Madagascar; South Malagasy, Merina
Wood, beads, hair, earth; H. 5 3/8 in. (13.65 cm)
Gift of Irwin and Marcia Hersey, 1999 (1999.443)
Amulets and talismans known as ody are kept for protection and good fortune by peoples throughout Madagascar. This finely sculpted wooden head comes from the central highland region, home to the Merina peoples. Its outward appearance reflects its defensive function: inlaid blue beads bounded by deeply incised lines denote a vigilant gaze, while parted lips suggest alertness and readiness of speech.
While the carver has devoted considerable attention to the face, including such details as a beard and mustache of actual hair, the exterior of the amulet was ultimately of less importance than its interior. The head is actually a vessel, open at the crown, whose cavity is filled with a range of supernaturally efficacious materials. Upon consultation with a diviner or healer, a combination of organic and mineral substances such as earth, bones, sticks, and seeds was tailored to the requirements of the amulet's owner and deposited inside. The amulet was then attached to a cord by two loops carved into the back and hung from the neck or waist, where it shielded its bearer from harm.