Melpa - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Everyday religion in the past was centered on the family, lineage, and clan ghosts, to whom pork sacrifices were made in cases of sickness and at times of Political danger (e.g., prior to warfare). In addition, circulating cults moved through the area, exported from group to group. Nowadays, many Melpa are members of various Christian churches in the area.

Religious Practitioners. Religious experts ( mön wö ) were significant in both local and circulating cults. They were both curers and intercessors between people and spirits. Some learned from their fathers, others by apprenticeship to existing experts. Women could become mediums possessed by spirits and able to reveal secrets.

Ceremonies. The climactic ceremonies of the circulating cults were impressive public affairs, in which the male participants danced out from the cult enclosure and distributed pork to hundreds of guests.

Arts. Self-decoration was, and is, an art and a major preOccupation of the people at festival times, both for cults and for moka exchanges. Other arts include the composition and performance of courting songs, laments, and songs for Ceremonies, the playing of flutes and Jew's harps, and the chanting of epics.

Medicine. The mön wö knew ranges of spells to cure Sickness. Adults in general were acquainted with a small number of herbal remedies. Often sickness was attributed to moral causes. Wrongdoing within the group was thought to bring an unfavorable reaction both from ghosts and from the group "mi," a sacred object or creature associated with the group's origins. For these spirits indigenous sacrifices had to be made. Nowadays, people make prayers in the Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Seventh-Day Adventist) for sickness, and they visit hospitals and aid posts for pragmatic treatment. Mön wö still practice their art, however.

Death and Afterlife. Death is marked by elaborate mourning and later by a funeral feast with special emphasis on gifts to maternal kin. Formerly, the corpse was exposed and after a while its bones were removed for use in shrines; nowadays, bodies are buried. Traditionally the dead are thought to travel down watercourses to a place in the lowlying northern Jimi Valley called "Mötamb Lip Pana." Spirits of the dead are believed to come back in dreams, however, and to continually influence the living with their benevolent or malevolent presence. Small skull houses were constructed in the past for personal sacrifices. Nowadays, many people are baptized and few maintain skull houses, but belief in the activities of spirits continues to influence people's interpretations of events, and indigenous notions underlie many Christian practices.

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