The hornbill is a highly symbolic and important bird to many peoples in the numerous countries it calls home across the world. The most obvious case is the extraordinarily strong beak which is a symbol of power. However the characteristics and behaviour of the bird are simultaneously representations of the male phallus, the act of intercourse and the female mothering instinct. For the female of the species enclose themselves almost entirely within the nest with only room for the male beak to deliver food as it peers through.
Papua New Guinea - Here the hornbill plays a major symbolic role; it is associated with head hunting and the transfer of power. It also unites female and male characteristics important in initiation ceremonies due to the way in which the female hornbill walls herself in her nest with the male entering with only his beak is symbolic of intercourse, yet it is also a sign of nurture. In New Ireland territory they also act as carriers of the soul to the land of the dead.
|Met Museum: Abelam people, Middle Sepik River Culture & Deutscher and Hackett: Nelikum Village, Maprik District, East Sepik Province|
|Ripley Auctions: Abelam People, Prince Alexander Mountains|
|Australian Museum: Malagan, Northern region, New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea, Pacific|
Indonesia - In East Kalimantan province Hudoq ‘hornbill’ masks are worn during agricultural ceremonies and to welcome important guests. The Hudoq scares away evil spirits but also by clowning around they create the tears of laughter, these are believed to help water the newly planted rice. The mask is a unique morphing of many elements of Dayak mythology including the hornbill (celestial messenger of the upper world), the dragon (symbol of the lower world), and an ancestor-spirit form. The Dayak, Iban, Kalani and Punani people of Borneo practice a cult of the hornbills, whom they consider messengers of the spirits and symbols of virility. These people make masks and collars from the wing feathers and bills of these birds. Dayaks believe that the souls obey only to two divine powers: the sky, whose image is the hornbill, and the land with water, symbolised by the infernal snake.
Malaysia - The largest sculptures of the Iban people of northwestern Borneo are stylized images representing the rhinoceros hornbill (kenyalang), a large forest bird whose beak is surmounted by a hornlike projection typically depicted, as here, as a spiral form. In Iban religion, hornbills are associated with the upper world, and they were once identified with warfare and headhunting. In Iban cosmology, hornbills serve as intermediaries between the powerful deity Singalang Burong and the human world. Hornbill effigies receive offerings during the gawai kenyalang, a ceremony that in the past could only be sponsored by a prominent war leader or his descendants. They are also used in similar rites called gawai burong. At the climax of the ceremony, the sacred hornbill image, lavishly decorated for the occasion, is elevated atop a tall pole inserted through a hole in its body. Between ceremonies, it is preserved in the loft of the communal longhouse.
|depepermuntjesknipper: Hudoq Dance Masks|
|Kenyalang - Malaysia (Borneo, Sarawak), Iban people|
|Tuntun Ragu carved hornbill|
|Hornbill carving, Borneo, Malaysia|
Ivory Coast - In Seunfo mythology the hornbill was one of the five original beings, the first ancestor that founded humanity. They are used in the Lo and Poro society as symbols of fertility. Setien or Porpianong figures, when carved to represent procreation have their long hooked beaks touching their protruding stomachs that have been fertilized, therefore being the carrier of life and a symbol of continuity to future generations. The phallic beak and the pregnant stomach represent the dual forces of the male and female components.
|Discover African Art: Senufo Porpianong, Lo and Poro Society & The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Senufo Poro (Sejen/Kasinge)|
Nigeria/Niger - Nupe ‘burtu’ hunting masks use the heads of real hornbills. Of course they have the practical use of blending in with the environment yet also have supernatural functions. Firstly by imitating the prey the hunter becomes one with it, allowing him to impose his will on the creature he stalks. Secondly by using the powers of the local medicine man to credit the mask with supernatural or magical powers, use of the fetish was an active way of attempting to influence the outcome of the hunt.
|Hamill Gallery: Nupe Decoy Birds, Northern Nigeria|
|Antiqua Print Gallery: Northern Nigerian Hunter; stalking game. Nupe, 1900|
|depepermuntjesknipper: Kuma Hornbill Masks, Bobo people, Dwo religion, Burkina Faso/Mali|
China - In large species of hornbills (like the Asian Buceros), the bill and the helmet are made of a compact bone resembling ivory and ritual objects are carved of it. These bills, called ho-ting by the Chinese during the Ming dynasty, were more precious than gold, jade or ivory for this very reason. They carved the casques, or they made them into sheets, coloured them with the secretion of the preen gland, and made them into belt buckles for high officials. It was also common for Japanese netsuke to be carved from hornbill casques due to high malleability.
|Chinese Hornbill Casque, circa late 19th/early 20th century|
|Icollecter: Chinese Hornbill Casque, circa late 19th/early 20th century|