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Lecture 8 The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of the Torres Straits Islands

Lecture 8
The Belief in Immortality Among the Natives of the Torres Straits Islands
The Islanders of Torres Straits.
The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits.
IN the last lecture I concluded my account of the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead or rather of the elements out of which such a worship might have grown among the aborigines of Australia. To-day we pass to the consideration of a different people the islanders of Torres Straits. As you may know Torres Straits are the broad channel which divides Australia on the south from the great island of New Guinea on the north. The small islands which are scattered over the strait fall roughly into two groups a Western and an Eastern of which the eastern is at once the more isolated and the more fertile. In appearance character and customs the inhabitants of all these islands belong to the Papuan family which inhabits the western half of New Guinea but in respect of language there is a marked difference between the natives of the two groups; for while the speech of the Western Islanders is akin to that of the Australians the speech of the Eastern Islanders is akin to that of the Papuans of New Guinea. The conclusion to be drawn from these facts appears to be that the Western Islands of Torres Straits were formerly inhabited by aborigines of the Australian family and that at a later time they were occupied by immigrants from New Guinea who adopted the language of the aboriginal inhabitants but gradually extinguished the aboriginal type and character either by peaceful absorption or by conquest and extermination.1 Hence the Western Islanders of Torres Straits form a transition both geographically and ethnographically between the aborigines of Australia on the one side and the aborigines of New Guinea on the other side. According in our survey of the belief in immortality among the lower races we may appropriately consider the Islanders of Torres Straits immediately after the aborigines of Australia and before we pass onward to other and more distant races. These Islanders have a special claim on the attention of a Cambridge lecturer since almost all the exact knowledge we possess of them we owe to the exertions of Cambridge anthropologists and especially to Dr. A. C. Haddon who on his first visit to the islands in 1888 perceived the urgent importance of procuring an accurate record of the old beliefs and customs of the natives before it was too late and who never rested till that record was obtained as it happily has been first by his own unaided researches in the islands and afterwards by the united researches of a band of competent enquirers. In the history of anthropology the Cambridge Expedition to Torres Straits in 1898 will always hold an honourable place to the credit of the University which promoted it and especially to that of the zealous and devoted investigator who planned organised and carried it to a successful conclusion. Practically all that I shall have to tell you as to the beliefs and practices of the Torres Straits Islanders is derived from the accurate and laborious researches of Dr. Haddon and his colleagues.
Social culture of the Torres Straits Islanders.

While the natives of Torres Straits are or were at the time of their discovery in the condition which we call savagery they stand on a far higher level of social and intellectual culture than the rude aborigines of Australia. To indicate roughly the degree of advance we need only say that whereas the Australians are nomadic hunters and fishers entirely ignorant of agriculture and destitute to a great extent not only of houses but even of clothes the natives of Torres Straits live in settled villages and diligently till the soil raising a variety of crops such as yams sweet potatoes bananas sugar-cane and tobacco.2 Of the two groups of islands the eastern is the more fertile and the inhabitants are more addicted to agriculture than are the natives of the western islands who as a consequence of the greater barrenness of the soil have to eke out their subsistence to a considerable extent by fishing.3 And there is other evidence to shew that the Eastern Islanders have attained to a somewhat higher stage of social evolution than their Western brethren;4 the more favourable natural conditions under which they live may possibly have contributed to raise the general level of culture. One of the most marked distinctions in this respect between the inhabitants of the two groups is that whereas a regular system of totemism with its characteristic features prevails among the Western Islanders no such system nor even any very clear evidence of its former existence is to be found among the Eastern Islanders whether it be that they never had it or what is more likely that they once had but have lost it.5

Belief of the Torres Straits Islanders in the existence of the human spirit after death.
