World of Bukana: Headhunting

There are a number of problematic aspects of early tribal life when taken from a modern day perspective. The first that we encountered when developing Bukana was that of headhunting. Like many cultures, head-taking played a role in warfare; the Irish did it, eastern Europeans did it, and there were Indian tribes still doing it in 1960’s. And it was really big in what is now called the Philippines and Indonesia. However, when it came time to decide what role the ceremonial severing of human heads would play in our setting, we were… uneasy. Our initial thought was to remand it to savage and violent cultures designed to act as antagonists to the typical adventurers. But that didn’t feel right either, since it was such an important part of life for so many filipinx cultures. So we decided to do some more digging and get a handle on what exactly that role was and try not to bring our modern, largely western worldview into the process.

What we discovered, like so much of Indonesian & Philippine history, was that there was a lot of variability from region to region and tribe to tribe. The real breakthrough for me was when I found accounts of certain tribes who would grow their hair in order to facilitate the display of their heads should they be taken by an enemy. What? I would have shaved my head and greased it to dissuade someone from chopping off my dome! That very much opened my eyes to the notion that this was not an act of evil to those participants, like such grisly dismemberment would be to us today. We found that it was a highly ceremonial and spiritual tradition. Rarely were heads taken if a tribe was not at war, but only if they had enemies on whom rightful vengeance was due (in their eyes). So we took inspiration from historical accounts and shaped what headhunting would look like in Bukana.

The head-taking ceremonies were once much more widespread in Bukana than it is today. While it is still practiced by those highland people who have maintained their tribal ways, it has largely been cast aside by the more cosmopolitan folks of the lowlands. This is largely due to a shift of morality and move away from traditional ways caused by the influx of outsiders and their world views. Some interior tribes still conduct similar rituals, but use head effigies as surrogates to actual human heads. These are usually carved and painted totems and coconuts. Even those mountain tribes that still maintain the practice, it is not done lightly and only the Barbarians of the Way of the Headtaker can truly be said to exalt in it. There are a few exceptions, of course. Some dwarven cultures take great pride in collecting the heads of those that they feel have violated their territories or stolen what they see as theirs. Additionally, some Chaotic Evil cultures, particularly those of some duwende warrens or minotaur herds never pass up a chance to wrench the power of their enemies’ souls from their bodies and proudly display their gruesome trophies for all to see and fear.

To really get an idea of the place this practice has in traditional Bukanan culture, here is the description of the Path of the Headtaker Barbarian Primal Path:

For many of the Bukana tribes, their traditional ways of life are being eroded by the visitors that swarm their islands. Not so for those barbarians that walk the path of the headtaker. Whether they collect the actual heads of their enemies or bind their souls to effigies, the Kalinga as they are called, practice the old rituals of vengeance that maintain their ancestral heritage and bring glory to their people.

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