Suku - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The key traditional elements were the Creator, medicines, the powers of eldership, witchcraft, and divination. The Creator was akin to a logical postulate of a first cause, with no direct impact on everyday activities. A variety of individually held medicines allowed for magical action, beneficent or nefarious, or both. A lineage-held medicine was one that had brought misfortunes to the lineage and had to be ritually taken in and nurtured to prevent further depredations. Lineage elders had the power to curse their juniors, withdrawing from them the mystical protection of the lineage against misfortunes. Witches (whose power was acquired at birth from other witches) were regarded ambivalently: they could promote lineage interests but had occasionally to "consume" lineage members. Thus, a misfortune, such as a sickness, could arise from one or several of these sources. It was the diviner's role to sort them out and indicate the necessary countermeasures. This conceptual system of dealing with misfortunes was not always satisfactory in practice, resulting in periodic revitalization-type movements that predate colonial control. These movements and Christianization have gradually undermined the integrity of the traditional system. At present, what is left are discrete bits and pieces of it, operating in conjunction with various Western Christian (Catholic and Protestant) and modern Afro-Christian beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, aside from diviners, there were no fully engaged religious specialists. All lineage heads performed the basic lineage rituals (such as marriages, burials, appeals to dead elders, curses), and all political chiefs performed the basic chiefly rituals (harvest, hunts, installation of chiefs and villages). Circumcision rituals were conducted by part-time ritual entrepreneurs. Lineage medicines were maintained by lineage members initiated for that purpose. At present, religious specialists are found in the Christian churches and in Afro-Christian movements.

Ceremonies. In addition to circumcision, the outstanding public rite was Kita, a periodic rite of revitalization of the society as a whole involving all men and women not previously initiated. Other public rituals included the founding of a new village, the chiefly first-fruits ritual, and the initiation and installation of new lineage and regional chiefs and the king. The most frequent rituals were those having to do with medicines: acquiring them for a lineage, curing their victims, or renovating their force, but these were private lineage rituals.

Arts. The outstanding nonspecialist performing arts included singing, dancing, telling of parables and tales, and playing drums and thumb pianos. Decorative artistry finds expression in hairstyling and in mat, basket, and gourd making. More specialized artistic elaboration appears in the manufacture of pottery, tobacco mortars, drinking cups, bowls, axes, adzes, knives, bracelets, and stools and in the carving of ritual figures and dance masks.

Medicine. Herbalism, which is the basis for treatment of minor diseases, is a part-time specialty. Other methods of curing by ritual specialists are inextricably bound with "mystical" notions of "medicines" (see "Religious Beliefs," "Religious Practitioners," and "Ceremonies") that bring misfortunes and provide the ritual means of curing them. Misfortunes as a class incorporate both disease and unfortunate events (such as bad luck or poor hunting), and both could also be brought about by witchcraft and magic. Western medicine has been widely accepted as a way of dealing with physical systems, but not the deeper causes of disease.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place within a day of death. Traditionally, the corpse is placed in a small subterranean niche; nowadays caskets are also used. The grave site is marked with objects such as glasses, plates, and chairs. There is a firm recognition (coupled with a profound agnosticism about the details) of life after death and of the influence of the dead on the living. Occasionally, one has contact with the dead, in the form of ghosts, but the dead with whom one has a persistent relationship are the dead of one's own lineage. The power of one's dead elders (ancestors) is an enhanced version of their power while alive, and one communicates with them at the grave sites, cajoling them for help in everyday events. As with the living elders in formal matters, the dead elders are treated as a collectivity. These notions have continued among Christian Suku, who find some measure of support for them in Christian and, especially, Catholic beliefs.


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