Motu - Religion and Expressive Culture

The Motu were the first people in mainland Papua New Guinea to receive Christian missionaries, and most Motu are now church members. For some generations, however, Christianity and traditional religious beliefs coexisted.

Religious Beliefs. Motu traditionally believed that their well-being depended on the continued support of their ancestral spirits, who were believed to go after death to a place of plenty over the sea, to the west, but who were thought also to maintain a concern for, and spiritual contact with, their living descendants in the village. Households and iduhu regularly performed mystical rites instituted by their ancestors to promote success in such enterprises as gardening, fishing, and the hiri. The ancestors of a household or iduhu were thought to monitor the behavior of members and to punish misbehavior by inflicting illness or misfortune.

Religious Practitioners. There were no specialist religious practitioners in traditional Motu society, except for diviners who could identify certain illnesses and calamities as punishments for particular infringements of the ancestral code or as the effects of sorcery ( mea ) or witchcraft ( vada ). The Motu believed that, in general, only Koita and other neighboring peoples practiced sorcery and witchcraft, but individual Motu could buy or otherwise enlist their services or skills.

Ceremonies. To gain the ancestors' support or to placate them, Motu traditionally held private ceremonies at the sacred place ( irutahuna ) of a house or canoe. Following the death of an important household member, to ensure a successful transition to the world of ancestral spirits, a series of public ceremonies took place over several years or more, culminating in a major feast with dancing ( turia ) during which the deceased's bones were disinterred.

Arts. Traditionally, Motu women were elaborately tattooed, but the practice has now ceased. Their ceramics (cooking pots, water jars, and food platters) were elegant but plain, with little decoration. Motu achieved their most spectacular artistic expression in their dances in which, with elaborate feather headdresses, brightly painted faces, arm shells and plaited amulets, colorful grass skirts on the women, and elegant perineal bands on the men, they danced in various formations to the percussion rhythms of wooden hourglass drums. Early missionaries viewed Motu dancing as a prelude to sexual abandon, and they forbade it. For some generations, Motu were divided between Christians, who did not dance, and pagans, who did. Although the Christians eventually won, some of the dance forms still survive, but only as cultural relics performed occasionally for tourists or in historical pageants.

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