Round or globular rattles were the property of shamans on the Northwest Coast, employed to propitiate the spirits in curing rituals. It is said that the globular rattle depicts the form of a skull, which refers to the shaman’s ability to pass between the world of the living and of the spirit. Some globular rattles feature a sculptural face on one side, with the reverse decorated in traditional formline design (see: Adam, Leonard. Nordwest-amerikanische Indianerkunst. Berlin: Verlag Ernst Wasmuth, 1923, pg. 43). However, in the impressive example illustrated here, we see both sides of the rattle composed of traditional two dimensional designs executed by a master’s hand.
The imagery on each side of this beautifully carved rattle represents a face, though each is handled in a distinctly different manner. On one side is seen a frontally oriented face reminiscent of those seen on the breast of raven rattles, or the central face of a bent-corner box. Above the eyebrows, formline elements fill the upper portion of the hemisphere, representing body parts relating to the face. On the reverse side, the face is cast downward, the eyes angling up from the center and the mouth curving along the lower edge of the rattle’s oval form. An unusual teardrop-shaped element represents the bridge of the nose. Above the brows of this face, a similar but differently proportioned set of formline elements again fills the upper section of the hemisphere. Northwest Coast faces most often contain characteristics that indicate the creature represented. However, here the imagery is highly abstract, ethereal, and spirit-like, lacking the common features of a bird or beast that would indicate identity. This is consistent with the shamanic context of such a rattle, and reflects the shaman’s world and calling.
The design work on the exquisite rattle illustrated here is in a style from the early 19th century, indicated by the broad nature of the formlines that surround the carved-out areas of the design. There is a nearly equal balance between the carved-out sections and those surface areas that are painted black and red. This, along with the carver’s choices of imagery and compositional movements, is characteristic of work from the first half of the 19th century. The firm ovoids and downward-angled eyelid points suggest a Haida carver, though some Tsimshian rattles have similar features.
Globular rattles such as this are extremely rare and few are found outside of older museum collections. The mastery of form seen here is exceptional, adding to the visual impact of this symbol of shamanic power.
Steven C. Brown, July 2010