Zuni Fetishes + Necklace

Hand Carved Talismans

These little stone works of art from a past Beehive sale are known in English as Zuni Fetishes. They are based on a very old form of Native American religious talisman. The word ‘Fetish’ in this context is an earlier usage derived from the Latin facticius, ‘artificial’ and facere, ‘to make’; it denotes human-made objects imbued with holy protective powers; it definitely does not have anything to do with sexual proclivities.

The blue, grey and white carving is a bear, while the pale green/grey speckled carving can be identified as a horse by its nominal tail and inscribed lines representing its mane. These ‘Fetish’ carvings are always small; the horse is about the size of an adult thumb, while the bear could rest in the palm of your hand. The bear is most likely made of sodalite, while the material the stone horse is made of is harder to identify but may be tree agate, jasper or California jade (nephrite).

Look closely and you’ll see that the horse has tiny inset turquoise eyes. Both fetishes carry a symbolic arrowhead on their backs held on with sinew. The larger bear’s sinew is decorated with coral and turquoise beads. Many carved Zuni fetishes have arrowheads on their backs; it is a primary identifying characteristic of the art form. Others may have a “heart-line”, an inset arrow in contrasting stone arced along their body from their mouth to their heart.

It is important to emphasize the central role that religion plays in Zuni life, and therefore note that NONE of the carvings sold as Zuni fetishes are genuine religious articles, even though they are made by Zuni artists living on Zuni lands. True Zuni religious animal carvings, which have been blessed by a medicine man, are not sold commercially.

This vintage necklace from another sale is a Zuni ‘Fetish necklace’, another version of fetish animals which is believed to confer protection on the wearer. Each animal is only 1″ long; the fastener is silver, while the beads are carved from a variety of stones and shell, the white being mother-of-pearl. Coral and shell was obtained from tribes hundreds of miles away, for hundreds of years.

The Zuni are a traditionally Pueblo-dwelling Native American tribe in New Mexico. They are federally recognized and have farmed corn in the same area along the Zuni River valley for 3,000 to 4,000 years. This Zuni 2- Spirits weaver was photographed around the turn of the century, while the two women along the banks of the Zuni river were photographed in 1926. The Zuni’s name for themselves is Ashiwi, and their homeland is called ‘Halona Idiwan’a’, or Middle Place. With the influx of Spanish explorers, followed by Americans moving west from the eastern United States, the Zuni also adopted ranching sheep and cattle, animals introduced from Europe. The sparse desert environment is better suited to sheep than cattle, and all farming and ranching must be practiced with great care and a complex system of community support among tribal members.

Today many Zuni make a living creating traditional arts such as pottery, rugs, jewelry and fetishes. Over time, the choice of animal has expanded to include foreign species and likewise, a broader range of imported stone.

If you get lucky and find your own Zuni Fetish at a QBO sale, know that it is traditional to care for them by feeding them pinches of cornmeal, corn pollen or ground turquoise dust, and to house them in purpose-made, turquoise-inlaid pots or pouches. Happy Hunting!

Toothpick Holders

A Winning Smile

Did you know Americans use over 30 billion toothpicks every year and that they’re found in 95% of American homes? Me neither. And yet here, we are admiring toothpick holders found at QBO sales. First your basic, plastic picnic toothpick dispenser. Boring but handy.

Next, two from the late 1800s – early 1900s, when toothpicks were promoted as a luxury good by an ambitious Mr. Charles Forster, who had admired orange-wood picks carved by the locals when he visited Brazil. The pressed glass toothpick holder (possibly a reproduction) imitates more expensive cut-crystal, while the silverplate eggshell-and-chick offers dinner guests their toothpick as a gift with “best wishes” (note the wishbone!)

When Mr. Forster returned to Boston he invented machines to mass-produce birch toothpicks and hired two Harvard students to dine out at fine restaurants all around town and demand wooden toothpicks at the end of their meal. No-one had ever heard of birch toothpicks but the guerilla marketing worked, creating a demand where none had existed. Prior to that, most people used quills (the ‘stem’ part of a feather), while those in the elite carried their own permanent toothpicks made of ivory, silver or gold.

