Saramaka - Religion and Expressive Culture



The Western category "religion" encompasses every aspect of Saramaka life. Such decisions as where to clear a garden or build a house, whether to undertake a trip, or how to deal with theft or adultery are made in consultation with village deities, ancestors, forest spirits, and snake gods. The means of communication with these powers vary from spirit possession and the consultation of oracle-bundles to the interpretation of dreams. Gods and spirits, which are a constant presence in daily life, are also honored through frequent prayers, libations, feasts, and dances. The rituals surrounding birth, death, and other life crises are extensive, as are those relating to more mundane activities, from hunting a tapir to planting a rice field. Today about 20 percent of Saramaka are nominal Christians—mainly Moravian, but some Roman Catholic and, increasingly, evangelicals of one or another kind.

Religious Beliefs. The Saramaka world is populated by a wide range of supernatural beings, from localized forest spirits and gods that reside in the bodies of snakes, vultures, jaguars, and other animals to ancestors, river gods, and warrior spirits. Within these categories, each supernatural being is named, individualized, and given specific relationships to living people. Intimately involved in the ongoing events of daily life, these beings communicate to humans mainly through divination and spirit possession. Kúnus are the avenging spirits of people or gods who were wronged during their lifetime and who pledge themselves to eternally tormenting the matrilineal descendants and close matrilineal kinsmen of their offender. Much of Saramaka ritual life is devoted to their appeasement. The Saramaka believe that all evil originates in human action: not only does each misfortune, illness, or death stem from a specific past misdeed, but every offense, whether against people or gods, has eventual consequences. The ignoble acts of the dead intrude daily on the lives of the living; any illness or misfortune calls for divination, which quickly reveals the specific past act that caused it. Rites are then performed in which the ancestors speak, the gods dance, and the world is once again made right.

Religious Practitioners. Major village- and clan-owned shrines that serve large numbers of clients, the various categories of possession gods, and various kinds of minor divination are the preserve of individual specialists who supervise rites and pass on their knowledge before death. A large proportion of Saramaka have some kind of specialized ritual expertise, which they occasionally exercise, and for which they are paid in cloth or rum.

Ceremonies. Saramaka ceremonial life is not calendrically determined but rather regulated by the occurrence of misfortune, interpreted through divination. The most important ceremonies include those surrounding funerals and the appeasement of ancestors, public curing rites, rituals in honor of kúnus (in particular snake gods and forest spirits), and the installation of political officials.

Arts. Saramaka life is permeated with aesthetic concerns, and activities from planting a garden to verbal repartee are judged in aesthetic terms. All men are woodcarvers and some are adept at the related art of engraving the exterior surfaces of calabash containers. Women are responsible for the decorative sewing on clothes and the carving of calabash bowls. Body arts include hairstyling and complex cicatrizations. The arts of performance—singing, dance, drumming, tale telling—are widespread and highly appreciated.


Medicine. Every case of illness is believed to have a specific cause that can be determined only through divination. The causes revealed vary from a lineage kúna to sorcery, from a broken taboo to an ancestor's displeasure. Once the cause is known, rites are carried out to appease the offended god or ancestor (or otherwise right the social imbalance). Since the 1960s, Western mission clinics and hospitals have been used by most Saramaka as a supplement to their own healing practices.


Death and Afterlife. The dead play an active role in the lives of the living. Ancestor shrines—several to a village—are the site of frequent prayers and libations, as the dead are consulted about ongoing village problems. A death occasions a series of complex rituals that lasts about a year, culminating in the final passage of the deceased to the status of ancestor. The initial rites, which are carried out over a period of one week to three months depending on the importance of the deceased, end with the burial of the corpse in an elaborately constructed coffin filled with personal belongings. These rites include divination with the coffin (to consult the spirit of the deceased) by carrying it on the heads of two men, feasts for the ancestors, all-night drum/song/dance performances, and the telling of folktales. Some months later, a "second funeral" is conducted to mark the end of the mourning period and to chase the ghost of the deceased from the village forever. These rites involve the largest public gatherings in Saramaka and also include all-night drum/song/dance performances. At their conclusion, the deceased has passed out of the realm of the living into that of the ancestors.


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