Tea for Two (Countries)

Cultural Parallels

Tea is enjoyed all over the world as an herbal remedy, a rainy day comfort, or simply a breakfast drink. In many cases, tea is consumed as a way to pass the time with others, but Japan and England in particular have elevated tea to the status of ritual. Also known as the Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony chanoyu is a carefully orchestrated performance focused on the powdered green tea, matcha. Governed by rules regulating preparation, serving, and consumption, chanoyu, literally “hot water for tea,” is far more complex than the misleading translation suggests. Conversely, English High Tea, also known as Afternoon Tea, is a relatively unstructured affair. These traditions are not based on religion, family, or rites of passage; they are cultural constructs built around themes of indulgence, status, and aesthetic.

A demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony. Photo credit: ourcamden.org.

A demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony. Photo credit: Our Camden

Though the merchants who brought tea to England were men, women established the nation’s enduring obsession. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who wed King Charles II, brought her love of tea to English court, where it then trickled down to the aspiring wealthy classes. Recognizing a promising new market, the East India Company began regularly importing tea to England in 1664.

Two centuries later, High Tea emerged when Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, sought a way to remedy what she called “that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. The modern convention of a midday lunch was a new feature in nineteenth-century England, and the meal itself was typically very light. To sate her hunger, the duchess requested to have tea with finger sandwiches or small cakes sent to her room each afternoon. In time, she began inviting friends to share gossip over this afternoon snack, and a tradition was born. As Anna Russell was a prominent figure within London society, the practice quickly spread throughout the city. Though High Tea started in the home, women soon relocated outdoors during the warmer months. No longer bound by gendered space, men were encouraged to get involved. Fine china was soon valued as a status symbol, and rich people rushed to display their wealth by having portraits painted featuring all their tea wares.

A selection of sandwiches and desserts for Afternoon Tea. Photo credit: hellengrasso.com

A selection of sandwiches and desserts for Afternoon Tea. Photo credit: Hellen Grasso

Today, British people maintain the tradition of High Tea in their homes, though the title is now somewhat tongue-in-cheek. As a nod to the nostalgia of high society, lavish hotels and tearooms offer Afternoon Tea services with artfully decorated cakes, pastries, scones, cookies, and sandwiches, alongside several options of globally sourced teas. For an extra fee, many places also offer champagne.

While High Tea was a snack that evolved into a ritual of indulgence, chanoyu originated as a display of status and morphed into an exercise in minimalism. Buddhist priests brought tea from China to Japan in the early ninth century, in what is known as the Heian period. The priests drank the tea as a stimulant during long hours of contemplation. However, the practice waned and eventually disappeared midway through the century. Chanoyu emerged in the 15th century, as a means for the Japanese elite to form alliances. Rulers, warriors, and wealthy merchants strengthened their social ties over tea and art. Those in possession of highly coveted Chinese artwork gained recognition by using these ceremonies as an opportunity to display their collection.

Matcha and Chasen. Photo credit: farmersalmanac.com.

Matcha and Chasen. Photo credit: Farmers’ Almanac

Originally tea was prepared in the home, and taken out to a special room outside for consumption. The chashitsu, a backyard tea room furnished with sunken hearths for teakettles, and alcoves designed to display cherished Chinese hanging scrolls or flower arrangements, emerged in the sixteenth century. Around this time, notable tea master Sen no Rikyū promoted wabicha, which is tea (cha) embodying the wabi aesthetic. Wabi is a tripartite archetype comprised of unpretentious, irregular, and austere beauty. Accordingly, the most valued utensils were unrefined or imperfect. Chanoyu hosts used bamboo teaspoons called chashaku to spoon matcha powder into ceramic tea bowls called chawan. The powder was dissolved with bamboo whisks called chasen. Some of the most popular chawan were unglazed stoneware originally used by farmers. There existed an arbitrary sense of value in these objects, which increased based on whichever tea master had the found object in their possession.

