Posted by: Johan Normark | November 6, 2011

Protection and ensoulment through cranial modification

A little more than a year ago I wrote a post about Olmecoid head shapes and the Maya Maize God. More recently I have read yet another article about ancient head shaping. William N. Duncan and Charles Andrew Hofling wonder why the head was the locus of modification.

To summarize their main argument they suggest, based on analogies with the Aztec “soul concept” of tonalli, that “the head was targeted because it was at risk for soul loss and injury from evil winds. Animating essences were located in the head, and young children in particular were at risk for losing those substances or having them harmed” (p 199). Tonalli is associated with heat and destiny and it resides in the head. Newborns were likely to lose it through the open fontanel.

The authors argue that there are clear similarities between the Aztec tonalli and Maya soul concepts, i.e. souls that may leave the body or be diminished, such as ch’ulel and way. They propose that “the head was often used as a signifier for the animating essences or essential identity of an individual” (p 203). The word signifier is problematic here since it relates to what Deleuze and Guattari call a signifiying regime and it surely depends on an essence (a master-signifier). The royal face/head would have been of this kind but its overcoding of other regimes of signs is not easy to determine. I would say, though, that most soul concepts for the Maya would have been of the presignifying kind, indexed to the socius of Earth rather than the body of the king. Usually very territorialized but always containing that line of flight that may leave through the head and deterritorialize the body itself.

Duncan and Hofling also suggest that “cranial modification is analogous to placing the roof on a building. It seals the newly animated construction, and likely relates to the desire to maintain the levels of this soul-stuff for newborns, thereby keeping them from harm” (p 204). The house, the home itself, and the head, are the territories needed to keep “chaos” outdoors and an essential soul within. Trespassing these borders was always potentially dangerous. One might even think of flipsides when what is outside comes in and vice versa, creating the uncanny home and negatively affected minds. Germanic languages have words for this and I wonder if one can argue for something similar in the Maya area? Caves do have that capability. They are needed for home-making for a community or even a household but they are also “places of fright”. Their entrance- and exit holes are ambivalent channels.

Duncan, William N. & Charles Andrew Hofling (2011). Why the head? Cranial modification as protection and ensoulment among the Maya. Ancient Mesoamerica 22, 199-210.



  1. The Maya Desire For The Folate Head-shape Is Not Unique To The Origanal Peoples Of Meso-America,The Flathead Origianls Of The Western United States Used A Cradle Skull Vise To Elongate The Cranium (Squash Shaped) Simmular To The Egyptian Pharonic Headshape.The Use Of Trepination And Skull Modification Are Ancient Examples Of The Peoples Desire To Attain The Physical Attributes Of The Gods.Your Avitar Is A Jade Carving Of A Maize God Discovered At Tikal,Good Choice For A Square-Head.The Main Malidies Of The Cu’huel Are Susto,Invida;Trestesa,Pesur And Mal Och Or Vento.

    • Hi becoming Corn.
      This is just my own Guess, or opinion, that the head shaping had nothing to do with the soul, or with the Gods. I think the Maya was shaping the heads of their children to make it a flat area on top, so when they grow older and carry baskets, water jugs, wood, bricks and stones etc, it will fit better on a flat surface, and will not roll off as it would from a round head.

  2. Well, the head was not flat on top…

    The authors, however, argue that it would have been easier to carry things in a thumpline around the forehead as shown in Maya art. Some of the gods carried the burden of time periods like that.


%d bloggers like this: