Table of Contents - Volume 12, number 4 (December 2007) - 30 pages
The ultimate origin of South American string figures remains shrouded in mystery. Did the original settlers, presumably arriving from the north, inherit or acquire their knowledge of string figures from their ancestors? Or, were string figures introduced by slaves (of African origin) who arrived in Brazil as early as 1502? A cursory examination of the published literature suggests that both probably occurred: some South American string figures employ North American techniques while others are formed using African techniques. Collections from Mexico and Central America, which are currently lacking, would help answer such questions.
According to ethnographer Harald Schultz and his wife Vilma, only Krahó men make string figures. Women and girls show no interest in them. Whenever Vilma asked women about string strings they told her to consult the men. Furthermore, they were amused that Vilma, a woman, was interested in such games.
Harald Schultz filmed the Krahó on multiple occasions between 1949 and 1965. In 1964-65 he filmed four men making string figures (29 designs). The only action figure he filmed was one called ‘The Drying Lake’, which was demonstrated by Pókrók, age 28.
The Maká are a group of South American Indians that once roamed the Gran Chaco — an enormous plain that occupies parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Today the Maká, reduced to 1200 individuals, live in Asunción, Paraguay.
Traditionally, dance masks were made worldwide by nearly all native cultures. The mask allowed the dancer to assume the identity of an animal, spirit, or fellow human. Europeans adopted the practice, often staging elaborate “costume” or “masked balls”.
This South American action figure, which represents four masked dancers strutting from left to right, resembles a North American action figure called “Eskimos in a Dance House” (described in the June 1997 issue). However, the method of manufacture is entirely different!
Crabs are greedy and quarrelsome. They often walk sideways and love to hide in holes and crevices to avoid being eaten. These features are humorously captured in this string figure from British Guiana (now Guyana).
Like many South American string figures, the design is formed somewhat mechanically, with one hand manipulating the loops and strings of another. As a result the figure lacks right-left symmetry, but the resulting upper-lower symmetry is ideal for creating design motifs that slide.
In his article on string figures from Patagonia, Dr. Martínez-Crovetto describes three closely related action figures that represent birds in flight. In each case ring fingers are flexed up-and down to fold and unfold the figure in half along a horizontal axis that represents the bird’s spine. The author was unable to identify the exact bird that this figure represents — his informant used the word chiwil.
String figures that begin with two loops on the index fingers are known worldwide. In the literature on Pacific Island figures this opening is often called the Murray Opening. After forming the opening various fingers of each hand act in unison, but they often pick up different strings. As a result the instructions seem complicated, but figure is actually quite simple.
This amusing action figure, which represents a big spider crawling up your arm, is unlike any other in the literature. Its overall form is quite simple: a coil of string that slides up and down vertical frame lines. But describing how to make it using standard string figure terminology is rather tedious since so many minor manipulations are required — perhaps knot-tying terminology would work better!
However, once you learn how to make this figure you can essentially invent your own method if you happen to forget the one described here. In fact, it seems unlikely that the method described here is followed verbatim by all Gran Chaco string figure makers.
Because the design motif of this string figure is so elemental (a simple circle that slides), it is easily adapted. For example, it could just as easily represent a rising sun or moon, or perhaps a helium-filled balloon that a child accidentally releases. If displayed upside-down it could easily represent the illuminated ball in New York’s “Times Square” that descends just before midnight on December 31 to signal the beginning of a new year.
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