You are here

Lecture 14 The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of German and Dutch New Guinea

Lecture 14
The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of German and Dutch New Guinea
The Tami doctrine of souls and gods.
The Tago sprits represented by masked men.
AT the close of the last lecture I dealt with the Tami a people of Melanesian stock who inhabit a group of islands off the mainland of New Guinea. I explained their theory of the human soul. According to them every man has two distinct souls a long one and a short one both of which survive his death but depart in different directions one of them repairing to the lower world and the other being last sighted off the coast of New Britain. But the knowledge which these savages possess of the spiritual world is not limited to the souls of men; they are acquainted with several deities (buwun) who live in the otherwise uninhabited island of Djan. They are beings of an amorous disposition and though their real shape is that of a fish's body with a human head they can take on the form of men in order to seduce women. They also cause epidemics and earthquakes; yet the people shew them no respect for they believe them to be dull-witted as well as lecherous. At most if a fearful epidemic is raging they will offer the gods a lean little pig or a mangy cur; and should an earthquake last longer than usual they will rap on the ground saying “Hullo you down there! easy a little! We men are still here.” They also profess acquaintance with a god named Anuto who created the heaven and the earth together with the first man and woman. He is a good being; nobody need be afraid of him. At festivals and meat markets the Tami offer him the first portion in a little basket which a lad carries away into the wood and leaves there. As usual the deity consumes only the soul of the offering; the bearer eats the material substance.1 The Tami further believe in certain spirits called Tago which are very old having been created at the same time as the village. Every family or clan possesses its own familiar spirits of this class. They are represented by men who disguise their bodies in dense masses of sago leaves and their faces in grotesque masks with long hooked noses. In this costume the maskers jig it as well as the heavy unwieldy disguise allows them to do. But the dance consists in little more than running round and round in a circle with an occasional hop; the orchestra stands in the middle singing and thumping drums. Sometimes two or three of the masked men will make a round of the village pelting the men with pebbles or hard fruits while the women and children scurry out of their way. When they are not in use the masks are hidden away in a hut in the forest which women and children may not approach. Their secret is sternly kept: any betrayal of it is punished with death. The season for the exhibition of these masked dances recurs only once in ten or twelve years but it extends over a year or thereabout. During the whole of the dancing-season curiously enough coco-nuts are strictly tabooed; no person may eat them so that the unused nuts accumulate in thousands. As coco-nuts ordinarily form a daily article of diet with the Tami their prohibition for a year is felt by the people as a privation. The meaning of the prohibition and also of the masquerades remains obscure 2
The super-human beings with whom the Tami are chiefly concerned are the souls of the dead.
Offerings to the dead.

But while the Tami believe in gods and spirits of various sorts the superhuman beings with whom they chiefly concern themselves are the souls of the dead. On this subject Mr. Bamler writes: “All the spirits whom we have thus far described are of little importance in the life and thought of the Tami; they are remembered only on special occasions. The spirits who fill the thoughts and attract the attention of the Tami are the kani that is the souls of the departed. The Tami therefore practise the worship of ancestors. Yet the memory of ancestors does not reach far back; people occupy themselves only with the souls of those relatives whom they have personally known. Hence the worship seldom extends beyond the grandfather even when a knowledge of more remote progenitors survives. An offering to the ancestors takes the form of a little dish of boiled taro a cigar betel-nuts and the like; but the spirits partake only of the image or soul of the things offered while the material substance falls to the share of mankind. There is no fixed rule as to the manner or time of the offering. It is left to the caprice or childlike affection of the individual to decide how he will make it. With most natives it is a simple matter of business the throwing of a sprat to catch a salmon; the man brings his offering only when he needs the help of the spirits. There is very little ceremony about it. The offerer will say for example ‘There I lay a cigar for you; smoke it and hereafter drive fish towards me’; or ‘Accompany me on the journey and see to it that I do good business.’ The place where the food is presented is the shelf for pots and dishes under the roof. Thus they imagine that the spirits exert a tolerably far-reaching influence over all created things and it is their notion that the spirits take possession of the objects. In like manner the spirits can injure a man by thwarting his plans for example by frightening away the fish blighting the fruits of the fields and so forth. If the native is forced to conclude that the spirits are against him he has no hesitation about deceiving them in the grossest manner. Should the requisite sacrifices be inconvenient to him he flatly refuses them or gives the shabbiest things he can find. In all this the native displays the same craft and cunning which he is apt to practise in his dealings with the whites. He fears the power which the spirit has over him yet he tries whether he cannot outwit the spirit like an arrant block-head.”3

Crude motives for sacrifice.
This account of the crude but quite intelligible motives which lead these savages to sacrifice to the spirits of their dead may be commended to the attention of writers on the history of religion who read into primitive sacrifice certain subtle and complex ideas which it never entered into the mind of primitive man to conceive and which even if they were explained to him he would in all probability be totally unable to understand.
Lamboam the land of the dead.
According to the Tami the souls of the dead live in the nether world. The spirit-land is called Lamboam; the entrance to it is by a cleft in a rock. The natives of the mainland also call Hades by the name of Lamboam; but whereas according to them every village has its own little Lamboam the Tami hold that there is only one big Lamboam for everybody though it is subdivided into many mansions of which every village has one to itself. In Lamboam everything is fairer and more perfect than on earth. The fruits are so plentiful that the blessed spirits can if they choose give themselves up to the delights of idleness; the villages are full of ornamental plants. Yet on the other hand we are informed that life beneath the ground is very like life above it: people work and marry they squabble and wrangle they fall sick and even die just as people do on earth. Souls which die the second death in Lamboam are changed into vermin such as ants and worms; however others say that they turn into wood-spirits who do men a mischief in the fields. It is not so easy as is commonly supposed to effect an entrance into the spirit-land. You must pass a river and even when you have crossed it you will be very likely to suffer from the practical jokes which the merry old ghosts play on a raw newcomer. A very favourite trick of theirs is to send him up a pandanus tree to look for fruit. If he is simple enough to comply they catch him by the legs as he is swarming up the trunk and drag him down so that his whole body is fearfully scratched if not quite ripped up by the rough bark. That is why people put valuable things with the dead in the grave in order that their ghosts on arrival in Lamboam may have the wherewithal to purchase the good graces of the facetious old stagers.4
Returns of the ghosts to earth sometimes in the form of serpents.
