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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Punuk or Thule
Anthropomorphic Doll’s Heads
Ivory, 2-2 ½” Height, c.1000 -1400 AD
Punuk or Thule Anthropomorphic Doll’s Heads
Punuk or Thule Anthropomorphic Doll’s Heads

Among the most beautiful, iconic and mysterious works of art from the Arctic, are small dolls carved from walrus ivory, especially the very earliest ones from the Okvik period (c. 250 BCE - 250 AD).

Okvik dolls are simultaneously graceful and formidable, with stylized heads and bodies reduced to their most essential elements, typically without arms, never with feet, their torsos commonly a simple trunk. Yet, as works of art, they are reminiscent of the monumental Easter Island figures, stoic and stern, belying their intimate scale. They are also engraved with matrices of patterns, suggestive of tattoo marks, ancestral trees, skeletal tracings, and various other decorations symbolic of shamanic meaning. It is from Okvik dolls that we come to understand the very first expressions of a well-established society, whose stability and resources allowed for the development of organized religious practices, with a human as a central deity.

A good deal of speculation has been made about the function of these dolls. It is possible that they were utilized by shamans for a funerary purpose, and there is some evidence that the heads might have been ritualistically broken off when buried with someone. Many of the dolls have opened mouths, suggestive of singing or blowing, a gesture indicative of shamanic performance. However, the most likely explanation comes from a ritual practice that was carried on into modern times among Arctic people throughout the region, that these dolls were domestic protectors and guardian spirits, similar in purpose to the Bes figures from ancient Egypt.

Contemporary accounts by Inu elders claim that house dolls were ritualistically “fed” to keep them happy, especially after a successful hunt, and this too may account for the opened mouth so commonly seen. Too, quite a few of these dolls are female, with explicitly sexual features, suggestive of fertility figures. Their apotropaeic nature as domestic amulets, then, probably was holistic, and this may also explain their abundance as well as diminutive scale.

Whatever their function, they remain elusively compelling and expressive.