To achieve maximum wabicha aesthetic, tea masters began to model their chashitsu on hermit huts, preferring mud walls and unpainted roofs. As retreats from the world, these tea rooms were intimate settings, intended to fit only three or four tatami guest mats. Ideally, the chashitsu would be situated in a beautiful garden to enhance the connection to nature. Hosts entered through the sadōguchi, while guests were forced to bend down and crawl in through small, square entrances called nijiriguchi. This physical prostration symbolized the transition from the large outside world, to the small sanctuary of the chashitsu.

Palm Court at the Ritz London. Photo credit: theritzlondon.com

Palm Court at the Ritz London. Photo credit: The Ritz London

As with children’s tea parties, High Tea and the chanoyu ceremony are rooted in the spirit of imagination. Modern British luxury hotels such as the Ritz London and Claridge’s London offer Afternoon Tea in opulent rooms decorated with extravagant floral displays and mirrors, and lit by chandeliers. For an average of £50 per person, anyone with smart casual clothing can experience an afternoon of high society exposure. These public tea houses are an opportunity for people to see and be seen, whereas private chanoyu ceremonies were about receding from society. In both situations, the tea drinkers are asked to view themselves through a different lens. In these spaces, tea is more than refreshment; it is a transformative cultural event.

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The French Spectrum

Côte d'Azur, literally translates as Azure Coast. In English, it's also known as the French Riviera. Nice, France.

Côte d’Azur literally translates as Azure Coast. It’s also known as the French Riviera. Nice, France.

A visit to France is a fully saturated Technicolor experience. Cityscapes and countryside similarly pulse with the color and light that once inspired the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters. Caught in Paris’s congested nighttime traffic, it was evident why the infamous Avenue des Champs-Élysées is sometimes called the street of diamonds and rubies. Juxtaposed against a black sky, the lanes of gleaming white headlights and scarlet break lights transformed the road into a conduit of glittering jewels.

When I look back on my time in France, I remember each experience as a color on the rainbow spectrum. I passed through the red-light district of Pigalle on my way to the Nouvelle Eve cabaret and vaudeville show in Montmartre. The neon glow emanating from the Moulin Rouge set the stage for a night of garish entertainment. From my seat directly in front of the Nouvelle Eve stage, I had an unimpeded view of bizarre dance routines, where the performers were clothed and then nude for seemingly no reason at all. Midway through the second act, a girl from my group propped her elbows up on the stage, rested her heavy head in her palms, and shouted drunken platitudes. I watched whirling, kicking legs come within inches of her face, as she continued to yell, “Awesome! Yeah!”

Nouvelle Eve stage. Photo credit: Google image search.

Nouvelle Eve stage. Paris, France. Photo credit: Google image search.

Evidently thirsty after dutifully cheering the dancers on, she turned back to the table to grab the champagne bottle nestled in the ice bucket. In her drunken haze, she forgot about the bottle next to her elbow, and accidentally knocked it to the floor. The bottle was half empty anyway, since she’d spilled most of its contents across the table during the previous act. Shocked by the calamitous loss of champagne, she then dropped the full bottle, as well. At first, I was annoyed that I’d paid for spilled alcohol, but I suppose the champagne glass half full perspective is that I paid for one show and inadvertently got two.

In general, France was a series of shifting expectations. When I first saw the Eiffel Tower, the sun was in the process of setting, and I remember being disappointed that we’d arrived so late. The thing is, it doesn’t even matter what time of day you arrive. The tower is gorgeous in any type of lighting, and in fact, it might be most alluring during those twilight hours when the sun is slowly sinking below the horizon. I watched the sky fade from blue to pale orange, and I thought about all the people around me coming from far-flung corners of the planet to see this one landmark. Later that night, I ate escargot for the first and probably last time in my life. Snails, as it turns out, are salty, with a gummy texture. Eating escargot is like chewing on a solidified chunk of seawater. Not bad, per se, but not something I’m clamoring to do again soon.

