Ajië - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The majority of Ajië were converted to Christianity in the early 1900s by the famous French Protestant missionary and ethnologist, Maurice Leenhardt, who built his church and school in the heart of Ajië territory. Prior to that, the Ajië had a number of important totems such as the shark, the caterpillar, the lizard, and thunder. In the traditional religion the gods inhabited all important geographical features of the Kanak landscape—mountain summits, river sources, grottos, etc. Each clan had its own gods that had given birth to the clan ancestors or with whom the clan ancestors had formed alliances. It was these gods who gave power to human rituals and symbols. Gods were worshipped on clan altars, and each time a clan changed location the clan gods were moved to the new site. Spirits of the dead also were believed to roam the Kanak landscape and to be dangerous to human activities.

Religious Practitioners. Each clan had a special magic knowledge that they specialized in. Within the clan there were also specialists who dealt with specific magic and rituals such as preparing the gardens for planting or the warriors for battle. Sorcery existed but it was not practiced by specialists; rather, it was available to all who cared to use it since it was occult power and not the person that was the source of the ill will.

Ceremonies. The most elaborate ceremony was the pilou pilou , which could take three to four years of preparation and last several weeks. It was the culmination of Kanak social life, expressing the vitality of the host clan and its alliances through orations, collective feasting, dancing, and a distribution of ceremonial objects and food.

Arts. Petroglyphs have been found in New Caledonia; however, their origins remain uncertain. Kanak sculpture was primarily part of the architecture of the large central dwelling: carved support posts, ridgeposts, and doorways. Elaborate arrowheads were the main art form and representation of the clan ancestors was the principal theme. The male artists were specialists and recognized as such. The reputation of a well-known artist would continue after his death. Kanaks also possessed a rich oral tradition of historical tales, myths, humorous and moral stories, poetry, and proverbs. Kanak music consisted of songs and percussion music. Dances were often narrative, a choreographed version of a traditional activity such as fishing or yam production. Men and women both participated in the collective dances that accompanied all ceremonial events and were part of the preparations for battle.

Medicine. Illness was associated with a totem: for example, weight loss with the lizard, hysteria with the caterpillar, swelling with the shark, anemia with the rat. Each illness could be cured by a specific herb that would be chewed or chopped and then sucked on. The herb acted on the totem, not the illness. Plants from the forest, fish and plants from the sea, and some taro species were also used for medicinal purposes in poultices, infusions, etc.

Death and Afterlife. The spirits of the dead inhabited an underworld and could surface at times. In order to ensure that they did not take up residence in their former bodies, the Kanaks bound corpses in fetal positions. Mothers were buried with a wooden stick so that they would think that they had a child in their arms and would not come looking for their off-spring. Geographical features that were traditionally believed to be the gateways to the underworld remain known and respected and are still the object of offerings and prayer. This practice is part of the Ajië's unique bond with the land.

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