This figure of a coiled snake coloured with red with dark undertones has been carved from a single piece of wood. It is from the Paiwan people of Taiwan. A human head has been carved at the centre of the snake’s coiled body.
According to Chen (1978, p. 101) writing in traditional Chinese ,these items were used by Paiwan women to apply bees’ wax to thread prior to use in sewing. When the reverse of the snake is presented then it does have the appearance of a small plate with a handle from which wax could be served.
The Paiwan people are the indigenous people of Taiwan island. They inhabited the mountainous areas of southern Taiwan and are linked more culturally and ancestrally to the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia such as those in the nearby Philippines and Indonesia than to those of China. Headhunting was a traditional practice.
The snake is an important emblem among the Paiwan. It is believed that Vorun, the ‘hundred-pace snake’ was the ancestor of the nobility. One legend tells how the sun descended on a mountain and laid two eggs – a red one and a white one. Vorun sat on the eggs until they hatched and from which emerged the first nobles. As a consequence, representations of snakes are a prerogative of the nobility.
The human head is an important motif in Paiwan culture. It is believed that the motif alludes to ancestors and might well allude to headhunting as well.
A very similar but smaller example is illustrated in Capistrano-Baker (1994, p. 146).
The example here is in fine condition, has a good patina, and has obvious age.
Capistrano-Baker, F.H., Art of Island Southeast Asia: The Fred and Rita Richman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.
Chen, C.L., Woodcarving of the Paiwan Group of Taiwan, National Taiwan University, 1978.