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Friday, 10 June 2011


Recent Neanderthal reconstruction with squinty eyes, bulbous nose, pricked ears and wide toothy grin; same features as shown in the Billikens

Karl Shuker had recently posted a blog about trolls and included a passing mention of the little Troll dolls so popular during the 1960s. This actually ties in with one of my older blogs mentioning carved lucky charms in the form of brownies, leprechauns and koboldes, and added as a commentary on imps.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Troll dolls came from a certain specific Danish woodcarver named Dam who made his own trademarked version of traditional Kobolde woodcarvings. There is incidentally a traditional sort of Japanese representation for 'little people' which resemble Troll dolls, at least according to Wikipedia. That was a different discussion last summer at Frontiers-of-Zoology, but today I am going off on another tangent that will come back to the same point later.

Billikens For Sale at Alaskan Curio Shop

In this case I came back around to the carved wooden kobolds as luck charms by way of discovering a sort of popular Alaskan souvenir item called a Billiken. The Alaskan natives claim that they are traditional idols made for good luck, and the Chuckchee of Siberia say something similar about their corresponding Pelliken figurines. Checking up on this leads on a convoluted history.

[Billiken statue enshrined on fifth floor observation deck in Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka, Japan. Photographed 24 May 2005.]

The Billiken was a charm doll created by an American art teacher and illustrator, Ms. Florence Pretz of St. Louis, Missouri, who is said to have seen the mysterious figure in a dream.[1] In 1908 she patented the Billiken who was elf-like with pointed ears, a mischievous smile and a tuft of hair on his pointed head. His arms were short and he was generally sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him. One point on Billiken luck: To buy a Billiken gives the purchaser luck, but to have one given to you is better luck [but to steal one from somebody else undetected was the best luck of all].[2] The Billiken was one of the first copyrighted dolls and the first likenesses of the Billiken, banks and statues, were produced in 1909. After a few brief years of popularity, like many other fad toys, the Billiken faded into obscurity. The Billiken should not be confused with baby-like Kewpie figures that debuted in the December 1909 Ladies' Home Journal.

Today, the Billiken is the official mascot of
Saint Louis University and St. Louis University High, both Jesuit institutions, and both located in St. Louis.

Many current on-line articles about the Billikens are based on an article by
anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray that first appeared in Alaska Sportsman (now Alaska) in 1960, with an updated version in Alaska Journal in 1973.

File:Slu billiken.jpg

[Saint Louis University's mascot, the Billiken which is actually not located where the picture was taken anymore]

Billiken, His Life and Times

The Billiken sprang from the height of the "
Mind-Cure" craze in the United States at the start of the twentieth century.[citation needed] It represented the "no worry" ideal, and was a huge hit. Variations appeared, such as the "Teddy-Billiken Doll" and the Billycan/Billycant pair (to drive petty problems away). The Billiken helped touch off the doll craze of the era

In its heyday, the Billiken enjoyed worldwide celebrity. In America he became the athletic
mascot of Saint Louis University, because the figure was said to resemble coach John R. Bender. The school's athletic teams remain the Billikens to this day. A bronze statue of the Billiken stands in front of the Chaifetz Arena on the Saint Louis University Campus. A junior version of the Billiken became the mascot of nearby Saint Louis University High School; a stainless steel statue of the Junior Billiken stands adjacent to the Danis Fieldhouse, on the St. Louis University High School Campus. Bud Billiken was a youth-club mascot for the Chicago Defender, and was created in 1923.

At least two Billiken-themed songs were recorded, including "Billiken Rag" and the "Billiken Man Song."

The billiken, as a good luck charm, appears multiple times in the
Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor movie Waterloo Bridge. It is employed as a device that both prompts recollections of the male lead, Robert Taylor, and that links several scenes within the movie as the plot unfolds.

The Billiken made its
Japanese debut in 1908. A statue was installed in the uppermost level of the original Tsutenkaku Tower as it was opened to the public in 1912. When the nearby Luna Park was closed in 1925, the tower's Billiken statue disappeared. In 1980, a replacement statue made its appearance in a new Tsutenkaku Tower that was built in 1956.....

Billiken in Alaska

In 1909, the Billiken began its appearance in souvenir shops of Alaska. In Nome, Alaska, an Eskimo carver by the name Angokwazhuk copied a Billiken figurine in ivory brought to him by a merchant. Since that first appearance in Alaska, some Eskimo carvers began to include the billiken in the collection of figurines they created.[citation needed] By the 1960s the Billiken was ubiquitous in larger Alaskan cities like Anchorage, and heavily touristed areas. Billikens were often carved from Alaskan ivory and were used in jewelry and knick-knacks. Often these souvenirs were accompanied by printed, romanticized Billiken lore. In Anchorage, the name was also adopted by merchants, as in the Billiken Drive-in Movie Theatre

Modern Walrus-Tusk Billiken

[interested parties are invited to peruse the original article on Wikipedia and follow the links to the original sources. However, my discussion has more to do with features of the Billiken story outside of the Wikipedia article's posted information]

Russian Billikins, owned by Narwhal on long term loan to NIAEF

--A few things need to be said at this juncture. The first thing is that the Billiken design was not entirely original with the schoolteacher, it was an adaptation of a pre-existing traditional figure known as a Gobbo (Goblin=Kobolde), which is basically admitted to in the existing documentation, and the next thing is that although the figures may seem bald and babylike, at the beginning they had furry bearlike bodies.

