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Seneca Effigy Comb

Seneca Effigy Comb


This moose antler comb was found at the site of Teiaiagon (Baby Point) buried with a Seneca woman. It was carved to depict Mishipescheu (a powerful water lynx with a rattlesnake tail), Bear and Human.  Emanating power lines and other power symbols are inscribed on the comb.

Curatorial Comment

While the development of antler combs reached its peak with the Seneca in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, evidence has been found for the presence of combs in pre-Iroquoian cultures. These were never numerous and were generally cruder in style and workmanship. The Seneca produced more combs than any other Iroquoian-speaking group and comb development seems to have coincided with the introduction of iron tools and the growth of their political and military strength in the post-1650 period. Seneca combs are often ornamented with carvings of human, mammal, reptile, amphibian and/or bird effigies or less complex geometrical shapes. When human figures are represented, Europeans can be differentiated from First Nations individuals, usually on the basis of the depicted hairstyle or details of dress.

The design of the Teiaiagon/Baby Point comb is elaborate and consists of a combination of human and multiple animal figures. The human form is represented from the waist up with two definite arms and what appears to be a hat on their head. The upper animal figure and the human figure are connected in two areas: at the head/“hat” area and through the forelimb/arm area.

While interpreting representations and engravings on artifacts is always difficult, the animal figures on this comb fit the descriptions of a Seneca panther and bear effigy. The rounded quality of the ears and face suggest a bear, as opposed to more pointed wolf/dog ears and snout, in addition the long lithe body and long slender tail, suggests a panther. The end of the panther figure’s long tail has a series of engraved bands, which could possibly be inferred as the rattle of a rattlesnake.

The fine engravings consist of linear, spherical and geometric designs located on the bodies of the animal figures and are largely restricted to one side of the comb. The only engraving on the human figure consists of a few generally horizontal lines at the waist area. Designs on the creatures’ bodies include modified hourglass or star designs as well as two circles, one with three and the other with four spokes. The modified hourglass/star motifs have been described as thunderbird representations. Lines, such as the one radiating from the hourglass/star/thunderbird motif, are often described by researchers as power lines.

For Bill Woodworth, a shaman woman “rides the back of Mishipizhiw, 'the water lynx', who projects out of his head the spirit of the bear who in turn is returned into her. This potent cyclical movement of the spirits is conveyed in lines engraved within the embodied shapes. The double circles in the hind of the Mishipizhiw suggest the wide awake spirits of his eyes. The water lynx can be requested to lead us out of the chaos of rapids into calm waters. The bear can help us heal. Teiaiagon oversees a place of dangerous rapids in the course of the river, and by its presence and occupants protects visitors who enter its natural realm.”

Bill W.

Bill W.

Teiaiagon Story

Four hundred years ago, present day Baby Point was occupied by the Seneca Iroquois longhouse village of Teiaiagon (“crosses the stream”). The spirits of our native ancestors, including their bodies and the remains of their longhouse lifestyle were “returned to the earth” here. This is the land on which Robert Home Smith developed a beautiful early twentieth-century Eurocentric enclave. Much of the native settlement is still held in the earth there undisturbed except for the house foundations. In the spring of 2007, the ancient burial of a native woman was uncovered. This recovery was a stark remembrance of the origins of this place. Among the items discovered with her remains was the bone comb pictured here. For me, this comb conveys to us here now the sublime spiritual nature of this woman’s gifts.

According to provincial statute, Six Nations of the Grand River were contacted, and a re-burial location negotiated with the City of Toronto Culture Division. As a Mohawk member of the Six Nations community living here in Toronto, I was called on as a man, by some of the Clan Mothers, to deliver the speech in the ceremony of re-interment.

In our ceremony, we apologized to the spirit of her bones for uncovering her peaceful remains held so long undisturbed amidst the many layers of subsequent occupation. We prayed not to disturb her bones again, and in return, we asked her not to hurt us in our unintentional carelessness today.

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