Art of the Ancient Peoples


(Above): Sumba, hinggi kombu (length 102 inches, width 51 inches). The snake is highly respected among the Ancient Peoples: from its characteristic shedding of skin come magical associations with rebirth, and from its shape and motion come associations with the human spinal column and the cerebro-spinal fluid as "the stuff of life," Kundalini energy or in the Greek sense of the aion. The Chinese dragon—many representations of which entered Sumba on imported ceramic ware—shared these archetypal connec­tions with the watery fluids of life. The serpent is one component of a dragon, complemented by the wing, beak and claw of the bird: in some cultural representations—such as in Mexico—they are coupled yet distinct. while in others—such as in China, they appear conflated. This extraordinary Sumbanese example shows a crowned or hooded serpent, with claws, in an intimate. almost senti­mental pose with the bird. The double heart-shaped motifs of the central band, called karihu, represent an open shell­fish, which "though small, will dare to snap shut on a man's fingers, just as a king will not fear to punish a man who oversteps the boundaries of traditional law." (Warming and Gaworski, p. 83).

We do not know when people at some primeval level of consciousness began to weave. Yet as one wanders in a bamboo grove or observes the fronds of palm leaves plaiting themselves in a fluttering breeze, the most general principles of weaving are recurrent and obvious. The natural fibrous mesh of a palm tree trunk, moreover, may be used directly as a durable, flexible carry­ing tool or fishnet.

Although the material evidence for archaic woven artifacts has not survived, it seems that pounded bark or plaited leaf containers served essential functions in the earliest stages of human social life. The distinguished anthropologist, Richard E Leakey, in a "fabric of more or less inspired guesses, although based firmly upon the few clues that we do have," suggests a reasonable biological scenario. (1) The re­mains of our human ancestors, homo erectus, have been established incontrover­tibly by field excavations in the Lake Turkana and Olduvai Gorge regions of East Africa, datable from two to two and a half million years ago. These, our hominid fore-bearers, had already evolved a cranial capa­city sufficient for complex modes of com­munication "almost sophisticated enough to be considered language," and systematic toolmaking of stone and bone implements. Homo erectus displayed a nascent architec­tural consciousness, as evidenced by "a rough circle of stones, some of which are piled one on top of another, forming what seems to be the oldest man-made structure yet known. Very probably the hominids who occupied this site stacked branches in a circle, using the stones to keep them firm."

It is to such established home bases that our ancestors transported both the meat and the vegetable foods they hunted and gathered. The simple but crucial dis­tinction between the behavior of homo erectus and his more ape-like contemporaries involved the concept of transporting food-­stuffs to the home base for sharing within an organized social group. It is for this ex­plicit function that we believe weaving emerged as one of the essential crafts of mankind, the biological legacy of which enabled our predecessors to travel from the cradle of mankind in Africa, eventually to explore and to populate the whole earth.

The extant physical remains of weaving, of course, are nowhere nearly as old as arti­facts of stone, bone, or later of pottery and metal. It is only in the driest climatic regions, such as in Egypt or Peru, that some ancient tattered fragments of woven cloth have been preserved. And yet, in far from favorable circumstances, the site of a six thousand year old Neanderthal burial - ­Shanidar Cave in the Zagros Mountains of modern Iraq - archaeologists from the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, analyzing the pollen distribution and fossil remains, have identified several species of carefully arranged flowers, including the branches of a woody horsetail "particularly suitable for weaving a rough bedding on which the body appears to have been laid." Not only does a flower bedecked body indicate ''a keen self-awareness and a concern for the human spirit . . . but perhaps most intrigu­ingly of all, it turns out that of the various species used in the Shanidar burial, several have until recently been used in local herbal medicine!" (2)