French roads, however, are fantastic. As I mentioned above, the Champs-Élysées is beautiful, and the roundabout circling the Arc de Triomphe should be classified as an amusement park ride, but it’s the highways I truly remember. Afraid I’d miss out on seeing something amazing, I rarely slept on the bus. We were driving along one particular stretch of road, and I was so focused on what was happening outside my window that I didn’t notice the field ahead. In the middle of nowhere, the grass lining the road abruptly transitioned from green to yellow. Without warning, we had passed through some invisible portal to an alien planet. There were tall, lithe sunflowers as far as the eye could see. Millions of them crowded around each other with their brown, cyclopic eyes staring blankly back at me. Though ordinary moments ago, the field sprung to life with these anthropomorphic flowers, these gangly, rooted strangers. How can anything be so bright, yet so melancholic? It was a surreal experience, made especially dreamlike by the presence of all the sleeping people around me. I wanted to shake the girl beside me, and tell her to look, but I stayed quiet as I marveled at the unexpected visitors.

Café Van Gogh in Arles, France

Café Van Gogh in Arles, France.

In 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to Paul Gauguin, stating, “For if Jeannin can claim the peony, and Quost the hollyhock, then surely I, above all others, can lay claim to the sunflower.” Van Gogh relentlessly attempted to lure Gauguin to Arles, where he thought an artist colony would flourish, but it never worked out the way he wanted. In many ways, Van Gogh is so much like the sunflowers he revered, bright and melancholic. With those sunflowers in mind, I swept through Arles, looking for that famed yellow awning outside Le Café Van Gogh. I think I was hoping to find a connection to the artist, since I missed out on seeing his works at the Musée d’Orsay.

I took a few architecture classes in college, but French architecture baffled me. Every building we studied was a chateau! I could recall the minutest details about unimportant English structures, but every French chateau looked the same to me. So, when they said we were staying in a chateau in the Beaujolais Wine Region, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was like, “Yay, fancy!” On the other hand, it was like finally meeting a nemesis face to face. I was amazed when we pulled up in front of this stately, white manor on the outskirts of Lyon, surrounded by picturesque green rolling hills. I set out on a hike one morning, intent on combing through the parcels of land carved out by row upon row of grapevines. After a while, I realized everything looked the same, and I felt my pulse start to quicken with panic. Completely alone and lost, I stumbled into a ghost town with brightly painted shutters. Seeing no one, I turned and left. Around the next corner, I found a lonely horse standing in a field. He stared at me expectantly, and I felt the crazy, heat stricken side of my brain whinny, “Feed me!” So, of course, I told the horse to wait a moment, and I ran off to fetch him some grapes. I was still lost, but at least I’d made a horsey friend. Eventually, I spotted the resident chateau dog taking a leisurely stroll through the fields, and I followed him back to base camp.

Rolling hills in the Beaujolais Wine Region

Rolling hills in the Beaujolais Wine Region. Outside Lyon, France.

Beaujolais Wine Region

Beaujolais Wine Region

Gorgeous shutters in the Beaujolais Wine Region

Gorgeous shutters in the Beaujolais Wine Region.

The lonely French horse.

The lonely French horse.

French Horse

Nice was, without a doubt, my favorite city in France. The electric blue water along the Côte d’Azur more than made up for the pebble beaches. Being from New Jersey, I know a thing or two about going down the shore, and there’s something categorically wrong about a beach without sand. Due to the sharp incline of the rocks, you have to awkwardly climb out of the ocean like a primordial organism, venturing onto land for the first time. The pebbles can be a bit uncomfortable to lay or walk on, so there are cordoned off segments of the beach with umbrellas and chaise lounges, presumably only for the elite? I was amazed by the amount of bronzed, leathery skin I saw, while I tripped my way across the pebbles.

Lounge chairs and umbrellas on a pebble beach. Nice, France.

Lounge chairs and umbrellas on a pebble beach. Nice, France.

French Riviera

French Riviera

A bulldozer, leveling the pebbles on the beach. Nice, France.

