Sengseng - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefe. Apart from the period immediately after a death, ghosts have little to do with the living, but the landscape, including all deep pools, is inhabited by a variety of spirits of other sorts (called masalai in Pidgin English) who threaten but occasionally help people. The most important are invoked in garden magic to make the crops bear. Numerous taboos surround everyday life. The breach of some is punished by spirits, but often the consequences simply follow automatically. Much apparently religious behavior, such as the treatment of bones of the dead, is only vaguely and inConsistently explained in terms of spiritual beings. Characteristic of all southwest New Britain is the sacralization of fire, which, because it enables people to cook food, is considered to be the basis of human survival. Oaths are sworn on it, it is used to break up fights and to make sites taboo, and it must be treated with respect; serious burns follow breaches of taboo.

Religious Practitioners. Specialists practice garden magic, magic to control the weather, and many types of curing, for which they are paid if they are not working for close kin. A few men claim to be able to injure and kill through Sorcery, but most sorcerers are thought to be anonymous Foreigners, especially Kaulong speakers. Most men know some love magic, minor garden spells, and magic to induce debtors to pay up.

Ceremonies. The most important center on blackening the teeth of adolescent boys (to make them look attractive), the killing of pigs with circular tusks, funerals, and the decoration and honoring of the skulls of dead men. In some Villages, masked figures appear periodically: formerly, they chased and beat women and children, but today, now that violence has been forbidden by the government, they simply collect fines for offenses.

Art. Music, especially song, is the major art form, loved and constantly indulged in by everyone. Decorative arts are minimal; one kind of design is carved on all shields, and another is painted on all bark cloth. At dances, men simply sing, drum, and beat spears against their shields; only women actually dance.

Medicine. All respiratory disease in men is blamed on pollution by females: the people believe that girls and women should never be physically higher than men (i.e., they should never stand over or sit above men). Special cures exist for respiratory conditions and are used by both sexes. Other ailments are blamed on sorcery, breach of a taboo, and soul loss, the last especially if a sleeper is startled awake. Nonmagical cures are used for minor ailments. Western medicine is much desired but usually only available at a distant aid post staffed by a medical orderly paid by the government.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, a woman was strangled and buried with her husband in order to accompany him to the afterlife. Occasionally, a woman was killed to accompany a dead child. Burial was under the floor of the men's house, which continued to be occupied (still the case in Interior villages in 1981). Near the coast, the dead are buried in separate cemeteries, but pigs are still killed, growing taro is cut up, and one or more fruit trees are cut down, all to supply the dead in the afterlife. Most argue that after the ghost, accompanied by other ghosts, reaches the land of the dead in the interior, it shows no further interest in the living, though it may attack and eat any human beings met on the way. But there are contradictory beliefs in ghosts that live in certain places, especially caves, near villages, where they duplicate the activities of the living. Ghosts may also be summoned by rituals, especially one type of garden magic. Sometimes an aspiring leader exhumes a man's skull and holds ceremonies over it. These rituals bring good luck to the people of the settlement, but Sengseng disagree as to whether the ghost is attached to the skull.

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