There is a long, and in all but certain ways invisible thread of historical human consciousness with which we embroider the spiritual domain in figurations of ritual, healing, and the fully resplendent art of the dance as the most gleaming man­ifestation of the common work of the tribe. But clear evidence for ritualized human behavior is far older even than the cave painting representations, such as that of the elaborately costumed shamanic figure of Trois Freres, engraved as a manifestation of the god of the paleolithic hunt. (3) In the 1890s, the young Dutchman Eugene Dubois discovered the first specimen of Homo erectus at a site along the Solo River in Java. This was the find that was originally known as Pithecanthropus erectus, repre­senting essentially the same level of human evolution as that of the Peking Man dis­covered in a series of excavations between 1926 and 1941 at the Chinese cave called Choukoutien. Many bones of the fifteen skeletons and other animals found in the cave were shattered, but in a number of the skulls, "the opening through which the spinal cord runs had clearly been en­larged—a difficult task, calling for particular care . . . .Our point here is that the feast would have been a ritualistic one rather than mere gorging on human flesh. Why take such trouble to widen the opening at the base of the skull when it would have been so much easier to smash the cranium and scoop out the soft contents? Whether the aim of the feast was to gain power over enemies by devouring the brains of the vanquished, or to maintain a bond of con­tinuity with a deceased relative, is beside the point." (4)  And this highly regularized, ritualized cannibalism dates from a period at least a half a million years ago—some ten times older than the Neanderthal flower burial in the cave at Shanidar.

About forty years after the research in which Dubois sought for the origins of human culture on the islands of Indonesia, Leo Frobenius "made the interesting point that in our reconstructions of the earliest periods of mankind, of which only the most durable skeletal parts remain, the visible evidence must be understood to represent only a precipitation out of an otherwise unknown, invisible, once living reality. Moreover, throughout the broad equatorial zone of man's earliest origins and diffusion, where the natural materials most available for use are perishable, nothing but the forms survive according to which the materials are traditionally shaped; whereas in the northern temperate zones, stone, and then pottery and metals, play a proportionately much greater part in the material constitution of a culture." (5) This materialistic bias of archaeology, fixed on artifacts, and later upon written, historical documentation, well serves—at least in part—our study of "the grandiose high cultures of antiquity (that occupied no more of the world than a belt reaching from about 20 to 45 degrees north.. . . South­ward of this belt, from West Africa, through India, the Malay Archipelago and Melanesia, cultures have survived to this day whose traits not only cannot be derived from those of the historical cultures, but also represent a world of their own, which is no less dis­tinct from the other than the plant world from the animal. This domain of a second kind of culture is a fact." (6)

The great group of tropical cultures that Frobenius called "the invisible counter-players" (die unsichtbaren Gegenspieler) in the history of mankind leave few histor­ical traces, and indeed do not share any of the northerner's obsession with duration in imagined lineal time. Their forms are embodied in oral poetry and the chants that accompany the ritual dance, in the transient arts of tatooing, costume and body decoration, the theater of ceremonial feast, and in the woodwork or weaving that seldom lasts longer than the lifetime of the artists themselves. It was only after the 1950s that cultural historians had avail­able the technological means for document­ing and recording the rich diversity of the world's musical culture. Before the present generation of scholars the only way anyone could have heard anyone else's music (other than local village tunes) was to travel. And it was not much before our time that the Grand Tour was the only way to see art and architecture. In a world before the 35 mm slide and high-quality color printing, a century ago, an engraved impression was the state of the art. Again, movies such as Edward S. Curtis' Kwakiutl classic of the early 1900's ironically reveal that the means for preserving an objective historical record of a performed (or re­enacted) ritual came into being only in the last days of many cultures whose ways and wisdom have now been irretrievably lost.

Frobenius had already recognized in 1929 that "the necessity of inquiring into the destiny of mankind (has) forced upon us the question of the ultimate character and sense of culture." (7) For such a grand and timely task, the study of ikat weaving techniques provides an exceptionally pre­cise and expressive vehicle. For while weaving may be virtually as old as human culture itself, the distinctive, highly sophis­ticated ikat process—which in its most venerable form involves the binding and resist dying of the warp, or length-wise threads—can be clearly identified and its geographical diffusion accurately charted. Moreover, the iconographical details as well as the ritual uses of ikat textiles pro­vide a rare insight into cultural functions that appear to antedate the invention of the technique itself.

The term "ikat" is derived from the Malay word mengikat, meaning to tie, wrap or bind. What makes ikat weaving so very different from other techniques is that the dying process must take place before weaving. For example, with batik—like ikat, a technique traditionally esteemed in Indonesia—a resist pattern, typically in wax, is applied to the already woven fabric. Similarly, plangi, or tie dying, requires a woven cloth to be stitched or bound, as do obviously the processes of embroidery or textile painting.