However even when the ghosts have succeeded in effecting a lodgment in Lamboam they are not strictly confined to it. They can break bounds at any moment and return to the upper air. This they do particularly when any of their surviving relations is at the point of death. Ghosts of deceased kinsfolk and of others gather round the parting soul and attend it to the far country. Yet sometimes apparently the soul sets out alone for the anxious relatives will call out to it “Miss not the way.” But ghosts visit their surviving friends at other times than at the moment of death. For example some families possess the power of calling up spirits in the form of serpents from the vasty deep. The spirits whom they evoke are usually those of persons who have died quite lately; for such ghosts cannot return to earth except in the guise of serpents. In this novel shape they naturally feel shy and hide under a mat. They come out only in the dusk of the evening or the darkness of night and sit on the shelf for pots and dishes under the roof. They have lost the faculty of speech and can express themselves only in whistles. These whistles the seer who is generally a woman understands perfectly and interprets to his or her less gifted fellows. In this way a considerable body of information more or less accurate in detail is collected as to life in the other world. More than that it is even possible for men and especially for women to go down alive into the nether world and prosecute their enquiries at first hand among the ghosts. Women who possess this remarkable faculty transmit it to their daughters so that the profession is hereditary. When anybody wishes to ascertain how it fares with one of his dead kinsfolk in Lamboam he has nothing to do but to engage the services of one of these professional mediums giving her something which belonged to his departed friend. The medium rubs her forehead with ginger muttering an incantation lies down on the dead man's property and falls asleep. Her soul then goes down in a dream to deadland and elicits from the ghosts the required information which on waking from sleep she imparts to the anxious enquirer.5
Sickness caused by a spirit.
Sickness accompanied by fainting fits is ascribed to the action of a spirit it may be the ghost of a near relation who has carried off the “long soul” of the sufferer. The truant soul is recalled by a blast blown on a triton-shell in which some chewed ginger or massoi bark has been inserted. The booming sound attracts the attention of the vagrant spirit while the smell of the bark or of the ginger drives away the ghost.6
Tami supposed to be swallowed by a monster at circumcision; themonster and the bull-roarer are both called kani.
The name which the Tami give to the spirits of the dead is kani; but like other tribes in this part of New Guinea they apply the same term to the bull-roarer and also to the mythical monster who is supposed to swallow the lads at circumcision. The identity of the name for the three things seems to prove that in the mind of the Tami the initiatory rites of which circumcision is the principal feature are closely associated with their conception of the state of the human soul after death though what the precise nature of the association may be still remains obscure. Like their neighbours on the mainland of New Guinea the Tami give out that the novices at initiation are swallowed by a monster or dragon who only consents to disgorge his prey in consideration of a tribute of pigs the rate of the tribute being one novice one pig. In the act of disgorging the lad the dragon bites him and the bite is visible to all in the cut called circumcision. The voice of the monster is heard in the hum of the bull-roarers which are swung at the ceremony in such numbers and with such force that in still weather the booming sound may be heard across the sea for many miles. To impress women and children with an idea of the superhuman strength of the dragon deep grooves are cut in the trunks of trees and afterwards exhibited to the uninitiated as the marks made by the monster in tugging at the ropes which bound him to the trees. However the whole thing is an open secret to the married women though they keep their knowledge to themselves fearing to incur the penalty of death which is denounced upon all who betray the mystery.
The rite of circum cision.
Seclusion and return of the newly circumcised lads.
The initiatory rites are now celebrated only at intervals of many years. When the time is come for the ceremony women are banished from the village and special quarters prepared for them elsewhere; for they are strictly forbidden to set foot in the village while the monster or spirit who swallows the lads has his abode in it. A special hut is then built for the accommodation of the novices during the many months which they spend in seclusion before and after the operation of circumcision. The hut represents the monster; it consists of a framework of thin poles covered with palmleaf mats and tapering down at one end. Looked at from a distance it resembles a whale. The backbone is composed of a betel-nut palm which has been grubbed up with its roots. The root with its fibres represents the monster's head and hair and under it are painted a pair of eyes and a great mouth in red white and black. The passage of the novices into the monster's belly is represented by causing them to defile past a row of men who hold bull-roarers aloft over the heads of the candidates. Before this march past takes place each of the candidates is struck by the chief with a bullroarer on his chin and brow. The operation of circumcising the lads is afterwards performed behind a screen set up near the monster-shaped house. It is followed by a great feast on swine's flesh. After their wounds are healed the circumcised lads have still to remain in seclusion for three or four months. Finally they are brought back to the village with great pomp. For this solemn ceremony their faces necks and breasts are whitened with a thick layer of chalk while red stripes painted round their mouths and eyes and prolonged to the ears add to the grotesqueness of their appearance. Their eyes are closed with a plaster of chalk and thus curiously arrayed and blindfolded they are led back to the village square where leave is formally given them to open their eyes. At the entrance to the village they are received by the women who weep for joy and strew boiled field-fruits on the way. Next morning the newly initiated lads wash off the crust of chalk and have their hair faces necks and breasts painted bright red. This ends their time of seclusion which has lasted five or six months; they now rank as full-grown men.7
Simulation of death and resurrection.