Restaurants everywhere started offering their patrons birch toothpicks. By the time this gaping baby bird toothpick holder was made (between the 1920s – 50s) there were 12 toothpick factories in the U.S. The bird is marked “made in Japan”, which helps date it. Japanese moriage, a technique of decorating porcelain with 3-dimentional slip glazes as seen on this little bird’s feathers, was produced from the end of the 1800s through mid-20th century, but prior to 1921 all Japanese ceramic export goods were labeled “Made in Nippon” not “Made in Japan”.

There are multiple castings of this baby bird decorated with different techniques; crudely glazed in plain colors, in pearlescent pastel lusterware or in moriage trimmed in gold.

This goofy, toothy hippo is handmade stoneware, unsigned so accurately dating her is impossible, but the 1970s is a good guess. There was a minor rebellion against the prevailing bright, slick, ‘atomic’ Mid-Century Modern aesthetic which then produced a counter-demand for heavy, rustic handmade stonewares glazed in subdued ‘natural’ colors. But, the movement was not Puritan, lots of humorous ‘hippy’ pottery got made, and it happily sometimes shows up at QBO.

If you look closely, this turquoise critter is riddled with holes for holding toothpicks, making him a porcupine. He was hand carved and hand painted in Mexico, any time from the 1980s onward. The small, nut-like vessel actually IS a nut from the Tagua Palm. In Victorian times it was called corozo or ‘vegetable ivory’ after its color and hardness which allowed it to be carved into buttons, dice, knife handles and chess pieces. Before plastic, 20% of the buttons in the U.S. were tagua. In the 1980s a high-end clothing designer re-introduced tagua buttons on their pricey natural fiber pieces but ran into trouble when the buttons broke after being soaked in washing machines. Being a seed, nature actually programmed the tagua nut to break open when soaked, so if you buy a tagua toothpick holder, don’t soak it!

Today there are only 3 toothpick makers left in the U.S.: Diamond Brands, Strong Wood Products and yes, Forster, still chugging away in Maine near the birch forests. Are you one of the 95% of American households that owns toothpicks? A Harvard student told me you need a fabulous holder from QBO!

Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheels

Spinning Mantras

These small works of art found at a Beehive sale are Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, most likely made somewhere in the Himalayan mountain range. They have spinning parts but are not toys, they are devotional tools used by spiritual leaders, monks, nuns and ordinary people alike.

Both this hand-held brass version and the painted, stand-mounted carved version are smaller than most, so they may have been made for tourists. A 3rd, broken wheel shows the hollow interior. Prayer wheels are found in Tibet and places with expatriate Tibetan populations. Due to strife between Tibet and neighboring China which culminated in China annexing Tibet in 1951, many Tibetans fled across the borders to settle in neighboring Nepal and India, where Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama now lives in exile. In the U.S. there are communities of Tibetan Americans in Portland and Seattle, and in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and New York.

Prayer wheels are hollow cylinders made of metal, wood, stone, or leather mounted on a spindle. The exterior is decorated with a mantra (devotional chant) written in Ranjana or Tibetan script. “Om mani padme hum” is the most common but there are many others. “Om mani padme hum” references the Jewel in the Lotus, an embodiment of complex religious ideas. The hollow interior holds a central “life tree” core around which is wrapped a long paper or velum scroll also inscribed with a repeating sacred text. As with the exterior of the wheel, these can vary. The wheels work when they are spun. The hand-held versions have small counter- weights on chains (here, a solid brass conch shell) which helps keep the wheel rotating while the larger, fixed-mount wheels are given a good push by people as they pass by.

