Richard Peigler: Moth Cocoon Usage

Cultural Entomology – Moth Cocoon Artifacts

by Richard S. Peigler
Lakewood, Colorado USA.

Hyalophora columbia gloveri

Condensed from an earlier article in Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Natural History, Series 3, Number 5, July 1, 1994 entitled “Non-Sericultural uses of Moth Cocoons in Diverse Cultures.”

California Hand Rattles California Hand Rattles
Tarahunara Ankle Rattle Tarahunara Ankle Rattle
San Ankle Rattles San Ankle Rattles
Ankle Rattles Ankle Rattles
Swazi Ankle RattlesSwazi Ankle Rattles
Tarahumara NecklaceTarahumara Necklace
Zulu Ankle Rattles Zulu Ankle Rattles

Historically and prehistorically, humans have processed and refashioned many natural materials or objects to make containers, the most familiar examples being baskets and pottery. Rattles have been made from gourds (Lagenaria, Cucurbitaceae), turtle shells, animal hides, and several other natural objects filled with stones or seeds. Although moth cocoons have been mainly exploited for their silk to produce fabrics, they also have been used whole in the construction of a variety of artifacts. Some moth cocoons are very tough and, if kept dry, are preserved for long periods of time. To people without access to synthetic manufactured products, some kinds of cocoons make compact and strong containers, ready to be used in a variety of ways.

Cocoons of several species of saturniid moths and other families have been used to make hand rattles, ankle rattles, necklaces, purses or other artifacts in cultures around the world. Although Native American usage from the western United States is now historic, indigenous peoples in Africa and Mexico continue to use moth cocoons. Historic hand rattles from California utilized cocoons of Hyalophora euryalus. The ankle rattles from northwestern Mexico are made from cocoons of Rothschildia cincta , Eupackaria calleta , Hyalophora columbia gloveri , or Antheraea montezuma . The ankle rattles in southern Africa usually have cocoons of Gonometa postica , G. rufobrunnea or Argema mimosae .

There are three main categories of cocoon artifacts and numerous other examples that are minor or perhaps unique. The three major categories are (1) historical use by California Indians using cocoons of Hyalophora euryalus to make hand rattles, (2) current use by Mexican Indians using cocoons mainly of Rothschildia cincta to make ankle rattles and (3) current use in southern Africa using cocoons of Gonometa and Argema mimosae to make ankle rattles. Several tribes are involved in each of these three categories, suggesting ancient origins and diffusion of culture for all three. At least five kinds of materials are used inside the cocoon containers to impart the rattling sound: gravel, small hard seeds, glass beads, broken sea shells, or chips of ostrich eggshell. Some Mexican and African ankle rattles are possibly being produced for sale to musical instrument and ethnic art collectors, as well as for the original intended use in ceremonial dances.

California Hand Rattles

Native Americans used cocoons of certain Saturniidae moths to construct rattles to be held in the hand and shaken. Cocoon rattles were used by tribes in central and northern California, but not in southern California. Cocoons of Antheraea polyphemus and Hyalophora were available to Native Americans throughout most of the United States and southern Canada, yet utilization of cocoons to make hand rattles appears to be restricted to California, Arizona, and Sonora.

One use of these rattles among the Yuki Tribe was to accompany a singer in the ghost initiation ceremony. There is some debate about whether or not native Californians ate the pupae from H. euryalus cocoons they collected, although it seems that routine entomophagy would be unlikely given the power most groups associated with the rattles made from the cocoons.

The Costanoan Tribe from Cayucos, San Luis Obispo County, produced a hand rattle with six Hyalophora euryalus that are still attached to their original twigs which form the handle and are bound together by strips of cloth.

The Yaudanchi Yokuts Tribe from Tule River produced a rattle with four cocoons of H. euryalus that are on a handle bound by twisted rope. The Yokuts Tribe’s snake shamans used cocoon rattles in the rattlesnake ceremony to prevent snakebites. Yokuts rattles usually had only one or two cocoons, sometimes decorated with feathers.

