In the hills of Luzon, in the Philippines, when an Ilongot puts on red hornbill earrings it is the excepltional sign that he has killed a man.
Red, bright and dancing from the upper lobes of the ears, the earrings are both body jewelry and a signal understood by everyone. They are seen as “beautiful”.
When the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University, tried to further develop the meaning of “beautiful earrings”, the Ilongot looked at him with a kind of pity.
“They’re beautiful, they used to answer, nothing more and nothing less.”
Being able to wear those red hornbill earrings, is being able to show your masculinity. The beheading of another human being is, in itself, an expression of power, and not being able to wear “beautiful earrings” on visits and invitation is a problem.
The meaning of those beautiful earrings is then shut down in a circular way: earrings show one has killed a man and killing a man means one is able to wear earrings on social occasions. The earrings are made beautiful by the man’s strength and power they stage, which is essential to an Ilongot man to assert his capabilities as a headhunter.
The signified and the signifier, earrings and decapitation here, are exchangeable and redefined by circumstances within the social group, like customs and traditions that distinguish it.
“Beautiful earrings of Ilongot headhunters”, may not look beautiful though, if put in a different context. In a museum’s display, for example, a sterile place where the stories’ void would not make them so special.