Telefolmin - Religion and Expressive Culture

Since the late 1970s the majority of Telefolmin practice a local version of Baptist Christianity. Some older men, and Especially the villagers of Telefolip, however, adhere to traditional religious practices.

Religious Beliefs. Traditional ritual knowledge is partitioned along lines of sex, age, and ritual moiety affiliation; cult secrecy is highly developed, with the result that there is great variation in belief. The division in cult lore parallels a ritual division of labor, with the Taro moiety responsible for life promoting (gardening, pig rearing) while the Arrow Moiety is responsible for life taking (warfare and hunting). The two most important cosmological figures are Afek and Magalim, the Bush Spirit. Afek founded Telefol culture and the men's cult, and she left a legacy of myths and rituals. She is closely identified with the central cult house at Telefolip, which is held to govern the fertility of taro gardens throughout the region. But while Afek died long ago, Magalim continues to play an active role in Telefol life by disrupting the expected pattern of things. Christians espouse belief in God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, who intervenes in human affairs through mediums. Although many beliefs surrounding Afek seem to have been relegated to the past, Magalim remains active in Telefol thought. He is capable of assuming many forms, including posing as the Holy Spirit, and he is often interpreted by Christians as a manifestation of the devil.

Religious Practitioners. Ritual experts officiated in the men's cult on the basis of esoteric knowledge; outside of the cult, seers or diviners diagnosed illness and sorcery. Nowadays village churches are presided over by pastors, and a number of women act as diviners and mediums for the Holy Spirit. Sorcerers are feared, are almost always unidentified, and are generally thought to belong to other Telefol villages.

Ceremonies. Traditional religion revolves around a complex series of male initiations. Senior rites were performed at Telefolip, where they have recently been revived after a long hiatus. All Telefolmin, pagan or Christian, also celebrate Christmas, which coincides with the return of mine workers to their home villages for the holidays.

Arts. Carved and painted shields and house boards are the most prominent forms of visual art. Men's arrow shafts are often intricately carved and sometimes painted, and women's net bags are locally renowned for their quality. Although some individuals are better at these things than others, no craft specialization exists apart from the sexual division of labor.

Medicine. Minor ailments are treated by heating the body with warm stones, rubbing with nettles, and avoiding foods thought responsible for a particular complaint. More serious illnesses are attributed to sorcery, violation of food taboos, cult spirits punishing misconduct, attacks by the Bush Spirit (Magalim) or, nowadays, the Holy Spirit. Such matters were usually determined by diviners; since the Rebaibal, female mediums also diagnose illness and often prescribe a course of treatment involving prayer and changes in the patient's pattern of activities. Most villages are also in close proximity to rural aid posts where routine problems are dealt with. More difficult cases are brought to the government hospital or the Baptist maternity clinic.

Death and Afterlife. Burial was by exposure on a raised platform, often in or near a garden of the deceased. Traditional ideas hold that ghosts depart for an underground land of the dead, where they have no further contact with the living. Those killed in warfare, however, were inimical to the living and returned as fruit bats to raid gardens. In addition, the bones of noted warriors, gardeners, and pig rearers were retrieved as men's cult relics. These relics were the locus of the spirits who voluntarily remained among the living to promote village welfare in return for pig sacrifices and the observance of food taboos. The Australian administration prohibited exposure burial in the 1950s, and since then Telefolmin have buried their dead in village cemeteries. Contemporary beliefs assign the souls of pagans to the traditional land of the dead, while Christians go to heaven.

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