The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of German New Guinea (continued)
The Papuans of Cape King William.
my last lecture I gave you some account of the beliefs and practices concerning the dead which have been recorded among the German New Guinea. To-day I resume the subject and shall first speak of the natives on the coast about Cape King William at the foot of Mount Cromwell. We possess an account of their religion and customs from the pen of a German missionary Mr. Stolz who has lived three years among them and studied their language.1
His description applies to the inhabitants of two villages only namely Lamatkebolo and Quambu or Sialum and Kwamkwam as they are generally called on the maps who together number about five hundred souls. They belong to the Papuan stock and subsist chiefly by the cultivation of yams which they plant in April or May and reap in January or February. But they also cultivate sweet potatoes and make some use of bananas and coco-nuts. They clear the land for cultivation by burning down the grass and afterwards turning up the earth with digging-sticks a labour which is performed chiefly by the men. The land is not common property; each family tills its own fields though sometimes one family will aid another in the laborious task of breaking up the soil. Moreover they trade with the natives of the interior who inhabiting a more fertile and better-watered country are able to export a portion of their superfluities especially taro sweet potatoes betel-nuts and tobacco to the less favoured dwellers on the sea-coast receiving mostly dried fish in return. Curiously enough the traffic is chiefly in the hands of old women.2
Propitiation of ghosts and spirits.
The spirit Mate.
Spirits called Nai.
With regard to the religion of these people Mr. Stolz tells us that they know nothing of a deity who should receive the homage of his worshippers; they recognise only spirits and the souls of the dead. To these last they bring offerings not because they feel any need to do them reverence but simply out of fear and a desire to win their favour. The offerings are presented at burials and when they begin to cultivate the fields. Their purpose is to persuade the souls of the dead to ward off all the evil influences that might thwart the growth of the yams their staple food. The ghosts are also expected to guard the fields against the incursions of wild pigs and the ravages of locusts. At a burial the aim of the sacrifice is to induce the soul of the departed brother or sister to keep far away from the village and to do no harm to the people. Sacrifices are even offered to the souls of animals such as dogs and pigs to prevent them from coming back and working mischief. However the ghosts of these creatures are not very exacting; a few pieces of sugar-cane a coco-nut shell or a taro shoot suffice to content their simple tastes and to keep them quiet. Amongst the spirits to whom the people pay a sort of worship there is one named Mate who seems to be closely akin to Balum a spirit about whom we shall hear more among the Yabim further to the cast. However not very much is known about Mate; his worship if it can be called so flourishes chiefly among the inland tribes of whom the coast people stand so much in awe that they dare not speak freely on the subject of this mysterious being. Some of them indeed are bold enough to whisper that there is no such being as Mate at all and that the whole thing is a cheat devised by sly rogues for the purpose of appropriating a larger share of roast pork at their religious feasts from which women are excluded. Whatever may be thought of these sceptical views it appears to be certain that the name of Mate is also bestowed on a number of spirits who disport themselves by day in open grassy places while they retire by night to the deep shades of the forest; and the majority of these spirits are thought to be the souls of ancestors or of the recently departed. Again there is another class of spirits called Nai who unlike all other spirits are on friendly terms with men. These are the souls of dead villagers who died far away from home. They warn people of danger and very obligingly notify them of the coming of trading steamers. When a man dies in a foreign land his soul appears as a Nai to his sorrowing relatives and announces his sad fate to them. He does so always at night. When the men are gathered round the fire on the open square of the village the ghost climbs the platform which usually serves for public meetings and banquets and from this coin of vantage plunged in the deep shadow he lifts up his voice and delivers his message of warning news or prediction as the case may be.3
The creator Nemunemu.
Sickness and death often regarded as the effects of sorcery.
