Garia - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditional Garia religion was regarded as the cornerstone of the universe, an essential background to all social and technological activities. A pantheon of gods and goddesses was posited. These deities were believed to have shaped the physical environment, created human beings, and invented social and material culture. According to myths, after teaching people how to make things and engage in social affairs, the deities disclosed their secret names and the esoteric spells required to invoke their aid in making things happen. These creator deities were believed to live on, in corporeal form, in sanctuaries in the bush. Other entities in the traditional cosmology included hostile demons and personal doubles, who inhabited the bush but associated freely with people and could be either friendly or hostile. Finally, ghosts or spirits of the dead were the ultimate custodians of patrilineage estates, whose role primarily was to protect their living kin. The Garia perceived the relationship between human and superhuman beings as one of reciprocal moral obligations, and they saw religion as the primary operative force in life. Following early, partially successful attempts by Lutheran evangelists to convert the Garia to Christianity, much of this traditional religion was revived during World War II, when cargo cults swept through the area. In these cults, God (like traditional deities) was viewed as the ultimate source of material wealth (Western goods), and, if properly invoked through ritual, He would send these goods from Paradise using spirits of the dead as emissaries. While the cults as such lost favor and had disappeared by 1949, today Garia religion manifests the same kind of syncretic blend of old and new elements.

Religious Practitioners. Ultimately, Garia religion was and is individualistic, with each person required to win the moral commitment and support of the gods through performance of ritual, including invocations and food offerings. For joint undertakings, human and superhuman beings were mobilized through the conduct of ritual by big-men, whose knowledge of myths and spells is regarded as essential.

Ceremonies. During the dry season the most important ceremonies are held in the form of pig exchanges. These might be initiated by only a few people who use them to extend or buttress their security circles. Guests are invited from distant settlements and after an all-night dance to honor their hosts they receive pigs and food the next morning. The pig exchange is the most important occasion for paying ritual honor to the dead, who are also important allies in human affairs. A series of three separate initiation ceremonies marks a male's passage from puberty to marriage, during which he is taught the names and spells required to extend his security circle to include the deities and spirits of the dead. Also, those who are initiated together form special relationships based on this common experience and become members of each others' human security circles, however they may be Otherwise related.

Arts. Ceremony provides the main context for Garia artistic expression, which focuses on: body ornamentation with floral decorations, shell and bone ornaments, and ornate bird-plume headdresses; music, employing hand drums, bamboo stamping tubes, and bamboo flutes; and dancing.

Medicine. The spirits of the dead are major allies in warding off disease and promoting good health, but grave illnesses may also be interpreted as retribution by ghosts or the gods for breaches of taboos. Otherwise illness is generally attributed to sorcery and treated by divination and extraction, skills learned by males during their initiation sequence.

Death and Afterlife. Three lands of the dead are postulated by Garia; while regionally based, they are believed to be supervised by Obomwe, the snake goddess who gave birth to mankind. The life of the dead is thought to replicate the life of the living, with ghosts living in settlements with their kin and visiting living relatives in dreams. If death has resulted from physical violence, the spirit of the deceased is believed to haunt the land of the living in search of revenge. Traditionally, the dead were exposed on tree platforms and the sons of the deceased would collect and preserve their bones as relics. Since the 1920s, under administrative and mission influence, Garia have buried their dead in village cemeteries or in the bush near the land a person was working when he or she died. At funerals, all of the security circle of the deceased assemble and comfort the bereaved as they express respect for the dead and help the soul on its road to the land of the dead. Garia believe that after two or three generations spent in the land of the dead, spirits are transformed into flying foxes (fruit bats) or bush pigeons.

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