On the other hand so far as regards our immediate subject the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead a general resemblance may be traced between the creed and customs of the Eastern and Western tribes. Both of them like the Australian aborigines firmly believe in the existence of the human spirit after death but unlike the Australians they seem to have no idea that the souls of the departed are ever born again into the world; the doctrine of reincarnation so widespread among the natives of Australia appears to have no place in the creed of their near neighbours the Torres Straits Islanders whose dead like our own though they may haunt the living for a time are thought to depart at last to a distant spirit-land and to return no more. At the same time neither in the one group nor in the other is there any clear evidence of what may be called a worship of the dead in the strict sense of the word unless we except the cults of certain more or less mythical heroes. On this point the testimony of Dr. Haddon is definite as to the Western Islanders. He says: “In no case have I obtained in the Western Islands an indication of anything approaching a worship of deceased persons ancestral or otherwise with the exception of the heroes shortly to be mentioned; neither is there any suggestion that their own ancestors have been in any way apotheosized.”6
Fear of the ghosts of the recently departed.
But if these savages have not with the possible exception of the cult of certain heroes any regular worship of dead they certainly have the germ out of which such a worship might be developed and that is a firm belief in ghosts and in the mischief which they may do to the living. The word for a ghost is mari in the West and mar in the East: it means also a shadow or reflection7 which seems to shew that these savages like many others have derived their notion of the human soul from the observation of shadows and reflections cast by the body on the earth or on water. Further the Western Islanders appear to distinguish the ghosts of the recently departed (mari) from the spirits of those who have been longer dead which they call markai;8 and if we accept this distinction “we may assert” according to Dr. Haddon “that the Torres Straits Islanders feared the ghosts but believed in the general friendly disposition of the spirits of the departed.9 Similarly we saw that the Australian aborigines regard with fear the ghosts of those who have just died while they are either indifferent to the spirits of those who have died many years ago or even look upon them as beings of higher powers than their descendants whom they can benefit in various ways. This sharp distinction between the spirits of the dead according to the date at which they died is widespread perhaps universal among mankind. However truly the dead were loved in their lifetime however bitterly they were mourned at their death no sooner have they passed beyond our ken than the thought of their ghosts seems to inspire the generality of mankind with an instinctive fear and horror as if the character of even the best friends and nearest relations underwent a radical change for the worse as soon as they had shuffled off the mortal coil. But among savages this belief in the moral deterioration of ghosts is certainly much more marked than among civilised races. Ghosts are dreaded both by the Western and the Eastern tribes of Torres Straits. Thus in Mabuiag one of the Western Islands the corpse was carried out of camp feet foremost else it was thought that the ghost would return and trouble the survivors. Further when the body had been laid upon a stage or platform on clear level ground away from the dwelling the remains of any food and water of which the deceased might have been partaking in his last moments were carried out and placed beside the corpse lest the ghost should come back to fetch them for himself to the annoyance and terror of his relations. This is the reason actually alleged by the natives for what otherwise might have been interpreted as a delicate mark of affection and thoughtful care for the comfort of the departed. If next morning the food was found scattered the people said that the ghost was angry and had thrown it about.10 Further on the day of the death the mourners went into the gardens slashed at the taro knocked down coco-nuts pulled up sweet potatoes and destroyed bananas. We are told that “the food was destroyed for the sake of the dead man it was ‘like goodbye.’”11 We may suspect that the real motive for the destruction was the same as that for laying food and water beside the corpse namely a wish to give the ghost no excuse for returning to haunt and pester his surviving relatives. How could he have the heart to return to the desolated garden which in his lifetime it had been his pride and joy to cultivate?
Fear of the ghosts of the recently departed among the Murray Islanders.
In Murray Island also which belongs to the Eastern group the ghost of a recently deceased person is much dreaded; it is supposed to haunt the neighbourhood for two or three months and the elaborate funeral ceremonies which these savages perform appear to be based on this belief and to be intended in fact to dismiss the ghost from the land of the living where he is a very unwelcome visitor to his proper place in the land of the dead.12 “The Murray Islanders” says Dr. Haddon “perform as many as possible of the necessary ceremonies in order that the ghost of the deceased might not feel slighted for otherwise it was sure to bring trouble on the relatives by causing strong winds to destroy their gardens and break down their houses.”13 These islanders still believe that a ghost may feel resentment when his children are neglected or wronged or when his lands or goods are appropriated by persons who have no claim to them. And this fear of the wrath of the ghost Dr. Haddon tells us no doubt in past times acted as a wholesome deterrent on evil-doers and helped to keep the people from crime though now-a-days they look rather to the law than to ghosts for the protection of their rights and the avenging of their wrongs.14 Yet here as in so many places it would seem that superstition has proved a useful crutch on which morality can lean until it is strong enough to walk alone. In the absence of the police the guardianship of law and morality may be provisionally entrusted to ghosts who if they are too fickle and uncertain in their temper to make ideal constables are at least better than nothing. With this exception it does not appear that the moral code of the Torres Straits Islanders derived any support or sanction from their religion. No appeal was made by them to totems ancestors or heroes; no punishment was looked for from these quarters for any infringement of the rules and restraints which hold society together.15
The island home of the dead.
