Mekeo - Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious experience of most villagers consists of elements drawn from traditional mythological and ritual sources and from Catholicism.

Religious Beliefe. The indigenous myths and rituals are focused upon the spirits of the ancestors and the immortal culture hero, Akaisa. Akaisa gave the people's ancestors all their customs and social institutions. Villagers now also revere the Christian figures of God, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the saints. Many villagers liken Akaisa to a "Mekeo Jesus Christ." In addition to Akaisa, his younger brother, Tsabini, ancestral spirits, and the Christian figures, the Mekeo recognize a separate category of nonhuman, shape-changing bush spirits ( faifai ) associated with particular animal species that live underground or underwater. When disturbed, these spirits can cause villagers to fall ill or human females to give birth to monsters.

Religious Practitioners. Clan chiefs and sorcerers are regarded as the ritual descendants of Akaisa and continue to wield his sacred powers in the performance of their offices. Other practitioners specialize in rituals of hunting, gardening, curing, courting, and so on, on behalf of their Communities. All adult men are competent to perform a variety of secret, inherited rituals vis-à-vis the spirits of their own ancestors. European and indigenous Catholic priests and catechists perform Christian sacraments and ceremonies.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremonies involve the public installation of clan chiefs and sorcerers, burial rites, and the lifting of mourning restrictions for relatives of the deceased. Other rituals attend birth, the first wearing of clothes, male indoctrination, marriage, pregnancy, and homicide. Catholic ceremonies include Mass and the other sacraments and festivals for the village patron saints.

Arts. All Mekeo graphic arts have a distinctive geometric motif. Named designs are represented in the carved insignia of chiefs' houses and clan clubhouses, female body tattoos, ceremonial dress and ornaments, face paint, woven string bags, men's dance drums, wooden weapons, lime gourds, and carved cassowary-bone utensils. Drums and flutes are played by men in traditional courting, but guitars have become popular with contemporary youths. For war chants and dances, spears and bows are banged as rhythm sticks. Magic spells, although secret, and songs of various styles all possess a poetic form.

Medicine. Numerous plant, animal, mineral, and human bodily substances are used by sorcerers and other specialists in effecting ritual changes in their intended victims, whether to make them ill, weak, lazy, fall in love, or die, or to alleviate these conditions. Most medicines are secret, and knowledge of them is passed from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to be the combined result of human and spiritual agency. It is always a social, not just a biological, fact, and it calls for secret revenge by the surviving relatives. Public treatment of the dead is initially Directed toward burial and the expression of grief and loss. Months afterward, the mourning clan's lopia organizes a large feast at which "friends" in other clans are given special gifts of food. In return, the "friends" remove the mourners' pollution and restrictions so they can return safely to the world of the living. The deceased's bodily relics are publicly destroyed at the death feast, but close relatives will secretly keep hair, bones, or teeth for use in ritual and sorcery charms and as a means of communicating with the dead. Death feasts are also important in rearranging the relationships and obligations among the living in the absence of the deceased.

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