In these initiatory rites as in the similar rites of the neighbouring tribes on the mainland of New Guinea we may perhaps detect a simulation of death and of resurrection to a new and higher life. But why circumcision should form the central feature of such a drama is a question to which as yet no certain or even very probable answer can be given. The bodily mutilations of various sorts which in many savage tribes mark the transition from boyhood to manhood remain one of the obscurest features in the life of uncultured races. That they are in most cases connected with the great change which takes place in the sexes at puberty seems fairly certain; but we are far from understanding the ideas which primitive man has formed on this mysterious subject.
The natives of Dutch New Guinea.
That ends what I have to say as to the notions of death and a life hereafter which are entertained by the natives of German New Guinea. We now turn to the natives of Dutch New Guinea who occupy roughly speaking the western half of the great island. Our information as to their customs and beliefs on this subject is much scantier and accordingly my account of them will be much briefer.
Geelvink Baby and Doreh Baby.
The Noofoor or Noomfor people.
Their material culture and arts of life.
Towards the western end of the Dutch possession there is on the northern coast a deep and wide indentation known as Geelvink Bay which in its north-west corner includes a very much smaller indentation known as Doreh Bay. Scattered about in the waters of the great Geelvink Bay are many islands of various sizes such as Biak or Wiak Jappen or Jobi Run or Ron Noomfor and many more. It is in regard to the natives who inhabit the coasts or islands of Geelvink Bay that our information is perhaps least imperfect and it is accordingly with them that I shall begin. In physical appearance expression of the face mode of wearing the hair and still more in manners and customs these natives of the coast and islands differ from the natives of the mountains in the interior. The name given to them by Dutch and German writers is Noofoor or Noomfor. Their original home is believed to be the island of Biak or Wiak which lies at the northern entrance of the bay and from which they are supposed to have spread southwards and south-westwards to the other islands and to the mainland of New Guinea.8They are a handsomely built race. Their colour is usually dark brown but in some individuals it shades off to light-brown while in others it deepens into black-brown. The forehead is high and narrow; the eye is dark brown or black with a lively expression; the nose broad and flat the lips thick and projecting. The cheekbones are not very high. The facial angle agrees with that of Europeans. The hair is abundant and frizzly. The people live in settled villages and subsist by agriculture hunting and fishing. Their large communal houses are raised above the ground on piles; on the coast they are built over the water. Each house has a long gallery one in front and one behind and a long passage running down the middle of the dwelling with the rooms arranged on either side of it. Each room has its own fireplace and is occupied by a single family. One such communal house may contain from ten to twenty families with a hundred or more men women and children besides dogs fowls parrots and other creatures. When the house is built over the water it is commonly connected with the shore by a bridge; but in some places no such bridge exists and at high water the inmates can only communicate with the shore by means of their canoes. The staple food of the people is sago which they extract from the sago-palm; but they also make use of bread-fruit together with millet rice and maize whenever they can obtain these cereals. Their flesh diet includes wild pigs birds fish and trepang. While some of them subsist mainly by fishing and commerce others devote themselves almost exclusively to the cultivation of their gardens which they lay out in clearings of the dense tropical forest employing chiefly axes and chopping-knives as their instruments of tillage. Of ploughs they like most savages seem to know nothing. The rice and other plants which they raise in these gardens are produced by the dry method of cultivation. In hunting birds they employ chiefly bows and arrows but sometimes also snares. The arrows with which they shoot the birds of paradise are blunted so as not to injure the splendid plumage of the birds. Turtle-shells feathers of the birds of paradise and trepang are among the principal articles which they barter with traders for cotton-goods knives swords axes beads and so forth. They display some skill and taste in wood-carving. The art of working in iron has been introduced among them from abroad and is now extensively practised by the men. They make large dug-out canoes with outriggers which seem to be very seaworthy for they accomplish long voyages even in stormy weather. The making of pottery basket-work and weaving together with pounding rice and cooking food are the special business of women. The men wear waistbands or loin-cloths made of bark which is beaten till it becomes as supple as leather. The women wear petticoats or strips of blue cotton round their loins and as ornaments they have rings of silver copper or shell on their arms and legs.9 Thus the people have attained to a fair degree of barbaric culture.
Fear of ghosts.
Ideas of spirit-world.
Now it is significant that among these comparatively advanced savages the fear of ghosts and the reverence entertained for them have developed into something which might almost be called a systematic worship of the dead. As to their fear of ghosts I will quote the evidence of a Dutch missionary Mr. J. L. van Hasselt who lived for many years among them and is the author of a grammar and dictionary of their language. He says: “That a great fear of ghosts prevails among the Papuans is intelligible. Even by day they are reluctant to pass a grave but nothing would induce them to do so by night. For the dead are then roaming about in their search for gambier and tobacco and they may also sail out to sea in a canoe. Some of the departed above all the so-called Mambrie or heroes inspire them with especial fear. In such cases for some days after the burial you may hear about sunset a simultaneous and horrible din in all the houses of all the villages a yelling screaming beating and throwing of sticks; happily the uproar does not last long: its intention is to compel the ghost to take himself off: they have given him all that befits him namely a grave a funeral banquet and funeral ornaments; and now they beseech him not to thrust himself on their observation any more not to breathe any sickness upon the survivors and not to kill them or ‘fetch’ them as the Papuans put it. Their ideas of the spirit-world are very vague. Their usual answer to such questions is ‘We know not.’ If you press them they will commonly say that the spirit realm is under the earth or under the bottom of the sea. Everything there is as it is in the upper world only the vegetation down below is more luxuriant and all plants grow faster. Their fear of death and their helpless wailing over the dead indicate that the misty kingdom of the shades offers but little that is consolatory to the Papuan at his departure from this world.”10
Fear of ghosts in general and of the ghosts of the slain in particular.