A bulldozer, leveling the pebbles on the beach. Nice, France.

My French adventure started the moment our ferry from Dover, England docked in Calais. On the drive to Paris, we navigated flash flood conditions, so it was only fitting that on the way out of France and into Italy, the sky opened up once more. I experience true awe and terror as I stared out across the violent purple-grey skies. We counted at least four waterspouts along the coast. It was incredible, like a movie scene come to life, as we watched those vortexes raging from sky to sea.

My first sight of France, from the ferry.

My first sight of France, from the ferry.

Louvre Museum

The world famous Louvre Museum. Paris, France.

 

Ferris wheel in the Jardin des Tuileries. Paris, France.

Ferris wheel in the Jardin des Tuileries. Paris, France.

View from atop the Arc de Triomphe. Paris, France.

View from atop the Arc de Triomphe. Paris, France.

Atop the Arc de Triomphe

I don’t have as many pictures of France as I’d like because my travel converter died, but somehow that’s ok. I have every intention of returning, and when I do, I’ll take pictures then. To be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love France as much as I did. From the Tuileries outside the Louvre Museum, to the grounds beyond the Palace of Versailles, French gardens are verdant to the point of being magical. Even the food is colorful, from the pastel macarons to the ever-present ruby red tomatoes. Seriously, I’ve never eaten so many tomatoes in my life. In three words: France is beautiful.

Under the Watercolor Sea

Mermaid and Trident, 2015

Mermaid and Trident, 2015

Due to my Internet service being the worst, I had to take an impromptu hiatus, but I’m back. I should have an entry on France up tomorrow, and I’ll definitely have a new Cultural Parallels segment up by Tuesday night.

During my blast from the past, analog week, I read a bit of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, and I ventured into the world of watercolor painting. I used to draw and ink little characters in high school, but I haven’t kept a steady sketchbook since. Instead of the ink bottle and pen nibs I was accustomed to, I used a 0.35mm pen to put down the lines on this mermaid drawing. Surprisingly, my hands are steadier with the pen nibs? I’m not yet confident enough in my watercolor skills to attempt shading, but with practice I’ll get there. My real question is: should mermaids have bellybuttons?

The Human Canvas

Cultural Parallels

Modern tattoos are an outlet for self-expression. A symbol of devotion toward a loved one or a hate group, an act of empowerment after a mastectomy, or a drunken mistake, tattoos speak to our sense of individuality. Though historically used to dehumanize Jewish people during the Holocaust, tattoos today are generally viewed as a permanent brand of free will.

In certain civilizations, however, body art functions as a link to one’s culture. Painfully carved into the flesh, the permanence and prominence of Samoan tatau is an enduring nexus between ancient and modern tradition. Tatau are physical manifestations of a person’s mana, their spiritual influence or life force. Similarly, despite their impermanence, Indian mehndi (henna tattoos) are culturally significant. A representation of the sun, mehndi is a Vedic custom meant to evoke the awakening of one’s inner light. Henna body art is an ancient medium known by many names within many cultures. Though commonly attributed to India, the art form has also been practiced throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Despite minor variations in customary style, henna is frequently applied in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

Likewise, while tatau is a Polynesian tradition once practiced in Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, it is now most commonly associated with Samoa alone. The practice declined throughout Polynesia in the 19th century as a result of the emergence of Western missionaries and their Christian beliefs. Tatau was completely eradicated from Tonga and has failed to reemerge, on the basis that the procedure is unsafe and unchristian. The people of the Samoa Islands were unique for their uninterrupted preservation of traditional tatau.

Excruciating, and dangerous for the risk of infection, the continued practice of the traditional tatau process is a testament to the significance of ritual. Some modern Samoans have turned to contemporary Western tattoo machines, though master tattoo artists argue that the resulting tattoos are not authentic. These artists, called tufuga tatatau, are responsible for determining the placement and design of traditional tatau. Samoans believe that patron gods bestow tufuga tatatau with their skills, and as such the artists are revered and well compensated. Tufuga tatatau use handmade tools constructed of animal bones, shells, and wood. Driven by short taps from a mallet called the sausau, the au works like an adze, to carve out patterns in the flesh. The au consists of serrated bone combs affixed to a small turtle shell, with a bamboo hilt.

