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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Iconography of the northwest coast raven rattle Gould, Jennifer Chambers


This thesis is concerned with a problem in the interpretation of non-western art: the iconography of the raven rattle, a carved ritual object of widespread distribution on the Northwest Coast of North America. Iconographic analysis (after Panofsky) involves identifying cultural themes and concepts associated with artistic motifs. Because of the relative scarcity of recorded primary sources of interpretation, the method adopted in this analysis has been to infer meanings from relevant cultural contexts and data. Relevant data have been judged to be museum notes, ethnographies, and myths and relevant contexts, the ceremonies in which the rattle was used. The problem has been to identify the individual motifs appearing on the rattle with associated themes and concepts, and, because the rattle is a complex image, to interpret their interrelationship within the context in which the rattle was used: initiation ceremonies presided over by chiefs. For the dominant motifs on the rattle I have argued the following interpretations: 1. The "reclining figure motif" on the back of the rattle represents the guardian spirit quest, in which the reclining figure is the novice, the protruding tongue stands for the passage of power, and the animal at the other end of the tongue identifies the source of power. 2. The "raven" at the head of the rattle refers to the origin of daylight, an event of key significance in Northwest Coast cosmology. 3. The creature on the belly of the rattle represents a trapped, wealth-bringing, supernatural, sea monster. These interpretations subsume the more specific identifications that have been made by ethnographers and informants of the objects on the rattle. Within the context in which the raven rattle was used, I have suggested that the interpretations relate to each other as follows: the origin of daylight marks the beginning of the social and natural order, of the guardian spirit quest, and of reciprocity. The sea monster on the belly is a symbol of controlled supernatural power and wealth — or the fruits of the successful quest. The relationship of these associations to the chiefs who used the rattle, is that the chief was both wealth-bringer to his tribe and had access to the "controlled use of supernatural power. This he exerted on behalf of the social order in initiation ceremonies. These conclusions indicate that the raven rattle was a significantly general symbol whose thematic referents were assumptions basic to Northwest Coast culture. In reaching these conclusions, the utility of the iconographic approach, as adapted and applied to an analysis of images in Northwest Coast art, has been demonstrated.

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