Guadalcanal - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Each of the five matrilineal clans derives its charter from stipulated descent from one of the five sons of the culture heroine, Koevasi, who is said to have created the first humans. Each clan has three classes of spirits—spirits of the dead, shark spirits, and snake spirits—all possessing nanama, which is a power that can be exerted by them on behalf of the living. Such intervention is sought through sacrifices to the shrine of one or another of these spirit types, and each has associated with it certain food taboos and restrictions as to who may be present at the sacrifice. One particular class of the spirits of the dead—warrior spirits—influenced success or failure in war, while all other ancestral spirits were primarily involved in maintaining the health of their living descendants. The assistance of shark spirits was sought in circumstances to do with fishing or overseas trading expeditions, and snake spirits were particularly helpful with regard to gardening. Ancestral spirits could be invoked by sorcerers to cause death or illness in others, as well as to remove the death or sickness spells cast by others. Christian beliefs and practices were introduced by Anglican missionaries in 1912, and the church has had no little success, although early efforts at missionizing went a bit astray—an attempt to translate the Book of Common Prayer into the Kaoka language in 1916 was received as gibberish. Today, however, both Christian converts and non-Christians tend to hold both the introduced religion and the indigenous one as valid, and there is a tendency to fit Christian teachings into traditional terms.

Religious Practitioners. Each shrine had a priest, knowledgeable in its specific taboos and procedures, to whom Others of the clan or subclan would turn to conduct sacrifices or for divination. Magic and sorcery were practiced not by such priests but by men of the community to whom the ritual knowledge had been taught by paternal kin (for curative, agricultural, and fishing magic) or received from a clan relative (for death or sickness sorcery). Any effective headman was considered capable of casting spells, for it was held that his success was contingent upon access to the spirits' nanama.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial feasts were held on the occasion of weddings and funerals, as well as to celebrate a birth or the construction of a new house or canoe. Each householder in the subclan holding the feast contributes as much surplus garden produce and pigs as he can, for it is his largess on these occasions that gain him prestige and influence in the Community. The planting of crops involves the use of garden magic, and invoking the assistance of spirits calls for a sacrifice, Usually of a pig.

Arts. Animal ballets are often performed during the course of feasts. The composition of such ballets is determined by specialized choreographers and performed by skilled local dancers, always male. On the coast, only choral music accompanies the dances, but in the interior there are also orchestras of panpipes. Women have dances as well, although these are not associated with celebrations and consist simply of a shuffling circular movement to the accompaniment of a chorus.

Medicine. Disease and death were held to be caused by sorcery, for the most part, although they were believed also to result from the direct displeasure of spirits without the involvement of humans—in the case of taboo violations, for example. Treatment for illness required the assistance of a Magical specialist, who through divination would attempt to determine the cause of the sickness and the appropriate curative procedures.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional religion held that one's deceased ancestors still could be petitioned by the living through the intervention of nanama, and mortuary practices reflect that belief. At the death of an individual, close kin gather to host a meal for the rest of the village. Burial practice varies according to subclan tradition and other factors and includes burial at sea, exposure of the corpse, and interment in the floor of the deceased's dwelling; this last is the most common. For two or three months the deceased's nearest kin observe a number of taboos, and villagers respectfully refrain from loud or boisterous behavior to avoid giving the appearance of taking pleasure in the death and thus giving rise to suspicions of sorcery. When enough time has passed and decomposition of the body is sufficiently advanced to permit the removal of the skull, the chief heir secures the services of a ritual expert to take and clean the head, which is then hung under the eaves of the house. A series of ritual payments have been exchanged between the kin of the surviving spouse and the kin of the deceased, and the deceased's clothing is burned by his or her brother or nephew. A feast is held to mark the end of the mourning period. The skull is then installed in the hamlet shrine and a small pig is sacrificed to the spirit of the dead person, which remains in the vicinity to Influence the affairs of his or her survivors and descendants.

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