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Spirits, cults and ceremonial life

The highlanders’ animistic worldview involved a belief in the power of ancestral ghosts and mythical spirits over all aspects of life. Malevolent ghosts and spirits were thought to cause illness, infertility, crop failure, defeat in war, and even death. Highlands cultures developed complex rituals to appease these supernatural beings and cult traditions were regularly imported from neighbouring groups. Other ritual practices centred on the transition from childhood to adulthood through progressive stages of initiation.

Such ceremonies culminated in gatherings where highlanders wore their finest bilas (body adornment) and animals were ritually slaughtered. Large-scale ceremonial exchanges also developed between tribal groups, most notably in the western highlands where the trade of wealth objects – namely pigs and pearlshells – was best known through the moka and tee rituals of the Melpa and Enga people respectively.

When missionary activity began in the 1930s, highlanders melded the new religion with their cultural beliefs to enhance their power over the spiritual world. Christianity is now the most widespread faith across Papua New Guinea.

Focus works

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Wiru people

Timbu wara (ritual spirit figure) mid 1900s

Wiru settlements of the southern highlands are surrounded by forests and grasslands thought to be filled with spirit beings. Until the 1960s the timbu spirit cult was a ritual held every five to eight years to restore fertility and ecological balance. The cult involved the construction of a house with a tungi (central post) festooned with the bones of sacrificed pigs, cassowaries and marsupials.

Woven fertility emblems known as timbu wara were attached to alipo wigs worn by male dancers at the climax of the ritual. A great feast involving clans from allied neighbouring groups was held to reinforce exchange relations. The ritual concluded with the burial of the tungi, timbu wara and other ritual paraphernalia, thereby preserving their power. Stan Moriarty noted that human-shaped figures representing timbu wara were painted on Wiru shields to protect the warriors.

Issue for consideration

Discuss the importance of ecological balance in relation to how we live in Australia. What connections to nature and the land could we improve? What can we do to be more environmentally responsible as individuals? Imagine you have been asked to create a spirit figure to restore ecological balance in your neighbourhood. What symbols, shapes and materials would you use?

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail

Kandepe-Enga people

Yupini (fertility figure) mid 1900s

Illness or misfortune among the Enga and Ipili people was customarily attributed to ancestral ghosts. A restless ancestor could hinder the success of crops, the welfare of pigs and children, or victory in battle. Sacred rituals to placate the ancestors were held at special sites with only ritual experts, certain tribal elders and novices present.

The kepele ritual, the influence of which spread across the western Enga and Ipili regions, was the largest of all fertility rituals. Lasting up to six days, the kepele involved ceremonial dances, the sacrifice of pigs, feasting and ritual training of young men. Kepele culminated in the simulated ‘mating’ of woven yupini figures with sacred stones representing the ancestors. The yupini and sacred stones were then fed pork, and magic ‘spells’ were recited. Finally, the yupini and sacred stones were laid to rest in a cult house until the next kepele was called.

Issue for consideration

Without reading anything about this figure, look at it closely and discuss how it is made, what it reminds you of and what it might tell you about its maker. Now read about the object and consider if and how your viewpoint is altered.

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail

Melpa people

Moka kin (mounted pearlshell for moka exchange) mid 1900s

'The ornament which is apparently prized more than any other… is the gold-lip pearl shell. This, it would seem, is not worn on ordinary occasions but displayed at certain feasts and ceremonies… The whole circle was set in a heavy frame, consisting perhaps of clay and gum, which was painted with brick-red ochre … The shell was set with the convex surface outwards and with its pearlygolden colour against the red background looked sufficiently striking… It would appear that these gold-lips (ken or kin) are the supreme objects of personal wealth at Mt Hagen. It is something of a mystery that so many full-sized gold-lip shells should be found in the remote interior of New Guinea. With one consent the natives of Mt Hagen point to the south-west as the provenance of these shells…’ – Francis Edgar Williams, government anthropologist, Territory of Papua, 1937

Today, Papua New Guinea’s currency is the kina, named after the pearlshell.

Issue for consideration

Find out more about oysters in the oceans surrounding PNG. What types are there and how big can they grow? Why do you think pearlshells would be highly prized objects among the highlanders? What aesthetic qualities does this material have that contributes to its use?

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail

Alekano people

Gaheisi (ceremonial dance banner) c1968

Large ceremonial dance banners were once made as part of male initiation rites across the eastern highlands. Created secretly by men, they were worn on the final day of large pig festivals, and signalled the end of the seclusion period for initiates.

Known as gaheisi by the Alekano, they traditionally comprised a bamboo frame over which barkcloth was stretched and sewn. Feathers were mounted along the edges and apex of the frame. Some feathers were counterweighted with seedpods so that they bounced when the dancer moved. Geometric patterns were also applied to the barkcloth. The design on this gaheisi represents a spider and its web seen in the early morning light. The gaheisi was strapped to the dancer’s back so that their hands were free to carry drums, rattles and weapons.

Today gaheisi are constructed from modern plastics and decorated with brilliantly coloured commercial paints. Designs often incorporate political slogans or distinctly western modes of representation.

Issue for consideration

Find out what gaheisi made today look like and compare them to this example from the late 1960s. What techniques are still employed? What new influences have changed the way they are designed and made? Which ones do you prefer and why?

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail

Tairora people

Mask for initiation ceremonies mid 1900s

This full body mask is made of thousands of cassowary feathers attached over a rattan frame.

Issue for consideration

Where does rattan come from and what qualities does it have that make it a good material for art-making? What materials could you use, from your own environment, to make a full-body costume? Challenge yourself not to use glue or tape to attach parts together. Draw your ideas, with notes, then try them out to see if they are successful.

Further activities

Plumes and pearlshells children’s trail