Under the Knife: Appearance and Wealth

Miss Bum Bum 2015 contest

Contestants in Brazil’s 2015 Miss Bum Bum competition. Photo credit: Splash News.

Looks aren’t everything—unless you live in Brazil or South Korea. Appearance-wise, the two nations’ citizens are polar opposites, yet both populations strive for a similar physical archetype. South Koreans undergo elective surgery to diverge from perceived Asian homogeneity and attain elements of Western beauty. Conversely, as a result of Brazil’s long, painful history of slavery, the country has an extremely diverse population. Between 1501 and 1866, an estimated 4.9 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa, which is a staggering 40 percent of the total slaves brought to the Americas. Despite this diversity, many Brazilians are determined to look white, regardless of how many procedures they might have to endure. Appearance and wealth are closely linked in Brazil and South Korea, and for many, cosmetic surgery is a small hurdle to jump in the race toward prosperity.

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Military Women and Music

Cultural Parallels


From propaganda potential to protest principles, music has always been an important element of war. In our darkest hours, music has the ability to remind us of our humanity. Military drummers once charged into battle, unarmed, to rally troops, demoralize the enemy, and send messages with their instruments. Throughout history, soldiers have sung ballads to remember the fallen and boost morale. And yet, while music is an effective tool in the promotion of military unity, it has also been used to segregate female soldiers in Israel and Russia.

33rd Caracal Battalion

Soldiers of the 33rd Caracal Battalion. 70% of the soldiers in this infantry combat battalion are women. Photo credit: Pinterest

Women serve in various military roles around the world, but only three nations conscript women. Eritrea’s indefinite conscription of men and women, instituted in 1995, is a human rights violation, while Norway’s recently approved female conscription, effective January 2015, boasts equality. Israel, however, is unique for being the first country in the world to conscript women. Shortly after gaining independent statehood and assembling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1948, Israel began requiring mandatory military service for adult women without children. Before the late 1970s, female soldiers were restricted to serving secretarial and technical roles in the Women’s Army Corps to mitigate the possibility of their becoming prisoners of war. After five weeks of basic training, the women generally served as nurses, signal operators, flight controllers, drivers, clerks, and teachers. Manpower shortages in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, compelled women to undertake additional field roles. The 2000 Equality amendment to the Military Service law expanded these opportunities for women, and sanctioned entrance into light combat and combat support roles. The amendment states, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.”

Though Israeli women have earned the right to defend their country, they are not permitted to sing. Kol B’Isha Ervah, literally, “The voice of a woman is nakedness,” prohibits women from singing in the presence of men, in accordance with Orthodox Judaism. IDF rabbis of the Haredim, a strict Orthodox sect of Judaism, prevent female soldiers from participating in certain celebrations and ask them to dance in separate areas from men. Many argue that one female voice cannot be heard within a group, under Talmudic rule. The Talmud, a rabbinic text, states that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamay,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously. This principle is used to prohibit two people from reading out of the Torah at once, but it is also being used to consider leniency for female singers.

Female Israeli soldier with rifle

IDF soldiers carry their weapons everywhere off-base, as they can be imprisoned for losing them. Ein Fashka, the Dead Sea, Israel, 1989. Photo credit: Unknown

Israeli women are required to serve in the IDF for 24 months, though certain service roles, such as those involving combat, may legally demand a commitment of 36 months. Female combat soldiers operate for three years of active duty, and are required to remain in reserves service until age 38, regardless of motherhood status. Otherwise, religious conscience, marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood are all valid exemptions from joining service initially.

Though women are not subject to conscription in Russia, female soldiers represent ten percent of modern Russian military strength. However, women’s involvement in the Russian Armed Forces stems more from necessity than equality. Sustaining heavy losses during WWI, the Russian Army was forced to begin relying on women. In March 1917, a recruit named Maria Bochkareva, formerly of the 25th Reserve Battalion, formed the Women’s Battalion of Death to increase manpower. Bochkareva enlisted approximately 2,000 female soldiers between the ages of 13 and 25. The young women fought bravely against German forces during the 1917 June Offensive, but the battalion was quickly decimated. Within three months of action, the Women’s Battalion of Death was reduced from 2,000 to around 250 soldiers.

