Asmat - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally an animistic society, the Asmat have developed an intricate pattern of rituals that pervades village life. Various Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, and government programs (introduced since 1953) have attenuated but not erased beliefs in a complex spiritual system based on the conception of a dualistic, balanced cosmos. Spirit entities are thought to inhabit trees, earth, and water. The spirits of deceased ancestors mingle among the living, at times aiding or hindering activities and bringing sickness. Cyclical rituals—such as those involving the carving of elaborate ancestor ( bis ) poles—and rituals that accompanied headhunting raids, the death of great warriors, and ceremonies of peace and reconciliation can be related to the appeasement of the ancestral spirits.

Practitioners. Sorcerers and shamans ( namer-o ) mediate between humans and the spirit world. These statuses represent visionary callings requiring long apprenticeships. Practitioners perform magic, exorcisms, and healing. Tesmaypits organize and supervise rituals, employing head singers and providing food for ceremonies. In recent years, cargo-cult leaders also have emerged.

Ceremonies. Villages celebrate major rituals on a two-to four-year cycle. Ritual warfare (and the activities that preceded and followed each battle) traditionally was understood as integral to the cosmology of dualism, reciprocity, and checks and balances. Feasting, dancing, the carving of artworks, and lengthy song cycles continue to reflect this Perspective. Mythological, legendary, and historical heroes are extolled in epic song-poems lasting several days. Initiation, papis, adult adoption, and men's house construction are also accompanied by ceremonies.

Arts. Asmat art, music, and oral literature are closely bound to ceremonial and socioeconomic cycles. The master carvers (wowipits) have been recognized as among the best of the preliterate world. Exuberance of form, shape, and color characterize ancestor (bis) poles, war shields, and canoe prows. Drums and head-hunting horns are considered to be sacred objects, although only singing is viewed as "music." Music serves as a vehicle of possession, social bonding, Political oratory, therapy, cultural transmission, and recreation.

Medicine. Most curers also are religious practitioners. They employ herbal remedies (including tobacco), sorcery, and magic. The introduction of Western medicine has been systematically promoted by missionaries but only erratically promoted by the Indonesian government. Earlier Dutch programs were deemed superior.

Death and Afterlife. Virtually all sickness and death is attributed to spiritual intervention or cosmic imbalance. Such imbalance leads to vulnerability. Upon death, family and close friends grieve openly and intensively for several hours, flinging themselves down and rolling in the mud of the river-bank. Mud is believed to mask the scent of the living from the capricious spirit of the dead. The body traditionally was bound in pandanus leaves, placed on a platform, and left to decay. Relatives retrieved certain bones; the skull of one's mother often was worn on a string around the neck or used as a pillow. The spirits of the dead enter safan, "the other side." Most Asmat now rely upon burial, with some deaths accompanied by Christian funerals.

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