The land of the dead to which the ghosts finally depart is in the opinion of the Torres Straits Islanders a mythical island in the far west or rather north-west. The Western Islanders name it Kibu; the Eastern Islanders call it Boigu. The name Kibu means “sundown.” It is natural enough that islanders should place the home of the dead in some far island of the sea to which no canoe of living men has ever sailed and it is equally natural that the fabulous island should lie to westward where the sun goes down; for it seems to be a common thought that the souls of the dead are attracted by the great luminary like moths by a candle and follow him when he sinks in radiant glory into the sea. To take a single example in the Maram district of Assam it is forbidden to build houses facing westward because that is the direction in which the spirits of the dead go to their long home.16 But the Torres Straits Islanders have a special reason as Dr. Haddon has well pointed out for thinking that the home of the dead is away in the north-west; and the reason is that in these latitudes the trade wind blows steady and strong from the south-east for seven or eight months of the year; so that for the most part the spirits have only to let themselves go and the wind will sweep them away on its pinions to their place of rest. How could the poor fluttering things beat up to windward in the teeth of the blast?17
Elaborate funeral ceremonies observed by the Torres Straits Islanders.
The funeral ceremonies observed by the Torres Straits Islanders were numerous and elaborate and they present some features of special interest. They succeeded each other at intervals sometimes of months and amongst the Eastern Islanders in particular there were so many of them that were it not that the bodies of the very young and the very old were treated less ceremoniously the living would have been perpetually occupied in celebrating the obsequies of the dead.18 The obsequies differed somewhat from each other in the East and the West but they had two characteristics in common: first the skulls of the dead were commonly preserved apart from the bodies and were consulted as oracles; and second the ghosts of the recently deceased were represented in dramatic ceremonies by masked men who mimicked the gait and gestures of the departed and were thought by the women and children to be the very ghosts themselves. But in details there were a good many variations between the practice of the Eastern and the Western Islanders. We will begin with the customs of the Western Islanders.
Funeral ceremonies observed by the Western Islanders.
Removal and preservation of the skull.
Skulls used in divination.
When a death had taken place the corpse was carried out of the house and set on a staging supported by four forked posts and covered by a roof of mats. The office of attending to the body devolved properly on the brothers-in-law (imi) of the deceased who while they were engaged in the duties of the office bore the special title of mariget or “ghost-hand.” It deserves to be noticed that these men were always of a different totem from the deceased; for if the dead person was a man the mariget were his wife's brothers and therefore had the same totem as the dead man's wife which on account of the law of exogamy always differed from the totem of her husband. And if the dead person was a woman the mariget were her husband's brothers and therefore had his totem which necessarily differed from hers. When they had discharged the preliminary duties to the corpse the brothers-in-law went and informed the relations and friends. This they did not in words but by a prescribed pantomime. For example if the deceased had had the crocodile for his totem they imitated the ungainly gait of crocodiles waddling and resting if the deceased had the snake for his totem they in like manner mimicked the crawling of a snake. The relations then painted their bodies with white coral mud cut their hair plastered mud over their heads and cut off their ear ornaments or severed the distended lobe of the ear as a sign of mourning. Then armed with bows and arrows they came out to the stage where the corpse was lying and let fly arrows at the men who were in attendance on it that is at the brothers-in-law of the deceased who warded off the shafts as best they could.19 The meaning of this sham attack on the men who were discharging the last offices of respect to the dead comes out clearly in another ceremony which was performed some time afterwards as we shall see presently. For five or six days the corpse remained on the platform or bier watched by the brothers-in-law who had to prevent certain large lizards from devouring it and to frighten away any prowling ghosts that might be lured to the spot by the stench. After the lapse of several days the relations returned to the body mourned and beat the roof of the bier while they raised a shout to drive off any part of the dead man's spirit that might be lingering about his mouldering remains. The reason for doing so was that the time had now arrived for