However ghosts of the dead are not the only spiritual beings with whom these people are acquainted. They know of a much higher being of the name of Nemunemu endowed with superhuman power who made the heaven and the earth with the assistance of two brothers; the elder brother constructed the mainland of New Guinea while the younger fashioned the islands and the sea. When the natives first saw a steamer on the horizon they thought it was Nemunemu's ship and the smoke at the funnel they took to be the tobacco-smoke which he puffed to beguile the tedium of the voyage.4
They are also great believers in magic and witchcraft and cases of sickness and death which are not attributed to the malignity of ghosts and spirits are almost invariably set down to the machinations of sorcerers. Only the deaths of decrepit old folks are regarded as natural. When a man has died and his death is believed to have been caused by magic the people resort to divination in order to discover the wicked magician who has perpetrated the crime. For this purpose they place the corpse on a bier cover it with a mat and set it on the shoulders of four men while a fifth man taps lightly with an arrow on the mat and enquires of the departed whether such and such a village has bewitched him to death. If the bier remains still it means “No”; but if it rocks backward and forward it means “Yes” and the avengers of blood must seek their victim the guilty sorcerer in that village. The answer is believed to be given by the dead man's ghost who stirs his body at the moment when his murderer's village is named. It is useless for the inhabitants of that village to disclaim all knowledge of the sickness and death of the deceased. The people repose implicit faith in this form of divination. “His soul itself told us” they say and surely he ought to know. Another form of divination which they employ for the same purpose is to put the question to the ghost while two men hold a bow which belonged to him and to which some personal articles of his are attached. The answer is again yes or no according as the bow moves or is still.5
Funeral and mourning customs.
When the author of the death has been discovered in one way or another the corpse is decked with all the ornaments that can be collected from the relatives and prepared for burial. A shallow grave is dug under the house and lined with mats. Then the body is lowered into the grave one of the sextons strikes up a lament and the shrill voices of the women in the house join in the melancholy strain. When he lies in his narrow bed the ornaments are removed from his person but some of his tools weapons and other belongings are buried with him no doubt for his use in the life hereafter. The funeral celebration in which the whole village commonly takes part lasts several days and consists in the bringing of offerings to the dead and the abstinence from all labour in the fields. Yams are brought from the field of the departed and cooked. A small pot filled with yams and a vessel of water are placed on the grave; the rest of the provisions is consumed by the mourners. The next of kin especially the widow or widower remain for about a week at the grave watching day and night lest the body should be dug up and devoured by a certain foul fiend with huge wings and long claws who battens on corpses. The mourning costume of men consists in smearing the face with black and wearing a cord round the neck and a netted cap on the head. Instead of such a cap a woman in mourning wraps herself in a large net and a great apron of grass. While the other ensigns of woe are soon discarded or disappear the cord about the neck is worn for a longer time generally till next harvest. The sacrifice of a pig brings the period of mourning to an end and after it the cord may be laid aside. If any one were so hard-hearted as not to wear that badge of sorrow the people believe that the angry ghost would come back and fetch him away. He would die.6
Thus among these savages the mourning costume is regarded as a protection against the dangerous ghost of the departed; it soothes his wounded feelings and prevents him from making raids on the living.
Fate of the souls of the dead.
As to the place to which the souls of the dead repair and the fate that awaits them there very vague and contradictory ideas prevail among the natives of this district. Some say that the ghosts go eastward to Bukaua on Huon Gulf and there lead a shadowy life very like their life on earth. Others think that the spirits hover near the village where they lived in the flesh. Others again are of opinion that they transmigrate into animals and prolong their life in one or other of the bodies of the lower creatures.7
The Yabim and Bukaua tribes.
Leaving Cape King William we pass eastward along the coast of German New Guinea and come to Finsch Harbour. From a point some miles to the north of Finsch Harbour as far as Samoa Harbour on Huon Gulf the coast is inhabited by two kindred tribes the Yabim and the Bukaua who speak a Melanesian language. I shall deal first with the Yabim tribe whose customs and beliefs have been described for us with a fair degree of fulness by two German missionaries Mr. Konrad Vetter and Mr. Heinrich Zahn.8
The following account is based chiefly on the writings of Mr. Vetter whose mission station is at the village of Simbang.
Material and artistic culture of the Yabim.
