Abelam - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ceremonial houses (korambo) and Ceremonial grounds (amei) are the focus of most rituals connected with the life-cycle events for men and women. For a girl parts of the first-menstruation ritual as well as the presentation of shell rings as marriage payments take place in front of the korambo. During the death ritual, the corpse is left there for one night. The korambo is also important for its mere presence and does not really serve as a meetingplace. It is mainly for housing those spirits ( ngwalndu ) who visit the living temporarily before going back to another world. In a ceremonial building the huge carved ngwalndu figures may be stored until they are used for an initiation. The large painted facade of a korambo is visually dominated by big faces associated with ngwalndu spirits. Although ngwalndu are to some extent ancestral spirits, no genealogy is reported linking the living with these powerful beings who influence the life of men, plants, and animals. The soul of a man (that soul which is associated with clan membership) is thought to live after death with a ngwalndu. While ngwalndu seem to be the most important supematurals, there are nevertheless many others as well, both male and female.

Ceremonies. Initiations of boys and men into the secrets of Abelam religion are divided into many stages, the first taking place when the boy is 5 or 6 years old, the last between 30 and 50. In each initiation boys are acquainted with one category of spiritual beings. This begins at an early age with the least important, and as adults they learn, after they have seen ngwalndu, the last secret beyond which there is only a boundless void. Important parts of initiation ceremonies take place in the ceremonial house where artists arrange elaborate compositions of carved, painted, or plaited figures, decorated with shell rings, feathers, flowers, and leaves. No explanation is given to the initiates. The aim of these rituals is to show them the secrets rather than to verbalize a meaning. For each display of artifacts in a ceremonial house there is an associated dance. In these dances men are painted and decorated all over—thus they are transformed into beings from another world.

Arts. Abelam art is rich, with the emphasis on painting. Paint is seen as a magical substance that gives life to a piece of wood (carving). Only then do the figures become powerful and active. Paint is a metaphor for a magical substance used in sorcery, which in this case is not life-giving but life-taking. Throughout Abelam territory different art styles can be recognized, although there are also many commonalities. Abelam artists are highly respected but only rarely do they serve as Political leaders.

Medicine. The Abelam have a large body of knowledge concerning herbs and plants in the bush that were Traditionally used as remedies for various diseases. A few old men and women were considered experts and were consulted regularly. Under the influence of Western medicine the traditional knowledge is vanishing rapidly. Apart from diseases for which Abelam knew effective cures, they also recognized others which they traced back to magic and sorcery. For these no remedies except ritual and the supernatural could be of help.

Death and Afterlife. There is almost no "natural" death recognized, apart from those old people who had been sitting already for a long time "at the ashes of a fire." All other deaths are attributed to magic and sorcery mostly performed in other villages. Symbols of people's life souls are kept in specialized villages. As soon as a lethal illness is suspected these are checked in order to find the cause and origin of the Sorcery performed. After death the corpse is displayed in front of the ceremonial house and a wake is held. The body is buried the following morning. There are many rituals held over Several years until the soul is eternally freed from its bond to life. There are different souls, one associated with blood, one with bones. The latter is considered the eternal one, who becomes visible during the night as a shining star.

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