cutting off the head of the corpse and they thought that the head would not come off easily if the man's spirit were still in the body; he might reasonably be expected to hold on tight to it and not to resign without a struggle so valuable a part of his person. When the poor ghost had thus been chased away with shouts and blows the principal brother-in-law came forward and performed the amputation by sawing off the head. Having done so he usually placed it in a nest of termites or white ants in order that the insects might pick it clean; but sometimes for the same purpose he deposited it in a creek. When it was thoroughly clean the grinning white skull was painted red all over and placed in a decorated basket. Then followed the ceremony of formally handing over this relic of the dead to the relations. The brothers-in-law who had been in attendance on the body painted themselves black all over covered their heads with leaves and walked in solemn procession headed by the chief brother-in-law who carried the skull in the basket. Meantime the male relatives were awaiting them seated on a large mat in the ceremonial ground while the women grouped themselves in the background. As the procession of men approached bearing the skull the mourners shot arrows over their heads as a sign of anger at them for having decapitated their relation. But this was a mere pretence probably intended to soothe and flatter the angry ghost: the arrows flew over the men without hurting them.20 Similarly in ancient Egypt the man who cut open a corpse for embalmment had no sooner done his office than he fled precipitately; pursued by the relations with stones and curses because he had wounded and mangled the body of their kinsman.21 Sometimes the skull was made up to resemble the head of a living man: an artificial nose of wood and beeswax supplied the place of a nose of flesh; pearl-shells were inserted in the empty eye-balls; and any teeth that might be missing were represented by pieces of wood while the lower jaw was lashed firmly to the cranium.22 Whether thus decorated or not the skulls of the dead were preserved and used in divination. Whenever a skull was to be thus consulted it was first cleaned repainted and either anointed with certain plants or placed upon them. Then the enquirer enjoined the skull to speak the truth and placing it on his pillow at night went to sleep. The dream which he dreamed that night was the answer of the skull which spoke with a clappering noise like that of teeth chattering together. When people went on voyages they used to take a divining skull with them in the stern of the canoe.23
Great death-dance of the Western Islanders.
The dead personated by masked actors.
The great funeral ceremony or rather death-dance of the Western Islanders took place in the island of Pulu. When the time came for it a few men would meet and make the necessary preparations. The ceremony was always performed on the sacred or ceremonial ground (kwod) and the first thing to do was to enclose this ground for the sake of privacy with a screen of mats hung on a framework of wood and bamboos. When the screen had been erected the drums which were to be used by the orchestra were placed in position beside it. Then the relations were summoned to attend the performance. The ceremony might be performed for a number of recently deceased people at once and it varied in importance and elaboration according to the importance and the number of the deceased whose obsequies were being celebrated. The chief differences were in the number of the performers and the greater or less display of scenic apparatus. The head-dresses or leafy masks worn by the actors in the sacred drama were made secretly in the bush; no woman or uninitiated man might witness the operation. When all was ready and the people were assembled the men being stationed in front and the women and children in the background the disguised actors appeared on the scene and played the part of the dead each one of them mimicking the gait and actions of the particular man or woman whom he personated; for all the parts were played by men no woman might act in these ceremonies. The order in which the various ghosts were to appear on the scene was arranged beforehand; so that when the actors came forward from behind the screen the spectators knew which of the dead they were supposed to have before them. The performers usually danced in pairs and vanished behind the screen when their dance was finished. Thus one pair would follow another till the play was over. Besides the actors who played the serious and solemn part of the dead there was usually a clown who skipped about and cut capers tumbling down and getting up again to make the spectators laugh and so to relieve the strain on their emotions which were deeply stirred by this dance of death. The beat of the drums proclaimed that the sacred drama was at an end. Then followed a great feast at which special portions of food were assigned by the relatives of the deceased to the actors who had personated them.24
Intention of the ceremonies.