Like the other natives of New Guinea the Yabim build permanent houses live in settled villages and till the ground. Every year they make a fresh clearing in the forest by cutting down the trees burning the fallen timber and planting taro bananas sugar-cane and tobacco in the open glade. When the crops have been reaped the place is abandoned and is soon overgrown again by the rank tropical vegetation while the natives move on to another patch which they clear and cultivate in like manner. This rude mode of tillage is commonly practised by many savages especially within the tropics. Cultivation of this sort is migratory and in some places though apparently not in New Guinea the people shift their habitations with their fields as they move on from one part of the forest to another. Among the Yabim the labour of clearing a patch for cultivation is performed by all the men of a village in common but when the great trees have fallen with a crash to the ground and the trunks branches foliage and underwood have been burnt with a roar of flames and a crackling like a rolling fire of musketry each family appropriates a portion of the clearing for its own use and marks off its boundaries with sticks. But they also subsist in part by fishing and for this purpose they build outrigger canoes. They display considerable skill and taste in wood-carving and are fond of ornamenting their houses canoes paddles tools spears and drums with figures of crocodiles fish and other patterns.9
Men's clubhouses (lum).
The villages are divided into wards and every ward contains its clubhouse for men called a lum
in which young men and lads are obliged to pass the night. It consists of a bedroom above and a parlour with fireplaces below. In the parlour the grown men pass their leisure hours during the day and here the councils are held. The wives cook the food at home and bring it for their husbands to the clubhouse. The bull-roarers which are used at the initiatory ceremonies are kept in the principal clubhouse of the village. Such a clubhouse serves as an asylum; men fleeing from the avenger of blood who escape into it are safe. It is said that the spirit (balum
) has swallowed or concealed them. But if they steal out of it and attempt to make their way to another village they carry their life in their hand.10
Among the Yabim according to Mr. Zahn Religion in the proper sense does not exist but on the other hand the whole people is dominated by the fear of witchcraft and of the spirits of the dead.1 The following is the account which Mr. Vetter gives of the beliefs and customs of these people concerning the departed.
Beliefs of the Yabim concerning the state of the dead.
The ghostly ferry.
They do not believe that death is the end of all things for the individual; they think that his soul survives and becomes a spirit of ghost which they call a balum. The life of human spirits in the other world is a shadowy continuation of the life on earth and as such it has little attraction for the mind of the Papuan. Of heaven and hell a place of reward and a place of punishment for the souls of the good and bad respectively he has no idea. However his world of the dead is to some extent divided into compartments. In one of them reside the ghosts of people who have been slain in another the ghosts of people who have been hanged and in a third the ghosts of people who have been devoured by a shark or a crocodile. How many more compartments there may be for the accomodation of the souls we are not told. The place is in one of the island for smoke and mist hang over it perpetually; but from out the mist you may hear the sound of the barking of dogs the grunting of swine and the crowing of cocks which seems to shew that in the opinion of these people animals have immortal souls as well as men. The natives of the Siasi islands say that the newly arrived ghosts may often be seen strolling on the beach; sometimes the people can even recognise the familiar features of friends with whom they did business in the flesh. The mode in which the spirits of the dead arrive at their destination from the mainland is naturally by a ferry: indeed the prow of the ghostly ferry-boat may be seen to this day in the village of Bogiseng. The way in which it came to be found there was this. A man of the village lay dying and on his deathbed he promised to give his friends a sign of his continued existence after death by appearing as a ghost in their midst. Only he stipulated that in order to enable him to do so they would place a stone club in the hand of his corpse. This was done. He died the club was placed in his cold hand and his sorrowing but hopeful relations awaited results. They had not very long to wait. For no sooner had the ghost armed with the stone club stepped down to the sea-shore than he called imperiously for the ferry-boat. It soon have in sight with the ghostly ferryman in it paddling to the beach to receive the passenger. But when the prow grated on the pebbles the artful ghost instead of stepping into it as he should have done lunged out at it with the stone club so forcibly that he broke the prow clean off. In a rage the ferryman roared out to him “I won't put you across! You and your people shall be kangaroos.” The ghost had gained his point. He turned back from the ferry and brought to his friends as a trophy the prow of the ghostly canoe which is treasured in the village to this day. I should add that the prow in question bears a suspicious resemblance to a powder-horn which has been floating about for some time in the water; but no doubt this resemblance is purely fortuitous and without any deep significance.
Transmigration of human souls in to animals.
