Tibetan Buddhists use human remains to create ritual artifacts

by Kathleen Terris

Located in the heart of the Asian continent between China and India, Tibet is a region with a complicated political history that has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951. Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is extremely important to everyday Tibetan life and is derived from the ancient Tibetan religion Bön and Sanskrit Buddhism from Northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the west due to Tibetan emigration.

Rituals and ritual artifacts are important in Tibetan Buddhism, with the artifacts believed to hold tantric powers that determine how successful the ritual will be. Several of these ritual artifacts are made using human bone; these artifacts include the damaru, the kangling, and the kapala. The damaru is a two-headed, hand-held drum that is made from two skulls, a male and a female, which represent the male and female elements of life. These elements are further represented through the male and female mantras that are inscribed on the inside of the corresponding skullcap. This ritual instrument is held in the right hand and is often paired with a bell (ghanta) to create a musical offering to the deities at the center of the ritual.

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A traditional Tibetan damaru. Beasley-Hwang collection.

The kangling is a trumpet traditionally made from a human femur (kangling literally translates to “bone flute”).  Said to have a haunting sound, the kangling is typically used in rituals to summon spirits in order to help relieve their worldly sufferings.

Monk with Damaru Thighbone

A damaru and kangling used together in ritual.

A kapala, or skull cup, is used to hold offerings of herbs and flowers that are mixed with various liquids; this mixture is symbolic of aspects of the body and mind.  The skull cup is supported by a triangular base with a skull decorating each corner; these skulls represent the three vices (greed, hate, and ignorance).  The kapala is topped off with a crown-shaped lid that represents the enlightened body.

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An intricately decorated kangling. Beasley-Hwang Collection.

These instruments are used in chöd ritual, a practice that combines Buddhist meditation and an ancient shamanic ritual native to Tibet and is primarily found in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. The goal of this practice is to get rid of the Ego, which starts with disconnecting from the body and material objects.

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A Tibetan kapala, complete with separate triangular base and crown-shaped lid. Beasley-Hwang collection.

While these artifacts are traditionally made from human bone, they may also be made from wood. When made from bone, the selection is very important to how much power the artifact has and the success of the rituals it is used in; it is believed that the karmic force of the deceased remains in these skeletal artifacts and is transferred to those who use them in ritual. For example, the bones of an individual who died violently are believed to hold the greatest power while those of someone who died a peaceful death have almost no power; the bones of a respected teacher are also thought to be powerful in ritual use. While it can seem almost morbid to use skeletal remains as ritual objects, these are often seen as the most powerful cultural objects. This is evident in the amount of decoration and symbolism included in the artifacts described here.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Terris worked with Houston Museum of Natural Science Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout and recently joined the collections department as a part-time member.

If you’re looking for more bones, visit the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. #ChillsAtHMNS

Animal Espionage: Meet the Spies, Traitors and Saboteurs of the Wild

This week, you’ll have the first chance to experience our new special exhibit, Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America – examining nine major periods in U.S. history when America faced threats from enemies within our borders. But did you know HMNS already features a few “sneaks” of our own? They’re just of the animal variety!

In our HMNS Outreach Programs, we highlight several examples of crafty creatures who have adapted creatively to their environments to prolong survival. Want to meet a few of these smart cookies? Come to our free Shell Educators’ Preview Sept. 29!

How do you become a spy? First, blend in!


Our first spy is a familiar animal to the Gulf Coast – the American alligator! One of the alligator’s strongest adaptations is its amazing camouflage. I remember fishing as a kid on the Sabine River and my dad pointing out a gator in the distance. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t spot it! Only as we neared could I see the bumpy “dead log” silently watching us float by. Alligators are extremely well-adapted to ambush. With nostrils that stick out of the water like a snorkel and a clear inner eyelid to protect their eyes while they swim, their whole body can stay submerged as they await their prey. While too dangerous to approach in their natural habitat, our Wildlife On Wheels program Texas Wildlife often includes one of our baby alligators, still small enough to keep safely!


Several of our other spies star in our Bugs On Wheels: Amazing Arthropods program and are masters of disguise. The giant long-legged katydid, for example, is the world’s largest katydid, native to Malaysia. These awesome insects mimic leaves, and during the daylight hours they can safely remain motionless, cloaked in foliage, waiting to become active at night. They don’t only come in green though; these insects can have an endless array of shades and patterns to match the leaves of their unique habitats. And like many things that get better with age, so does their camouflage, as their back edge grows brown and tattered like an old leaf.