Again speaking of the natives of Doreh a Dutch official observes that “superstition and magic play a principal part in the life of the Papuan. Occasions for such absurdities he discovers at every step. Thus he cherishes a great fear of the ghosts of slain persons for which reason their bodies remain unburied on the spot where they were murdered. When a murder has taken place in the village the inhabitants assemble for several evenings in succession and raise a fearful outcry in order to chase away the soul in case it should be minded to return to the village. They set up miniature wooden houses here and there on trees in the forest for the ghosts of persons who die of disease or through accidents believing that the souls take up their abode in them.”11 The same writer remarks that these savages have no priests but that they have magicians (kokinsor) who practise exorcisms work magic and heal the sick for which they receive a small payment in articles of barter or food.12 Speaking of the Papuans of Dutch New Guinea in general another writer informs us that “they honour the memory of the dead in every way because they ascribe to the spirits of the departed a great influence on the life of the survivors.… Whereas in life all good and evil comes from the soul after death on the other hand the spirit works for the most part only evil. It loves especially to haunt by night the neighbourhood of its old dwelling and the grave; so the people particularly avoid the neighbourhood of graves at night and when darkness has fallen they will not go out except with a burning brand…According to the belief of the Papuans the ghosts cause sickness bad harvests war and in general every misfortune. From fear of such evils and in order to keep them in good humour the people make provision for the spirits of the departed after death. Also they sacrifice to them before every important undertaking and never fail to ask their advice.”13
Papuan ideas as to the state of the dead.
A Dutch writer who has given us a comparatively full account of the natives of Geelvink Bay describes as follows their views in regard to the state of the dead: “According to the Papuans the soul which they imagine to have its seat in the blood continues to exist at the bottom of the sea and every one who dies goes thither. They imagine the state of things there to be much the same as that in which they lived on earth. Hence at his burial the dead man is given an equipment suitable to his rank and position in life. He is provided with a bow and arrow armlets and body-ornaments pots and pans everything that may stand him in good stead in the life hereafter. This provision must not be neglected for it is a prevalent opinion that the dead continue always to maintain relations with the world and with the living that they possess superhuman power exercise great influence over the affairs of life on earth and are able to protect in danger to stand by in war to guard against shipwreck at sea and to grant success in fishing and hunting. For such weighty reasons the Papuans do all in their power to win the favour of their dead. On undertaking a journey they are said never to forget to hang amulets about themselves in the belief that their dead will then surely help them; hence too when they are at sea in rough weather they call upon the souls of the departed asking them for better weather or a favourable breeze in case the wind happens to be contrary.”14
Wooden images of the dead (korwar).
In order to communicate with these powerful spirits and to obtain their advice and help in time of need the Papuans of Geelvink Bay make wooden images of their dead which they keep in their houses and consult from time to time. Every family has at least one such ancestral image which forms the medium whereby the soul of the deceased communicates with his or her surviving relatives. These images or Penates as we may call them are carved of wood about a foot high and represent the deceased person in a standing sitting or crouching attitude but commonly with the hands folded in front. The head is disproportionately large the nose long and projecting the mouth wide and well furnished with teeth; the eyes are formed of large green or blue beads with black dots to indicate the pupils. Sometimes the male figures carry a shield in the left hand and brandish a sword in the right; while the female figures are represented grasping with both hands a serpent which stands on its coiled tail. Rags of many colours adorn these figures and the hair of the deceased whom they represent is placed between their legs. Such an ancestral image is called a karwar or karwar. The natives identify these effigies with the deceased persons whom they portray and accordingly they will speak of one as their father or mother or other relation. Tobacco and food are offered to the images and the natives greet them reverentially by bowing to the earth before them with the two hands joined and raised to the forehead.
Such images carried on voyages and consulted as oracles.
The images consulted in sickness.
Such images are kept in the houses and carried in canoes on voyages in order that they may be at hand to help and advise their kinsfolk and worshippers. They are consulted on many occasions for example when the people are going on a journey or about to fish for turtles or trepang or when a member of the family is sick and his relations wish to know whether he will recover. At these consultations the enquirer may either take the image in his hands or crouch before it on the ground on which he places his offerings of tobacco cotton beads and so forth. The spirit of the dead is thought to be in the image and to pass from it into the enquirer who thus becomes inspired by the soul of the deceased and acquires his superhuman knowledge. As a sign of his inspiration the medium shivers and shakes. According to some accounts however this shivering and shaking of the medium is an evil omen; whereas if he remains tranquil the omen is good. It is especially in cases of sickness that the images are consulted. The mode of consultation has been described as follows by a Dutch writer: “When any one is sick and wishes to know the means of cure or when any one desires to avert misfortune or to discover something unknown then in presence of the whole family one of the members is stupefied by the fumes of incense or by other means of producing a state of trance. The image of the deceased person whose advice is sought is then placed on the lap or shoulder of the medium in order to cause the soul to pass out of the image into his body. At the moment when that happens he begins to shiver; and encouraged by the bystanders the soul speaks through the mouth of the medium and names the means of cure or of averting the calamity. When he comes to himself the medium knows nothing of what he has been saying. This they call kor karwar that is ‘invoking the soul’; and they say karwar iwos ‘the soul speaks.’” The writer adds: “It is sometimes reported that the souls go to the underworld but that is not true. The Papuans think that after death the soul abides by the corpse and is buried with it in the grave; hence before an image is made if it is necessary to consult the soul the enquirer must betake himself to the grave in order to do so. But when the image is made the soul enters into it and is supposed to remain in it so long as satisfactory answers are obtained from it in consultation. But should the answers prove disappointing the people think that the soul has deserted the image on which they throw the image away as useless. Where the soul has gone nobody knows and they do not trouble their heads about it since it has lost its power.”15 The person who acts as medium in consulting the spirit may be either the house-father himself or a magician (konoor).16
Example of the consultation of an ancestral image.