From this veracious narrative we gather that sometimes the souls of the dead instead of going away to the spirit-land transmigrate into the bodies of animals. The case of the kangaroos is not singular. In the village of Simbang Mr. Vetter knows two families of whom the ghosts pass at death into the carcases of crocodiles and a species of fabulous pigs respectively. Hence members of the one family arc careful not to injure crocodiles lest the souls of their dead should chance to be lodged in the reptiles; and the members of the other family would be equally careful not to hurt the fabulous pigs if ever they fell in with them. However the crocodile people not to be behind their neighbours assert that after death their spirits can also roam about the wood as ghosts and go to the spirit-land. In explanation they say that every human being has two souls; one of them is his reflection on the water the other is his shadow on the land. No doubt it is the water-soul which goes to the island of Siasi while the land-soul is free to occupy the body of a crocodile a kangaroo or some other animal11
Return of the ghosts.
But even when the ghosts have departed to their island home they are by no means strictly confined to it. They can return especially at night to roam about the woods and the villages and the living are very much afraid of them for the ghosts delight in doing mischief. It is especially in the first few days after a death that the ghost is an object of terror for he is then still loitering about the village. During these days everybody is afraid to go alone into the forest for fear of meeting him and if a dog or a pig strays in the wood and is lost the people make sure that the ghost has made off with the animal and the aggrieved owners roundly abuse the sorrowing family telling them that their old father or mother as the case may be is no better than a thief. They are also very unwilling to mention the names of dead persons imagining that were the ghost to hear his name pronounced he might fancy he was being called for and might accordingly suspend his habitual occupation of munching sour fruits in the forest to come and trouble the living.
Offerings to ghosts.
Hence in order to keep the short-tempered ghost in good humour by satisfying his wants lest he should think himself neglected and wreak his vexation on the survivors the people go a-fishing after a death or they kill a pig or a dog; sometimes also they cut down a fruit-tree. But it is only the souls of the animals which are destined for the consumption of the ghost; their bodies are roasted and eaten by the living. On a grave you may sometimes see a small basket suspended from a stick; but if you look into it you will find nothing but a little soot and some fish scales which is all that remains of the fried fish.
Ghosts provided with fire.
The Yabim also imagine that the ghost has need of fire to guide him to the door of the man who has done him to death by sorcery. Accordingly they provide the spirit with this necessary as follows. On the evening of the day on which the body has been buried they kindle a fire on a potsherd and heap dry leaves on it. As they do so they mention the names of all the sorcerers they can think of and he at whose name the smouldering leaves burst into a bright flame is the one who has done the deed. Having thus ascertained the true cause of death beyond reach of cavil they proceed to light up the ghost to the door of his murderer. For this purpose a procession is formed. A man holding the smouldering fire in the potsherd with one hand and a bundle of straw with the other leads the way. He is followed by another who draws droning notes from a water-bottle of the deceased which he finally smashes. After these two march a number of young fellows who make a plumping sound by smacking their thighs with the hollow of their hands. This solemn procession wends its way to a path in the neighbouring forest. By this time the shades of night have fallen. The firebearer now sets the fire on the ground and calls on the ghost to come and take it. They firmly believe that he does so and that having got it he hies away to cast the glowing embers down at the door of the man who has done him to death. They even fancy they see the flickering light carried by the invisible hand retreating through the shadows into the depth of the forest; and in order to follow it with their eyes they will sometimes climb tall trees or launch a canoe and put out to sea gazing intently at the glimmering ray till it vanishes from their sight in the darkness. Perhaps the gleam of fire-flies which abound in these tropical forests or the flashing of a meteor as it silently drops from the starry heaven into the sea may serve to feed this superstitious fancy.12
Ghosts thought to help in the cultivation of the land.
But the spirits of the dead are supposed to be able to help as well as harm the living. Good crops and a successful hunt are attributed to their influence. It is especially the spirits of the ancient owners of the land who are credited with the power of promoting the growth of the crops. Hence when a clearing has been made in the forest and planted with taro and the plants are shewing a good head of leaves preparations are made to feast the ghosts of the people to whom the land belonged in days gone by. For this purpose a sago-palm is cut down sago-porridge made and a wild boar killed. Then the men arrayed in all their finery march out in solemn procession by day to the taro field; and the leader invites the spirits in a loud voice to come to the village and partake of the sago-porridge and pork that have been made ready for them. But the invisible guests content themselves as usual with snuffing up the fragrant smell of the roast pork and the steam of the porridge; the substance of these dainties is consumed by the living. Yet the help which the ghosts give in the cultivation of the land would seem to be conceived as a purely negative one; the offerings are made to them for the purpose of inducing them to keep away and not injure the growing crops. It is also believed that the ghosts of the dead make communications to the living in dreams or by whistling and even that they can bring things to their friends and relations. But on the whole Mr. Vetter tells us the dominant attitude of the living to the dead is one of fear; the power of the ghosts is oftener exerted for evil than for good.13
The ghost of a murdered man in particular is dreaded because he is believed to haunt his murderer and to do him a mischief. Hence they drive away such a dangerous ghost with shouts and the beating of drums; and by way of facilitating his departure they launch a model of a canoe laden with taro and tobacco in order to transport him with all comfort to the land of souls.14
Burial and mourning customs among the Yabim.