Origins of the unique art of ikat are attributed to the Dong-son culture of Annam, in the northeast part of modern Vietnam, which rose to international prominence in the fourth century B.C. About the same time Alexander the so-called Great was butchering the last sur­vivors of the Egyptian priesthood who had fled to Persepolis, (8) the Dong-son became masters of the southern seas. Their cultural impact paralleled and then superseded that of the late Chou Dynasty Chinese trans-Pacific expeditions which had first intro­duced weaving and metal work in gold to the Tajin complex in Mexico, and among the people of the Chavin horizon in Peru. From about 333 B.C. until suppressed by the Chinese Han Dynasty in 50 A.D., "throughout the Andean region of South America, from Panama to northern Chile and northwestern Argentina, Dong-son influences are more conspicuous than Chinese. "(9)

One of the basic implements by which this influence was effected was the back-strap loom, in use without significant modification down to the present day, from the Andes through the highlands of Guatemala, and everywhere in Indonesia and Malaysia the more traditional peoples have conserved the Dong-son inspired way of life. In remote and scattered locations among Indonesia's more than thirteen thousand islands are villages that still maintain an essentially unbroken connec­tion with the Megalithic past. Here the craft of Dong-son metal-working, rice cultivation, and elaborate, ornamental styles of decoration have combined with a persistent substratum of earlier neolithic traits, such as the making of cloth out of bark, or slash and burn agriculture and plant­ing with a pointed stick. Tibor Bodrogi (10) characterized these vestigial remnants of neolithic culture as the Ancient Peoples, whose practices include the domestication of the pig, the chewing of the betel nut, a deep belief in animistic magic and the prac­tice of the headhunt. And it is almost exclu­sively among the Ancient Peoples that exquisite warp ikats continue to be made—as with everything in their lives, from the materials available in the natural environ­ment around them.

Some scholars see the beginning of cotton cultivation in India, while others note that the plant is also indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Although machine-made thread is now easily available, the more traditional or isolated of the Ancient Peoples continue to use their own home­spun, double-twined, from local cotton, a custom that is de rigueur for ceremonial ikats to be used as burial shrouds or ritual gifts. A simple spindle is most frequently used, and mastery of the technique is re­garded as one of the first steps in the appren­ticeship of a young girl as a weaver of warp ikats.

Among the Ancient Peoples, those known as the Iban Dyaks have been able to preserve assiduously many of the charac­teristics of high neolithic culture. The Iban live on what used to be called Borneo, the fourth some say the fifth largest island in the world, now divided into Kalimantan toward the south and east, belonging to Indonesia, and Sarawak to the north and west, a part of Malaysia. Surrounded by Sarawak is the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, for centuries the political center of the area, but with strong ties to Great Britain since the former East India Company officer, James Brooke became the White Raja of Sarawak and established a century long family dynasty in the early eighteen hun­dreds. It was largely owing to the protective patronage of the British that the traditional ways of the Iban Dyaks were preserved, but another factor must be the ruggedness of the island, covered with equatorial rain­forest, and with mountains over 13,000 feet high. There are twice as many plant species on Borneo as exist in the entire continent of Africa.


(Above) San, sarong (length 63 inches, width 46 inches, sewn into a tube). A secret traditional iconography is woven into the Savu ikat, through which complex and highly formalized social relationships are identified and reinforced. The worapi sarong, with typical broad indigo bands, and narrower bands dyed with mengkudu red, features floral motifs associated with matrilineal clan dis­tinctions. Savu is one of the islands in the eastern pan of Indonesia called Nusatenggara, or the Lesser Sundaras, where the production and display of cloth is the paramount vehicle of artistic expression.

