Wape - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. All things are believed to have a spirit. When in distress, one calls to a strong ancestor, often a dead father, for help. The spirits of the recently dead and demons are especially dangerous. The introduced Western religions have many nominal adherents but, because the indigenous religious beliefs are anchored in an extensive exchange system that establishes one's worth, the two belief systems comfortably coexist in the thinking of most Wape. While belief in an omnipotent Christian God might be acknowledged, he seems far removed and irrelevant to most Wape crises.

Religious Practitioners. Indigenous curers are known as numoin and wobif. The former is a feared shaman-witch with magical powers to both kill and cure, who is said also to have the power to become invisible and to fly. Although no longer trained by the Wape, the numoin sometimes uses the services of those who live in the societies south of the Wape. The wobif, whose powers are more benign, is expert at massage and sucking out bad blood and bits of tabooed food that cause illness. The glasman, a Tok Pisin word, is a more recent type of practitioner who is clairvoyant, a diagnostician with second sight but with no curing skills. All three types of Practitioners receive nominal payments.

Ceremonies. There are no important puberty or marital rites but curing festivals are of great social significance, sometimes bringing together many hundreds of people from diverse villages. The spirit fish-curing festival is the largest and most important of these. It is held in stages by each village every few years and involves an extensive network of economic exchanges among the relatives of the host village. The mani festival is second in social importance and is held either to treat disease or to promote successful hunting.

Arts. Dancing and most music are associated with curing festivals. Dancing, restricted to females and youths, is mostly a shuffling step circling the dance plaza to the beat of the booming slit gongs and hand-held dance drums. Chants are melodically restricted to a few notes and sung by both sexes at the curing festivals and by men at hunting festivals. Masks of various shapes are constructed and painted with designs for curing and hunting festivals. Women also compose words to a traditional chant lamenting their departure from their natal village at marriage, and these songs are later sung by both men and women when they are relaxing or at work.

Medicine. Various plants—for example, ginger and stinging nettles—are used in the Wape pharmacopoeia; however, as all serious illness has a supernatural cause—frequently, the intrusion of demons—exorcism is of greater importance in effecting a cure. Western medicine and procedures administered at medical aide posts and the hospital in Lumi also are popular as treatments, but they are mostly utilized after indigenous exorcisms or other procedures have been performed and are rarely given credit for a cure.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the spirit leaves the body via the anus and becomes a rapacious ghost who eventually retires to his lineage lands as a protective vengeful spirit. Traditionally the body was smoked in the village for many days while attended by mourners night and day, then finally buried. Today, by government law, the body is buried the day of the death but relatives still come from surrounding villages to mourn.

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