Bloody water and other souvenirs
Souvenirs have a long history and even a likely prehistory. A number of my friends and coworkers exchange stones brought back from faraway places. It would be hard to find a simpler, more authentic memento than one plucked from the soil.
Medieval tourists were often merchants or pilgrims, with their own penchant for souvenirs. Pamela Tudor Craig (in “Times and Tides,” History Today, April 1996) wrote that the “little tinlead, purse-shaped ampullae that were issued at Canterbury in Chaucer's time contained miraculous water that had been, it was claimed, in touch with the blood of the martyr Saint Thomas. You wore it around your neck, or gave it to your parish church on your return.”
And souvenirs have not always been items taken home. Craig added that “in the past it was equally important to leave, near the shrine, something to remind the Saint of us. The three greatest pilgrimage places of Spain - Compostella, Montserrat and Saragossa - had fine collections of jeweled mementoes left by pilgrims.”
Some souvenirs have deep personal meaning. Richard K. Betts (“Why Mementos Matter: Understanding History through a Father's Wartime Story,” Newsweek, April 17, 1995) kept his father’s World War II dog tags, campaign ribbon, Bronze Star and citation "for heroic achievement ... during an armored infantry attack through murderous enemy Panzerfaust and machine gun fire." When he read the citation to his five-year-old daughter, “she listened respectfully but blankly. … She also had to ask me, ‘Daddy, what's a war?’ When she's older, maybe she'll understand why I read it to her, and why my voice cracked.”
Souvenir shopping can also become an obsession. Just think of Charles Foster Kane’s acres of unopened crates in Citizen Kane or Big Daddy’s forgotten treasures in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
One souvenir can also be a key to unlock the meaning of another memento. Last October, for instance, I bought a hand-carved Iroquoian mask in Quebec City. This was a miniature “False Face” with a certificate verifying that the Iroquois artist lived in Ontario Province. What the paperwork did not disclose was that traditionalists in his tribe disapprove of these souvenirs.
The souvenir had the distorted face of ritual masks carved from living trees, potent symbols of spirit forces in healing ceremonies and other rituals. In the Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Loretta Hall said that “twice a year, groups of False Faces visited each house in the village, waving pine boughs and dispelling illness,” for “shamans were empowered to combat disorders caused by evil spirits.” For their services, the False Face visitors received gifts of corn and tobacco.
But then enter a second souvenir, a copy of Will Ferguson’s Canadian History for Dummies. On page 18, I learned that these masks were still a part of traditional ceremonies, and that many Iroquois are unhappy to see the masks on public display in museums. “Less reverential Iroquois entrepreneurs,” added Ferguson, do not carve false faces from living wood or perform the requisite ceremony of sanctifying the masks with the burning of tobacco.
When the author asked a carver whether his own creations had been properly sanctified, the fellow “just smiled.”