As to the intention of these curious dramatic performances we have no very definite information. Dr. Haddon says: “The idea evidently was to convey to the mourners the assurance that the ghost was alive and that in the person of the dancer he visited his friends; the assurance of his life after death comforted the bereaved ones.”25
Funeral ceremonies observed by the Eastern Islanders.
The soul of the dead carried away by a masked actor.
In the Eastern Islands of Torres Straits the funeral ceremonies seem to have been even more numerous and elaborate. The body was at first laid on the ground on a mat outside the house if the weather were fine. There friends wept and wailed over it the nearest relations such as the wife and mother sitting at the head of the corpse. About an hour after the sun had set the drummers and singers arrived. All night the drums beat and the people sang but just as the dawn was breaking the wild music died away into silence. The wants of the living were now attended to: the assembled people breakfasted on green coco-nuts; and then about an hour after sunrise they withdrew from the body and took up a position a little further off to witness the next act of the drama of death. The drums now struck up again in quicker time to herald the approach of an actor who could be heard but not seen shaking his rattle in the adjoining forest. Faster and faster beat the drums louder and louder rose the singing till the spectators were wound up to a pitch of excitement bordering on frenzy. Then at last a strange figure burst from the forest and came skipping and posturing towards the corpse. It was Terer a spirit or mythical being who had come to fetch the soul of the departed and to bear it far away to its place of rest in the island beyond the sea. On his head he wore a wreath of leaves: a mask made of the mid-ribs of coco-nut leaves or of croton leaves hid his face: a long feather of the white tern nodded on his brow; and a mantle of green coco-nut leaves concealed his body from the shoulders to the knees. His arms were painted red: round his neck he wore a crescent of pearl-shell: in his left hand he carried a bow and arrows and in his mouth a piece of wood to which were affixed two rings of green coco-nut leaf. Thus attired he skipt forwards rattling a bunch of nuts in his right hand bending his head now to one side and now to another swaying his body backwards and forwards but always keeping time to the measured beat of the drums. At last after a series of rapid jumps from one foot to the other he ended his dance and turning round fled away westward along the beach. He had taken the soul of the dead and was carrying it away to the spirit-land. The excitement of the women now rose to the highest pitch. They screamed and jumped from the ground raising their arms in air high above their heads. Shrieking and wailing all pursued the retreating figure along the beach the mother or widow of the dead man casting herself again and again prostrate on the sand and throwing it in handfuls over her head. Among the pursuers was another masked man who represented Aukem the mother of Terer. She or rather he was dressed in dried banana leaves: long tufts of grass hung from her head over her face and shoulders; and in her mouth she carried a lighted bundle of dry coco-nut fibre which emitted clouds of smoke. With an unsteady rickety gait the beldame hobbled after her rapidly retreating son who turned round from time to time skipping and posturing derisively as if to taunt her and then hurrying away again westward. Thus the two quaint figures retreated further and further he in front and she behind till they were lost to view. But still the drums continued to beat and the singers to chant their wild song when nothing was to be seen but the deserted beach with the sky and the drifting clouds above and the white waves breaking on the strand. Meantime the two actors in the sacred drama made their way westward till their progress was arrested by the sea. They plunged into it and swimming westward unloosed their leafy envelopes and let them float away to the spirit-land in the far island beyond the rolling waters. But the men themselves swam back to the beach resumed the dress of ordinary mortals and quietly mingled with the assembly of mourners.26
Personation of ghosts by masked men.