Soga’imiti with pe'a tatau

Soga’imiti with pe’a tatau. Photo credit: Todd Hunter McGaw.

All tatau are rites of passage, though some are of greater symbolic importance. Covering mid-torso to knees, and meant to represent bat wings enclosing the legs, the pe’a is the most extensive tatau. Men who complete the pe’a are henceforth referred to as soga’imiti, and are commended for their commitment to their extended family and heritage. Historically, this demonstration of courage was required of any man seeking the chief title, matai. While malu encircle women’s thighs, perhaps the most significant tatau for women is the lima. Performed on the hands, lima were necessary for any woman who wished to serve the ceremonial narcotic drink called kava.

Mamanu, or traditional patterns, are overwhelmingly geometric. The placement of a certain shape on the body can alter the design’s meaning. The tufuga tatatau who determine the outcome of the tattoo act as a guide, transitioning the tatau recipient from one stage of their life to the next. Tatau procedures are ceremonial events that can take upwards of three months to complete. Individuals are not tattooed alone; instead two or more people undergo the process at once.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Mehndi applied to the hands. Photo credit: Unknown.

Like traditional tatau, mehndi application is often a group event. Women from every generation of a family gather to adorn their hands and feet before holidays or major life events. One of the most popular applications is the Bridal Mehndi, performed before a wedding. Traditionally performed in the past by members of the Nai caste – an economically and educationally disadvantaged group considered an Other Backward Class by the Indian Government – modern mehndi artistry is a lucrative business for women of any social class.

Unlike tatau, the mehndi application itself can be completed in one session. However, both processes rely on curing, where there is an element of time involved. The tatau may take a year to heal and set properly, while the final color of a mehndi depends on a gradual oxidation over the course of one to three days. After being drawn on the skin from the tip of a cone, the design is washed in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar, and left to set. The henna itself is derived from a thick paste of mashed henna plant leaves. In fact, tatau and mehndi processes are both deeply rooted in nature. As previously mentioned, the tools a tufuga tatatau uses are all organic, and much like the natural henna leaves, tatau ink is a composite of soot from burned candlenut, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and other plant-based liquids.

Tatau traditions have been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. According to Samoan mythology, two sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga brought the art of tatau to Samoa after a visit to Fiji. Their original tools were made of human bones and their ink was human blood. Though the tatau is old, the henna tradition is perhaps thousands of years older. Hopefully, both traditions will endure long into the future.

Constant Vigilance!

Mona Lisa at the Louvre

The largest crowd in the Louvre surrounds the Mona Lisa

Pickpockets! Purse-snatchers! Vagabonds abound! The travel sites I read before my trip painted a lurid European landscape plagued by criminal masterminds and Dickensian street urchins. Each story read was another pearl clutched, and they left me determined to cling to my bag as though it were a life vest. Then I found accounts of robberies gone wrong, where the thief would slash the victim’s arm or back in an attempt to cut the straps off a backpack. Though troublesome, those stories added perspective. Fortunately, I never crossed paths with a knife-wielding maniac, and I was prepared for the con artists I encountered.

It’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive, and in this instance a bit of research protected me from being scammed. The U.S. Department of State website is a great place to start before embarking on an international journey. A useful resource full of valuable travel advice, the site offers information on visa and vaccination requirements, local laws, transportation, embassies, and more. They’ve added a Safety and Security segment for each country, detailing the most prevalent methods of crime in each region.

Enter your destination in the search box to learn more

Enter your destination in the search box to learn more

Did you drop this?