The Central Miwok Tribe called cocoon rattles sokossa. One Northern Miwok rattle from Calaveras County contained three cocoons on a handle 30cm long and was used in the kelea dance. Central Miwok rattles included a single cocoon with pebbles called muliya and cocoons on a stick 120cm long called wasilni. Most Sierra Miwok shamans considered cocoon rattles to be too powerful for commoners to handle. Coastal Miwok called cocoon rattles tsok? -wa’i and this name was also applied to the head man at the waiy?go dance who carried such a rattle. The kilak male dancers also carried cocoon rattles. Coastal Miwok women made and used these rattles for curing and dancing.

Pomo Tribe medicine men shook cocoon rattles while curing illness and pain. A Northern Pomo two headed rattle was used at a dance for the firesong. The most common medicine rattle among the Pomo had a stout wooden handle and contained between six and forty cocoons attached by large feather shafts, usually decorated with additional feathers. Such a rattle was an essential part of the kit of a doctor, who always used it when singing over his patients. It was named after the oriole (kai yoyok), a bird said to rattle when it talked. Cocoons of H. euryalus were collected by the Pomo mainly on manzanita shrubs.

Maidu Tribe cocoon rattles, producing a soft, sibilant rustling when shaken, were used in all parts of the Maidu territory. The Maidu used cocoon rattles only for ceremonial purposes, and generally only shamans used them. They were always used while praying to spirits, and sometimes for curing, poisoning or in the dance house. The cocoon rattles figure prominently in at least one creation story, and there are stories of the “moth woman” among the Maidu.

The Wintun Tribe cocoon rattles were used by a singer to circle the fire singing a fire song.

Shamanism is a term applied in Siberia to belief in spirits and supernatural powers. Among Native Americans, a shaman is a medicine man who is also a religious leader, i.e., both physician and priest. The similarity between these beliefs and practices in Siberia and in America down to the southern tip of South America is considered evidence that the shamanism practiced by Native Americans originated prehistorically in Asia.


Ankle Rattles

Strings of dry cocoons containing gravel are worn as ankle rattles (anklets) by dancers of some tribes of Native Americans in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Cocoons of Rothschildia cincta are part of inter-regional commerce among the Tarahumara Tribe. The strings of rattles may be worn around the wrist as well as the ankle. Now?ki is the Tarahumara name for the cocoould be unlikely given the power most groups associated with the rattles made from the cocoons.

The Costanoan Tribe from Cayucos, San Luis Obispo County, produced a hand rattle with six Hyalophora euryalus that are still attached to their original twigs which form the handle and are bound together by strips of cloth.

The Yaudanchi Yokuts Tribe from Tule River produced a rattle with four cocoons of H. euryalus that are on a handle bound by twisted rope. The Yokuts Tribe’s snake shamans used cocoon rattles in the rattlesnake ceremony to prevent snakebites. Yokuts rattles usually had only one or two cocoons, sometimes decorated with feathers.

The Central Miwok Tribe called cocoon rattles sokossa. One Northern Miwok rattle from Calaveras County contained three cocoons on a handle 30cm long and was used in the kelea dance. Central Miwok rattles included a single cocoon with pebbles called muliya and cocoons on a stick 120cm long called wasilni. Most Sierra Miwok shamans considered cocoon rattles to be too powerful for commoners to handle. Coastal Miwok called cocoon rattles tsok? -wa’i and this name was also applied to the head man at the waiy?go dance who carried such a rattle. The kilak male dancers also carried cocoon rattles. Coastal Miwok women made and used these rattles for curing and dancing.

Pomo Tribe medicine men shook cocoon rattles while curing illness and pain. A Northern Pomo two headed rattle was used at a dance for the firesong. The most common medicine rattle among the Pomo had a stout wooden handle and contained between six and forty cocoons attached by large feather shafts, usually decorated with additional feathers. Such a rattle was an essential part of the kit of a doctor, who always used it when singing over his patients. It was named after the oriole (kai yoyok), a bird said to rattle when it talked. Cocoons of H. euryalus were collected by the Pomo mainly on manzanita shrubs.

Maidu Tribe cocoon rattles, producing a soft, sibilant rustling when shaken, were used in all parts of the Maidu territory. The Maidu used cocoon rattles only for ceremonial purposes, and generally only shamans used them. They were always used while praying to spirits, and sometimes for curing, poisoning or in the dance house. The cocoon rattles figure prominently in at least one creation story, and there are stories of the “moth woman” among the Maidu.

