Iatmul - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The men's house is a condensation of Iatmul religion, and it also reveals the connections between clans and their founding ancestors. In former days the house posts were beautifully carved, depicting parts of clan mythology and constituting thereby the foundation not only of the house but, symbolically, of the whole society. The building on the rectangular dancing ground represented the first grass Island floating down the Sepik River as it is described in a myth of world creation. At the same time it represented the first crocodile, the primeval ancestor who emerged from the bottom of the flood. Today, the ground level of the men's house is used in everyday life by initiated men. It contains slit gongs, fireplaces, and sitting platforms as well as ritual objects of minor importance. The upper floor is used mainly for rituals, and the long flutes and other sacred paraphernalia are kept there. Iatmul culture is rich in myths that constitute the ideational background explaining how everything came into being. Myths in Iatmul culture are known by many people but only a few know the names of the actors and of the places. Names range among the highly valued secrets of clans. Myths can become reactivated through rituals, whereby the primeval time becomes the present and the dancing ground and the men's house become the original stage.

Religious Practitioners. The Iatmul acknowledged men and women who gained personal status through their knowledge and use of supernatural powers for healing and as intermediaries with the supernatural world.

Ceremonies. The men's house was the focus of different types of rituals: initiation, celebration of successful headhunting raids, performances by masked figures, and celebrations of death ceremonies for important persons. In initiations boys were scarified, receiving the distinctive marks of a crocodile, the symbol of a ritually mature man.

Arts. Iatmul art is well known for its superb carvings, which were usually painted in a curvilinear style. Almost all art objects were used in ritual contexts and only through such use did they receive meaning. Also famous are the skulls overmodeled with clay and then painted. Apart from such preservable artifacts, Iatmul art consists of ephemeral art, such as body painting and decorations made of leaves, flowers, and feathers.

Medicine. Illness and difficult childbirths were treated with spells designed to invoke the powers of ancestors or Supernatural forces such as the sun or moon. Healing often focused on symbolically casting off the illness.

Death and Afterlife. Legitimation of the present out of the past was accomplished through the preservation of relics (bones) of ancestors and through eating scrapings from them. Death meant crossing the border between the present and the past. The corpse was handled only by women. If the deceased had been an important man or woman, a Representational figure was erected and his or her merits displayed. Occasionally after interment the skull was exhumed, modeled over with clay, and then installed during a special ceremony as an influential ancestor. Ghosts of recently dead relatives are relevant in shamanic seances as mediators between the living and the dead.

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