Typically when someone asks you if you’ve dropped something, it’s because they’re trying to be a good Samaritan. Sometimes they’re simply trying to swindle you. As I sat on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, gazing out over the Seine, I noticed a woman approaching me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bend down and pretend to pick up an imaginary object a few inches above the surface of the bridge.

“Excuse me,” she began, in faltering English, “did you drop this?” She extended her hand slowly towards me to reveal a gold ring. Despite her young face, the slight hunch of her shoulders rendered her witchlike, and I recoiled from the ring as though it were a poisoned apple. Recognizing the scam, I told her no as firmly as possible. As I suspected, she continued by telling me that the ring must be at least 14 karat gold, and that she wouldn’t mind selling it to me for a bargain. The ring most likely came from a 25¢ vending machine, or it was stolen. Either way, I didn’t go to Paris to buy a suspect ring on a bridge. I repeated the word no, hoping she would think it was the only English I knew, and soon enough she gave up.

 

Beggars can be choosers

I was advised not to engage with anyone in Florence who asked for money. Despite the warning that these interactions could be aggressive, I was not prepared for the level of persistence I ultimately faced. As I mentioned in the Instagram post above, a woman chased me down the street, miming a curved belly with her hands, while screaming, “Bambino, bambino, bambino!” She was relentless in her anguish, and I began to notice people narrowing their eyes at me, wondering if I had done something to her baby. I darted into a camera shop to ditch her, and watched as she glared at me through the window. Perhaps she was pregnant and in desperate need, but I’m more inclined to believe she saw me as an easy mark. She didn’t turn to anyone else for help. After a moment, she slipped back into the crowd and disappeared.

Sign this petition!

Do you truly believe you’re going to enact social change by signing a piece of paper in a foreign city? If a random person standing outside a tourist landmark thrusts a clipboard into your hands, it’s not a petition. It’s a scam. I sidestepped a group of clipboard-wavers outside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Later that day, I found out that a person on my tour decided to stop for them, and he wound up losing an AMEX Prepaid Card. After he signed the paper, the alleged petitioners informed him that he’d signed a legal document, agreeing to pay them €100. They threatened legal repercussions if he didn’t produce cash immediately. Attempting to deescalate the situation, he opened his wallet and showed them that he only had €10. In the ensuing confusion, they managed to slip the $500 AUD card from his wallet.

Frenemy bracelets

Much like the petition scam, this one is a bit of a bait and switch. Disarmed by the unexpected token of friendship, most people will not protest when a kind stranger offers a flimsy gift bracelet. In most cases, you generally are not even given a chance to decline. Once the braided strings are secured on your wrist, the deceiver will demand compensation for their wares. I met a Senegalese street vendor while I was sitting alone on a bench in Florence. Having abandoned the beggar lady earlier, I felt guilty for not being charitable. Otherwise, I probably would have feigned ignorance when he came up to ask me how my night was going. We spoke about his home country, and at the end of the conversation he pulled a rainbow friendship bracelet out of his basket of goods as he grabbed my wrist. Before he could tie a knot, I let him know that I didn’t have any cash on me, but he told me it was a gift. He said he enjoyed the conversation, and that not many people stopped to talk to him.

I was halfway up the Eiffel Tower stairs when the first light show started

I was halfway up the stairs when the first light show started, too disoriented to move

Monuments men

Obviously, not all street vendors are alike. I was initially wary of the man in Florence because I’d seen belligerent street vendors in Paris and Pisa. Tourist locations are crawling with people peddling water bottles, lit up balls that go splat against the concrete, whistling toys, and other general knickknacks. One man in particular circled me like a hawk beneath the Eiffel Tower, as I watched the light show, constantly pushing his products on me. I think he assumed that I would eventually concede if only to get him to leave me alone, but I really don’t know what I would do with a glowing rubber ball. If you visit the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, la Sagrada Familia, or any tourist landmark of that ilk, prepare to chat with street vendors. Frequently.

