Mejbrat - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Mejbrat conceive of the earth as a flat disk, at the center of which is a large island. People live on the top of this island, while spirits live on its other side. Communication between these two worlds takes place at "places of emergence" through which spirits can pass. Each of the Mejbrat settlement territories has a mythological charter, or myth of origin, associated with one of these places of Emergence: through this site the founding dema or spirit woman arose with her consort to create the physical world known to humans. This concept of the dema is not, however, a simple one: the dema is variously understood to be a local founding spirit, a sort of unifying principle (called, in this instance, "Ratu"), or a guiding spirit for human mechar (magical and ritual) experts. Many Mejbrat beliefs are couched in terms of complementary principles: hot and cold, female and male, slowly growing and active. Magical items (particularly small round stones) are selected for the way in which, through their color or shape, they suggest one or another of these principles.

Religious Practitíoners. All adults, both men and women, are ritual practitioners to some degree in their obligations during the initiations of Mejbrat youths and girls. Only women appear eligible to act as mechar experts, however—perhaps because much of their skill involves the invoking of and conversing with the female dema spirits. Mechar experts appear in rituals as female transvestites and practice divination.

Arts. There is little information on Mejbrat arts. Women embroider bark cloth with designs taken from the patterns found on the imported cloths that constitute the bulk of Mejbrat wealth. Songs and dances are important elements of the feast cycle.

Medicine. All illnesses and deaths are thought to derive from an imbalance occurring between the principles of "hot" and "cold" that may be the result of active intervention by witches or of violations of taboos. A cure requires divination to discover the cause of the problem, and if the problem is deemed attributable to witchcraft, a course of countermagic may be followed. Otherwise, the application of ritual objects or of "hot" or "cold" herbs or foods will be attempted in order to reinstate the proper balance and thus to bring about a cure.

Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, Mejbrat believe that his or her spirit travels below the ground to reunite with the dema of the region. Details of funerary practice are sketchy, but it is clear that the responsibility for proper burial ritual, including the giving of a burial feast, falls to the son of the deceased and that this son is given the skull to retain after the rituals are completed. Failure to properly carry out the appropriate funerary rituals results in the spirit of the dead leaving the territory and joining his or her dema, unleashing the possibility of misfortune upon the living.

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