Thursday, January 25, 2007
The Dance Stake
I will from time to time post reports of unusual things that have happened to me. When I say 'unusual' I mean paranormal or supernatural… things I can't explain. I swear these events are true and whether you believe me or not isn't important- I just hope you enjoy the story. GWV
The Dance Stake
A friend of mine became fascinated with tribal art from Papua New Guinea and started collecting it passionately. He decided to import it in larger quantities and sell some pieces as a side line in his aquarium hobby business, a most excellent and venerable establishment called The Seattle Fish Store. I became quite taken with it myself and over several years I amassed a sizable collection of my own- masks, fetishes, carved animals, and other odd items.
The tribal New Guinea people are master artisans and their work is by no means "primitive"; each piece embodies a history, a tradition and a purpose relating to their very complex cultures. All of their art embodies a spirit- direct ancestors, progenitors of clans (often thought to be animals, for example the crocodile clan and the bat clan), and various other gods and demons. All of these items are used variously in daily life, ceremonies and spiritual practices. It is a living art that performs specific tasks based on the tribe's customs and beliefs.
One of the pieces I purchased was a "Dance Stake", a wood carving about 14 inches long. The top is an oval carved and painted face- a scowling and very serious looking visage, its cowry shell eyes lending it a piercing gaze. From the chin the wood tapers down to a narrow and very sharply pointed wooden stake. The dance stakes are placed in the ground around the border of the sacred area where the tribe's most important ritual dances are held. They are placed facing away from the center of the dancing place and their job is to protect the dancers from harmful magics cast by the shamans of enemy tribes, or evil spirits wishing to harm the dancers. In New Guinea, there is no question about it- these things are real forces that must be reckoned with. In their world magic is real, it works and it can kill.
I was living in Seattle at the time I bought the piece. I leaned it up against the bricks beside the fireplace, where it remained for several years. When I moved permanently to Thailand I left my collection for a year with a helpful friend who also collected and he displayed my pieces along with his own. On my next visit back to the States I stopped by to take them off his hands and move the collection to temporary storage on family property, there to await eventual import to my new home overseas. We were finished packing up the many pieces when I noticed the dance stake seemed to be missing and queried my friend. He flashed me what in retrospect may be considered a rather odd look and said "Oh yeah, it's down here" pointing to a spot near the floor where it hung from a hook, its bottom tip touching the floor. He explained that "Since it's meant to be stuck in the ground I put it down low." He rather hurriedly removed it from its hook and put it in the box with the other pieces.
That evening I hung my collection in its next temporary home, my mother's recreation room in a side building near the main house. It would be a while before I would be able to have them all brought to Thailand and they keep better out of boxes. I hung the dance stake about seven feet off the ground, a couple feet from the door. I had put a small eye screw in the back of the dance hook and used some electrical wire to attach it to a nail. The wire was fairly strong and I made two knots so that there was a small loop and a large loop. I placed the bigger loop over the nail, which had a fairly large head on it and went back to the house. A while later I returned to the room to find the dance stake lying on its back on the floor. I thought someone must have carelessly slammed the door and caused it to bounce off the wall. This time I hung it by squeezing the smaller wire loop over the head of the nail, which was a tight fit and much more secure.
The next morning I entered the room to find the dance stake lying on it back on the floor again. I was rather surprised since I had secured it so firmly, and as I picked up the piece I jokingly spoke to it- "What, you don't like it up there? Fine you can trade spots with something else!" I took down a lightweight penis gourd from a spot 5 feet away from the door and only 4 feet off the ground and placed it in the dance stake's former position with the idea that slamming doors wouldn't cause it to fall, as it would just bounce in place harmlessly. I was in a hurry as I hung the dance stake in its new spot by the larger loop of the wire. This nail was driven in with its wide head at an upward angle to the wall so that gravity would prevent the piece from slipping off. Before I left I pulled on it to test it and found it very secure- it would take quite an earthquake to bounce the dance stake off the nail. I left the room and locked it.
That evening I returned to the rec room, this time with my brother, Norman, to show him something in the adjacent storage room. As we walked in I stopped in my tracks. The dance stake was lying face up on the floor below its nail for the third time. I laughed nervously and said "Norman, this is kind of weird" and related the story thus far to him. He said "That IS kind of weird...if something was to jar the whole wall, you would think that other pieces would have fallen off, too." I remarked that "I'm sure no one has been out here to slam the door and cause this to happen." We definitely had not had any earthquakes. My brother walked over and picked the piece up to hang it back on the wall. I told him to stick it on the nail by the smaller wire loop- a process which took him a while as he had to work the wire over the large nail head. He said "Well, there's no way it's going to just jump off the wall now!" and we went on about our business after which my brother returned to his home. As I shut the outer door and locked it I stole a last glimpse of the dance stake sternly glaring into the darkness.
I must admit that the next morning as I headed out to that room again it was with some real trepidation. I had a queasy feeling that the dance stake had indeed somehow worked itself off its nail and, impossibly, jumped down to the floor again. When I entered the room my hair stood on end- there was the dance stake lying face up on the floor for the FOURTH time, its cowry shell eyes staring sullenly at the ceiling.
At this point I stopped to collect my wits and think this macabre situation through. I found I had now become a true believer in the potency of New Guinea tribal magic and spirits. It occurred to me that the shamans of the tribe who had created this dance stake had made it with a specific task in mind: to be placed in the ground to protect an area. I kneeled over the dance stake and spoke to it quite seriously and respectfully-it felt like the right thing to do on an instinctual level, mad though it may seem.
I asked it "Are you trying to tell me that you don't want to be hanging up in the air? Do you want to be down on the ground?" I instantly sensed that this was the truth. I knew that I couldn't put the dance stake outside in the ground as the Pacific Northwest weather would destroy it so I came up with an alternative. I carefully placed a nail at exactly the right height above the floor so that the dance stake's bottom point would be touching the floor. I explained to it that this was the best I could do and asked it to "Please protect our family's grounds just as you would the grounds of the people who made you." I also told it that I had great respect for its spirit and wished it to be happy.
It occurred to me that this was the exact same position my friend in Seattle had placed it while it was in his keeping. I grilled him about it but to this day he denies any strange happening and chided me for not putting it near the ground in the first place! Still, I sensed that he wasn't telling me everything and his skeptical pride was making him keep any unusual activity from the dance stake to himself.
Over the next few days I periodically wandered by the room to check on my dance stake to find it serenely perched with its tip touching the floor. I sensed that its spirit was content doing its intended duty in its proper place. I soon after returned to Thailand and according to the family the dance stake remained in place another six months right where I left it. Since then my family has moved away from that property and the collection has been boxed and put in storage awaiting my return; I admit that I feel a bit uneasy about the dance stake being kept in such a state- it certainly won't be pleased!
On my next trip to America I plan to bring my entire New Guinea art collection back to Thailand with me, including the dance stake that possesses such a strong will of its own. I certainly don't plan to try hanging it on a wall again- it will be planted firmly in a gravel filled flower pot on my covered front porch where it can happily guard my home from evil spirits and hopefully solicitors as well.
Garrett W Vance