Selepet - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The central concepts of Selepet religion were power and control, and these ideas were the exclusive concern of men. Power existed apart from men, so that they continually sought to increase their power, either supernaturally from snakes or by keeping artifacts formerly belonging to powerful ancestors. Men maintained control over people through the exchange system, since every gift put the recipient under an obligation to reciprocate when called upon. This obligation was true of the dead as well as the living. The body of a deceased man was buried vertically under the men's house with the top of the head exposed. This enabled people to rub his skull, remind him of his kinship obligations, and ask for prosperity. Eventually two very powerful men died, and their survivors carved wooden statues to represent them. Food was placed at the feet of the statues and the ancestors were implored to bless the living with fertility and prosperity. This custom became ritualized and spread throughout the Selepet villages. When the missionaries arrived with a superior material culture, the people assumed that they too obtained their prosperity from ancestors by the correct manipulation of secret ritual. This belief was confirmed by the reference in the New Testament book of Colossians to the secret that God kept hidden through the ages and only recently revealed to his people, which the Selepet people understood to be the missionaries. The discovery of that secret became life's greatest concern. Culture heroes supplied the people with their material culture and all the requisite knowledge. When they died, various useful plants grew from their bodies. Malevolent spirits inhabit springs, deep pools, caves, cliffs, and other unusual land formations. When encountered or offended, they cause psychological disorders and unusual diseases. Because the Christian God is a spirit, people assume that when he is offended he too causes psychological disorders and serious diseases.

Religious Practitioners. All men performed rituals, but only the most successful became recognized practitioners. In addition to serving the community by performing rites ensuring fertility, they also practiced curative rites, divination, and sorcery. Thus they were both feared and respected. When the Lutheran missionaries arrived in Papua New Guinea, they faced scores of hostile peoples speaking mutually unintelligible languages. Therefore, they attempted to unify all the hinterland peoples by teaching them a common language; the language they chose was Kotte (Kâte), one of two languages they first encountered. Since the women were automatically excluded from significant participation in the religious rites, only the men received education in Kotte to perform the new rituals and learn the secrets. This process resulted in Christianity being regarded as having a secret knowledge parallel to that of the traditional religion.

Ceremonies. The practitioners used to lead in the performance of numerous ceremonies to increase fertility. Today pastors lead in Christian ceremonies based upon the New Testament verses concerning God blessing his people. Elaborate dances used to be held to increase fertility or to celebrate a victory, but today dances are primarily social events.

Arts. There was little art apart from the highly decorated headdresses worn by the men during the ritual dances.

Medicine. Illness was thought to be caused by malevolent spirits or sorcery. Although the malevolent spirits could be tricked and eluded, people who were harmed by them were considered to be incurable. Sorcery, however, could be rendered harmless by the practitioner performing the appropriate ritual.

Death and Afterlife. Death enhances a person's function in society. Initially, a person's ghost carries out vengeance upon those who have not fulfilled their kinship obligations, but eventually the deceased are able to aid their survivors by providing fertility and prosperity.

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