The Many Faces of Toothfish
The earlier so-called Primitive Religions, which still hold sway in some parts of the world, do not put humans on a metaphysical pedestal. They believe that everything - not just humans - has a soul and its own right to life and that we need to respect a nature which can be bountiful on the one hand but bring death and disaster on the other. There have always been intermediaries between humans and the forces which govern the natural world; spirits, elementals and daemons to name but a few. These creatures can be invoked using art and magic to plead our cause in the court of nature but they can also be dark and dangerous! Cosmic cops who will punish us if we break the natural laws! One of these powerful creatures is a pantheist daemon called Toothfish.
Toothfish has appeared in magic, religion and art all over the world for millennia - it can be friendly and funny or ruthless and vengeful. Like many paranormal entities Toothfish can manifest itself in a bewildering array of different appearances. In some cultures it is represented as a fish-person, in others as a kind of cow, but most commonly it appears as grinning horse-skulled human which can be either male or female. Toothfish is depicted in many different forms but the most common artifact of the cult is a mask. These ritual masks often contain the the two signature trademarks of Toothfish - the color red and the teeth of real animals. Once the devotee puts the mask on his or her head they are quite literally possessed by the daemon and can speak to and for it.
Toothfish at Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk in England (2012)
The ritual masks below come from the private collection of an anonymous ethnologist who is an expert on the Toothfish cult. Some are clearly Toothfishian - but the symbolism of others remains obscure. Are they depicting Toothfish, one of its intermediaries or another similar nature spirit? It doesn't really matter does it?
Steer Skull (63 x 31 cm)
While Toothfish is often depicted as having a head like a horse skull it sometimes appears with a head that looks like a cow skull. The mask below - like many of the Toothfish masks - may have been used in dances primarily directed towards increasing the fertility of the fields and animals. These masked dances were performed at specific times - usually on moon-lit nights in Spring or early Summer. However some modern experts have suggested that these cow skull masks are not designed to promote fertility. In fact quite the opposite. One expert suggests they may have been used in magical ceremonies to actually try and blight the fecundity of cows. Creatures which, although through no fault of their own, are currently threatening to drown us all in oceans of shit and methane.
Paper mache and filler which has been stained with tea and a commercial staining product.
Dogon Ancestor Spirit (20 x 56cm)
The Dogon tribe are an ethnic group living in the central plateau region of the country of Mali in West Africa. They are best known for their religious traditions; mask dances; wooden sculpture and spectacular architecture. The majority of Dogon still practice an animist religion (the belief that natural phenomena, including animals, plants, and sometimes even inanimate natural objects, possess a spiritual essence). One of the intermediaries between human beings and the natural world is the god - Samaki Jino - or Fish Tooth - which is symbolized in this wedding mask by the use of realistic teeth and the color red.
Paper Mache mask covered with sand, blood and sheep's teeth.
Herne Mask (50 x 60cm)
In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a spirit which haunts Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He always appears with antlers or horns on his head and indeed his name seems to be derived from the Indo-European root word, 'ker-n', meaning bone or horn. In the Early Middle Ages, Windsor Forest came under the control of the pagan Angles tribe who worshiped their own pantheon of gods, including Woden, who was sometimes depicted as horned. There are also clear links with the Norse god - Odin - and the Devil of Western religions. It is thought that this mask was used during fertility rites during the annual May Day revels. The links between Herne and Toothfish are admittedly somewhat tenuous but both are half-human/half animal nature spirits which are not be trifled with.
Paper Mache painted with brown paints. The hair is made from seaweed and the mouth contains teeth from a cow. The horns are from a sacrificial goat.
Toothfish/ Dagon Mask (25 x 31 cm)
The links between Toothfish and Dagon are still the subject of a lot of scholarly debate but the prominent teeth, red coloration, and the obvious fact that it depicts a fish, put this mask puts it firmly in the Mediterranean Toothfish tradition. Dagon is an Assyro-Babylonian fertility god of grain and fish and/or fishing. The name seems to have originated from the Hebrew word, 'dāg', or fish and Dagon is usually represented in the form of a fish or 'fish-person'. There are clear phallic links to the story of the Egyptian grain god Osiris, whose penis was eaten by fish in the Nile after he was attacked by the storm God, Set. Some of the possibly true stories of the American horror writer, H.P.Lovecraft feature a race of fish-frog-like, ocean-dwelling creatures called the Deep Ones. They are said to serve beings known as Father Dagonand Mother Hydra, as well as the powerful elder-god, Cthulhu. This mask was found in a small temple where the local fish-gods including Toothfish are still actively worshiped.
Paper mache painted in red paint. The eyes are made from wooden balls and the mouth is molded around the dried jaws of a mako shark.
Egyptian Bird Mask (31 x 60cm)
Once again the use of the color red and real teeth in the mouth indicate that this mask is probably meant to represent Toothfish. But it may depict the Egyptian god, Thoth, which is associated with the art of magic, the system of writing, the development of science, and the judgment of the dead. The head dress featuring a lunar disc refers to the passing of the seasons and the worship of nature. This mask covered the face of the body of a priest exhumed from a burial chamber in the ancient city of Thebes.
Paper mache painted in black, red, yellow and gold. The disc is made of polystyrene and filler. The teeth are from a cow.
Sepik River Ancestor Mask (31 x 63 cm)
Before Christianity the dominant religion in Papua New Guinea was a mixture of animism and ancestor worship. Animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical world. Souls or spirits are seen to exist not only in humans but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers and other entities of the natural environment. Ancestor spirits can be called on to assist the living in their endeavours or turned against one's enemies.This ancestor mask was used in ceremonies where the spirit which inhabited the skull would be ask to intercede with the local daemons - particularly nature spirits such as Toothfish.
Paper mache infused with emu feathers and stained with tea. The hair is made from plaited flax fibre. The horns and teeth are from a ram.
James Gilberd - Michael Hall - Toothfish
Hair on the Sepik Skull Mask by Jasmin Van Lith