Such was the first act of the drama. The second followed immediately about ten o'clock in the morning. The actors in it were twenty or thirty men disguised as ghosts or spirits of the dead (zera markai). Their bodies were blackened from the neck to the ankles but the lower part of their faces and their feet were dyed bright red and a red triangle was painted on the front of their bodies. They wore head-dresses of grass with long projecting ribs of coco-nut leaves and a long tail of grass behind reaching down to the level of the knees. In their hands they held long ribs of coco-nut leaf. They were preceded by a curious figure called pager a man covered from head to foot with dry grass and dead banana leaves who sidled along with an unsteady rolling gait in a zigzag course keeping his head bowed his red-painted hands clasped in front of his face and his elbows sticking out from both sides of his body. In spite of his erratic course and curious mode of progression he drew away from the troop of ghosts behind him and came on towards the spectators jerking his head from side to side his hands shaking and wailing as he went. Behind him marched the ghosts with their hands crossed behind their backs and their faces looking out to sea. When they drew near to the orchestra who were singing and drumming away they halted and formed in two lines facing the spectators. They now all assumed the familiar attitude of a fencer on guard one foot and arm advanced the other foot and arm drawn back and lunged to right and left as if they were stabbing something with the long ribs of the coco-nut leaves which they held in their hands. This manoeuvre they repeated several times the orchestra playing all the time. Then they retreated into the forest but only to march out again form in line stand on guard and lunge again and again at the invisible foe. This appears to have been the whole of the second act of the drama. No explanation of it is given. We can only conjecture that the band of men who seem from their name (zera markai) to have represented the ghosts or spirits of the dead came to inform the living that the departed brother or sister had joined the majority and that any attempt to rescue him or her would be vain. That perhaps was the meaning of the solemn pantomime of the lines of actors standing on guard and lunging again and again towards the spectators. But I must acknowledge that this is a mere conjecture of my own.27
Blood and hair offered to the dead.
Be that as it may when this act of the drama was over the mourners took up the body and with weeping and wailing laid it on a wooden framework resting on four posts at a little distance from the house of the deceased. Youths who had lately been initiated and girls who had attained to puberty now had the lobes of their ears cut. The blood streamed down over their faces and bodies and was allowed to drip on the feet of the corpse as a mark of pity or sorrow.28 The other relatives cut their hair and left the shorn locks in a heap under the body. Blood and hair were probably regarded as offerings made to the departed kinsman or kinswoman. We saw that the Australian aborigines in like manner cut themselves and allow the blood to drip on the corpse; and they also offer their hair to the dead cutting off parts of their beards singeing them and throwing them on the corpse.29 Having placed the body on the stage and deposited their offerings of hair under it the relatives took some large yams cut them in pieces and laid the pieces beside the body in order to serve as food for the ghost who was supposed to eat it at night.30 This notion seems inconsistent with the belief that the soul of the departed had already been carried off to Boigu the island of the dead; but consistency in such matters is as little to be looked for among savages as among ourselves.
Mummification of the corpse.
When the body had remained a few days on the stage in the open air steps were taken to convert it into a mummy. For this purpose it was laid in a small canoe manned by some young people of the same sex as the deceased. They paddled it across the lagoon to the reef and there rubbed off the skin extracted the bowels from the abdomen and the brain from the skull and having sewed up the hole in the abdomen and thrown the bowels into the sea they brought the remains back to land and lashed them to the wooden framework with string while they fixed a small stick to the lower jaw to keep it from drooping. The framework with its ghastly burden was fastened vertically to two posts behind the house where it was concealed from public view by a screen of coco-nut leaves. Holes were pricked with an arrow between the fingers and toes to allow the juices of decomposition to escape and a fire was kindled and kept burning under the stage to dry up the body.
Garb of mourners.
Cutting for the dead.
About ten days after the death a feast of bananas yams and germinating coco-nuts was partaken of by the relations and friends and portions were distributed to the assembled company who carried them home in baskets. It was on this occasion that kinsfolk and friends assumed the garb of mourners. Their faces and bodies were smeared with a mixture of greyish earth and water: the ashes of a wood fire were strewn on their heads; and fringes of sago leaves were fastened on their arms and legs. A widow wore besides a special petticoat made of the inner bark of the fig-tree; the ends of it were passed between her legs and tucked up before and behind. She had to leave her hair unshorn during the whole period of her widowhood; and in time it grew into a huge mop of a light yellow colour in consequence of the ashes with which it was smeared. This coating of ashes as well as the grey paint on her face and body she was expected to renew from time to time.32 It was also on the occasion of this feast on or about the tenth day after death that young kinsfolk of the deceased had certain patterns cut in their flesh by a sharp shell. The persons so operated on were young adults of both sexes nearly related to the dead man or woman. Women generally operated on women and men on men. The patients were held down during the operation which was painful and they sometimes fainted under it. The patterns were first drawn on the skin in red paint and then cut in with the shell. They varied a good deal in shape. Some consisted of arrangements of lines and scrolls; a favourite one which was only carved on women represented a centipede. The blood which flowed from the wounds was allowed to drip on the corpse thus forming a sacrifice or tribute to the dead.33
The Dance of Death.