Traitors mean false friends.


In the natural world, traitors come in many guises, even that of seemingly innocuous plants! The pitcher plant, masquerading as a source of tasty nectar, lures in insects (sometimes even rodents) and traps them. Their victims cannot escape the waxy walls and sticky fluid inside. As their prey drowns, digestive enzymes help break down the body, allowing the plant to absorb the released nitrogen. You can meet three species of this unusual carnivore in our Cockrell Butterfly Center!


Another unique traitor native to our state is the Texas tortoise, often seen in our Wildlife On Wheels programs, though a threatened species in the state of Texas. Deceptively fierce, this desert dweller is extremely territorial, and males will fight to the death if a fellow tortoise challenges. Competitors rise up on front legs to charge, using the pronged gular scutes protruding from the shell to hook under the trespasser, attempting to flip him over. This is a deadly situation for a tortoise as all of the animal’s internal organs press down on the lungs, which causes him to suffocate if he cannot turn back over. Yikes!

The Science of Sabotage


Crushing prey with an estimated force of 60,000 Newtons, the bite of Tyrannosaurus rex would be lethal enough as it is, but some paleontologists, such as Farlow and Abler, debate that a more insidious biological superweapon could be concealed in those fearsome teeth. Fine serrations in each tooth provided strength and cutting power, but may have also allowed meat from T. rex’s last meal to linger, lending a perfect source for bacteria to feed on. Similar to that of a Komodo dragon, it is theorized that the bite of T. rex could deposit overwhelming amounts of bacteria, causing the wound to fester and become septic. Want to touch a T. rex tooth and feel the serrations? (We promise, ours are clean.) A visit from Dinosaur Discovery, part of Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, makes it possible!



Our last saboteur certainly employs a most unusual method of dispatching enemies —how about getting licked to death! The lightning whelk, a carnivorous snail, uses the sharp edge of its shell to pry apart bivalves. Once open, the whelk uses its radula (think scratchy cat tongue, but much worse!) to lick and scrape the hapless victim into smaller pieces for consumption. Fun fact: this ruthless snail is the state shell of Texas, and can often be found on gulf coast beaches. Look for a “left-handed” (sinistral) shell, shaped so it’s easier to put your left hand in. Another great place to see a whelk? In our Wildlife On Wheels: Invertebrates program, or in the Strake Hall of Malacology!

Interested in bringing these super-cool, sneaky creatures to your school or group? Send an email to outreach@hmns.org or call (713) 639-4758 to book your Outreach Program today!

HMNS is warming up for Spirits and Skeletons. Are you?

For thrills and chills and looks that kill, there’s no Halloween party bigger or better than Spirits and Skeletons at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Hundreds of costumed creatures pack the museum floors each year for drinks and dancing and a ghoulish good time. Where else can you celebrate with the hottest crowd in Houston, surrounded by huge dinosaur bones, real mummies and live creepy crawlies? The answer is nowhere.

From 8 p.m. to midnight on Oct. 31, we’ll open all four floors to the public (21 and up) with 30 cash bars spread throughout the museum, five food trucks outside for a quick bite and two DJs to get your bones moving. With numbers like that, you can count on a good time, but if you’re a visual learner, check out these shots from previous years.


You can’t bust a move in costume underneath a Triceratops or a T. rex unless you’re at HMNS. Don’t miss the chance to party in the Morian Hall of Paleontology for Halloween.


Outside the front doors, take a break from the dance floor and grab a bite to eat. With five of Houston’s best food trucks, you’ll find something to munch on.


While you’re chowing down, you can meet a character or two and show off your fancy costume. Come dressed for success, though. For our party, folks can really bring it. You can go sweet and cute…


…or scary and traditional.


You can go as a supervillain…


…or go completely nasty.


Maybe get silly like this half-man, half-dog from Spaceballs…


…or put your hard-earned dollars to good use.


Go aboriginal…


…or take an original spin on the native look. Taking a friend or five can open up even more ideas.


Pay homage to your favorite cast of characters…


…be members of the crew…


…or put your heads together, and who knows what you’ll come up with?