A Miss Russian Army 2007 beauty pageant contestant

A Miss Russian Army 2007 beauty pageant contestant. Photo credit: Toovia

After WWII ended, many military career opportunities were closed to women, despite equality policies. Sexist attitudes run rampant, though women have the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces. The modern Russian Army currently holds an annually televised beauty contest called Miss Russian Army, dedicated to determining which female soldier is the most beautiful. Held at the Russian Army Theatre, participating female soldiers and sailors are expected to model their uniforms on a catwalk while singing military propaganda songs, with such lyrics as, “Since we are soldiers, our first concern is automatic weapons; boys come second.”

The Miss Russian Army pageant unapologetically uses female soldiers as props to increase army recruitment of young men. Ironically, Russian officials prohibit the women from wearing bikinis during the beauty pageant, though Israeli female soldiers, restrained on duty under the watchful eye of the pious Haredim, are often seen wearing bikinis at the beach while toting rifles over their shoulders. Whereas Israeli women are legally bound to serve without singing in the presence of men, Russian women are tolerated in the military so long as they entertain men with a song and dance.

Living with the Dead


Geraldine Javier, Ella Amo’ Apasionadamente y Fue Correspondida (For She Loved Fiercely, and She is Well-Loved), 2010, oil on canvas, with framed insets of embroidery with preserved butterflies, 229 x 160 cm, Singapore Art Museum collection

Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between the living and the dead. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.

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You Would Cry Too

Cultural Parallels

Birthdays always blindside me, like an annual cairn of squandered youth. The preceding weeks are filled with vague dread, until suddenly it’s my birthday, and I’m like, “It’s my birthday? Already? HOW?” Lamentably, the only thing more predictable than the day itself is the crying that ensues. Birthday tears are a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as Lesley Gore said, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to!” In honor of my birthday, this week’s Cultural Parallels is dedicated to four global birthday traditions that might inspire you to shed a tear.

Li xi, or lucky money, is given in red envelopes. Photo credit: Intead

Li xi, or lucky money, is given in red envelopes. Photo credit: Intead


The Vietnamese New Year celebration Tết Nguyên Đán, literally the Festival of the First Day, functions as a birthday party for everyone in the country. In Vietnam, people do no acknowledge the day they were born. Instead, the Vietnamese align themselves with the lunar calendar symbol from the year they were born.

Thimble cake

Little thimble cakes. Photo credit: Pinterest


Some people in England still practice an ancient birthday tradition involving coins and thimbles. In Medieval England, these small, symbolic items concealed in cake batter prophesied the future. A coin in one’s slice of cake was a welcome ingredient because it was said to have foretold future wealth. Unfortunately, not all cake surprises are equal. Those who received the thimble, a tool of the spinster, were unlikely to wed.

North Korean war veterans, tearing up. Photo credit: Daily Mail

North Korean war veterans, tearing up. Photo credit: Daily Mail

North Korea

Kim Il-sung was the premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from its 1948 inception until he died, July 8, 1994. Picking up the mantle upon his father’s death, Kim Jong-il ruled until his own death on December 17, 2011. As a result, North Koreans born on July 8th and December 17th refrain from celebrating on their birthdays. Instead, they celebrate on the following day.

Drinks are on me! Photo credit: Daily Mail

Drinks are on me! Photo credit: Daily Mail


In Germany, it pays not to have many friends. In America, people are accustomed to being taken out for birthday drinks by their friends. Germans, however, traditionally pay the tab for all the guests they invite out on their birthday.

What’s in a Name?