Among the Yabim the dead are usually buried in shallow graves close to the houses where they died. Some trifles are laid with the body in the grave in order that the dead man or woman may have the use of them in the other world. But any valuables that may be deposited with the corpse are afterwards dug up and appropriated by the survivors. If the deceased was the householder himself or his wife the house is almost always deserted however solidly it may be built. The reason for thus abandoning so valuable a piece of property is not mentioned; but we may assume that the motive is a fear of the ghost who is supposed to haunt his old home. A temporary hut is built on the grave and in it the family of the deceased take up their abode for six weeks or more; here they cook eat and sleep. A widower sits in a secluded corner by himself invisible to all and unwashed; during the period of full mourning he may not shew himself in the village. When he does come forth again he wears a mourning hat made of bark in the shape of a cylinder without crown or brim; a widow wears a great ugly net which wraps her up almost completely from the head to the knees. Sometimes in memory of the deceased they wear a lock of his hair or a bracelet. Other relations wear cords round their necks in sign of mourning. The period of mourning varies greatly; it may last for months or even years. Sometimes the bodies of beloved children or persons who have been much respected are not buried but tied up in bundles and set up in a house until the flesh has quite mouldered away; then the skull and the bones of the arms and legs are anointed painted red and preserved for a time. Mr. Vetter records the case of a chief whose corpse was thus preserved in the assembly-house of the village after it had been dried over a fire. When it had been reduced to a mummy the skull and the arm-bones and leg-bones were detached oiled and reddened and then kept for some years in the house of the chief's eldest son till finally they were deposited in the grave of a kinsman. In some of the inland villages of this part of New Guinea the widow is sometimes throttled by her relations at the death of her husband in order that she may accompany him to the other world15
Deaths attributed by the Yabim to sorcery.
The Yabim believe that except in the case of very old people every death is caused by sorcery; hence when any body has departed this life his relations make haste to discover the wicked sorcerer who has killed their kinsman. For that purpose they have recourse to various forms of divination. One of them has been already described but they have others. For example they put a powder like sulphur in a piece of bamboo tube and kindle a fire under it. Then an old man takes a bull-roarer and taps with it on the bamboo tube naming all the sorcerers in the neighbouring villages. He at the mention of whose name the fire catches the powder and blazes up is the guilty man. Another way of detecting the culprit is to attach the feather of a bird of paradise to a staff and give the staff to two men to hold upright between the palms of their right hands. Then somebody names the sorcerers and he at whose name the staff turns round and the feather points downwards is the one who caused the death. When the avengers of blood wrought up to a high pitch of fury fall in with the family of the imaginary criminal they may put the whole of them to death lest the sons should afterwards avenge their father's murder by the black art. Sometimes a dangerous and dreaded sorcerer will be put out of the way with the connivance of the chief of his own village; and after a few days the murderers will boldly shew themselves in the village where the crime was perpetrated and will reassure the rest of the people saying “Be still. The wicked man has been taken off. No harm will befall you.”16
Bull roarers (balum).
Initiation of young men.
