Period: Pre-Columbian

Date: 1300–1500

Geography: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

Culture: Tairona People; Gayraca style

Medium: Ceramic

Dimensions: L. 10.2 cm (4 in.); W. 9.2 cm (3-5/8 in.)

Classification: Aerophone-Whistle Flute-vessel flute

Credit Line: Gift of Roberta Lee Boxer, 1984

Accession Number: 1984.507.17


Tubular ceramic flutes and ocarinas (vessel flutes) are frequent finds in Tairona burials. Replete with sculptural imagery and finely detailed surfaces typical of Tairona art, these instruments continue to be used by religious specialists of the Kogi—descendants of the Tairona—during ritual dances. This example is a crescent or winged type. The "wings," each with two finger holes, may refer to the symbolic soul flight of the shaman, who was believed capable of leaving his body to contact the spirit world. Worked in high relief and wearing ritual attire, the frontal figure is in a hands-on-hips stance. Dense incision and stippling decorate both body and face. His lower jaw projects strongly—an animal mouth mask is probably worn—and a long, curved and grooved tongue hangs from his mouth, a common feature on Tairona ocarinas. No eyes are indicated under the bulging brow. The mouthpiece, indicated by the central notch, is at the top of the fanned headdress.

Based on accounts written by Spaniards at the time of contact with the Tairona in the early sixteenth century, the figure represents Heisei (master of diseases and of human sexuality), a supernatural in Tairona mythology.