Reciting mantras is to purify and spiritually strengthen the practitioner and then spread that energy outward to benefit all living things. If there are 500 mantras written on the scroll inside a single wheel, then each spin is equal to reciting that mantra 500 times. Therefore a devout practitioner can generate millions of mantras, spreading good out into the world. However the use of the wheel is intended to supplement rather than replace other devotional practices. The prayer wheel can be used while praying at home, or while walking through holy sites. These large, architecturally mounted prayer wheels are at the holy site of Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Prayer wheels have also been found in unexpected places. This is the coat of arms of New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. He, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first humans to summit Mount Everest, highest peak in the world, in 1953. The two men remained lifelong friends and Hillary returned to Nepal many times, both as a climber and to help build schools, airports and hospitals.

When Sir Hilary was knighted by Queen Elizabeth he chose the prayer wheel for his coat of arms to honor the people of the Himalayas. He was made an honorary Nepalese citizen and the Indian Government awarded him its second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan. Tenzing received the Star of Nepal and there is a small, high-altitude airport in Lukla, Nepal, called the Tenzing-Hillary Airport. Sir Edmund’s son Peter Hillary and Tenzing’s son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest in 2002 in honor of the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ achievement. If you’d like to explore further, visit QBO.

Easter Eggs and Icons

Happy Easter!

Queen B celebrates this Easter with beautiful eggs from some of our sales. In the U.S. Sunday, April 9, is officially Easter, when Western Christian churches celebrate. But these works of art are from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which uses a different calendar so their Easter is Sunday, April 16th. Easter (also called Pascha or Resurrection Sunday) commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but eggs, along with the Easter Bunny, were originally fertility symbols from earlier European pagan celebrations that welcomed the end of winter and the start of spring.

This first Easter egg is wooden and painted with both the birth of Jesus and his death. It is heavily decorated with a metallic  ‘gold’ leaf in the style of the religious icons that decorate Eastern Orthodox churches. Much larger, the church icons use real gold and portray holy personages, saints, and scenes from the Bible and the life of Christ. The Greek word for Icon, Αγιογραφία; means Holy or Heavenly (Άγιο) plus Γράφω, ‘to write’, so icons tell the stories of holy events. They are regarded as ‘windows into heaven’ and have remained unchanged since Byzantine times.

Small icons are made for both devotees and tourists, so they too are found at our sales. These two represent  The Annunciation (the Angel telling the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen) and Mary with the baby Jesus. Like the church icons, both are gilt on wood.

Eastern Orthodoxy is the majority religion in much of Eastern Europe, including Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia, Cyprus and Montenegro and is also practiced by many in Central Asia and the Mediterranean. In the U.S. there are 3 to 6 million Eastern Orthodox practitioners.

This basket of eggs showcases a famous Ukrainian folk art, Pysanka, in which layers of fine detail are applied to blown eggs using a wax resist. The oldest pysanka (a goose egg) was excavated in the city of Lviv and dates to around the 15th century. Like the icons, the word pysanka comes from pysaty (писати), meaning ‘to write’. Similar crafts are also practiced in other Slavic countries.

These spectacular eggs take hours to make. After each wax resist design dries, the egg is dyed another color, leaving the color protected by the resist unchanged, while altering the overall surrounding background. The dyes are transparent and additive, so light colors must be done first, followed by dark. The buildup creates the final base color and requires care to avoid producing a sludgy shade. If you look at each egg, you can work out the order in which resist and dyes were applied, with ‘eggshell white’ always being first. The technique is similar to batik (used to decorate cloth) and uses similar tools.

There are hundreds of motifs with symbolic meanings, some dating back to pre-Christian, Paleolithic times. The spiral was believed to protect against evil spirits by trapping them. The dots can be seeds or the Virgin Mary’s tears. However, the wheat stalks seen on two of these eggs are modern designspopular among the descendants of Ukrainian immigrants living in the U.S. They are not found on traditional pysanky, so we can surmise that these eggs were made locally.

In countries like Poland and Romania, the craft is made easier and more durable by painting on wooden eggs. Although the same attention to detail is required, the formidable calculation involving multiple layers of dyes has been eliminated. How ever you celebrate your spring renewal, do it with us at QBO!