I love this tree.
For research and preparation for my wood carving class, I have become interested in the design of wooden headrests.
Once used throughout Africa by peoples like the Tsonga and Shona, the possible meanings and representations of the design varies.
Shona headrests have been believed to be used only by men due to the belief that the design is metaphoric for woman. A Shona wood carver described this headrest to the anthropologist William Dewey in the following way:
"Mutsago long ago was a woman. Can you see her that which is like a moon? It’s a woman’s hand carrying her husband’s head…Can you see these? [pointing to the V shape on the base] These are female organs.”
The carved patterns have also been related to the cicatrizations, or scar tattooing of the tribal women.
A more universal interpretation of the symbolism of headrests was the belief that they acted as a tool for communication between the living and dead - a link to the spiritual realm. Whilst asleep, the ancestors communicated via dreams.
I was surprised to find so much gender meaning in these objects and although the ideas of women holding up mens heads at night seems old fashioned, it is interesting to think of an object having a gender, and how this informs what and where the patterns are carved. For example, the designs on the neck support, (for Shona headrest) would be based on patterns used by women to beautify themselves. Thus causing much laughter among the women when the men would awake with the patterns on their skin.