Maybe you just broke out…


…or just broke out some teeth. However you choose to dress, just remember, this is HMNS, where you never know what you’ll see around the next corner.

Don’t miss Spirits and Skeletons this year! It’s the most fun you can have in costume. Tickets $50, members $25.

Additional note: Throughout the month of October, keep an eye on our HMNS social media platforms under #ChillsatHMNS for Halloween tricks and treats to warm up for the big party. Because at the museum, we do spooky up big. Look us up on Facebook for holiday highlights, drop in on Instagram for 31 Days of Skeletons and follow our story on Snapchat for Halloween humor. Scan our Twitter feed for updates on all things museum and streaming video feed through Periscope.



Legend of the Peg Elves: Boy Scout Overnights offer a glimpse into museum folklore

The lights in the Morian Hall of Paleontology brighten and illuminate the Tyrannosaurus rex. The immersive soundscape in The Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife comes to life. The periodic table powers on in the Welch Hall of Chemistry. And the peg elves emerge.


When the lights go out in the museum, the exhibits seem to come to life. Legend has it this is when the peg elves emerge. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

That’s right. As the museum gears up for another day of exploring, learning, and excitement, the peg elves at the Houston Museum of Natural Science begin to stir. They have an important job to do. They are the protectors of the pegs.

The Foucault Pendulum is an icon at HMNS, just outside the Wiess Energy Hall. If you’ve ever found yourself walking through the exhibit halls and suddenly heard an uproar of cheering, then you know it happened; the pendulum has finally knocked over one of the wooden pegs. This happens once every 12 to 13 minutes and has captivated museum audiences for decades with its ability to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. You can hear the disappointment when visitors feel certain the pendulum is going to knock down a peg, but it swings ever so slightly by it. It’s something I remember watching intently as a child. You root for the pendulum to mark the passage of time by knocking down one of those innocent pegs. It’s the spectator sport of HMNS.


The Foucault Pendulum outside the Wiess Energy Hall demonstrates the motion of the Earth as it rotates. It takes about 13 minutes for the pendulum to knock down a single peg, and it changes direction as our planet rotates beneath it. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The kids who spend the night at the museum often ask us a lot of questions about the inner workings of the museum. Frequently, they want to know “How do you get those dinosaurs in here?”, “Does everything come to life at night?” and “Who sets all the pegs back up?” That’s when we tell them about the magical yet elusive HMNS peg elves.

Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. The Himalayas have the Yeti. HMNS has peg elves. The peg elves are bearded creatures who inhabit the innermost workings of the museum. They wait in the depths of the museum for the pendulum to swing back and forth knocking each peg down. The sound of the peg clattering on the tile is music to their ears. It calls to them. It’s their mission and purpose to set those pegs back up.

Scanned Document

This composite sketch was created using eyewitness reports of the peg elves over the years. Reports identify the elves as typically wearing Santa hats and sunglasses, having pointy ears and beards, and reaching heights no taller than six inches.

Early in the morning before the first visitor enters the museum, the peg elves get to work. They move quickly and scamper over the walls surrounding the pegs. They place each peg with precision. The young elves observe with watchful eyes as the elders re-position the pegs. The physics of peg positioning is an art, so it’s only after a dutiful mentoring period that the younger elves are permitted to assist with the pegs. Young elves dream of the day they’re able to prop a peg up on their own. It’s a rite of passage in peg elf society.

After all the pegs are in place, the peg elves return quickly and quietly to their museum hideouts. They wait in the wings to hear that collective cheer as the pendulum swings. The peg elves know that it means there will be more work for them in the morning. After all, they are the guardians of the pendulum, the protectors of the pegs.

Peg Elf Footprints

Here you can see where we’ve successfully tracked a group of peg elves. The tiny footprints are evidence of their presence at HMNS.

Interested in sneaking a peak at the HMNS peg elves for yourself? Visit our Overnights page for information on how you can spend a night at the museum and get a glimpse of these mysterious creatures in the morning hours!

If you’re a Cub Scout or Webelos, register for our Scout Overnight on Oct. 9! You’ll get a chance to explore the museum after hours, see a Burke Baker Planetarium show and sleep in one of our renowned exhibit halls! Visit Scout Overnights or email us for more information!