Lesu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Lesu religion centered on the use of magic to control virtually all aspects of life. Various types of magic were distinguished, including taro, rain, fishing, shark, war, love, black (to kill), and magic to counteract black magic. Magic was created through the recitation of spells. Under the influence of Christian missionaries, Christian beliefs came to coexist with traditional ones.

Religious Practitioners. Magicians were the ritual specialists. Both men and women could be magicians, though most were men. Magicians were paid for their services and were often the wealthiest and highest-status individuals in the village. Each magician had extensive knowledge of only one type of magic, plus some basic knowledge of medical magic. Magicians thought to practice black magic might be put to death by the relatives of the victim.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies were held for all the major lifecycle events—birth, initiation of boys, first menstruation of girls, marriage, and death. Ceremonies involved dancing, drumming, and feasting. Malanggan rites, which might be conducted separately or, more commonly, as part of the male-initation ceremony, were the most significant ceremonial events.

Arts. As noted above, wood carving, especially of the malanggans, is the most elaborated art form. All rituals are accompanied by dancing, both by men and women, with the former often costumed and masked. More elaborate dances are accompanied by drumming and singing. Body decoration is considered important and takes the form of hair decorations and facial makeup. The Lesu have a rich mythology and repertoire of folktales, many of which are recited or acted out as part of ritual activities.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to either natural causes or magic. The former are treated by healers (men or women) who use plant treatments such as passing leaves over the wound or having the patient chew certain leaves. Illnesses attributed to magic are treated by magicians who seek to counteract the magic.

Death and Afterlife. The Lesu believe in ghosts of the dead who can be called on to assist the living. However, the services of such ghosts do not play a major role in daily life or in religious belief and practice. Death is marked by a ceremony with wailing, dancing, feasting, and gift exchange. The deceased is buried in a coffin in the cemetery. After the burial, various taboos and restrictions disrupt normal activities in the hamlet for some weeks. The higher the social status of the deceased, the more elaborate the rites.

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