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Our Global Neighbours: Arousing Elema Spirits

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 06 May 2016

Pieces of remarkable ceremonial tradition in the south coast of Papua New Guinea.

Eharo mask from Papua New Guinea

Eharo mask from Papua New Guinea
Photographer: Carl Bento © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world. 

Contenders in masks, from many villages, dance along the beaches accompanied by their own drummers. Each group would attract its followers. The comical elements of dances provided a light humorous distraction - through rehearsed silly gestures and blunders they make people laugh. It was "maea morava eharu" (things of gladness) - dancing prelude to sacred rituals of the Elema people in Orokolo area in the Gulf of Papua New Guinea.

Ritual? Describing it in few words ought to be deficient. So, here it goes.

It is a ceremonial performance that gives people a set of shared understanding about the world and the group identity. It shows how authority and power is allocated and exercised by its members, imposes particular norms and obligatory behaviour. And it connects the individual in solidarity with the group.

Different types of mask were made for various aspects of ceremonies, but they have decorative elements and symbols linked to totemic animal and specific motifs related to each group. They were, in essence, a part of the process to bond the community together and to renew their union with ancestors. Masks were frequently destroyed and burned after ceremonies.

In his account of the hevehe ritual cycle anthropologist Francis Edgar Williams described how the masks were understood by the Elema people. They held that each mask is an individual spirit with its name. A dancer wearing a mask was made to dance not by his own resolve, but the spirit.

Spirit? Yes, it alludes to non-material but powerful and influential beings, often incarnation of ancestral figures or energy, frequently worshipped or appeased to deflect misfortune and secure individual and community protection, wellbeing and prosperity. Worship of ancestral spirits is pretty much universal in societies where major doctrinal religions with god-like figure or figures and scripture were absent.

The large coastal area between the recent capital Port Moresby in the east and Turama River in the west is a home of communities who practised elaborate ceremonies supported by some of the most spectacular “decorative” objects – now celebrated and cherished by museums and private collectors as outstanding examples of “tribal art”. This began changing with foreign intrusions and introduction of Christianity. From about 1900 traditional cultures underwent significant modifications in their spiritual beliefs and ceremonial life and, subsequently, the periods of revival.

Masks, boards, drums, shields and carvings collected between the 1870s and the early years of the 20th century are highly valued evidence of the elaborate past ceremonial life. Now detached from dance and music, from spectacular repositories of long houses where they were made and kept, they remain a silent witness of the past vivid communal life.

Europeans began intruding into the Gulf Province from the 1870s and collecting artefacts grew into a profitable venture. Some early, 19th century, collections from this region were assembled by William John Macleay (1820-1891), Andrew Goldie (1840-1891), Theodore Francis Bevan (1860-1907), Rev. William George Lawes (1839-1907), Rev. William Wyatt Gill (1828-1896) and William MacGregor (1846-1919).

Explanations:

Hevehe was a ritual cycle spanning 25 years and a major event with participation of different groups and villages. It was an important expression of a group ethos, mutual support and solidarity through long preparation and performance periods.

Kovave was an initiation ceremony of substantially shorter duration which could be enacted within hevehe. It could be performed to initiate girls or boys, and often involved a period of exclusion when young people would spend some time in the bush, away from the village, undergoing preparations.

Eharo was a sort of competitive festival of a lighter nature, involving numerous villages, but marking loyalty and distinctiveness of each group.

Further reading:

Francis Edgar Williams. The Drama of the Orokolo: the social and ceremonial life of the Elema. Clarendon Press, 1969

Robert Welsch, Virginia-Lee Webb and Sebastian Haraha. Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea. Washington Press, 2006