Many tribes on Borneo produce ikat cloth, but the Iban, also known as the Sea Dyaks, are the most renowned. They are also among the fiercest, having developed piracy and head hunting with such an in­tensity that collecting heads became an obsession and the excuse for a continuous state of active warfare, barely mollified by the occasional presence of the British navy. The custom resurfaced during the Second World War, when, for example, the "Japan­ese had more to fear from the Iban head-seekers in Occupied Sarawak than from any Allied military threat Almost every longhouse claimed a few Japanese heads; and the inhabitants of one Iban longhouse each day carefully polished the spectacles still attached to one such gruesome trophy, said to have been the head of a Japanese colonel. (11) Large ceremonial ikat cloth hangings, called peas, were used in connec­tion with the presentation of captured heads, with the older pieces frequently bearing stains derived from this function. (12) It should be added, perhaps, for the sake of objectivity and the balanced view, that as the English explorer Earl observed, "the necessity of obtaining human heads to grace the marriage rites ...tends strongly to check the increase of population. (13) Also, the 3rd White Raja, Charles Brooke cannily used the Iban preoccupation with headhunting as a principle instrument of state, enlisting the energies of his Iban allies to subdue recalcitrant sub-tribes and to maintain in­ternal peace. What else is new? Except to add that in their own longhouses, the Iban are a warm and friendly people, renowned for their boisterous hospitality as well as for their physical attractiveness. The long-houses are really entire villages, which anthropologists have long noted are among the supreme examples of happy, healthy, successful socialization, with an easy-going freedom for individuals and a hearty elevated sense of community.

The issue of human sacrifice in general is far more significant to the cultural history of mankind than might at first be imagined It is the central rite in the great civiliza­tions of the tropics, and—to the surprise of the naive and the vegetarian—invariably associated with the religious beliefs and institutions of grain agriculture, hence neolithic, and typically set within a matri­archal context. It is Kali, or Durga, the Earth Mother spirit who eats her own chil­dren. What became in time the male-dominated occupation of the great hunt plainly already incorporated its sacrifice in the killing of the animal—enough hunters are lost or injured along the way without having to institute the ritual slaughter of human beings. With consummate hypo­crisy the scholars of the Western ("north") civilization have given the specific function of human sacrifice a very bad press, which has biased and muddled our understanding of how it is that some of these tropical cul­tures have attained precisely that psychic and ecological viability to be found so des­perately wanting in the patriarchal, material­istic, history and lineal time-obsessed, ecologically suicidal approaches so favored in northern climes.

It is true that headhunting seems to have gotten out of hand in Borneo by the time the Portuguese and Dutch merchants arrived in the sixteenth century." And similarly, Cortez may have come just in time, in the sense that the Aztecs were beginning to pile up monumental pyra­mids of human skulls—yet as Michael Harner has suggested, there may well have been a compelling ecological rationale for the practice, considering the scarcity of animal protein together with the pressures of a drastic population increase in the Valley of Mexico. This same problem of population explosion is still with us, on a global scale.

And recognizing that the actual practice of sacrificial killing indicated a decidedly low level of consciousness, we nevertheless cannot afford to neglect the instructive data available to us that may lead toward a more balanced and compassionate compre­hension of reality. This means acknow­ledging, for starters, that the avowed self-righteous excuse of eliminating human sacrifice became the war cry of Christian missionaries who, as a matter of objective record, have been directly responsible for the most ruthless thoroughgoing destruc­tion of native cultures in the history of the world—and this in the name of a belief which itself offers, as its central sacrament the Eucharist of symbolic human sacrifice. And in order to soften our hearts somewhat, let us recognize that the theme is far more widespread than might be at first imagined, with apparently deep import for the collective psyche of our species. Let the innocent but curious reader inspect the text of the magnificent Edward S. Curtis volumes, The North American Indian (15) or the pages of Joseph Campbell's compre­hensive study, The Masks of God.


(Above): Toraja, South/Central Sulawesi (Celebes), ceremonial cloth (length 66 inches, width 55 inches). There is a con­tinual ritual demand for ikat cloth from weaving centers where the people themselves may no longer follow tradi­tional ways. Two areas in particular, Rongkong in the northeast Luwu regency and among the To Maki of the Mamuju regency, are said to continue the production of ikat which has paradoxically declined within Tana Toraja proper. A dramatic influx of tourists in recent years coupled with the somewhat earlier efforts of Christian missionaries and Dutch prohibitions on the more grisly aspects of Tor­ajan ritual indicate a very problematical future for the already rare ikats. Yet with their constrained black. red and white coloring, and exhibiting qualities of striking graphic power—perhaps matched only in the finest of Navajo blankets—the ceremonial ikat cloths o the Toraja are superb examples of the Dong-son aesthetic tradition.

