Mutsago (Ancestor Headrest)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Shona of Zimbabwe carve mutsago headrests in a variety of shapes, forms, and designs. These headrests, carved and used solely by men, are said to have a number of uses. The primary use of mutsago headrests is for sleep. They cradle the head and neck of their users at the jawline. In the past, these 'pillows' ensured that oiled and styled hairstyles were protected from the ground and from dust.

In addition to protecting hairstyles, mutsago headrests are believed to connect their owners with the spirit realm. The Shona believe that dreams provide a direct connection between the dreamer and his ancestors (mudzimu / mhondoro), allowing the dreamer the ability to communicate with the spirits. Headrests are therefore seen as a tool for knowledge and success. They are also used as a tool by diviners to communicate with ancestral spirits, asking them for assistance in the physical world.

Mutsago headrests are also linked to the social status of Shona men. Upon the death of its owner, the headrest is either buried with him or passed on to a male heir (either his brother or to his son) during an inheritance ceremony (nhaka).

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all mutsago headrests:

  • Made of hard mutiti wood
  • Formed of three key parts:
    • Curved upper platform
      • Rectangular shape
      • Platform curves up at each end
      • Slightly narrower at centre
      • Lugs or rings sometimes carved at sides or underneath both sides of platform
      • Cross bar sometimes decorated with small chevrons
    • Carved central support
      • Thin and more narrow than platform and base of headrest
      • Carved within a two-dimensional plane
      • Huge variation in patterns, form and design of central support (including square lintels, X-shaped structures, animal sculptures, and circular, triangular and rectilinear shapes with positive and negative spaces)
      • Geometric patterns carved in relief onto support surfaces
    • Lobed volumetric base
      • Usually elliptical or figure 8 shaped '∞'
      • Conical, flat or rounded
      • Squared-off or tapering edges
  • Dark brown patina (older headrests saturated with natural oils)

Regional variations (Eastern region):

  • Top of platform has at least two sets of triangles carved into it
    • Triangles composed of smaller triangles within a larger one
    • Apexes of triangles pointing toward each other
  • Parallel lines, diamonds or a zig-zag line carved into upturned ends of platform
  • Platform has no appendages
  • Central support composed of two pairs of upward and downward pointing 'V' shapes
    • 'V's have a series of two to three lines parallel to the Vs carved in them
    • 'V's separated by two circular shapes
    • Circles have two to four concentric circles carved within them
    • Centres of the circles have various geometric designs in them (dots, horizontal lines, diagonal crosses or a pair of diamonds)
    • Sometimes circles are in direct contact with each other
    • Other examples have circles separated by either a horizontal or vertical band (filled with geometric designs)
    • Triangular spaces between branches of 'V's and central circular motifs cut more deeply than surrounding areas (or are cut right through)
  • Bases are usually figure-eight shaped (bi-lobed)
  • Bases gently taper upward toward central support
  • Bases have downward-pointing V-shaped protrusions carved between lobes
  • NOTE: This regional classification is based on object provenance (i.e. where the headrests researched were purchased). Due to mobility of styles, regional attribution may not always be accurate but sub-styles remain true

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