I won’t go so far as to say that you can’t trust anybody, but you should be cautious when you travel. Another person on my tour lost all her money and her driver’s license when we crossed Ponte Vecchio in Florence. She peeked over the side of the bridge, and in the two seconds she took her eyes off her purse, a pickpocket grabbed her wallet. I avoid purses with magnetic closures in general, but they are especially risky in a crowded sightseeing spot. My best advice for travelers is not to look like a tourist. Travel light, look confident in your surroundings, and always listen to that little Mad-Eye voice in your head that counsels constant vigilance!

Wooden Effigies with an Inner Spark

Cultural Parallels

Various cultures throughout the world believe that the human body is an ephemeral vessel for the soul. Amongst the North American Hopi and African Yoruba there exists a conviction that spirits can also endure within the confines of small wooden effigies, respectively called Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji. The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation located in northeastern Arizona, spans 1.5 million acres and comprises 12 villages across three mesas. The Yoruba primarily occupy the city of Lagos, situated in southwestern Nigeria, though they have also migrated to cities in neighboring countries.

Representing the largest ethnic group in Africa, the Yoruba are distinctive for having the highest rate of dizygotic twins in the world. Due to the prevalence of this genetic anomaly, Yoruba mythology has shifted social attitudes towards twins from overwhelming distrust to reverence. Twins are celebrated as auspicious, near-mystical beings bestowed with the ability to bring joy and prosperity. Yoruba believe that twins enter the world as two halves of a whole, sharing a soul. As a result, the death of one twin can trigger a hazardous spiritual imbalance for the surviving twin.

Matching Yoruba Ere Ibeji statues, signifying the death of both twins

Matching Yoruba Ere Ibeji statues, signifying the death of both twins. Artist unknown.

Upon the death of a newborn twin, the mother will attempt to restore harmony for the extant twin by consulting a Babalawo, a Grand Priest in the Ifá religion. Able to divine knowledge from the Orishas, the spirit manifestations of the tripartite Supreme God, the Babalawo can advise the grieving family. Following this discussion, it is customary for the family to commission an artisan to carve a small, symbolic wooden replacement for the lost child. These Ere Ibeji figures realign spiritual balance by functioning as hosts for the wayward fraction of shared soul. As a representative twin, the Ere Ibeji (ere = sacred image, ibi = born, eji = two) are washed, fed, and clothed on a regular basis.

Across the Atlantic, settled high above the remote, arid desert of Arizona, the Hopi rely on their sacred covenant with Maasaw, the ancient caretaker of the earth. The word Hopi itself means peaceful people, and it is indicative of the lifestyle the Hopi strive to uphold. Akin to the Yoruba Orishas, Hopi venerate a pantheon of spirit gods called Katsinam. According to Hopi tribal members, “Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests, and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds.”

Traditional Hopi Tribe Katsina Dolls, carved by Ernie Moore

Traditional Hopi Tribe Katsina Dolls, carved by Ernie Moore.

The Katsinam visit the Arizonan mesas to dance among the Hopi for six months each year. On the night of the summer solstice, they return to their spiritual home amid the lofty San Francisco Peaks. To keep the essence of the Katsinam close all year, the Hopi carve allegorical Katsina (singular of Katsinam) dolls out of cottonwood tree root. These dolls, used as teaching tools for children, generally represent spirit beings, guards, racers, ogres, and clowns. From ages one through 10, Hopi girls receive roughly two Katsina dolls per year. Often pigmented with natural dyes so they are not toxic to children, these dolls connect the Hopi with their ancestry by guaranteeing that each generation learn the significance of what it means to be a peaceful people.

Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji are tactile figures, designed for family members to touch and interact with. It is important to remember that while children may handle these models, they are not toys. As the corporeal manifestations of familial spirits, these figures are deeply rooted in the Hopi and Yoruba religious experiences.

Bonus Fact: Katsina State is the name of a northern state in Nigeria.

Cultural Parallels is a new weekly feature dedicated to introducing readers to the ties that bind global traditions. Check back each Tuesday for new installments.