The nocturnal dance.
When the body had remained some time perhaps four or six months on the scaffold and the process of mummification was far advanced a dance of death was held to celebrate the final departure of the spirit for its long home. Several men seldom exceeding four in number were chosen to act the part of ghosts including the ghost of him or her in whose honour the performance was specially held. Further about a dozen men were selected to form a sort of chorus; their business was to act as intermediaries between the living and the dead summoning up the shades serving as their messengers and informing the people of their presence. The costume of the ghosts was simple consisting of nothing but a head-dress and shoulder-band of leaves. The chorus if we may call them so wore girdles of leaves round their waists and wreaths of leaves on their heads. When darkness had fallen the first act of the drama was played. The chorus stood in line opposite the mummy. Beyond them stood or sat the drummers and beyond them again the audience was crowded on the beach the women standing furthest from the mummy and nearest to the sea. The drummers now struck up chanting at the same time to the beat of the drums. This was the overture. Then a shrill whistle in the forest announced the approach of a ghost. The subdued excitement among the spectators especially among the women was intense. Meantime the chorus holding each other's hands advanced sidelong towards the mummy with strange gestures the hollow thud of their feet as they stamped on the ground being supposed to be the tread of the ghosts. Thus they advanced to the red-painted mummy with its grinning mouth. Behind it by this time stood one of the ghosts and between him and the chorus a dialogue ensued. “Whose ghost is there?” called out the chorus; and a strident voice answered from the darkness “The ghost of so and so is here.” At that the chorus retreated in the same order as they had advanced and again the hollow thud of their feet sounded in the ears of the excited spectators as the tramp of the dead. On reaching the drummers in their retreat the chorus called out some words of uncertain meaning which have been interpreted “Spirit of so-and-so away at sea loved little.” At all events the name of a dead person was pronounced and at the sound the women thrilled with excitement leaped from the ground holding their hands aloft; then hurled themselves prone on the sand throwing it over their heads and wailing. The drums now beat faster and a wild weird chant rose into the air then died away and all was silent except perhaps for the lapping of the waves on the sand or the muffled thunder of the surf afar off on the barrier reef. Thus one ghost after another was summoned from the dusty dead and vanished again into the darkness. When all had come and gone the leader of the chorus who kept himself invisible behind the screen save for a moment when he was seen by the chorus to glide behind the mummy on its stage blew a whistle and informed the spectators in a weird voice that all the ghosts that had been summoned that night would appear before them in broad day light on the morrow. With that the audience dispersed. But the men who had played the parts of the ghosts came forward and sat down with the chorus and the drummers on mats beside the body. There they remained singing to the beat of the drums till the first faint streaks of dawn glimmered in the east.
The noonday dance.
The ghosts represented by masked actors.
