Nias - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In 1985 80 percent of the population was Protestant, 15 percent was Catholic, and 5 percent was Muslim. Affiliation to an official religion is compulsory under national law.

Aspects of the traditional religion survive in the vernacular Christianity (e.g., in concepts of sin and misfortune). The ethos of social life derives from a non-Christian value system. Some spirit beliefs persist. Feasts of merit are intended partly as a means of winning the blessing and fertility dispensed by wife givers, who are thus in a position analogous to the gods (cf. "Batak"). In the old cosmology a creator god, Lowalangi, and his younger brother Lature Danö (center: Nazuva Danö) control the upper and lower world respectively. There was a priestly cult of the goddess Silewe. Man's daily welfare depended on the placation of patrilineal ancestral spirits and on the blessing of wife givers. His ultimate destiny lay with Lowalangi, who keeps men as his pigs. Sacrifices to forest spirits ensured success in the hunt. There were no clan totems.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional ritual experts (male or female) called ere performed life-cycle rituals, divination, and healing, interceding with ancestral spirits (represented in carved wooden figures), and with God in various manifestations. Some were experts in reciting oral traditions. The charismatic leaders of the conversion and revivalist movements have often been ere, and evangelists often claim the ere's oracular skills, albeit in Christian guise.

Ceremonies. Most stages of the life cycle are marked by ceremonies and, usually, by feasting. The complex systems of exchange and measurement were regulated by ritual. Epidemics, thought to be caused by profiteering, were remedied by expiatory sacrifices and a lowering of interest rates. In the center, annual clan ceremonies ( famongi ) involving abstention from work took place after the harvest. For any venture, the household ancestor figures were adorned and given offerings. Large-scale feasts of merit today retain an important place only in central Nias.

Arts. Fine wooden ancestor figures were once carved, as well as larger statues that were venerated before raids. Ornamented stone columns are found in South Nias; limestone seats with animal heads as well as a variety of columns are found in the center. Traditional arts are no longer practiced except in making souvenirs for tourists. Many fine statues and carvings are now in museums and collections abroad.

Medicine. The remedy for illness is indicated by the diagnosis of the cause by a diviner, healer, or Christian priest: counter-magic for sorcery, herbal palliatives for poisoning, placation of the ancestors by sacrifice to remove a curse, tribute to disgruntled wife givers, repentance to the Christian God (who, it is believed, punishes sin with disease and death).

Death and Afterlife. Only men who had performed feasts of merit, whose festive debts had been paid off, and who had been buried with full honors (including human sacrifice) could enter the Golden Paradise, tete holi ana'a, which seems to have been a replica of the earthly village. Ordinary men were left to rot and "became food for the worms."

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