Dear Father John, I know a Catholic who has a genuine shrunken head in their home on display. It’s a little creepy to me, to say the least. I have prayed for all involved. Can you shed some light on what the Church has to say about this? Is voodoo involved with shrunken heads?
Let’s both hope that you are somehow mistaken, that this item is in fact not a “genuine shrunken head”! And if it truly is, let’s hope that the person displaying this in his home is doing so out of ignorance. A faithful Catholic who understands the meaning that primitive religions give to shrunken heads would think twice about using one as house décor. Let me explain.
With the term “primitive religion” I am referring to religions that are part of pre-civilized cultures, cultures that consist of small communities who live from hunting and gathering, or from a mix of hunting, gathering, and horticulture. Although the material circumstances of these cultures are simple and primitive, they often have highly developed moral codes and religious sensibilities. In fact, some “primitive” religions are much more in harmony with the truths of human nature than some religions that developed with the first civilizations. Yet, they remain devoid of the wisdom that comes from God’s revelation in Christ. Some of their practices and beliefs, therefore, are clearly misguided.
Since these pre-civilized cultures consist of small communities, and each community develops its own ethos and religion, it’s hard to generalize about their religious system. Nevertheless, primitive religions do share a few common characteristics, like more or less developed shamanism, fetishism, and spiritism. If you are curious about these religions, I highly recommend Fr. John Hardon’s chapter on the subject in his remarkable work, Religions of the World (available online here).
Religious Use of Shrunken Heads
In most cases that I have studied, shrunken heads are used in primitive religions as vicarious atonement for sin. When members of one tribe commit a sin, they recognize their guilt and their violation of the divine law. They feel a need to make up for their transgression and reestablish communion with the offended gods – some reparation needs to be offered for the sake of justice. Among the many methods of reparation that primitive religions espouse, we find the offering of a sacrificial victim. Sometimes an animal, sometimes a human being – a captured member of an enemy tribe, for example. In this latter case, certain rituals developed by which the prisoner was executed and the head was ritually preserved and shrunken, and then used as an atonement offering. This may not be the only use of shrunken heads (in some cases they may simply be considered warrior trophies), but it is one that we can understand conceptually, if not emotionally.
It is worth noting that sometimes atonement offerings of this sort were manufactured. A sculpture or a small figurine could be offered in place of a real human victim. With proper rituals and ceremonies, this type of vicarious sacrifice could also be effective, according to some primitive religious creeds. This kind of practice is connected, at least indirectly and vaguely, to certain forms of voodoo, which uses charms and objects not for worship, necessarily, but for magic. As far as I know, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the atonement-use of shrunken heads and the magic-use of voodoo.
Shrunken Heads and Home Decorating
Clearly, human sacrifice of that sort contradicts the very essence of our Christian faith. Christ alone, the voluntary priest, altar, and victim, can atone for our sins. And the sacrifice on the cross is the one sacrifice that has reestablished communion with God. Our participation in that sacrifice happens in an un-bloody manner, through the sacraments of the Church. Therefore, a Catholic could never accept the religious significance of a shrunken head without abandoning his own faith in Jesus.
But even if the person you mention in your question expressly denies the religious significance of the artifact, keeping the shrunken head on display seems to show a lack of respect for the human dignity of the person from whom the head was taken. One of the corporal works of mercy, in our Christian tradition, is burial of the dead. A proper burial expresses both our sorrow at the loss of a human life, and our faith in God’s saving grace and his promised resurrection of the dead. A Christian way of dealing with a genuine shrunken head might be to give it some kind of burial and to pray for God’s mercy on the soul of the person who died to supply it, as well as the person who made it.
In conclusion, would it be morally reprehensible for Catholics to display a genuine shrunken head in their home? The action itself, as you can see, is definitely not edifying. But the moral weight of that action would depend on knowledge of the genuineness of the artifact, as well as the person’s awareness of the issues involved. Certainly, some artifacts used in primitive religions can be appreciated simply for their cultural and artistic value, and putting them on display would not in any way indicate an espousal of erroneous beliefs (excluding, of course, un-purified objects used explicitly in satanic worship). But a genuine shrunken head is not just an artifact; it is human remains, and we should treat human remains with proper respect.
Thank you for your question. I hope this answer helped clarify some of the issues involved.
Art: Indian Market in Guamote – Ecuador, Ljuba brank, 29 December 2011, own work, CC-SA, Wikimedia Commons.