PAZ, Bolivia -- It's a tradition people outside Bolivia might find
creepy: Families perch human skulls on altars, revering them and asking
them for protection and good luck.
On Tuesday, the
skulls were taken to cemeteries, where the families crowned them with
flowers and filled their jaws with lit cigarettes.
chapel in La Paz's main cemetery was filled with hundreds of people
jockeying to get their skulls, or natitas, in good position for an
annual religious mass.
"I was scared of them at first,
but now I realize I was scared because I wasn't taking care of them,"
said Shirley Vargas, who brought two skulls, which she called Vicente
and Maria. "Now I keep them in my room with me. I love them a lot."
Milton Eyzaguirre, an anthropologist, said Bolivians are now more willing to bring out their skulls than before.
are bringing back the idea that we're not separated from the dead ...
but that life and death are always connected," said Eyzaguirre, a
curator at La Paz's Museum of Ethnography and Folklore.
said he began believing in the skulls when a museum building collapsed,
killing four construction workers, after he moved out skulls without a
proper ceremony. The staff held a ceremony and he said he has had no
The tradition reflects pre-Hispanic
belief in a nation whose population is largely descended from native
Indian tribes. The Catholic Church has recognized non-Catholic
traditions as a way of retaining its own influence.
use my time today to teach them Christian values and symbols, but I
have to watch what I say or the people will get upset," said the Rev.
Jaime Fernandez, who has given a mass for the skulls for 10 years.
Tuesday, people of all ages entered the chapel carrying skulls in fancy
glass boxes or on silver platters. Others used plastic bags, shoe boxes
or baskets. Most of the skulls were decorated with knit caps, cotton
wool in the eyes and crowns of red roses and hydrangeas.
Vargas said she got her skulls from a medical student. She believes they helped her father recover from a chronic back problem.
Andean belief is that people have seven souls, and one of them stays
with the skull, Eyzaguirre said. This soul has the power to visit
people in their dreams and provide protection. Some Bolivians also
credit the skulls for success in business and with family.