As an example of these consultations we may take the case of a man who was suffering from a painful sore on his finger and wished to ascertain the cause of the trouble. So he set one of the ancestral images before him and questioned it closely. At first the image made no reply; but at last the man remembered that he had neglected his duty to his dead brother by failing to marry his widow as according to native custom he should have done. Now the natives believe that the dead can punish them for any breach of customary law; so it occurred to our enquirer that the ghost of his dead brother might have afflicted him with the sore on his finger for not marrying his widow. Accordingly he put the question to the image and in doing so the compunction of a guilty conscience caused him to tremble. This trembling he took for an answer of the image in the affirmative wherefore he went off and took the widow to wife and provided for her maintenance.17
Ancestral images consulted as to the cause of death.
Offerings to the images.
Again the ancestral images are often consulted to ascertain the cause of a death; and if the image attributes the death to the evil magic of a member of another tribe an expedition will be sent to avenge the wrong by slaying the supposed culprit. For the souls of the dead take it very ill and wreak their spite on the survivors if their death is not avenged on their enemies. Not uncommonly the consultation of the images merely furnishes a pretext for satisfying a grudge against an individual or a tribe.18 The mere presence of these images appears to be supposed to benefit the sick; a woman who was seriously ill has been seen to lie with four or five ancestral figures fastened at the head of her bed. On enquiry she explained that they did not all belong to her but that some of them had been kindly lent to her by relations and friends.19 Again the images are taken by the natives with them to war because they hope thereby to secure the help of the spirits whom the images represent. Also they make offerings from time to time to the effigies and hold feasts in their honour.20 They observe indeed that the food which they present to these household idols remains unconsumed but they explain this by saying that the spirits are content to snuff up the savour of the viands and to leave their gross material substance alone.21
Images of persons who have died away from home.
In general images are only made of persons who have died at home. But in the island of Ron or Run they are also made of persons who have died away from home or have fallen in battle. In such cases the difficulty is to compel the soul to quit its mortal remains far away and come to animate the image. However the natives of Ron have found means to overcome this difficulty. They first carve the wooden image of the dead person and then call his soul back to the village by setting a great tree on fire while the family assemble round it and one of them holding the image in his hand acts the part of a medium shivering and shaking and falling into a trance after the approved fashion of mediums in many lands. After this ceremony the image is supposed to be animated by the soul of the deceased and it is kept in the house with as much confidence as any other.22
Sometimes the head of the images composed of the skull of the deceased.
Sometimes the head of the image consists of the skull of the deceased which has been detached from the skeleton and inserted in a hole at the top of the effigy. In such cases the body of the image is of wood and the head of bone. It is especially men who have distinguished themselves by their bravery or have earned a name for themselves in other ways who are thus represented. Apparently the notion is that as a personal relic of the departed the skull is better fitted to retain his soul than a mere head of wood. But in the island of Ron or Run and perhaps elsewhere skull-topped images of this sort are made for all firstborn children whether male or female young or old at least for all who die from the age of twelve years and upward. These images have a special name bemar boo which means “head of a corpse.” They are kept in the room of the parents who have lost the child.23
Mode of preparing such skull-headed images.
The mode in which such images are prepared is as follows. The body of the firstborn child who dies at the age of twelve years or upwards is laid in a small canoe which is deposited in a hut erected behind the dwelling-house. Here the mother is obliged to keep watch night and day beside the corpse and to maintain a blazing fire till the head drops off the body which it generally does about twenty days after the death. Then the trunk is wrapped in leaves and buried but the head is brought into the house and carefully preserved. Above the spot where it is deposited a small opening is made in the roof through which a stick is thrust bearing some rags or flags to indicate that the remains of a dead body are in the house. When after the lapse of three or four months the nose and ears of the head have dropped off and the eyes have mouldered away the relations and friends assemble in the house of mourning. In the middle of the assembly the father of the child crouches on his hams with downcast look in an attitude of grief while one of the persons present begins to carve a new nose and a new pair of ears for the skull out of a piece of wood. The kind of wood varies according as the deceased was a male or a female. All the time that the artist is at work the rest of the company chant a melancholy dirge. When the nose and cars are finished and have been attached to the skull and small round fruits have been inserted in the hollow sockets of the eyes to represent the missing orbs a banquet follows in honour of the deceased who is now represented by his decorated skull set up on a block of wood on the table. Thus he receives his share of the food and of the cigars and is raised to the rank of a domestic idol or korwar. Henceforth the skull is carefully kept in a corner of the chamber to be consulted as an oracle in time of need. The bodies of fathers and mothers are treated in the same way as those of firstborn children. On the other hand the bodies of children who die under the age of two years are never buried. The remains are packed in baskets of rushes covered with lids and tightly corded and the baskets are then hung on the branches of tall trees where no more notice is taken of them. Four or five such baskets containing the mouldering bodies of infants may sometimes be seen hanging on a single tree.24 The reason for thus disposing of the remains of young children is said to be as follows. A thick mist hangs at evening over the top of the dense tropical forest and in the mist dwell two spirits called Narwur and Imgier one male and the other female who kill little children not out of malice but out of love because they wish to have the children with them. So when a child dies the parents fasten its little body to the branches of a tall tree in the forest hoping that the spirit pair will take it and be satisfied and will spare its small brothers and sisters.25
Mummification of the dead.