It is very significant that the word balum which means a ghost is applied by the Yabim to the instrument now generally known among anthropologists as a bull-roarer. It is a small fish-shaped piece of wood which being tied to a string and whirled rapidly round produces a humming or booming sound like the roaring of a bull or the muttering of distant thunder. Instruments of this sort are employed by savages in many parts of the world at their mysteries; the weird sound which the implement makes when swung is supposed by the ignorant and uninitiated to be the voice of a spirit and serves to impress them with a sense of awe and mystery. So it is with the Papuans about Finsch Harbour with whom we are at present concerned. At least one such bull-roarer is kept in the lum bachelors' clubhouse of every village and the women and uninitiated boys are forbidden to see it under pain of death. The instrument plays a great part in the initiation of young men which takes place at intervals of several years when there are a number of youths ready to be initiated and enough pigs can be procured to furnish forth the feasts which form an indispensable part of the ceremony. The principal initiatory rite consists of circumcision which is performed on all youths before they are admitted to the rank of full-grown men. The age of the candidates varies considerably from four years up to twenty. Many are married before they are initiated. The operation is performed in the forest and the procession of the youths to the place appointed is attended by a number of men swinging bull-roarers. As the procession sets out the women look on from a distance weeping and howling for they are taught to believe that the lads their sons and brothers are about to be swallowed up by a monster called a balum or ghost who will only release them from his belly on condition of receiving a sufficient number of roast pigs. How then can the poor women be sure that they will ever see their dear ones again? So amid the noise of weeping and wailing the procession passes into the forest and the booming sound of the bull-roarers dies away in the distance.
The rite of circumcision; the lads supposed to be swallowed by a monster (balum).
The sacred flutes.
The place where the operation is performed on the lads The is a long hut about a hundred feet in length which diminishes in height towards the rear. This represents the belly of the monster which is to swallow up the candidates. To keep up the delusion a pair of great eyes are painted over the entrance and above them the projecting roots of a betel-palm represent the monster's hair while the trunk of the tree passes for his backbone. As the awe-struck lads approach this imposing creature he is heard from time to time to utter a growl. The growl is in fact no other than the humming note of bull-roarers swung by men who are concealed within the edifice. When the procession has come to a halt in front of the artificial monster a loud defiant blast blown on shell-trumpets summons him to stand forth. The reply follows in the shape of another muffled roar of the bull-roarers from within the building. At the sound the men say that “Balum is coming up” and they raise a shrill song like a scream and sacrifice pigs to the monster in order to induce him to spare the lives of the candidates. When the operation has been performed on the lads they must remain in strict seclusion for three or four months avoiding all contact with women and even the sight of them. They live in the long hut which represents the monster's belly and their food is brought them by elder men. Their leisure time is spent in weaving baskets and playing on certain sacred flutes which are never used except at such seasons. The instruments are of two patterns. One is called the male and the other the female and they are supposed to be married to each other. No woman may see these mysterious flutes; if she did she would die. Even if she hears their shrill note in the distance she will hasten to hide herself in a thicket. When the initiatory ceremonies arc over the flutes are carefully kept in the men's clubhouse of the village till the next time they are wanted for a similar occasion. On the other hand if the women are obliged to go near the place where the lads are living in seclusion they beat on certain bamboo drums in order to warn them to keep out of the way. Sometimes though perhaps rarely one of the lads dies under the operation; in that case the men explain his disappearance to the women by saying that the monster has a pig's stomach as well as a human stomach and that unfortunately the deceased young man slipped by mistake into the wrong stomach and so perished miserably. But as a rule the candidates pass into the right stomach and after a sufficient period has been allowed for digestion they come forth safe and sound the monster having kindly consented to let them go free in consideration of the roast pigs which have been offered to him by the men. Indeed he is not very exacting for he contents himself with devouring the souls of the pigs while he leaves their bodies to be consumed by his worshippers. This is a kindly and considerate way of dealing with sacrifice which our New Guinea ghost or monster shares with many deities of much higher social pretensions. However lest he should prove refractory and perhaps run away with the poor young men in his inside or possibly make a dart at any women or children who might be passing the men take the precaution of tying him down tight with ropes. When the time of seclusion is up one of the last acts in the long series of ceremonies is to cast off the ropes and let the monster go free. He avails himself of his liberty to return to his subterranean abode and the young men are brought back to the village with much solemnity.
The return of the novices to the village.
