The skull, an obvious symbol of (human) death, has been given strong religious connotations in several cultures. Among the people of India and neighboring regions, the skull necklace is an iconographic memento mori worn by certain gods and goddesses, most notably Siva in his ascetic form and Kali in her wrathful form. Skull necklaces are also worn by the wrathful aspects of allied Tibetan and Nepalese deities such as Kurukulla -- and necklaces and prayer beads carved from animal or human bones in the form of skulls are popular with their devotees.
example shown here, a 19th century Tibetan skull necklace,
consists of 28 hand-carved beads, each about 2 1/4 inches long;
the entire strand measuring 33" in length. It was offered for
sale on the web in 1997 by the Arte Primitivo / Howard S. Rose
Gallery of New York City.
The asking price was $2,500.00; it is now in a private
In pre-Columbian America, the skull was given an honoured place in the religious iconography of the Aztecs and related tribes of Mexico. Their descendents, both Indians and people of mixed European and Native American heritage, continue to venerate the skull and the skeleton during the national Day of the Dead ceremonies, when skulls made of sugar are eaten and offerings are placed on the graves of deceased relatives and friends.
The Aztec skull
necklace shown here was made in Mexico circa 1200-1400 and offered for sale on the web in 1997
by the Arte Primitivo / Howard S. Rose Gallery of New York City.
It is composed of 14 carved shell beads in the form of human
skulls, double perforated on each side for suspension. Each bead
is about 1 3/8" long and it has
been restrung with period spacers. The asking price was
$5,500.00; it is now in a private collection.
In Nepal, the use of skull-beads on malas (prayer beads, sometimes called "rosaries" by Americans) continues to this day. A mala such as the one shown here, hand-carved from yak bone and made with 108 beads, can be used in devotions -- but when worn as necklaces, they provide protection and even material benefits. Nepalese malas have also become popular among Americans who worship the goddess Kali or the god Siva or who affect Gothic or "dark" apparel.
Among many Europeans and North Americans of European descent, the skull now has less of a religious meaning than it does a "spooky" one. The frightening old European skull-and-crossbones -- used as a memento mori in European-style Freemasonry, and as the "Jolly Roger" flag of pirates -- has been tamed over the centuries. These days the skull is trotted out for display at Halloween -- along with jack-o-lantern pumpkins and black cats -- as a conventional symbol of mild and amusing fright. Every October, rambunctious children and their doting parents can be seen at discount stores and malls across the United States, shopping for miniature glow-in-the-dark skulls, decorative skull porch lights, and hard plastic skull-baskets in which to carry candy.
Still, the age-old links between religion, protection, and luck are so strong that in some North American "outlaw" sub-cultures, the skull retains its former status as a memento mori and magical protection charm. Bikers and low-riders, as well as some members of the military, utilize the skull as a significator of reckless machismo barely protected from disaster or of doomed bravery that accepts its fate. When seen in this context, the skull (often called a "death's head") is frequently accompanied by a coiled rattlesnake or pierced through by a dagger. The teeth of such "death's head" skulls may be exaggerated in number and size, the eyes may be painted or lit up so as to glow in the dark, and recently there has been a trend to combine this extra-toothy skull with the contemporary slanted eyes of the popular culture "extra-terrestrial alien" face.
Another North American subculture -- that of hard-core gamblers -- has also adopted the "reverse bad luck" of the skull for iconograhic purposes. In the context of the sporting life, the skull, along with dice rolling sevens and black cats, symbolizes luck in adversity. In times past, tiny skull-shaped stick-pins or watch-fobs were worn by gamblers as lucky charms. Today, gamblers who practice hoodoo style candle-burning for magical purposes have been known to dress a black skull-shaped candle with Black Cat Oil, sprinkle it with magnetic sand, place a $20.00 bill beneath it as an offering, and burn it a little bit every day to increase their chances of bringing in the winnings on long-shot games like the lottery. The idea behind this ritual is to openly acknowledge and then to refute repressive Christian prohibitions against gambling, which warn believers that playing games of chance will lead one to an early death and thence to Hell. By calling on the black skull for gambling luck, the player acknowledges "sin" as a way of life and laughs in the face of religious condemnation.
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