In some parts of Geelvink Bay however the bodies of the dead are treated differently. For example on the south coast of the island of Jobi or Jappen and elsewhere the corpses are reduced to mummies by being dried on a bamboo stage over a slow fire; after which the mummies wrapt in cloth are kept in the house being either laid along the wall or hung from the ceiling. When the number of these relics begins to incommode the living inmates of the house the older mummies are removed and deposited in the hollow trunks of ancient trees. In some tribes who thus mummify their dead the juices of corruption which drip from the rotting corpse are caught in a vessel and given to the widow to drink who is forced to gulp them down under the threat of decapitation if she were to reject the loathsome beverage.26
Restrictions observed by mourners.
Tattooing in honour of the dead.
Teeth of the dead worn by relatives.
The family in which a death has taken place is subject for a time to certain burdensome restrictions which are probably dictated by a fear of the ghost. Thus all the time till the effigy of the deceased has been made and a feast given in his honour they are obliged to remain in the house without going out for any purpose not even to bathe or to fetch food and drink. Moreover they must abstain from the ordinary articles of diet and confine themselves to half-baked cakes of sago and other unpalatable viands. As these restrictions may last for months they are not only irksome but onerous especially to people who have no slaves to fetch and carry for them. However in that case the neighbours come to the rescue and supply the mourners with wood water and the other necessaries of life until custom allows them to go out and help themselves. After the effigy of the dead has been made the family go in state to a sacred place to purify themselves by bathing. If the journey is made by sea no other canoe may meet or sail past the canoe of the mourners under pain of being confiscated to them and redeemed at a heavy price. On their return from the holy place the period of mourning is over and the family is free to resume their ordinary mode of life and their ordinary victuals.27 That the seclusion of the mourners in the house for some time after the death springs from a fear of the ghost is not only probable on general grounds but is directly suggested by a custom which is observed at the burial of the body. When it has been laid in the earth along with various articles of daily use which the ghost is supposed to require for his comfort the mourners gather round the grave and each of them picks up a leaf which he folds in the shape of a spoon and holds several times over his head as if he would pour out the contents upon it. As they do so they all murmur “Rur i rama” that is “The spirit comes.” This exclamation or incantation is supposed to prevent the ghost from troubling them. The gravediggers may not enter their houses till they have bathed and so removed from their persons the contagion of death in order that the soul of the deceased may have no power over them.28 Mourners sometimes tattoo themselves in honour of the dead. For a father the marks are tattooed on the cheeks and under the eyes; for a grandfather on the breast; for a mother on the shoulders and arms; for a brother on the back. On the death of a father or mother the eldest son or if there is none such the eldest daughter wears the teeth and hair of the deceased. When the teeth of old people drop out they are kept on purpose to be thus strung on a string and worn by their sons or daughters after their death. Similarly a mother wears as a permanent mark of mourning the teeth of her dead child strung on a cord round her neck and as a temporary mark of mourning a little bag on her throat containing a lock of the child's hair.29 The intention of these customs is not mentioned. Probably they are not purely commemorative but designed in some way either to influence for good the spirit of the departed or to obtain its help and protection for the living.
Rebirth of parents in their children.
Thus far we have found no evidence among the natives of New Guinea of a belief that the dead are permanently reincarnated in their human descendants. However the inhabitants of Ayambori an inland village about an hour distant to the east of Doreh are reported to believe that the soul of a dead man returns in his eldest son and that the soul of a dead woman returns in her eldest daughter.30 So stated the belief is hardly clear and intelligible; for if a man has several sons he must evidently be alive and not dead when the eldest of them is born and similarly with a woman and her eldest daughter. On the analogy of similar beliefs elsewhere we may conjecture that these Papuans imagine every firstborn son to be animated by the soul of his father whether his father be alive or dead and every firstborn daughter to be animated by the soul of her mother whether her mother be alive or dead.
Customs concerning the dead observed in the islands off the western end of New Guinea.
Beliefs and customs concerning the dead like those which we have found among the natives of Geelvink Bay are the dead reported to prevail in other parts of Dutch New Guinea but our information about them is much less full. Thus off the western extremity of New Guinea there is a group of small islands (Waaigeoo Salawati Misol Waigama and so on) Guinea the inhabitants of which make karwar or wooden images of their dead ancestors. These they keep in separate rooms of their houses and take with them as talismans to war. In these inner rooms are also kept miniature wooden houses in which their ancestors are believed to reside and in which even Mohammedans (for some of the natives profess Islam) burn incense on Fridays in honour of the souls of the dead. These souls are treated like living beings for in the morning some finely pounded sago is placed in the shrines; at noon it is taken away but may not be eaten by the inmates of the house. Curiously enough women are forbidden to set food for the dead in the shrines: if they did so it is believed that they would be childless. Further in the chiefs house there are shrines for the souls of all the persons who have died in the whole village. Such a house might almost be described as a temple of the dead. Among the inhabitants of the Negen Negorijen or “Nine Villages” the abodes of the ancestral spirits are often merely frameworks of houses decorated with coloured rags. These frameworks are called roem seram. On festal occasions they are brought forth and the people dance round them to music. The mountain tribes of these islands to the west of New Guinea seldom have any such little houses for the souls of the dead. They think that the spirits of the departed dwell among the branches of trees to which accordingly the living attach strips of red and white cotton always to the number of seven or a multiple of seven. Also they place food on the branches or hang it in baskets on the boughs31 no doubt in order to feed the hungry ghosts. But among the tribes on the coast who make miniature houses for the use of their dead these little shrines form a central feature of the religious life of the people. At festivals especially on the occasion of a marriage or a death the shrines are brought out from the side chamber and are set down in the central room of the house where the people dance round them singing and making music for days together with no interruption except for meals.32
Wooden images of the dead.