In fact, one of the principal documents Professor Campbell introduces to elucidate the theme of tropical anthropophagy derives from the island of Ceram, from the eastern region of Indonesia, whose population of ikat-weaving Ancient Peoples succumbed to the commercial seduction and missionary zeal of the Dutch colonialists. Now they and their fellow Moluccans can no longer be counted with the surviving traditional communities—rather, with poetic irony, they are most recently famed for political terrorist train hostage activities in Holland. What Campbell provides in his account of the myth of Hainuwele on Ceram, how­ever, is even more graphically expressed in the story of the Dema, or gods of the head-hunting cannibals of the Marind-anim from the easternmost part of Indonesia, now called Irian-Jaya. Summarized from the work of Paul Wirz, the Swiss ethnolo­gist, the account helps us to interpret these ikats as cosmograms, embodiments of "the world-fashioning events of the "time of the beginning of the world.'"

"The ceremonies continue for many nights, many days, uniting the villagers in a fused being that is not biological, essentially, but a living spirit—with numerous heads, many eyes, many voices, numerous feet pounding the earth—lifted even out of tempor­ality and translated into the no-place, no-time, no-when, no­where of the mythological age, which is here and now. The particular moment of impor­tance to our story occurs at the conclusion of one of the boys' puberty rites, which terminates in a sexual orgy of several days and nights, during which everyone in the village except the initiates makes free with everybody else, amid the tumult of the mytho­logical chants, drums and the bull­roarers—until the final night, when a fine young girl, painted, oiled, and ceremonially costumed, is led into the dancing ground and made to lie beneath a platform of very heavy logs. With her, in open view of the festival, the initiates cohabit, one after another; and while the youth chosen to be last is embracing her the supports of the logs above are jerked away and the platform drops, to a prodigious boom of drums. A hideous howl goes up and the dead girl and boy are dragged from the logs, cut up, roasted, and eaten." (16)

What is remarkable about this myth is that very much the same story is told, some seven or eight thousand miles away among peoples of the Sudan and East Africa. This evidence underscores the fact that, just as Eugene Dubois began unearthing the skulls and bones of the Java Man ver­sion of Homo erectus in the 1890s, Leo Frobenius first announced the broadly reaching cross-cultural theory that "these rites are but the renditions in an act of mythology inspired by the model of death and life in the plant world. And they are the basal sacrament of a precisely definable prehistoric cultural stratum still repre­sented in tropical Africa and America, as well as in India, Indonesia and Oceania." (17)

We of the temperate regions have long taken the rain forests of the tropics for granted with a cavalier air and exploiter's rapaciousness. Some implications of this short-sighted attitude are outlined in The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of our Water Planet (For prosperity through the wiser management of our global resources). (18) The catastrophic consequences for the earth's ozone layer, and hence oxygen supply and carbon dioxide balance, make constraints on destruction of the rain forest imperative.

"Japan, the world's largest importer of wood products and pulp, is ex­panding its industrial timber oper­ations in the forests of Brazil, Borneo, Malaysia, Sarawak, Indonesia, and New Guinea. The chronic and desperate desire for wood and wood by-products is now threatening the Sumatran home of the world's largest flower, Raffelsia, arnoldi . This rare para­sitic plant, which grows on the forest floor attached to roots of tropical grapevines, has a flower that can be three feet (1 meter wide). Its habitats are dangerously near the Japanese timber conces­sions, and it suffers another threat from the trampling feet of curiosity seekers." (19)

We should add that Cousteau's politic reference to a "chronic and desperate desire for wood ... " may be ascribed in no small part to the consuming greed of entre­preneurs such as Mr. Daniel K. Ludwig and his Jari project, based not upon myth or tradition but upon the steel-cold specula­tion of a businessman. (20)

The slash and burn agricultural tech­niques of latter-day neolithic cultures with thin overlays of more recent technologies—such as the hill rice cultivation of the Iban Dyaks—ceases to be ecologically viable at the very moment internal constraints on the size of the population are removed, such as headhunting. No one suggests a return to the old and sometimes gruesome ways, not even if the prize head were Mr. Ludwig's. But there must be something to be learned, in the brief, critical time—if any—that remains to us in which a mean­ingful response is possible. A projection is that for all its size and with all its wealth of flora, fauna and diversity of biomass, the rain forest of Borneo will be utterly destroyed in twenty-eight years. Relatively little virgin forest still remains—much is second-growth jungle cover.

