Red Hornbill Earrings: Ilongot Ideas of Self, Beauty, and Health

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Essay Excerpt

Red hombill earrings, for the Ilongots of northern Luzon, Philippines, are a visible sign that a man has taken a head. Initially as I tried to probe deeper into the meaning of red horbill earrings my Ilongot companions replied with what appeared to be the doctrine of the arbitrariness of symbols. The earrings, they said, are beautiful, nothing more and nothing less. Glittering, red, dangling from the upper earlobes, and worn especially when visiting (see Figure 1), the earrings are at once beautiful ornaments for the self and a badge indicating, for all to see, that the wearer has decapitated a fellow human. The significance of the earrings thus seems to reside both in their aesthetic quality and in their representation of the fact that a man has taken a head. A symbol at once arbitrary and beautiful, and a completed deed as a clear referent-the case might well be closed at this point. The Ilongots seem to have confirmed once again a classic theory of meaning in which the earrings are the signifier and the beheading of a victim is the signified. And that is that.

Before I attempt to unpack further the meanings of these emblematic decorations for the human body I should briefly describe the people whose personal ornaments I am about to scrutinize. (Rosaldo, 310)

About the Author

Renato Rosaldo (born 1941) is one of the world's leading cultural anthropologists. He has done field research among the Ilongots of northern Luzon, Philippines, and he is the author of Ilongot Headhunting: 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History (1980) and Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (1989). He is also the editor of Creativity/Anthropology (with Smadar Lavie and Kirin Narayan) (1993), Anthropology of Globlization (with Jon Inda) (2001), and Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia: National and Belonging in the Hinterlands (2003), among other books. He has been conducting research on cultural citizenship in San Jose, California since 1989, and contributed the introduction and an article to Latino Cultural Citizens: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights (1997). He is also a poet and has published two volumes of poetry. Rosaldo has served as President of theAmerican Ethnological Society, Director of the Stanford Center for Chicano Research, and Chair of the Stanford Department of Anthropology. He has left Stanford and now teaches at NYU, where he served as the inaugural Director of Latino Studies.

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