Maring - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Central to Maring beliefs is the worship of ancestors. Maring origin myths refer to a group of brothers traveling from the southwest to what is now Maring territory and finding a group of sisters, whom they married. These Marriages gave rise to the current Maring clans. These founding brothers and the spirits of all other ancestors constitute the principal supernatural forces recognized by the Maring. Without the assistance of ancestral spirits there can be no success in gardening, hunting, pig rearing, or warfare. A separate class of ancestral spirits, the rawa mugi, live in a special part of the territory and are the spirits of warriors killed in battle. Other spirits, not ancestral or even of human origin, inhabit the Maring lands, and, along with the rawa mugi, are associated with natural resources or physical attributes of the region. One special spirit (or group of spirits) is the "smoke woman," through whom shamans communicate with the spirit world.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans and fight-magic men are always male, and it is their ritual knowledge, along with the shamans' access to the spirit world through the smoke-woman spirits, that makes them indispensable in preparations for war. The Maring also believe in the existence of sorcerers, who are capable of causing death or illness through magical means and who are identified as men who possess great wealth but are not appropriately generous to others.

Ceremonies. The most well-known of Maring ceremonies is the kaiko, which is in fact a series of ritual events, extended over the course of a year or more, that traditionally terminated with the start of a war. The kaiko has two periods. The first is marked by the planting of stakes around the border of a settlement's land, a procedure that often involves the annexation of abandoned land not previously claimed by the local group. This first period is a time when garden produce is accumulated and work is done to prepare the dance ground. At the start of the second stage, a shaman contacts the smoke woman to gain the approval of the spirit world for the upcoming celebrations. A ritually planted rumbim shrub is uprooted and deposited on the border of the local group's territory along with other ritual objects, and the residential area and dance ground are ritually cleansed. Throughout the kaiko year, the host group sponsors dances to which other groups, linked by kin or trade relations to the host group, are invited. Men and some unmarried women who attend the dances don elaborately ornamented dress, which includes feathered headdresses, fur-trimmed waistbands and loincloths, and face pigments. Performances of stomping dances and of songs go on all night—interrupted at some point in the evening with a feast prepared by the host village—and end at dawn. This celebration is followed by a period of trading between the host group and their invited guests. The songs sung and the foods presented at the feast differ according to the portion of the kaiko year in which the dance is held. The final kaiko feast ( konj kaiko, or pig kaiko) involves the relaxation of food taboos, a series of ritual addresses to the ancestors, and the initiation of such youths of the settlement as are ready to undergo ritual dedication to the rawa mugi. The culmination of the pig kaiko is a huge pig feast, with as many as 100 pigs slaughtered and thousands of pounds of pork distributed among the guests of the host group. During this last stage of the kaiko, individual obligations (such as death payments and compensation for favors or for grants of land) may be fulfilled, and bride-wealth negotiations may be initiated. At the end of the kaiko, any truces that were in effect between hostile groups are terminated, and traditionally this was a time when warfare was quite likely to erupt.

Arts. Maring decorative arts are limited, finding fullest expression in bodily adornment. Dance and song, accompanied by drums, are important in Maring ritual.

Medicine. All illnesses and deaths are held to be the result of purposeful action by another being, whether spirit or human, or the result of the violation of taboos. Certain plants are held to be medically efficacious.

Death and Afterlife. The dead join the ancestral spirits, who are tied to the clan and subclan territories, except in the case of warriors killed in battle, who become rawa mugi and go to dwell in the northern part of Maring territory. When someone dies, the body is left to lie in state for several days, then is exposed on a wooden outdoor platform until the flesh has rotted away and only bones are left. During this time, women maintain a constant vigil to keep away spirits, sorcerers, and animals who might interfere with the body. Some small bones are ultimately claimed by matrilateral female kin, while the remainder of the body is buried in a sacred "grove of the ancestors" and the grave is fenced and planted with rumbim. As a sign of intense mourning, a woman may chop off the joint of a small finger. Australian regulations regarding hygiene have banned the exposure of the corpse in the traditional manner, and the Maring now wrap the body in cloth and place it on a shelf dug out of the wall of the grave, in order to comply with government rules.

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