Malekula - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although people of Seniang and Mewun consider themselves good Presbyterians, they nevertheless share certain beliefs with the unmissionized people of Laus. Essentially, all three groups believe the world is inhabited by spirits, some of whom take on human form temporarily until the death of a person sets the spirit loose again.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men are reputed to be especially clever in magic. Their services are sought to resolve human problems or punish grievances. Traditionally, there was said to be one shaman for each patrilocality. Some women also are said to have great powers to dream and thereby enter the spirit world where they can find ways to cure human illnesses and other problems.

Ceremonies. Ceremonial dances, usually accompanied by giant slit gongs or drums located in village dance areas, are frequently held in Laus. For example, funerary dances, performed with puppets made from cobwebs and clay, are part of the rituals for the dead. Prior to missionization, all three groups had nimangi grading systems. Advancement along the ladder of grades always involved ceremonies, including special dances and pig slaughters, for each level attained. One of the most famous Mewun ceremonies, apparently defunct since missionization, was known as the "Making of Men" ceremony, or "Nogho Tilabwe." Performed periodically, it was believed to increase fertility and preserve the health and strength of the Mewun population. A South West Bay precontact ceremony that has been reworked into local Presbyterian ritual is a yam harvest festival, followed by exchange of yams in memory of the dead. When the first yams are harvested, families decorate them with colorful flowers and leaves before taking them to the local church where they are blessed. After the ceremony, each yam is given to someone who is unrelated to the dead person commemorated by that yam. Since independence, when most missionaries left, Mewun and Seniang people have revived a number of old dances and ceremonies, which they researched among local elders with anthropological zeal and precision.

Arts. Southern Malekula has been praised as a center for exceptionally fine art. Most famous are the rhamberamb, or life-sized funerary statues of the dead, which are prized by museum collectors. While the people of Laus have continually created these and other art objects for ceremonial use, there has also been a renaissance of traditional art objects in Seniang and Mewun since Independence.

Death and Afterlife. All three ethnic groups believe that the spirits of the dead are dangerous influences on the living for a year after the deceased's funeral. Mewun mourn for twelve hours following a death and then take pains not to anger the deceased's troublesome spirit presence. After a year has passed, spirits pass to the land of the dead, which is under the surface of the earth and referred to as "dark Paradise."

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