Bolivian Skull Ceremony Blends Ancient Rite With Catholicism

Hundreds of Bolivians had human skulls blessed at a chapel in La Paz in an annual ceremony on Friday that mixes traditional Andean ancestor worship with Roman Catholic customs.

The skulls, called “natitas” – “flat noses” in the local Aymara indigenous language — are ideally from unknown people and are collected from abandoned cemeteries, but some are of long dead relatives, according to The Associated Press.

The news agency says:

“The Roman Catholic Church considers the skull festival to be pagan, but it doesn’t prohibit people from taking part in it. Mass was not being held at the chapel on Friday, but a bowl of holy water was left out so people could bless the skulls they were carrying in the ritual celebrated a week after the Day of the Dead.

The skulls are carried to the cemetery chapel in urns of wood or glass, or in toy boxes. All have crowns of nardos, a curative plant with white, fragrant blossoms. Some skulls wear hats or caps inscribed with a name. Others wear sunglasses or even sport a lit cigarette in their mouths.”

Experts say in pre-Columbian times, it was common for skulls to be kept as trophies and displayed.

The BBC reported on the festival in 2009, noting that:

“Captain Victor is one of La Paz’s most popular objects of devotion. This cigarette-stained skull, supposedly of a former policeman, is revered as a deity by a faithful group of followers who believe he is an “integral part of their faith”.

Tradesmen, poor indigenous women, students, police officers and even members of parliament visit him year round to ask favours and shower him with flower petals, coca leaves and cigarettes.”

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