Malaita - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The precolonial religious system on Malaita centered on the propitiation of ancestral spirits ( akalo, agalo, adalo ) through the consecration and sacrifice of pigs. Each descent group had one or more focal shrines where Religious officiants sacrificed; hierarchies of shrines and Priesthoods marked higher levels of segmentary connection Between groups and bonds to common ancient ancestors. In communities with maritime orientations (Lau, Langalanga, Maramasike), sharks were seen as spirits and were accordingly propitiated. Some Malaita peoples, particularly those in the north and south with maritime orientations, had extensively elaborated cosmologies positing multiple levels of creation and elaborated bodies of myth. Cosmologies and myth were less developed in bush areas, especially in central Malaita. Divination, dreams, and omens provided daily communication with the spirits. When displeased with their descendants, the ancestral shades visited sickness and death on the living; when pleased, they supported and protected them from malevolent "wild" spirits and empowered their efforts (in Production and violent deeds) by "mana-izing" them. [In Malaita languages, cognates of mana were used mainly verbally: "be effective, be potent, be true, be realized" and (speaking of or to ancestors) "support, empower." They were also used as verbal nouns, such as "mana-ness," "manaization," or "truth."] The sacred ( abu ) men's houses and shrines where men symbolically gave birth to spirits through mortuary rites were a mirror image of the dangerous (abu) menstrual huts and childbirth areas where women gave birth to infants, a cosmological scheme that was mapped in the spatial layout of settlements. The traditional religious system functions still in pockets of pagan settlement, particularly the mountainous Kwaio and 'Are'are interiors. Elsewhere on Malaita, Christianity (principally the South Sea Evangelical, Catholic, Anglican, and Adventist churches) holds sway. Fundamentalist Christians, in particular, see themselves as being in continuous struggle with the ancestors that are viewed as manifestations of Satan.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally kin groups had "priests" (in North Malaita, fataabu ) who took primary responsibility for conducting sacrifices and other rites and maintaining relations with the spirits. Divinitory powers were believed to be quite commonly distributed, but certain Persons were thought to have extraordinary powers and were widely sought.

Ceremonies. The death of an important or sacred person plunged a descent group into an intense and dangerous Communication with the dead. This liminal separation from other living people was gradually ended by rites of desacralization and an eventual mortuary feast (north Malaita maoma, Kwaio omea), which was also an occasion for largess and competition involving large-scale exchanges of prestations (particularly shell valuables and pigs) in the fulfillment of kinship obligation.

Arts. The most notable artistic achievement on Malaita consisted of panpipe music, with orchestras of eight or more musicians playing matched sets of scaled pipes. The contrapuntal structures of this music are beautiful and complex, using as many as seven or eight melodic voices. In some genres, the panpipers accompanied formations of dancers, and they themselves performed intricate movements while piping. Another noteworthy musical genre is epic chanting, in which deeds of ancestors are recounted with harmonized accompaniments. Other musical forms include stamping tubes, Jew's harps, and other flute varieties. The most striking graphic arts took the form of bodily ornaments—women's heirloom jewelry (chest pendants, nose sticks, earrings, necklaces), intricately plated ornamental combs worn by men, arm shells, chest pendants, belts, and bandoliers. Weapons, batons, betel mortars, bowls, and other items were carved and/or decorated with nautilus inlay.

Medicine. Magic was highly elaborated, and it followed the sharp cultural separation between productive and destructive powers. Gardening, feast giving, fishing, fighting, and stealing all called for elaborate magic.

Death and Afterlife. Throughout Malaita, the souls of the dead were believed to travel to the land of the dead (associated with a small island off the northwestern tip of Malaita), while their shades hovered about the community, propitiated by the consecration of pigs and placated by purificatory Sacrifice. The shades of the dead monitored the strict pollution taboos that compartmentalized menstruation and childbirth and sharply separated men's and women's realms, and they also supervised the strict observance of ritual procedures.

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