Shrunken Head
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Basic Information

There are many cultures in the world which have practice Head Hunting. The problem with collecting severed heads as trophies, however, is that the dang things are too big and cumbersome to carry around with you. Some South American Indian tribes solved this problem with the practice of Head-Shrinking.

The severed head is specially prepared by removing the skull and some of the fat from the flesh. A wooden ball is inserted into the head to help it keep its shape. The eyelids are sewn shut and the lips held together with pins. Then the whole thing is boiled with herbs containing tannins, and dried with hot rocks and sand. The final artifact is rubbed down with charcoal ash and decorated with beads.

The practice of head-shrinking is said to have originally had religious significance. The act of shrinking the head of a slain enemy would prevent the enemy's spirit from being able to take vengeance. Later on, shrunken heads became a profitable trade good, because European explorers and tourists thought they were freakin' cool.1 Eventually the Peruvian and Ecuadoran governments put a stop to the shrunken head trade. Since the 1940s, it's been illegal to import shrunken heads into the United States and most other countries have also banned it.

Replica shrunken heads made of leather and animal hides are sometimes made for the curio trade.

"Head-shrinker" is also a derogatory term for a Psychiatrist, and the reason why they are sometimes called "Shrinks".


Game and Story Use

  • Any Pulp-Era campaign set in South America has to include shrunken heads someplace.
  • A brace of shrunken heads hanging from a pole or a tree is a good sign that you're entering Headhunter Territory.
  • The PC's are searching for an explorer who disappeared in the Amazon Jungle and they find a familiar-looking shrunken head…
  • Or the PC's may be trying to recover a shrunken head so that the victim's family can give it a proper burial.
  • In a magic-based campaign, a shrunken head might have some useful qualities to a necromancer.
    • A party member trying to acquire a shrunken head as a magical component for a necromantic ritual may have to beware of getting a fake head made for tourists.
  • Conversely, someone in a wainscot fantasy campaign might buy a "novelty replica shrunken head" from a curio dealer only for it to turn out to be the genuine article … and one with significant powers (or perhaps just a ghost attached) that make it a fantastic nuisance (or worse).
  • Head-shrinking stops a spirit from taking vengeance? It could make a creepy gimmick for an exorcist or be a final way to destroy an otherwise hard-to-get-rid-of undead.
    • Making sure you got the right head would be a challenge though - finding the undead critter's mortal remains, recovering and shrinking it's head should be hard work. And of course if the head is too decayed…
  • A logical choice for a fetish or soul jar trapping the spirit of the original owner.
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