Mailu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mailu indigenous beliefs hold that a culture hero, called Tau or Samadulele, sailed with his mother from out of the West, bringing with him the pigs, sago, coconut, and betel nuts that form the core of Mailu economy and ceremonial life. However, outside of the chants performed during the "Govi Maduna," the largest ceremony performed by Mailu, the importance of this mythological Personage is unclear. Of more direct, day-to-day importance in Mailu ritual life are two classes of spiritual beings. The first, spirits of the ancestors, are benevolent, and they are often consulted for protection and advice. They are held to reside in the skulls of the deceased, which are kept in the houses of their descendants. The second class of spirits are malevolent female beings who take possession of living persons, causing their unwitting hosts to commit murder or destroy property.

Religious Practitioners. All adult males possess some magical knowledge involving the use of herbs, incantations, and special taboos. This magic is used to protect one's Garden, bring good luck in the building of a canoe or the making of tools, ensure a good crop, or other such individual Concerns. Such knowledge is privately held, taught by a father to his sons, and a man will as a rule initiate his wife into this knowledge as well. Magic intended to secure protection for communally important enterprises such as a trading expedition or a big feast is performed by the more important Members of the Community. Sorcerers have private magical knowledge of a more destructive nature, but they are not thought to be anything other than mortal. Their magic permits them to travel unseen at night, during which they try to cause injury and even death to their rivals. Sorcery is believed to be wide-spread within Mailu society.

Ceremonies. The central ceremonial occasion of Mailu life is the Govi Maduna, a great annual pig feast held after the last of the year's trading voyages. The maduna is hosted by the entire village, although its initial sponsors may be drawn from only some of the clans represented therein. Because pigs can be exchanged only during the maduna, a number of other ritually important events are encompassed by it, such as the payment of pigs by the family of a prospective groom to the bride's kin and the assumption of paternal rights to a child. Each of the village's clans is represented by its local headman, who supervises his portion of the feast preparations, solicits contributions of food from his kin, and makes speeches during the festivities. Prior to the big feast, there is a series of lesser feasts of shorter duration and narrower scope—the big feast brings together people from a great many villages, while the lesser ones involve people from a smaller radius. During the course of the smaller feasts, promises of contributions to the upcoming maduna are solicited, and throughout this period wealth is collected to be used in a trading voyage to Aroma territory to get the pigs that will be slaughtered by each clan during the feast.

Arts. Mailu visual arts consist of decorative carvings on house posts, canoes, and a variety of utensils. The designs employed in the decorative arts are similar to those used by the Southern Massim and appear to have originated with them. Songs and dances performed in the Mailu feasts also appear to have originated elsewhere—with the Southern Massim as well as with other neighboring groups. Many of the dances involve mimicking the movements of birds or animals, while others involve the pantomiming of important day-today activities, such as preparing a garden or building a canoe.

Medicine. Illness, always attributed to sorcery, is treated by incantations, massage, and the sucking out of foreign matter (inserted magically by sorcerers) from the body of the patient. Medical practitioners are almost always male, and they charge high fees—payable in armbands and other local forms of wealth—for their services.

Death and Afterlife. Death is assumed to be caused ultimately by the action of a sorcerer. Upon death, two spirits are said to survive the corpse. One spirit departs the body and travels to the southwest where a ladder permits his or her Descent into Biula, a subterranean underworld. The second spirit is thought to reside in the skull of the deceased, and it is this spirit with which a person's survivors communicate when seeking advice or assistance. Initially, the spouse and classificatory siblings of the deceased shave their heads, blacken their skin with burned coconut fiber, put on special armbands and other adornments, and assume mourning dress that conceals the entire body and face. Immediately upon discovery of a death, these close kin set up a wailing lamentation, while less close relatives of the deceased bring coconuts for distribution throughout the village. As soon as possible after a death, the body is washed and decorated and a chant is performed over the corpse in an effort to determine the sorcerer responsible (the corpse is thought to react violently at the naming of the sorcerer's village). As soon as may be after these preparations, the body is buried either under the house of the deceased or in his gardens. If the latter burial is performed, a small mortuary hut is built over the grave. A series of small feasts are held during the ensuing period of mourning, and after about two to three months the body is dug up to retrieve the head, which thereafter is kept in a small basket in the house of the surviving members of the deceased's Household. A final, large-scale mortuary feast is held between six months to a year after the death, often as part of the maduna, where one of the nearest kin (though never the father or the widow of the deceased) performs a dance with the deceased's head. At this time the mortuary hut is destroyed, and the period of public mourning comes to an end.

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