Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Body of the Enemy

Igorot Warrior
Sailing up the Congo River, Marlow’s expedition feels the presence of the tribal warriors hiding along the banks. They are observing the boat from the forest and Mfumo, Marlow´s Congolese companion, knows that they will not let them go much further without attacking. Those warriors are cannibals and only once they will get a member of the expedition, they would be able find their peace.

In order not to lose his strength, Mfumo picks out of a little bag a piece of bone which he inserts in a hole he has pierced on the right side of his chin. In spite of this, the threat becomes more and more pressing and Mfumo eventually stops trusting in his amulet. All of a sudden, he takes the bone out of his chin and throw it away in the waters of the river by saying: my enemy is laughing at me.. il me protège plus..Adieu! 

The little bag carried by Mfumo is full of small pieces of bones of a former enemy. In spite of his great strength, Mfumo succeeded in killing him and now, these small human fragments shall keep the caring presence of the dead’ spirit close by.

Mfumo’s disappointment in realizing the ineffectiveness of this method is smarting, but completely incomprehensible to Marlow, a man of the West. After attending Mfumo’s vehement reaction, he asks him placidly: Do you think that was a good idea? But Mfumo got his way out. In fact, in his bag are “many enemies” and another bone is what he needs to be confident again.

The scenes above are from the 1994 TV movie “Heart of Darkness” by the English director Nicholas Roeg, in which Marlow and Kurtz are interpreted respectively by Tim Roth and John Malkovich. 

The reason why I chose to recall the mentioned footage is because I think it highlights with particular attention the difference between the sentiments of rivalry among natives and colonists. 

The news that reach us from the conflicts all over the world, the falls of regimes, the attacks on minorities as well as the acts of violence reported on newspapers, made somehow “usual” at our eyes the sight of the enemy’s body as the object of scorn, humiliation and annihilation –symbolic other than physical – of an overcome obstacle. 

In many indigenous traditions instead, what happens to the body of the adversary does not go together with the denial of his valour. 

His body is torn and made in pieces and, by means of this, his spirit is asked to cross the line and step on the winner’s side. This implies that the reality of the defeated is symmetrical to the one of who succeeded in the fight. The head of the dead rival is stuffed, his bones are cleaned and made shining white, his tufts preserved to become part of amulets.

The cut heads stuck on poles at the entrance of the villages in the ancient Taiwan, the skulls hanging from the ceiling of the huts by the natives of Borneo and those dangling from the saddles of the Celts were certainly a warning against prowlers, but this reason went together with a primary religious purpose: the freeing of the spirit of an enemy whose virtues can be assimilated by who got his life. Through rituals, gifts and ceremonies this spirit is now prayed to stand by those who are still alive.