Cultural Parallels

Shakespeare’s infamous second act of Romeo and Juliet posits the arbitrary consequence of names by asking, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet muses to herself that were Romeo no longer a Montague, or she no longer a Capulet, the two star-crossed lovers would be free to pursue their relationship outside the confines of their feuding families. Shared familial surnames enforce the notion that identity is linked to the family unit. Iceland and Spain reject conventional Western naming practices in favor of those that promote individuality and gender equality. Though different, both structures endorse matrilineal genealogy in ways most Western societies do not. Notably, women of Iceland and Spain do not take their spouse’s name after marriage.

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

Leif Erikson, the historic Norse explorer. Photo credit: DK Find Out

In Iceland, kenninafn, or surnames, are patronymic, meaning that the father’s given name forms the root of the child’s surname. This structure links the child to their parent but does not reflect any family lineage. Icelandic surnames are gendered, ending in the suffix ‐son (son) for males and ‐dóttir (daughter) for females. Therefore, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the son of Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who was in turn the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson. Modern endeavors toward gender equality and a sudden rise in single motherhood have led to matronymic surnames. Icelandic footballer Heiðar Helguson’s name, for example, indicates that he is the son of his mother, Helga. In some cases, people can have a last name comprised of both matronymic and patronymic elements. Reykjavík City mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson is the son of Bergþóra and Eggert.

Thwarting concepts of legacy and lineage, it is unclear how nepotism would work in Iceland. In America, legacy names can secure places at prestigious universities, or otherwise pave the way for a life of privilege. In Iceland, the response to “Don’t you know who I am?” would most likely be a resounding “No.” With popular Icelandic musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men gaining worldwide recognition, it would be insincere to claim that fame is nonexistent in Iceland. However, with an average population of 329,000 people, there is a narrower gap between stars and their audience than there would be in most other developed countries. Partially due to this sense of national intimacy, but mostly because of the structure of Icelandic last names, Icelanders are generally referred to by their first names. Singer Björk uses her first name only, though her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir. The current Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, is simply referred to as Sigmundur Davíð. This familiarity is uniquely Icelandic, though the patronymic system was once common throughout Scandinavia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden abolished patronymic names through separate national laws and adopted the Western concept of family names.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by his maternal name because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is known by Picasso, not Ruiz, because it is less common. Photo credit: Kübra Geyik

Spanish apellidos, or last names, are a unification of a person’s parents’ surnames. The dual apellido system dates back to the sixteenth-century upper classes of Castille but only became common in the nineteenth century. Generally, a child is given the first surname of both the father and the mother. For example, if a man named Mateo Álvarez García and a woman named Marisol Ramón Benítez conceived a son named José Enrique, his full name would most likely be José Enrique Álvarez Ramón. Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage, as doing so would eliminate the cultural practice of having two last names. In the way that Icelandic women would not suddenly become someone else’s daughter upon marriage, it would not make sense for Spanish women to cast aside their parents’ names. However, some Spanish women may choose to informally append their husband’s paternal surname with the particle de (of). Marisol Ramón Benítez, from the earlier example, would then be Marisol Ramón Benítez de Álvarez. Used solely for social purposes, the name would have no legal value.

Due to this format, members of a nuclear family cannot have the same last name unless they are siblings. Gender equality laws passed in 1999 enable matrilineal surname transmission to precede patrilineal transmission, such that our imaginary José Enrique Álvarez Ramón might instead be called José Enrique Ramón Álvarez. As the first surname is typically paternal, and children only take the first part of each parent’s surname, the maternal elements are generally lost after one generation. Regardless of which configuration parents choose for their firstborn, each subsequent child must legally bear the same arrangement of last names. Much like the Icelandic convention, Spanish surnames are generational, linking siblings, yet estranging children from a singularly named nuclear family unit.

Icelandic Ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit: fineartamerica.com

Icelandic ponies. Why? Because! Photo credit: Fine Art America

Before 1925, Icelanders were legally permitted to invent a family name, but that is no longer the case, unless granted by special exception. The Iceland Naming Committee, formed in 1991, upholds rules regarding the names of its citizens. Unlike Spanish citizens, Icelanders cannot have more than three personal names. Moreover, Icelandic names must adhere to the nation’s grammar, and they must contain only letters that exist in the language. The Icelandic alphabet contains thirty-two letters, not including C, Q, W, or Z. Despite the prevalence of Charlottes, Quinns, Walters, and Zacharys in the Western world, the Icelandic Naming Committee would reject said names and would require any immigrants with those names to choose a suitable Icelandic alternative. Iceland itself is referred to as Ísland by its inhabitants, due to the lack of the letter C in the native language, Íslenska.

