The Mursi, a population who lives in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, practice various rituals and ceremonies and implement various body modification practices, among these there is undoubtedly body painting, one of the most important practices of their culture.
For the Mursi, body painting is both an aesthetic factor and a symbolic representation, as well as a tool to protect and heal themselves.
There are two types of tribal painting in the Mursi culture: painting with cow dung and painting with clay.
Painting with cow dung is practiced exclusively by the Mursi men who paint their own body and that of the bulls in their herd; the bulls symbolize their reproductive capacity and for the man it means that he is looking for a wife.
This type of body painting also shows man's abilities in herding and also in the activities of domestic life; showing these abilities will allow him to find a wife and be able to marry.
The dung is stored in the cattle pen, to this is added the ash from the dry dung that was burned overnight to heat the cattle.
It is clear that there is a parallelism between the man and his bulls, it is not just an analogy, there is an interdependence between the man and his cattle and also a relationship of mutual help that allows both to present themselves at their best; on the other hand, cattle have a central role in the life of the Mursi, as a community and as individuals, painting with cow dung is only the manifestation of one of the many aspects of this importance.
The intentions of the man are made explicit on the mantle of the bull while the product of the bull is clearly visible on the body of the man and this relationship is the representation of herding.
Understanding the meaning of painting with clay is more controversial and several scholars have hypothesized different theories about it; difficult to say which one corresponds to reality, this can also mean that this type of painting has more than one function or meaning.
One of these theories proposes the interpretation of body painting with clay focused on dreams and the meaning of death.
The Mursi cannot speak of the dead just as they cannot tell their dreams; it is not a matter of superstition or sorcery but it is more a representation of the dead person who, of course, cannot be seen otherwise.
Dreaming of the dead for the Mursi is quite common but, unable to tell their dream, they share it using drawings made with clay.
In the Mursi society there is also a vision specialist, who is called ngereye in the Mursi language, he helps people manage their dreams and the fear deriving from visions and gives them instructions on how to use clay; the Mursi believe that the ngereye are able to see what others are unable to see: distant places, the past, the future and death, as if they were seers.
By putting clay on his face, the one who had the dream is as if he recreates the relationship with the deceased, he also informs the other members of the community about his state of mind without having to speak; death thus becomes part of the interactions of the living in daily life.
Painting with clay is also used by men during dances that are an expression of the vitality of the Mursi and represent a collective event in which everyone participates.
The dance involves three phases: in the first the girls are called where the boys are, in the second the boys make the marriage proposal to the girls and in the third the girls respond to the proposal.
During the second phase, the boys, who have their bodies painted with clay with asymmetrical designs, dance very quickly and this creates a blur effect that makes it difficult to clearly perceive their bodies while having an interaction with the girls.
After this frenetic and intense dance they move on to the third phase where the drawings with clay have disappeared from the bodies of the boys, and this as a result of sweat; now their body is perfectly visible, the paint obstructing the view has been washed away and now the bodies have been revealed.
It is reasonable to believe that body paint with clay is also used by the Mursi for more practical purposes such as to protect their skin: the Mursi boys who look after cattle have been seen on more than one occasion rubbing their bodies. with wet mud or clay all over the body, it is thought that it was to protect themselves from the sun or to keep insects away, it seems that even the ashes of bovine dung perform this latter function.
Finally, body painting with clay is also used for healing purposes: clay and earth in general are considered elements that have an active spirit and therefore the Mursi believe that they can protect or cure them from a disease.