public domain )
Ritual of the Hamatsa Dance: Reawakening the Spirits
So the temptation always existed to view the Hamatsa Dance as a theatrical event presented to an audience which derived some type of understanding or moral by sitting and watching. Yet, this always begged the question as to why an entire culture would forsake its livelihood, change its social organization, and even the names of its members, for the mere sake of a theater festival. A more realistic and less ethnocentric interpretation of the Hamatsa dance can be found, for instance, in Irving Goldman’s The Mouth of Heaven: An Introduction to Kwakiutl Thought , a work in which he painstakingly reviewed and analyzed much of what Boas and others had recorded about the Kwakiutl throughout more than seventeen volumes of often unpublished work.
Goldman, for example, acknowledged that the Hamatsa dance is something simulated. The dance is an approximation of an original process whereby an ancestor actually made contact with the Man-Eater spirit, killed the Man-Eater, resurrected his spirit, allowed himself to be possessed by it, and then, through the purging of this spirit (with the assistance of the female slave of the Man-Eater), the ancestor acquired the ability to access the spirit world. Goldman, based on the testimonials of Kwakiutl, believed that the ritual was a means by which spirits and the life force ( nawalak), which were originally accessed by the ancestor, could be re-accessed each winter, through the process of simulation, to ensure the completion of the seasonal cycle. The impersonations are artifice, but the power brought by the spirits is genuine. The ritual for the Kwakiutl is to effect an end. The performance is to reawaken the life-force and spirits who will assist in the changing of the seasons.
Indeed, the individual chosen to perform the Hamatsa dance is prepared by being taken into the wilderness for several days to learn secrets from the society and become wild again as a receptive vessel for the cannibal spirit, before being brought back into his community to be socialized through the ritual. He begins wearing hemlock to signify his feral state as other members of the secret society prevent him from attacking and biting those in attendance. Ultimately, he appears in a cloak covered with images of skulls, showing his passage through the conflict with the cannibal spirit.
In Western literature, the male often represents an active or combative principle, while the female is the passive or receptive principle, such as in Homer’s Odyssey. In the image, Penelope can be seen unraveling her work at night. (Dora Wheeler Keith / CC0)
Sex and Gender: Symbolism in Western Literature
In Western tradition sex and gender are often used symbolically. In allegorical Western literature, the male often represents an active, searching or combative principle, while the female is the passive or receptive principle and often the fulfilment of the male quest. The Odyssey is a perfect example of this, as it depicts Penelope waiting at home while Odysseus fights his way back to her. We see this from Homer, through Dante, to Goethe’s Faust and beyond. We see it also in Mozart’s Magic Flute . The masculine often seems to represent desire, or spiritual desire, while the feminine represents fulfilment of this desire.
In the Hamatsa dance, sex and gender are used in a similar manner as it is used in the Western tradition. The Hamatsa, or “initiate”, is always male. And he is always pacified, after fulfilling the conditions of his ordeal, by the female slave of the Man-Eater. It is interesting to consider whether we inherited the symbolic use of sex and gender because, in rituals like the Hamatsa dance, it was always a male initiate of a secret society who was allowed to go on a quest, and he could only be aided or saved by a feminine presence. The concept of the common man, the everyman, the innocent and worthy individual at the mercy of evil, conquering evil and then attaining to a higher level of being, is also common to the Hamatsa dance and the Western tradition. It seems entirely possible that this theme was lifted from magical ritual as well.
Narrative and Allegory in the Hamatsa Dance
Finally, the Hamatsa dance presents a story. In the ritual depiction necessary to conjure up the spirits necessary to defeat winter and bring in spring, they also present a narrative. This ritual unfolds in a sequence of events. Stages are clearly delineated. The initiate is introduced to the people crawling like an animal, he is beset by ferocity, pacified and then he stands and assumes a role in society. The story format is meant to capture the magical forces necessary to defeat winter, but when you strip the story of magic, an allegory remains.
The initiate is uncivilized, becomes possessed, experiences torment as he struggles against an evil spirit, then, some influence outside of himself, a female slave betraying her master, saves him. It’s almost like the story of Prince Tamino in The Magic Flute . After recovering from the ordeal, we are presented with a civilized human being. But the individual being tormented has to be saved by an outside source. His own will is not sufficient. Some form of “grace” has to pity him and save him.
It is commonly accepted that Greek secular theater derived from magical rituals. This is why the Hamatsa dance is so intriguing. In this sacred performance we see the clear potential for a crossover from the sacred to the secular related to what may have happened in Greece. We see some striking similarities between the sacred and secular: the symbolic use of sex/gender, philosophical themes in an allegorical form, and even recognizable symbols such as the raven, hunger, the circle, fire etc. As tribal systems slowly developed into city systems the magical ends of rituals were lost, but the essential form of the rituals took on a new meaning as symbolic stories. The magic that these stories was to access was lost, but the husk of art remained and it was possible to derive meaning from the form without the expectation of the magical conclusion.
Top image: Hamatsa shaman possessed by supernatural powers after spending days in the woods as part of initiation ritual. Source: Edward Curtis / Public domain
By Daniel Gauss
Boaz, F. 1966. Kwakiutl Ethnography . Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Eliade, M. 1964. Shamanism. New York: Pantheon Books
Goldman, I. 1975. The Mouth of Heaven. New York: J. Wiley and Sons