According to the Dutch writer Mr. de Clercq whose account I am reproducing this worship of the dead represented by wooden images (karwar) and lodged in miniature houses is together with a belief in good and bad spirits the only thing deserving the name of religion that can be detected among these people. It is certain that the wooden images represent members of the family who died a natural death at home; they are never as in Ansoes and Waropen images of persons who have been murdered or slain in battle. Hence they form a kind of Penates who are supposed to lead an invisible life in the family circle. The natives of the Negen Negorijen for example believe that these wooden images (karwar) which are both male and female contain the souls of their ancestors who protect the house and household and are honoured at festivals by having portions of food set beside their images.33 The Seget Sélé who occupy the extreme westerly point of New Guinea bury their dead in the island of Lago and set up little houses in the forest for the use of the spirits of their ancestors. But these little houses may never be entered or even approached by members of the family.34 A traveller who visited a hut occupied by members of the Seget tribe in Princess Island or Kararaboe found a sick man in it and observed that before the front and back door were set up double rows of roughly hewn images painted with red and black stripes. He was told that these images were intended to keep off the sickness; for the natives thought that it would not dare to run the gauntlet between the double rows of figures into the house.35 We may conjecture that these rude images represented ancestral spirits who were doing sentinel duty over the sick man.
Customers concerning the dead among the natives of the Macluer Gulf.
Among the natives of the Macluer Gulf which penetrates deep into the western part of Dutch New Guinea the souls of dead men who have distinguished themselves by bravery or in other ways are honoured in the shape of wooden images which are sometimes wrapt in cloth and decorated with shells about the neck. In Sekar a village on the south side of the gulf small bowls called kararasa after the spirits of ancestors who are believed to lodge in them are hung up in the houses; on special occasions food is placed in them. In some of the islands of the Macluer Gulf the dead are laid in hollows of the rocks which are then adorned with drawings of birds hands and so forth. The hands are always painted white or yellowish on a red ground. The other figures are drawn with chalk on the weathered surface of the rock. But the natives either cannot or will not give any explanation of the custom.36
Burial and mourning customs in the Mimika district.
The Papuans of the Mimika district on the southern coast of Dutch New Guinea sometimes bury their dead in shallow graves near the huts; sometimes they place them in coffins on rough trestles and leave them there till decomposition is complete when they remove the skull and preserve it in the house either burying it in the sand of the floor or hanging it in a sort of basket from the roof where it becomes brown with smoke and polished with frequent handling. The people do not appear to be particularly attached to these relics of their kinsfolk and they sell them readily to Europeans. Mourners plaster themselves all over with mud and sometimes they bathe in the river probably as a mode of ceremonial purification. They believe in ghosts which they call niniki; but beyond that elementary fact we have no information as to their beliefs concerning the state of the dead.37
Burial customs at Windessi.
The natives of Windessi in Dutch New Guinea generally bury their dead the day after the decease. As a rule the corpse is wrapt in mats and a piece of blue cloth and laid on a scaffold; few are coffined. All the possessions of the dead including weapons fishing-nets wooden bowls pots and so forth according as the deceased was a man or a woman are placed beside him or her. If the death is attributed to the influence of an evil spirit they take hold of a lock of hair of the corpse and mention various places. At the mention of each place they tug the hair; and if it comes out they conclude that the death was caused by somebody at the place which was mentioned at the moment. But if the hair does not come out they infer that evil spirits had no hand in the affair. Before the body is carried away the family bathes no doubt to purify themselves from the contagion of death. Among the people of Windessi it is a common custom to bury the dead in an island. At such a burial the bystanders pick up a fallen leaf tear it in two and stroke the corpse with it in order that the ghost of the departed may not kill them. When the body has been disposed of either in a grave or on a scaffold they embark in the canoe and sit listening for omens. One of the men in a loud voice bids the birds and the flies to be silent; and all the others sit as still as death in an attitude of devotion. At last after an interval of silence the man who called out tells his fellows what he has heard. If it was the buzz of the blue flies that he heard some one else will die. If it was the booming sound of a triton shell blown in the distance a raid must be made in that direction to rob and murder. Why it must be so is not said but we may suppose that the note of the triton shell is believed to betray the place of the enemy who has wrought the death by magic and that accordingly an expedition must be sent to avenge the supposed crime on the supposed murderer. If the note of a bird called kohwi is heard then the fruit-trees will bear fruit. Though all the men sit listening in the canoe the ominous sounds are heard only by the man who called out.38
Mourning customs at Windessi.
When the omens have thus been taken the paddles again dip in the water and the canoe returns to the house of mourning. Arrived at it the men disembark climb up the ladder (for the houses seem to be built on piles over the water) and run the whole length of the long house with their paddles on their shoulders. Curiously enough they never do this at any other time because they imagine that it would cause the death of somebody. Meantime the women have gone into the forest to get bark which they beat into bark-cloth and make into mourning caps for themselves. The men busy themselves with plaiting armlets and leglets of rattan in which some red rags are stuck. Large blue and white beads are strung on a red cord and worn round the neck. Further the hair is shorn in sign of mourning. Mourners are forbidden to eat anything cooked in a pot. Sago-porridge which is a staple food with some of the natives of New Guinea is also forbidden to mourners at Windessi. If they would eat rice it must be cooked in a bamboo. The doors and windows of the house are closed with planks or mats just as with us the blinds are lowered in a house after a death. The surviving relatives make as many long sago-cakes as there are houses in the village and send them to the inmates; they also prepare a few for themselves. All who do not belong to the family now leave the house of mourning. Then the eldest brother or his representative gets up and all follow him to the back verandah where a woman stands holding a bow and arrows an axe a paddle and so forth. Every one touches these implements. Since the death there has been no working in the house but this time of inactivity is now over and every one is free to resume his usual occupations. This ends the preliminary ceremonies of mourning which go by the name of djawarra.