An eye-witness has described the ceremony. The lads now ranking as full-grown men were first bathed in the sea and then elaborately decorated with paint and so forth. In marching back to the village they had to keep their eyes tightly shut and each of them was led by a man who acted as a kind of god-father. As the procession moved on an old bald-headed man touched each boy solemnly on the chin and brow with a bull-roarer. In the village preparations for a banquet had meanwhile been made and the women and girls were waiting in festal attire. The women were much moved at the return of the lads; they sobbed and tears of joy ran down their cheeks. Arrived in the village the newly-initiated lads were drawn up in a row and fresh palm leaves were spread in front of them. Here they stood with closed eyes motionless as statues. Then a man passed behind them touching each of them in the hams with the handle of an axe and saying “O circumcised one sit down.” But still the lads remained standing stiff and motionless. Not till another man had knocked repeatedly on the ground with the stalk of a palm-leaf crying “O circumcised ones open your eyes!” did the youths one after another open their eyes as if awaking from a profound stupor. Then they sat down on the mats and partook of the food brought them by the men. Young and old now ate in the open air. Next morning the circumcised lads were bathed in the sea and painted red instead of white. After that they might talk to women. This was the end of the ceremony.17
The essence of the initiatory rites seems to be a simulation of death and resurrection; the novice is supposed to be killed and to come to life or be born again.
The new birth among the Akikuyu of British East Africa.
The meaning of these curious ceremonies observed on the return of the lads to the village is not explained by the writer who describes them; but the analogy of similar ceremonies observed at initiation by many other races allows us to divine it with a fair degree of probability. As I have already observed in a former lecture the ceremony of initiation at puberty is very often regarded as a process of death and resurrection; the candidate is supposed to die or to be killed and to come to life again or be born again; and the pretence of a new birth is not uncommonly kept up by the novices feigning to have forgotten all the most common actions of life and having accordingly to learn them all over again like newborn babes. We may conjecture that this is why the young circumcised Papuans with whom we are at present concerned march back to their village with closed eyes; this is why when bidden to sit down they remain standing stiffly as if they understood neither the command nor the action; and this too we may surmise is why their mothers and sisters receive them with a burst of emotion as if their dead had come back to them from the grave. This interpretation of the ceremony is confirmed by a curious rite which is observed by the Akikuyu of British East Africa. Amongst them every boy or girl at or about the age of ten years has solemnly to pretend to be born again not in a moral or religious but in a physical sense. The mother of the child or if she is dead some other woman goes through an actual pantomime of bringing forth the boy or girl. I will spare you the details of the pantomime which is very graphic and will merely mention that the bouncing infant squalls like a newborn babe. Now this ceremony of the new birth was formerly enacted among the Akikuyu at the rite of circumcision though the two ceremonies are now kept distinct.18
Hence it is not very rash to conjecture that the ceremony performed by the young Papuans of Finsch Harbour on their return to the village after undergoing circumcision is merely a way of keeping up the pretence of being born again and of being therefore as ignorant and helpless as babes.
The mock death of the novices as a preliminary to the mock birth.
But if the end of the initiation is a mock resurrection or rather new birth as it certainly seems to be we may infer with some confidence that the first part of it namely the act of circumcision is a mock death. This is borne out by the explicit statement of a very good authority Mr. Vetter that “the circumcision is designated as a process of being swallowed by the spirit out of whose stomach (represented by a long hut) the release must take place by means of a sacrifice of pigs.”19
And it is further confirmed by the observation that both the spirit which is supposed to operate on the lads and the bull-roarer which apparently represents his voice are known by the name of balum
which means the ghost or spirit of a dead person. Similarly among the Tugeri or Kaya-Kaya a large Papuan tribe on the south coast of Dutch New Guinea the name of the bull-roarer which they call sosom
is given to a mythical giant who is supposed to appear every year with the south-east monsoon. When he comes a festival is held in his honour and bullroarers are swung. Boys are presented to the giant and he kills them but brings them to life again.20
Thus the initiatory rite of circumcision to which all lads have to submit among the Yabim seems to be closely bound up with their conception of death and with their belief in a life after death; since the whole ceremony apparently consists in a simulation of dying and coming to life again. That is why I have touched upon these initiatory rites which at first sight might appear to have no connexion with our immediate subject the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead.
General summary as to the Yabim.
On the whole we may say that the Yabim have a very firm and practical belief in a life after death and that while their attitude to the spirits of the departed is generally one of fear they nevertheless look to these spirits also for information and help on various occasions. Thus their beliefs and practices contain at least in germ the elements of a worship of the dead.