By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Guinea-BissauBidyogo peoples

Bull mask

Wood, ox horns, leather, and glass

H. 50.2 cm (19 3/4")

Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.178

Another juxtaposition often made during the liminal phase of boys' initiation is that between humans and animals. Animals possess marvelous powers that humans need to heal, protect, and enact magical transformation. Parts of animals are of critical importance to indigenous medical practices, and oracular divination often involves creatures of nature (see Roberts 1995). Animals are also “good to think” metaphorically through proverbs and folktales, and trickster figures like Anansi the Spider delight through their loony-but-wise paradoxes. The great bull masks used during initiation in the Bissagos Islands of Guinea-Bissau represent the domesticated bulls left on the islands by Portuguese sailors to breed and multiply in the 16th century. Some of the bulls quickly became wild and are now associated with the untamed character of nature similar to human qualities to be controlled through initiation.