With the destruction of the habitat, of course, if not before, comes the demise of the Ancient Peoples and the arts such as warp ikat weaving that are the culminating expressions of their way of life.

The evidence of silken ikats from Central Asia reminds us of the extensive network of trade and communication known as the caravan route or the Silk Road: to and from India, Southeast Asia and China, through the heart of Afghanistan, and westward to Damascus, Egypt, Con­stantinople, Venice and Europe. This road was a great channel, not only for luxury items, but as well for scientific knowledge, medicine, astronomy, psychology and the esoteric teachings of Sufi schools, One such Sufi stronghold in the Western Med­iterranean, the island of Mallorca, has also preserved a local ikat tradition, which is probably no accident. (21)

The common psychic culture of man­kind is coming to be recognized as a func­tion of real global unity. If we inspect the temporal and material expressions of cul­ture with enough care and insight, we in­evitably discover the deep secret: that they are all born in a nest, or generated from a matrix that is, itself, woven from a common sutratma, or "thread-soul." In a brief chap­ter titled "The Weaving of Fate," Richard Broxton Onians, in his rare and marvelous book (22) cites the Hindu "rite of adoption into the wife's kin (where) the bridegroom's height is measured by a thin thread which the bride's mother swallows, maybe with the suggestion that she thus 'conceives' him. Perhaps with similar thoughts the Bulgarians, instead of the human victim found elsewhere, bury under their founda­tions a thread equal in length to the shadow of some stranger."

This also may help us understand what the great twentieth-century artist Marcel Duchamp had in mind in his baffling, alea­tory piece, "Trois Stoppages-etalon" of 1913-14, where " . a straight horizontal thread one meter in length falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane while twisting at will and gives a new form to the unit of length." (23) Duchamp thus conceived, or gave a new birth to a standard unit of measure, the new standard which was later incorporated into such works as "Reseaux des Stoppages'' (Network of Stop­pages), 1914, and then into the "Large Glass'' of 1915 (23). The full title of this last masterpiece—"La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires meme," or The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even''—cryptic as it is, just so happens to recall the orgiastic, sacrificial wedding night of the young maiden among the head-hunting cannibals of the Marind-anim.

But we needn't fetch so far for associa­tions between weaving, life and death—and, by the way, horse breeding, tree lore and the magic or writing. Among the Scan­dinavian, Germanic and Northern European ancestral sources of our own English lan­guage, the god Wotan, or Odin, is the principal diety and bringer of culture, which for these people, as for the Uzbeks and the Sumbanese, prominently featured both weaving and the domestication of the horse. Wotan plucks three hairs from the tail of the Night Mare before he catches her. With these he invents the theory of braids, and makes the first string, and rope, and noose or lariat, with which he captures the Night Mare and domesticates her foals. He also hangs by this same noose, for nine days and nights as the story goes, from the sacred ash tree, and loses one of his eyes in order to receive the secret of the runes, the magic of writing. It is from the wood of this tree that Wotan's hobbyhorse is made—called "Yggdrasil" or Askr Yggr-drasill,' "the ash tree that is the horse of Yggr." Yggr is one of the titles of Wotan, which, as Robert Graves suggests "is evidently connected with hygra, the Greek for 'sea' (literally, 'the wet element'). (24)

Kurt von Meier being interviewed on camera at the Ikat exhibition for which this essay was written.

Kurt von Meier being interviewed on camera at the Ikat exhibition for which this essay was written.

The ash is the tree of sea power, from which the early norse­men made their first ships. But Wotan had taken the tree over from the Triple Goddess who, as the Three Norns of Scandinavian legend, dispensed justice under it. Precisely as with the Three Fates of ancient Greece, the Three Norns spin, weave or measure, and cut off man's fate. The length of a man's life is represented by a thread: the aion, or eon, standardized eventually as a period of seventy-two years duration, during which the sun will have precessed one degree of arc with respect to the distant stars of the zodiac. Originally, as Onians has shown, the concept of the aion refers to the stuff of life itself, archaically under­stood as specific watery substance, the cerebrospinal fluid. Perhaps here also is a spider connection as the fluid becomes a strand—for Arachne, as for Spider Lady of the Hopi creation myth. The length of the thread is the length of his life, and "On the loom this would seem to mean the vertical, i.e. the warp threads. In the web of the Norse fate-goddesses we shall see that from each of these was suspended, as a loom weight, a head." (25) These warp threads are bound, tied and sometimes knotted around —and where the framework of a loom is used, the warp thread may be continuous. In the binding and dyeing of chance or circumstance, "it would be natural to sec the various phases of fortune which are (man's) lot while he lives and of which the last is death, fortunes which are bound about his life thread just as we have seen them bound about the man himself ." (26)