And there is nothing mysterious about the name "Billiken". It means pretty directly "Little thing carved out of a small piece of wood" (billet+-kin) According to one of the Wikipedia's listed sources, the schoolteacher had made up the image of the future doll but specifically not the name "Billiken"

...And then again, what caught my eye was the fact that they always have features associated with relic hominid reports: pointed heads and wide, Neanderthal-patterned feet. Those feet are traditional in all carvings of the type (turn your trolldoll bottom-to-top and look at the soles of its feet) and in fact I had thought at first the Alaskan carvings represented baby Bigfoots.

[Alaskan "Toonook" or Shamanic Spirit Charm]

[Old Bering Sea Carving, some of these indicate the big square feet-but dangling at the bottom and not drawn up]

That brings us to the other major point: This design was not wholly introduced by the White Trader as is stated in in the original Anthropologist's report. Some features are traditional in pre-contact Alaska and Siberia, if not also China and Japan. The oldest figurines exhibiting some of the important features such as a pointed head, big feet and slanted eyes come from the earliest dynasties in China and from Preclassic Mesoamerica, and figurines with the same traits occur otherwise around the North Pacific rim. Some bigfooted-anthropomorphic ivory carvings come from Iputak, Alaska and the folklore of both Alaska and far Northeastern Siberia refer to their legendary Bush Men as "Sharpheaded". So only the current configuration and the name Billiken are from White Traders, and those features were applied to pre-existing traditional figures which the Natives perceived as being similar.
So basically we are brought back to the notion of short hairy implike or goblinlike creatures being represented as lucky charms, no doubt with the sort of idea that if you carry the image, the thing itself will not act against you and in fact might do your bidding. And in Northeast Siberia and Alaska, if not also including areas to the south on both sides of the Pacific, the actual creatures that the charms were taken as depicting were Almaslike Bush Men with squinchy eyes, pugged noses, big toothy grins and egg-shaped crania. The typical European Neanderthal skull tended to rise to a peak at the back of the head and slope away to the front and the back, incidentally. And if that was not specific enough, these Billiken Koboldes are depicted with the proper Neanderthal-like feet (also alluded to in one of the English Goblin or Brownie names of Squarefoot.)


[Heuvelmans' illustration: A) Iceman B)Almas C) Neanderthal D) Modern human ]

[Greenland Tupilak Sculpture, Representing a Shaman's Helper Spirit]

[Caveman-like Tupilak]

Some of the same traits in ivory sculpture turn up in Greenland as representing Shamanic spirits called Tupilak. The features include a big toothy mouth, often grinning, pointed head, pug nose and slit eyes; alternatively bulging eyes. These Tupilak were said to represent spirits or objects the Shamans used to destroy their enemies. The Wikipedia gives this information:

Meanings of the same term in various Inuit cultures

Eskimo cultures were far from being alike, although there were some similarities.[12] Similarly to
shamanism among Eskimo peoples, also the tupilaq concept had variants. It might be a man-made object, a ghost-like being or a haunting soul. In some cultures it was exactly the shaman who had to deal with it. [a double of...?]

Such distant groups like the
Caribou Inuit, Greenland Inuit, Iglulingmiut (Iglulik, Nunavut Inuit) and Copper Inuit knew the concept of tupilaq. [13] But the details differed:

Caribou Inuit

The tupilaq was an invisible ghost. Only the shaman could notice it. It was the soul of a dead person, which became restless because the breach of some death taboo. It scared game away from the vicinity. Thus, the shaman had to help by scaring it away with a knife

Caribou Inuit

The tupilaq was also an invisible being. Like at Iglulik, also the shaman was the only one who could see it. It was a chimera-like creature, with human head and parts from different species of animals. It was dangerous, it might attack the settlement. Then, the shaman had to combat it and devour it with his/her helping spirits


The tupilaq was manifested in real, human-made object. It was made by people to the detriment of their enemies. It was a puppet-like thing, but was thought of have magical power onto the victim. It might be made e.g. of mixed parts of dead animals and dead children

Copper Inuit

To the Copper Inuit the tupilaq was similar to the Christian Devil

[At least some of the concepts are identical to the descriptions of the Canadian Wendigoes]

"Dorset Eskimo" Mask representing a Hairy Wildman from Baffin Island.

[Tupilak "Hunter Spirt"

[Arctic Giant Spirits or "Tunijuk"]

1 comment:

  1. One of the sites which was quoted in the original version declared that the use of the material was infringing upon their copyright. Even though the person in question was admittedly not the owner of the copyrighted longer article in question, Both Jon and I felt the only practical thing to do would be to remove the original blog posting, excise the article quoted from the Alaska Journal mentioned in the Wikipedia article and then repost the amended version. Which is exactly what we have done here.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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