Wantoat - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. A complex mythology, comprised of three major tenets, accounts for the origin of the people and their culture. First, the center of creation for all the peoples of the world, including the more recently encountered Europeans and Japanese, is the Wantoat Valley. Second, at the time of creation the gods provided the people with all the necessary plant and animal life, all the elements of culture, and, most importantly, all the knowledge necessary for their use. No cultural trait or artifact, or the knowledge of its use, has a human origin. Included were sacred stones from which one could through ritual draw power for fertility, healing, and success. Third, because all the other peoples migrated out of the valley, the Wantoat people alone became the chosen people and the repository of the knowledge and rituals by which one maintained life and enjoyed its material benefits. This belief system, however, was somewhat shaken by contact with Western peoples. When the Europeans arrived with an obviously superior material culture, the Wantoat people wished to acquire the knowledge by which they could enjoy the same material culture and standard of living. When they failed to grasp the concepts that the Europeans attempted to teach them, they assumed that the Europeans were withholding knowledge of the secret rituals that accounted for their wealth. Life became centered on the quest for these secrets. A creator god retreated to the sun and maintained contact via insects. Yam gardens were dedicated to it and rats were sacrificed. Culture heroes supplied the people with their culture, and when they died, various useful and edible plants grew from their bodies. Today malevolent spirits inhabit springs, deep pools, and other unusual physical features.

Religious Practitioners. The men formed a male cult from which the women were excluded. Ritual knowledge was relegated to the men, and the more successful cult members became the practitioners who performed sorcery as well as fertility and curative rites. When missionaries introduced the Christian religion, it was readily assumed that it would be the men who would be educated to perform the new rituals and learn the secrets.

Ceremonies. Many ceremonies related to the productivity of the gardens which were planted on steeply terraced slopes and so were always in danger of being washed away by heavy rains. Every few years, as many as 3,000 people would gather to witness a distinctive Wantoat ceremony, the breaching of the dams. The men would build more than thirty shallow dams along an ascending mountain ridge for several hundred feet, and with precise timing they would breach the dams in sequence to form a cascade of water. Other fertility ceremonies involving the use of sacred stones and the reenactment of creation legends were performed when the gardens were planted.

Arts. Traditionally, there was little art apart from the elaborately painted bark-covered bamboo frames carried on the backs of men in the cultic dances. These works of art either decayed or were destroyed when the ceremonies were over, so that new ones had to be built each year. Today, musical instruments are few. The cadence for the dances is maintained by the men with hand-held drums. Panpipes used to be blown during the horticultural rituals.

Medicine. Major illness was thought to be caused by either sorcery or by offended malevolent spirits. Sorcery was rendered harmless by the practitioner performing the appropriate ritual. Evil spirits could be either tricked or placated. When Christianity was introduced, people often regarded illness as punishment by God.

Death and Afterlife. According to traditional beliefs, at birth every person receives as his or her personality a particle of creative force from a general reservoir. After death, this particle becomes an ancestral spirit, then a spirit of the dead, and then it returns to the reservoir to be directed to another person as another personality. To increase the potency of their own particles, a person's surviving relatives used to exhume the skull of the deceased and keep it on a shelf at the back of the house. Under the influence of Christianity, the people now bury their dead in cemeteries.

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