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A Warrior's Reputation
Fame and infamy in small-scale warfare
Among the Baruya of the New Guinea highlands, the term aoulatta had a few different meanings. One refers to a type of pandanus tree, with a trunk covered in lots of long, tough, thorny leaves that make it difficult to climb. Another meaning refers to an arrow with four slender tips at the end, with which Baruya men traditionally used to kill certain birds. The most important use of the term aoulatta, however, referred to a great warrior, known for his audacious and spectacular achievements in physical combat.
Most Baruya warfare involved skilled archers shooting from a distance, or ambushes from stealth, but an aoulatta would fearlessly approach enemy lines alone and issue his challenge, wielding a magic stone war club. The aoulatta would be followed by a few aides, known as his “dogs”, who would watch as he met an adversary in single combat, only coming up to provide cover against outside attack while the aoulatta finishes off his competitor. The aoulatta would smash his enemy’s skull with his war club, then dip the club in his opponent’s blood, raise it above his own head, and issue a victory cry to signal that his rival had fallen.
When two aoulatta would meet on the battlefield, the victor would treat the corpse of his opponent according to particular customs. If possible, the winner would drag the body of his powerful rival behind his own lines. There he would cut off the fallen aoulatta’s right hand—”the hand that shoots and kills”—and smear his body in the victim’s blood.
Sometimes, after defeating a particularly strong aoulatta, the victorious warrior would cut off the arms and legs of the corpse, and cook and eat them, in order to gain the enemy’s powers and strengths. Because aoulatta had stories of their deeds spread far and wide, among allies and enemies alike, their reputations were well known. The hands of powerful deceased aoulatta were often kept and put on display by the victors as trophies of achievement, right next to the killer’s own war club.
Across many societies, accomplishments in war represent one substantial way a man may achieve some prominence, and individuals and groups use various means of insignia, ceremony, and other displays to mark these exploits. Naturally, from the perspective of out-group members, such fame gained is a kind of infamy.
Waorani warriors of Ecuador would decorate their spears with their own individually distinct designs, “so that survivors of the attack would know who did the killing and fear them.” Among the Ojibwa of Canada, “each of the warriors will leave something of his own behind, as proof that he has been there.” Delaware warriors of the eastern United States would leave war clubs near the corpses of their enemies, precisely to claim credit for the deed to their surviving foes.
Among the Kapauku of Western New Guinea, battles were fought exclusively with bows and arrows, in unorganized pitched battles between rival groups. After a warrior has landed a lethal arrow with his bow, he would perform the ukwaa wakii tai, or the killer’s dance. The killer holds his bow at its lower end in his right hand, and twists it with his wrist, as he runs around in a small circle. He lets out exuberant screams, "wuii-wuiii", in the highest pitched tones he can muster. Even as his enemies’ arrows fly by around him, he puts on this risky, attention grabbing performance to mark his achievement, so that there should be no doubt that he was the one who landed the final blow.
Across many contact-era North American Plains societies, men would design and wear pictographic robes depicting their achievements in war.
Among the Blackfoot, a renowned warrior would “wear a robe on which was pictured his successful encounters with the enemy and symbolic of his leadership in war. War history robes were always painted by men. Either the wearer decorated his own robe or he secured the services of a more skillful painter to do it for him.”
The emergence of modern heraldry in Europe has also been associated with the phenomenon of warriors seeking to be identified and recognized for their accomplishments. Historian Maurice Keen writes that, “The origins of heraldry are clearly connected with the fully mailed warrior’s need for a mark of recognition on the field of battle and at tournaments,” and it was later that they gained the function of hereditary insignia of noble lineages.
Emphasis on the reputations of individual warriors are also commonly expressed in war dances. Explorer George Catlin wrote of the Sioux war dance in the mid-19th century, describing how “Each warrior, in turn, jumps through the fire, and then advances shouting and boasting, and taking his oath, as he ‘strikes the reddened post.’”
And this emphasis on a warrior’s reputation may continue even after their death. George Catlin described the Dance to the Medicine Bag of the Brave among the Sac and Fox natives in 1835, writing that,
This is a custom well worth recording, for the beautiful moral which is contained in it. In this plate is represented a party of Sac warriors who have returned victorious from battle, with scalps they have taken from their enemies, but having lost one of their party, they appear and dance in front of his wigwam, fifteen days in succession, about an hour on each day, when the widow hangs his medicine-bag on a green bush which she erects before her door, under which she sits and cries, whilst the warriors dance and brandish the scalps they have taken, and at the same time recount the deeds of bravery of their deceased comrade in arms, whilst they are throwing presents to the widow to heal her grief and afford her the means of a living. [emphasis added]
Among the Mundurucú of the Amazon, “When a warrior is killed on a distant battlefield, his head is taken back to the village and put on display with his ornaments, trumpet, and weapons. After a feast in honor of the deceased, the head is suspended from the neck of his mother, widow, or sister, and his fellow warriors pledge to avenge his death.”
Warriors commonly receive more social or material benefits from participating in warfare in societies where war mortality tends to be relatively high. Such incentives likely act as a strong inducement to participation even when there are substantial risks.
But remember that as a warrior’s fame rises with his fellows, his infamy similarly grows among his enemies. In societies where exocannibalism is practiced the most powerful warriors make for the most satisfying meals, for consuming them may be considered a way to absorb their powers, as noted in the aoulatta example described above. As a consequence of the risks involved, warriors also commonly make use of disguises and deception to misdirect responsibility and avoid reprisal for their strikes.
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