To some of us it may appear astounding that this reference could also serve as an explicit description of, say, the warp ikat technique and funeral ceremonies of Ancient Peoples such as the Toraja on Sulawesi. But not only do the Scandinavian Norns spin and bind, they also weave a web that hangs over all mankind. As the "weird sisters" or Disr, they weave the woof of war, the same that threatens even in this day to cross and bind our writing and weav­ing, our teaching and art and the life time of humanity. As on Good Friday in Njals Saga a loom has been set up. "Upon it has been stretched a warp of human beings—a warp grey with spears which the valkyries are filling with weft of crimson. The warp is formed of human entrails and is heavily weighted with human heads. (27)

Fate is widely thought of as being woven, in Anglo-Saxon, gewif. "In Beowulf, granting success in battle, God is said to give the warriors 'webs of war-speed' wig­speda gewioful.' (28) This was back in the old Dylan (Gwion, Finn, or Taliesin) days of dichotomies when one could believe there was "God on our side," before the H-bomb and the Ragnarok and roll of "Sh­boom," when one might still reckon losers and winners in war as in love. ''The belief that this or that good fortune could thus he bound about one appears .. . in the song of The Maypole lasses and lads, who had danced and kissed, 'bound themselves with love-knots/ To meet the next holi­day.''' It was for love as well as for death that skulls were taken, the cerebrospinal fluids consumed as an aphrodisiac. And for the same motives the infamous dish of fresh monkey brains might grace a pseudo-sinan­thropic banquet in some part of the world tonight.

In the brief preceding essay written to accompany this exhibition of ikat weaving, I have attempted to address a limited number of deep, and in some ways disturb­ing ideas. There already exists an ample literature on the history and technique of ikat from the standpoint of the weaver's craft, which, it seems would be pointless to pirate here, beyond the comments appro­priate to individual pieces. In addition, we should mention a few of the more recent and easily available publications that contain useful bibliographies. Nowhere, however, do I find a discussion of ikats in the light of their fascinating, if grisly, con­nections with the theme of the "Ritual Love-Death." One author may consider the ethnographical data on a narrow anthro­pological basis, another on the broader scope of world mythology, and yet another may focus on the artifacts themselves and the artistic means by which they have been created. But it is rare to find even the slightest hint that these themes are indeed as tightly woven together as the intricate designs themselves. And further, that these interrelated topics, if they are to be grasped at all today, must necessarily be understood within the grand and possibly apocalyptic context of mismanaging the earth's resources, the population crisis, and the apparently inexorable disappear­ence of traditional cultures. Not the least fact is that within the tradition of warp ikat, such as the rare representative pieces exhibited here, are to be found subtle but stunningly beautiful works of art.

