Mentawai tattoo MythologyThe Mentawai people are the indiginous inhabitants of the Mentawai Islands - a chain of about seventy islands and islets off the western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. In Mentawai mythology, a young boy transformed himself into the first Sago tree so that his people would never run out of food. This Sago tree is one of the most revered symbols of Mentawai people's religion, Jarayak, and this tree image is tattooed on the body of every medicine man. One of the main aims of the Mentawai's tattoos is to help them achieve perfect harmony with the spirits of the forest.
Mentawai DesignsThe Sago tree is the most prolific of the Metawai designs and usually consists of stripes on the legs represent the trunk, long dotted lines running down the arms evoke the branches, patterns on the hands and ankles to suggest the bark, and curved lines on the chest representing the sago flower.
Mentawai's tattoos served other functions as well as venerating their religion - tattoos show ethnicity, and where a person was from, their status and profession eg, hunter, shaman, tribal member, as well as to celebrate the skills of the maker, and the 'mana' or spiritual force of the group.
Traditional MethodsTattoos are seen as sacred and are therefore best performed by tribal shaman known as 'sikeireis', who's job it is to bridge the world of man with the spirit world. Tattoos are hand-tapped into the subject using the wood of the indigenous Karai tree. The Ink is often made from some form of carbon mixed with sugar cane juice. Tattoo lines are passed over several times to ensure string black lines.
According to some sources, a man must construct an 'uma', or Metawai traditional house before he could be tattooed. During this rite, the man would not be allowed to look at women, not allowed to have sex, and observe taboos around drinking and dining. Several pigs would also be slaughtered. At the climax of the rite, there would be a journey in a flat-bottomed skiff containing up to 40 passengers to Siberut island - believed to be the place of origin of the Metawai people, and only when all these people, after braving the huge waves, returned safely from the island of Siberut with beads unique to that island, could the members of the tribe be tattooed.
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