The Wintun Tribe cocoon rattles were used by a singer to circle the fire singing a fire song.

Shamanism is a term applied in Siberia to belief in spirits and supernatural powers. Among Native Americans, a shaman is a medicine man who is also a religious leader, i.e., both physician and priest. The similarity between these beliefs and practices in Siberia and in America down to the southern tip of South America is considered evidence that the shamanism practiced by Native Americans originated prehistorically in Asia.


Ankle Rattles

Strings of dry cocoons containing gravel are worn as ankle rattles (anklets) by dancers of some tribes of Native Americans in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Cocoons of Rothschildia cincta are part of inter-regional commerce among the Tarahumara Tribe. The strings of rattles may be worn around the wrist as well as the ankle. Now?ki is the Tarahumara name for the cocoons, as well as what they call the larvae of the butterfly,Eucheira socialis (Pieridae), which they eat. Cocoon rattles have special significance among the Tarahumara Tribe because the “butterflies” symbolize birth, death and souls.

The Yaqui Tribe of Sonora and Arizona make paired anklets from cocoons of R. cincta called teneboim that are used by pascola dancers (including the deer dancers which have become the symbol of the Yaqui) and the chapayeka dancers. Each anklet consists of a single strand wound around the lower leg to sometimes cover a broad area between the knee and the foot. The cocoons are sewn on red yarn; the red tassels on the end are called “flowers” and symbolize divine grace. The cocoons are brushed with white paint to keep anklets looking new.

The Mayo Tribe of Sonora and Sinaloa make ankle rattles called tenovares that are used in the pascola dance ceremony. Cocoons are also worn by chapakobam (the Mayo name for chapayeka) dancers. They extend from the knees to the ankles of the dancers and contain cocoons of R.cincta.

The Seri Tribe of Sonora used cocoon rattles in their venado dance. The Seri term for a single cocoon or string of cocoon rattles is xica quiinla meaning “things that rattle.” They put broken pieces of sea shell into the cocoons to produce the rattling sound.

The T?hono O’dham Tribe of Arizona and Sonora make anklets from white painted R. cincta cocoons. Some variations are exceptionally long four meter strings with 110 pairs of cut cocoons of R. cincta which are worn around the chest and over the shoulders.

Africa

Diffusion of culture is evident among the Bantu-speaking tribes (Sotho, Swazi, Venda, Zulu) and San bands of southern Africa that construct similar cocoon rattles within their region. African examples with cut cocoons are strikingly parallel to those from Mexico. Those with whole cocoons bear superficial resemblance to cartridge belts. The types with clusters of cocoons made by the Swazi and some Zulu are worn at the ankles, whereas those sewn on long strings made by the San are wound around the lower leg as in the Mexican examples.

The Zulu Tribe from Natal, South Africa, make extensive use of Argema mimosae cocoons to make anklets. The use of these rattles became common in Natal as a result of the introduction of the rickshaw from China and India. The cocoons are collected after the moths have emerged and one or more small stones are placed inside before they are sewn onto a broad strip of goat skin (with the fur on the inside for the greater comfort of the person wearing the anklet). The cocoons are much favored by the Zulu as these anklets produce a satisfying rattle.

The Swazi Tribe from Swaziland, South Africa, use anklets made from cocoons of Argema mimosae.

Within the Venda Tribe from Venda, South Africa, elderly women from the drier northern parts of Venda use anklets containing cocoons of Argema mimosae, in tribal dances.

The San(Bushman) Cultures from the Kalahari Desert regions of Botswana utilize cocoons. The G/wikhwena San make dance rattles from Gonometa cocoons called /xododzi.Anklets are used by male dancers on an average of three nights a week; the stomping wears out the thongs after about ten weeks and the cocoons last about a year or two. The !Kung San use cocoon anklets for healing in their important trance rituals.

Necklace

The Coahuiltec Tribefrom Monterrey, Mexico, wore necklaces made from cocoons of Rothschildia orizaba,believing that they would prevent the growth of a beard. Southwestern cultures are believed to use cocoon necklaces as does the Tarahumara Tribe of Chihuahua who probably believe the cocoons to have medicinal value. Natives in New Guinea have been seen wearing necklaces made from the cocoons of a large saturniid (probably Coscinocera).


Other Artifacts

The Wailaki Trib