Kurt von Meier, Ph.D


I.    Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin, Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal About the Emergence of Our Species and its Possible Future. E.P. Dutton, New York, 1977, pages 144 ff.
2.     Ibid. page 125.
3.     Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology /Viking Compass Edition, 1971), Chapter 8, "The Paleo­lithic Caves, I. The Shamans of the Great Hunt," pages 299 ff.
4.     Leakey, page 132.
5.     Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (Viking 1970) pages 152 ff.
6.     Ibid., page 153.                                                                          
7.    Ibid.
8.    Peter Tompkins, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, with an appendix by Livio Catullo Stecchini. Harper and Row, New York, 1971, page 214.
9.   Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, Princeton University Press, 1974, page 133.
10.  Tibor Bodrogi, Art of Indonesia, New York Graphic Society, 1972.
11.   Leigh Wright, Hedda Morrison and K.F. Wong, Vanishing World: The Ihans of Borneo, Weatherhill, New York, Tokyo paper, 1978), page 134.
12.  Monni Adams, Threads of Life: A private collection of textiles from Indonesia and Sarawak, The Katonah Gallery, Westchester, New York, 1981, catalogue numbers 7,11.
13.  Wright, et. al., page 26.                                                            
14.  Ibid., page 58.
15.  Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, 20 volumes, Cambridge and Norwood, Mass., 1907-1930. See espe­cially the volumes on the Pueblo and the Northwest Coast tribes.
16.  Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Chapter 5 The Ritual Love Death," pages 170-171, and pages 173 ff.
17.  Ibid., page 171.
18.  Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the Staff of the Cousteau Society, The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of Life On Our Water Planet, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y. (Dolphin Books, 1981).
19.  Ibid., page 373.                                                                        
20. Ibid., page 484.
21.  Larsen, et. al., The Dyer's Art, p. 186-189. "In the small workshop of Martin Vicens, in the town of Polensa, Mallorca, true warp ikat is still made." See also the Introduction by Robert Graves, written at Deya, Majorca, in Idries Shah, The Sufis. Anchor books, 1971.
22.  Richard Broxton Onians (Hildred Carlile Professor of Latin in the University of London), The Origins of European Thought: About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. New Interpretations of Circa, Roman and kindred evidence also of some basic Jewish and Christian beliefs. Cambridge at the University Press, 1954. Heartfelt thanks to Dr. Jene LaRue for having brought this work to my attention.
23.  Note in the Green Box, quoted by Robert Lebel, Marcel Duchamp, Grove Press, 1959, p. 165.
24.  Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic m th. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1948. Pages 27,168-169.
25.  Onians, op. cit., page 349.
26.  The kain of the Sumbanese is wrapped around his body at death, and the warp ikat shrouds of the Toraja are "buried" with the bodies.
27.  Onians, op. cit., page 355.                                                       
28. Ibid., page 356 f.

Photographs are by Polly Osborne von Meier, Kurt's wife at the time.


  • Monni Adams, Threads of Life: A Private Collection of Textiles from Indonesia and Sarawak. The Katonah Gallery, Westchester, New York, 1981.
  • Jerome Delcourt, "Sumba War Cult," Centaur, volume 1, number 3 (Fall, 1981)
  • Joseph Fischer, Threads of Tradition: Textiles of Indonesia and Sarawak. Lowie Museum of Anthro­pology, and University An Museum, Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, 1979.
  • Lydia van Gelder, Ikat. Watson Guptill, New York, 1980. With an Introduction by Professor Alfred Buhler.
  • Mattiebelle Gittinger, Splendid Symbols: Textiles and Tradition in Indonesia. The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., 1979.
  • Jack Lenox Larsen, The Dyer's Art: Ikat, Batik, Plangi. With Alfred Buhler, Bronwen and Garrett Solyom. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1976.
  • David Lindhal, Thomas Knorr and others, Uzbek: The Textiles and Life of the Nomadic and Sedentary Uzbek Tribes of Central Asia. Exhibition catalog, Basel: Zbinden Muck and Berlag, A.G., 1975.
  • Wanda Warming and Michael Gaworski, The World of Indonesian Textiles. Kodansha, Tokyo jHarper and Row, New York), 1981.

Of general interest on Indonesia:

  • Bill Dalton, Indonesia Handbook, Moon Publications, P.O. Box 127, Franklin Village, Michigan 48025.
  • Lee Khoon Choy, Indonesia: Between Myth and Reality Federal publications, Singapore, 1977.

Bibliographical note:

There exists a considerable scholarly bibliography on ikat and on the anthropology of the Ancient Peoples. We mention here a highly selective list of general works that have been used in the prepara­tion of this catalog. The books by Larsen, van Gelder, and Warming and Gaworski all contain useful extensive bibliographies. So does the excellent catalog edited by Joseph Fischer, to whom we are also most grateful for his advice and encouragement. We have found the essay by Laurence A.G. Moss, "Cloths in the Cultures of the Lesser Sunda Islands" in Threads of Tradition, pages 63-72) especially useful in compiling the brief notes which accompany our catalog entries. Our thanks, however, should also be extended to the other authors who contributed to that publication: Joseph Fischer, Bronwen and Garrett Solyom, Lydia van Gelder, Beverly Labin, Eric Crystal, Michael Palmieri and Fatima Ferentinos.

The handsome book by Wanda Warming and Michael Gaworski, The World of Indonesian Textiles, deserves special mention, and should certainly be consulted by anyone eager to read more about the subject.