Language aside, the Icelandic naming format can present unique problems. Families traveling abroad with small children are often scrutinized by customs officers who might not be familiar with families wherein mother, father, sister, and brother could potentially all have different surnames. To avoid this type of confusion within the country, Icelandic phonebooks have to be alphabetized by first name. Naming structures are strict, and occasionally challenging, but the Icelandic language is an important element of national identity amongst Icelanders. Today, with some effort, most Icelanders would be able to read the thirteenth-century Prose Edda drafted in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson. In contrast, the epic poem Beowulf, composed in Old English sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries, is incomprehensible to most modern English speakers.

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

Mendoza Vineyard with mountain view, in Argentina. Photo credit: Zicasso

The links between Spanish language and names are also strong. In some cases, Spanish surnames offer insight into the geographic history of one’s ancestors. The name Mendoza suggests that centuries ago, the family came from an area by a cold mountain, while those named Morales may have lived by blackberry groves. Occupational names such as Herrera, Molinero, and Romero, suggest that one’s ancestors were ironworkers, millers, and pilgrims, respectively. Descriptive names like Cortés (courteous), Delgado (thin), Moreno (brown hair and skin), and Rubio (blond) are common, as well.

Some of the most common Spanish family names are products of a historic patronymic system similar to the Icelandic model, though perhaps more akin to the Irish O’‐ (descendant of) and Mc‐ or Mac‐ (son of) prefix conventions established between the tenth and twelfth centuries—some of the earliest in Europe. Historically, the Spanish suffix ‐ez meant “son of,” denoting that a man with the surname Rodríguez was the son of a man named Rodrigo, or that a Sánchez was the son of Sancho, a González was the son of Gonzalo, and so on. Like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—and Ireland—Spain eventually converted patronymic names into heritable family names.

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.

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.

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.

Food for Thought


Clostridium botulinum – or more specifically, the botulism toxin it produces – will kill you. Botulism triggers paralysis; first arresting your extremities, before seizing your respiratory system, and effectively asphyxiating you. I took Food Science 101 in college under the false assumption that it would be easy. Each lesson was like watching Investigation Discovery, only the killers weren’t Wives with Knives or Evil Twins, they were listeria, E. coli, and salmonella. For most people, food safety concern begins and ends with a cursory glance at a use by date. Water treatment has washed cholera from our minds.

Far from being afraid, modern society is obsessed with food. Instagram hosts hundreds of thousands of in memoriam photos of dinners gone too soon. I’m pretty sure Yelp exists solely as weapon of emotional blackmail over restaurateurs. Food is shared amongst our social media plates, but it’s also consumed on TV. Between Food Network, Cooking Channel, daily Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares marathons on BBC America, The Taste, and every other MSG-fueled grab for our attention, we should be full. Somehow there’s room for more. Travel Channel, despite seemingly devoting itself to the subject of travel, has devolved into a veritable smörgåsbord of food programming.

I understand that food can be wonderful and terrible, sometimes simultaneously, as in the case of deep fried lemonade. Food is colorful and varied, and in some ways serves as a metaphor for the people who eat it. We are what we eat. Eating is often a shared experience, a way to bring people together and forge connections. Cuisine is intrinsically linked to culture, yet it is only a fragment of a nation’s identity. Entomophagy, the human consumption of insects as food, fascinates those of us who would much sooner run from a bug than put it in our mouths. Though insects are eaten on every continent, we cling to the narrative that the practice is unique to places like Thailand. We satisfy ourselves with this glimpse into their culture, the Bizarre Foods they eat. I wish Travel Channel would live up to its name, but food is easy, right?