Pentecost - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The vast majority of ni-Vanuatu today are Christians affiliated with Protestant and Catholic denominations, although beliefs and practices involve novel reworkings of both Christianity and ancestral religion. In the past, religion centered on the sacred character of ancestors. The Sa speakers thought their ancestors were primordial creator beings responsible for the natural and the social world. There was no easy translation of these beliefs into monotheistic Christianity. The ancestors are thought still to exert a continual influence in the world of the living, and the living are often engaged in attempts to please or placate remote or Recent ancestors. The graded society is predicated on a desire to approach a state of ancestral power. As well as the supernatural powers credited to the dead and the living, other supernatural entities are thought to exist. In south Pentecost, these include the spirits of uncultivated ancestral groves, spirits of the men's houses, dwarf spirits inhabiting the forest and river-beds, and a kind of ogre with a special appetite for young children.

Religious Practitioners. Ancestral religion employed some part-time specialists, including priests of agricultural fertility, weather, and war, as well as sorcerers and diviners. Despite the influence of Christianity, priests and sorcerers are still identified, even in Christian communities. They have been complemented by Christian ritual specialists—priests, ministers, and deacons, who are for the most part also men.

Ceremonies. The major traditional ceremonies are birth, circumcision, marriage, grade taking, and death. Of these circumcision and grade taking are by far the most spectacular and protracted. In addition there is the unique rite of land diving, performed annually at the time of the yam harvest. This has become a major tourist spectacle. In popular representation the athletic aspect of diving from a 100-foot tower is emphasized, but the religous aspect is paramount for the Sa speakers, and there is thought to be a direct link between the success of the dive and the quality of the yam harvest. Young men who so desire do the diving, from platforms at increasing heights with lianas tied to their ankles to arrest their fall. The construction and ritual supervision involves older men. Women are not allowed to observe the tower until they dance underneath it on the day of the diving, although myth credits a woman with being the first to devise the practice.

Arts. The major artistic expressions are woven mats and baskets, body decoration, ephemeral ceremonial structures, and, in the past, masks. Musical instruments include plain slit gongs, reed panpipes, and bamboo flutes. Guitars and ukuleles are also played, and local compositions are much influenced by the string-band music heard on radio and cassettes. Music and dance are central to most ceremonies and are constantly being composed and reinterpreted. There is also a huge corpus of myths that are a source of aesthetic delight and are often accompanied by songs.

Medicine. In the past many illnesses were seen as ancestral vengeance for the breaking of rules of sexual and rank segregation. This sometimes took the form of spirit possession requiring exorcism. Other remedies included curative spells, amulets, and the use of a wide pharmacopoeia of herbs and clays. Medicine was often administered within the Household, but if the treatment was unsuccessful the help of diviners might be sought. People are eclectic in integrating traditional and Western medicine, and they will typically try both. There are local dispensaries and some health centers run by missions or the state, and increasingly women are giving birth there. Chronic or serious illness requires removal to a hospital in Santo or Port Vila.

Death and Afterlife. Death is usually seen as the result of attack by ancestors or sorcerers. Close kin cluster in the house of the dying person and stroke him or her, wailing the mourning chant. The body of the deceased is wrapped in Ritual finery and mats and then buried (previously below the house but now outside the village). At death crucial prestations are made to the mother's brother and other matrilateral kin. Mourning consists of dress and food restrictions, which are progressively relaxed until a feast is held on the hundredth day. On the twentieth day the spirit of the dead person is thought to run down the mountain range in the middle of the island and jump through a black cave into Lonwe, the subterranean village of the dead. There all is heavenly: food comes without work, there are constant beautiful melodies to dance to, and sweet perfumes fill the air.

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