Next morning the men assembled beside the body to inspect the actors who were to personate the ghosts in order to make sure that they had learned their parts well and could mimick to the life the figure and gait of the particular dead persons whom they represented. By the time that these preparations were complete the morning had worn on to noon. The audience was already assembled on the beach and on the long stretch of sand left by the ebbing tide; for the hour of the drama was always fixed at low water so as to allow ample space for the spectators to stand at a distance from the players lest they should detect the features of the living under the masks of the dead. All being ready the drummers marched in and took up their position just above the beach facing the audience. The overture having been concluded the first ghost was seen to glide from the forest and come dancing towards the beach. If he represented a woman his costume was more elaborate than it had been under the shades of evening the night before. His whole body was painted red. A petticoat of leaves encircled his waist: a mask of leaves surmounted by tufts of cassowary and pigeon feathers concealed his head; and in his hands he carried brooms of coco-nut palm leaf. If he personated a man he held a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other and his costume was the usual dress of a dancer with the addition of a head-dress of leaves and feathers and a diamond-shaped ornament of bamboo which he held in his teeth and which entirely concealed his features. He approached dancing and mimicking the gestures of the person whom he represented. At the sight the women wailed and the widow would cry out “That's my husband” the mother would cry out “That's my son.” Then suddenly the drummers would call out “Ah! Ah! Ai! Ai!” at which the women would fall to the ground while the dancer retreated into the forest. In this way one ghost after the other would make his appearance play his part and vanish. Occasionally two of them would appear and dance together. The women and children we are told really believed that the actors were the ghosts of their dead kinsfolk. When the first dancer had thus danced before the people he advanced with the drummers towards the framework on which the mummy was stretched and there he repeated his dance before it. But the people were not allowed to witness this mystery; they remained wailing on the beach for this was the moment at which the ghost of the dead man or woman was supposed to be departing for ever to the land of shades.34
Preservation of the mummy.
Some days afterwards the mummy was affixed to a new framework of bamboo and carried into the hut. In former times the huts were of a beehive shape and the framework which supported the mummy was fastened to the central post on which the roof rested. The body thus stood erect within the house. Its dried skin had been painted red. The empty orbits of the eyes had been filled with pieces of pearl-shell of the nautilus to imitate eyes two round spots of black beeswax standing for the pupils. The ears were decorated with shreds of the sago-palm or with grey seeds. A frontlet of pearl-shell nautilus adorned the head and a crescent of pearl-shell the breast. In the darkness of the old-fashioned huts the body looked like a living person. In course of time it became almost completely mummified and as light as if it were made of paper. Swinging to and fro with every breath of wind it turned its gleaming eyes at each movement of the head. The hut was now surrounded by posts and ropes to prevent the ghost from making his way into it and taking possession of his old body. Ghosts were supposed to appear only at night and it was imagined that in the dark they would stumble against the posts and entangle themselves in the ropes till in despair they desisted from the attempt to penetrate into the hut. In time the mummy mouldered away and fell to pieces. If the deceased was a male the head was removed and a wax model of it made and given to the brother whether blood or tribal brother of the dead man. The head thus prepared or modelled in wax with eyes of pearl-shell was used in divination. The decaying remains of the body were taken to the beach and placed on a platform supported by four posts. That was their last resting-place.35
General summary
Dramas of the dead.
To sum up the foregoing evidence we may say that if the beliefs and practices of the Torres Straits Islanders summary which I have described do not amount to a worship of the dead they contain the elements out of which such a worship might easily have been developed. The preservation of the bodies of the dead or at least their skulls in the houses and the consultation of them as oracles prove that the spirits of the dead are supposed to possess knowledge which may be of great use to the living; and the custom suggests that in other countries the images of the gods may perhaps have been evolved out of the mummies of the dead. Further the dramatic representation of the ghosts in a series of striking and impressive performances indicates how a sacred and in time a secular drama may elsewhere have grown out of a purely religious celebration concerned with the souls of the departed. In this connexion we are reminded of Professor Ridgeway's theory that ancient Greek tragedy originated in commemorative songs and dances performed at the tomb for the purpose of pleasing and propitiating the ghost of the mighty dead.36 Yet the mortuary dramas of the Torres Straits Islanders can hardly be adduced to support that theory by analogy so long as we are ignorant of the precise significance which the natives themselves attached to these remarkable performances. There is no clear evidence that the dramas were acted for the amusement and gratification of the ghost rather than for the edification of the spectators. One important act certainly represented and might well be intended to facilitate the final departure of the spirit of the deceased to the land of souls. But the means taken to effect that departure might be adopted in the interests of the living quite as much as out of a tender regard for the welfare of the dead since the ghost of the recently departed is commonly regarded with fear and aversion and his surviving relations resort to many expedients for the purpose of ridding themselves of his unwelcome presence.