Tasmanians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Tasmanian religious beliefs focused on ghosts and their influence on the affairs of the living. While they might occasionally be considered beneficial, spirits of the dead were mostly feared and thought to be the source of much harm and suffering. Consequently, burial spots were avoided and the names of the dead tabooed. They also believed in categories of spirits more powerful than ghosts, including a thunder demon, a moon spirit, and harmful spirits who occupied dark places such as caves and tree trunks. Magic and witchcraft were important and death and sickness were always attributed to the action of evil spirits or witchcraft. The bones of the dead and certain stones were believed to be imbued with protective, curative, or malevolent powers.

Ceremonies. Community dances were an important form of social, religious and artistic expression. Men danced until collapse, while women kept time with sticks and rolled-bark drums. Religious dances were open only to the men; women evidently had secret dances of their own emphasizing women's activities such as digging roots or nursing infants. The initiation ceremony for boys and the age-grade ceremonies were of considerable social importance. Ceremonies marking birth and marriage are unreported, although death was marked as discussed below.

Religious Practitioners. Part-time shamans used bleeding, sucking, baths, massage, and vegetal remedies to cure illness or treat injuries. They also relied on the supernatural, which they reached through possession trance and a rattle made from a dead man's bones.

Arts. In addition to dances, the Tasmanians decorated trees and their huts with charcoal figures of people and objects and sang of the heroic deeds of the singers and their ancestors. The most elaborate form of artistic expression was reserved for body adornment. Men colored their hair and skin with charcoal, clay, and grease and both sexes wore colored feathers and flowers in their hair. Both sexes also scarified their extremities and rubbed charcoal in to produce rows of dark scars.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased was disposed of as quickly as possible, usually by cremation and then burial of the bones and ashes, although some bones might be retained to be worn by relatives. During the night of the burial, the entire community assembled around the grave, where they sat and wailed until dawn. Widows cut and burned their bodies and cut off their hair and placed it on the grave. Each person was believed to have a soul which lived on after death as a ghost. The afterworld was though to be much like the real world, except for the absence of evil.

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