Murik - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. The indigenous religion is based on a multiplicity of local spirits who are instrumental in causing illness and death, in inspiring homicidal rage during headhunting and warfare, and in acting as individual guardians. Ancestor spirits maintain a continuous relationship with the world of the living and point out flaws in social life by making ill some member of the transgressor's family. Ceremonies to propitiate spirits and to ensure the vitality of the community are performed by the men's and women's secret societies. Present-day Christianity is practiced in a syncretic form and was originally accepted as a potential means to domination of Others by providing access to a superior source of sacred power.

Religious Practitioners. Individuals learn, usually from a parent, special magic spells for effecting dream travel, weather control, healing, etc. Sexual prowess and strength in fighting are acquired from spirits who inhabit carved figures and masks on ritual occasions. Access is regulated through initiation into the secret societies of men and women. Some individuals are susceptible to possession by various kinds of spirits.

Ceremonies. There is an extensive series of life-cycle Rituals, only some of which are observed for any one individual. Rituals celebrating specific first accomplishments are opportunities for establishing descent-group claims and are most often performed for firstborns. The four stages of initiation into the secret society of men or of women, retirement from the position of descent-group leader, mourning, and the end of mourning are other opportunities to reinforce or change descent-group affiliations. Other ceremonial occasions include consecration of domestic and cult houses and canoe launching.

Arts. Murik men make many kinds of carved wooden objects and body decorations of woven fiber, shell, and animal teeth. An elaborate series of fantastic spirit figure costumes is owned, made, and displayed by the age grades of the men's secret society. Murik women achieve regional reputations for their skill in weaving twill-plaited bags. Formerly they also wove large sleeping bags that had room for several people in them.

Medicine. The Murik attribute most illnesses to social causes, which means therefore that they have social remedies. Following diagnosis, symptoms are treated through herbal remedies or bloodletting; however, illness recurs if the social cause is not addressed. Malaria, colds, and headache are so common that they are not diagnosed as social ailments but are presumed to be caused by overwork and exposure. Aspirin is valued as a general remedy. Other forms of Western treatment are sought only after traditional remedies have failed.

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to result from Social causes. It is considered appropriate for old people, who have indicated their willingness to leave the realm of the living by asking that their particular basket be woven. Death is always an occasion for sorrow and loneliness, but when a child or an adult in the prime of life dies, the reaction is one of rage and sorcery is suspected. Death, fainting, and dreaming are evidence that the soul ( nabran ) has left the body. Upon death the soul hovers near close kin and may try to lure them away to the realm of the dead by offering food in a dream. Therefore, mourners are in a polluted state and do not cook or obtain foodstuffs. At the end-of-mourning ceremony the soul becomes an ancestor, sent away to a permanent dwelling place among the mangroves where other deceased members of the descent group reside. As an ancestor, it is propitiated for assistance, and it oversees the conduct of Social affairs.

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