A month afterwards round cakes of sago are baked on the fire and all the members of the family their friends and the persons who assisted at the burial receive three such cakes each. Only very young children are now allowed to eat sago-porridge. This ceremony is called djawarra baba.
Festival of dead.
Wooden images of the dead.
When a year or more has elapsed the so-called festival of the dead takes place. Often the festival is held for several dead at the same time and in that case the cost is borne in common. From far and near the people have collected sago coco-nuts and other food. For two nights and a day they dance and sing but without the accompaniment of drums (? tifa) and gongs. The first night the signs of mourning are still worn hence no sago-porridge may be eaten; only friends who are not in mourning are allowed to partake of it. The night is spent in eating drinking smoking singing and dancing. Next day many people make korwars of their dead that is grotesque wooden images carved in human form which are regarded as the representatives of the departed. Some people fetch the head of the deceased person and having made a wooden image with a large head and a hole in the back of it they insert the skull into the wooden head from behind. After that friends feed the mourners with sago-porridge putting it into their mouths with the help of the chopsticks which arc commonly used in eating sago. When that is done the period of mourning is at an end and the signs of mourning are thrown away. A dance on the beach follows at which the new wooden images of the dead make their appearance. But still the drums and gongs are silent. Dancing and singing go on till the next morning when the whole of the ceremonies come to an end.39
Fear of the ghost.
The exact meaning of all these ceremonies is not clear but we may conjecture that they are based in large measure on the fear of the ghost. That fear comes out plainly in the ceremony of stroking the corpse with leaves in order to prevent the ghost from killing the survivors. The writer to whom we are indebted for an account of these customs tells us in explanation of them that among these people death is ascribed to the influence of evil spirits called manoam who are supposed to be incarnate in some human beings. Hence they often seek to avenge a death by murdering somebody who has the reputation of being an evil spirit incarnate. If they succeed in doing so they celebrate the preliminary mourning ceremonies called djawarra and djawarra baba but the festival of the dead is changed into a memorial festival at which the people dance and sing to the accompaniment of drums (? tifa) gongs and triton shells; and instead of carving a wooden image of the deceased they make marks on the fleshless skull of the murdered man.40
Beliefs of the natives of Windessi as to the life after death.
Medicine-men inspired by the spirits of the dead.
The natives of Windessi are said to have the following belief as to the life after death though we are told that the creed is now known to very few of them; for their old beliefs and customs are fading away under the influence of a mission station which is established among them. According to their ancient creed every man and every woman has two spirits and in the nether world called sarooka is a large house where there is room for all the people of Windessi. When a woman dies both her spirits always go down to the nether world where they are clothed with flesh and bones need do no work and live for ever. But when a man dies only one of his spirits must go to the under world; the other may pass or transmigrate into a living man or in rare cases into a living woman; the person so inspired by a dead man's spirit becomes an inderri that is a medicine-man or medicine-woman and has power to heal the sick. When a person wishes to become a medicine-man or medicine-woman he or she acts as follows. If a man has died and his friends are sitting about the corpse lamenting the would-be medicine-man suddenly begins to shiver and to rub his knee with his folded hands while he utters a monotonous sound. Gradually he falls into an ecstasy and if his whole body shakes convulsively the spirit of the dead man is supposed to have entered into him and he becomes a medicine-man. Next day or the day after he is taken into the forest; some hocus-pocus is performed over him and the spirits of lunatics who dwell in certain thick trees are invoked to take possession of him. He is now himself called a lunatic and on returning home behaves as if he were half-crazed. This completes his training as a medicine-man and he is now fully qualified to kill or cure the sick. His mode of cure depends on the native theory of sickness. These savages think that sickness is caused by a malicious or angry spirit apparently the spirit of a dead person; for a patient will say “The korwar” (that is the wooden image which represents a particular dead person) “is murdering me or is making me sick.” So the medicine-man is called in and sets to work on the sufferer while the korwar or wooden image of the spirit who is supposed to be doing all the mischief stands beside him. The principal method of cure employed by the doctor is massage. He chews a certain fruit fine and rubs the patient with it; also he pinches him all over the body as if to drive out the spirit. Often he professes to extract a stone a bone or a stick from the body of the sufferer. At last he gives out that he has ascertained the cause of the sickness; the sick man has done or has omitted to do something which has excited the anger of the spirit.41
Ghosts of slain enemies dreaded
From all this it would seem that the souls of the dead are more feared than loved and reverenced by the Papuans of Windessi. Naturally the ghosts of enemies who have perished at their hands are particularly dreaded by them. That dread explains some of the ceremonies which are observed in the village at the return of a successful party of head-hunters. As they draw near the village they announce their approach and success by blowing on triton shells. Their canoes also are decked with branches. The faces of the men who have taken a head arc blackened with charcoal; and if several have joined in killing one man his skull is divided between them. They always time their arrival so as to reach home in the early morning. They come paddling to the village with a great noise and the women stand ready to dance in the verandahs of the houses. The canoes row past the roem scam or clubhouse where the young men live; and as they pass the grimy-faced slayers fling as many pointed sticks or bamboos at the house as they have killed enemies. The rest of the day is spent very quietly. But now and then they drum or blow on the conch and at other times they beat on the walls of the houses with sticks shouting loudly at the same time to drive away the ghosts of their victims.42
That concludes what I have to say as to the fear and worship of the dead in Dutch New Guinea.