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Viper Vessels of Taiwan's Paiwan

Vessel with Snake Motifs, 18th Century
Paiwan culture; Pingtung or Taitung County, Taiwan
Clay and wood; 15 x 11 1/2 in.
Gift of Anne and Long Shung Shih
One Hundred Paces
The hundred-pacer snake is a venomous pit viper indigenous to the same region occupied by the Paiwan of southern Taiwan. Hailed as an ancestor in several of their creation stories, the deadly noodle-shaped creature held an important place in Paiwan culture as their second most important motif. The distinctive triangular patterns which cover the hundred-pacer snake from snout to tail can be seen in many Paiwan woodcarvings as well as impressed as dots into the earthen snakes of this post’s featured Paiwan vessel.
Deinagkistrodon acutus, the hundred-pacer snake. 
Photograph by Danleo, CC BY 2.5
Children of the Snake
Two myths specifically bind the snake to the legendary history of these earthen pots. The first describes a pair of tiny eggs miraculously appearing in one of these clay jars. Over ten months the eggs grew larger until a male and female snake hatched from them to become the procreators of all snakes. The myth serves to explain why snakes in Paiwan art are so often featured as pairs. The second myth discusses the ancestry of the Paiwan nobility. Long ago a woman named Tsail saw a hundred-pacer snake in the form of a man and fell in love with him. He in turn fell in love with her. To win over her unhappy and likely confused parents, the snake gifted them a clay vessel covered in snake motifs and filled with glass beads as bride price. After their happy marriage, the pair’s children earned the right to use the snake motif in their artwork. Until recently, this right was still held by Paiwan nobles, chiefs and shaman who claimed ancestry to them. The myths of the snake ancestors of the Paiwan are particularly fascinating in the context of these clay vessels, because in them the vessels predate the creation of the first snake ancestors of the Paiwan. Archeological evidence suggests that these pots were made since at least the Neolithic era with long breaks in manufacture throughout. Before the written history of the Paiwan began, the technique was lost. This certainly provides insight into the ancient riddle of whether the vessel or the egg came first.
Alternative view of 2017.11.29.
Snake Charming
Due to their importance and scarcity, these clay vessels were considered highly sacred by the Paiwan. Their culture was traditionally a rigid caste system in which one could not marry outside of their class, certain motifs like the snake were limited in use only to those of noble blood and much more. These jars were codified in this hierarchical social structure by only being allowed to be owned by those of noble blood. Most of the time the vessels were kept in recessed shrines in the back of nobles’ slate homes. Wooden bases such as the one seen here are not uncommon, though based on the style this one was made more recently. Every five to six years the vessels would be brought out for display where they were centerpieces of a shrine to which gifts of food and beads were presented. In keeping with their usage in mythology, the vessels were also given by noble men as bride price.
Semi-traditional Paiwan home in Tamali Village, Taiwan.
Photograph by BernardGagnon, GNU
Snakes on a Plane
One of the most common characterizations of Paiwan art is that it is predominantly two-dimensional. Many of the Paiwan carvings that remain preserved in museums today are architectural pieces which would have covered a noble’s home. Though these lintels, posts and panels are three-dimensional, they almost always feature carvings in low enough relief to appear flat. Of course, as static works which would have decorated a home, designs were meant to be seen from one angle. This same lack of dimensionality is seen throughout most of Paiwan pottery, which makes vessels of this type particularly interesting. There were two distinct styles of pottery vessel made by the Paiwan, each of which corresponded to gender. The female vessel is decorated by lightly inscribed geometric and egg designs—hailing again back to the creation myth of the hundred-pacer snake. This vessel is male. Its two pairs of hundred pacer snakes evidently also come from Paiwan creation myths. Snakes were also sometimes inscribed like the eggs of female vessels, but in this variant we see that they have broken free of their two-dimensional plane.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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