The Agony and The Irony

The Spirit Houses are unique to the Sepik River area. The ones on two levels are particularly important as they provide an upstairs room that is completely private. It is a much more sacred place than the open sided first floor and it is where the initiation ceremonies take place.

We are introduced to a village elder and two men who have been through the initiation process .100_0739

They help us learn more about the spiritual lives of the Iatmul men. We have already learned that only men who have been initiated or are about to be initiated can enter the sacred second floor of the Spirit houses. We wonder how it is that we are allowed to enter. They tell us that they view white men as spiritually very weak and so their presence will not affect the spirits that live in the Spirit House. This is said very matter of factly, but I can’t help feel that we are being insulted. But we push matters a little further when we say that we also know that women are not allowed in the Spirit Houses at all, so why have the women in our group been allowed in? The answer, as always in PNG, reflects on just how women are viewed here. Not only are our women white, and therefore spiritually weak, but they are also women and are therefore non existent in the eyes of the Iatmul tribe. OK, now I know that is insulting, and I can feel Nellie bristling with indignation next to me, but she manages to choke back the retort that she would like to make.

The Initiation Ceremony is sacred, secret and deadly serious. It is about rebirthing, and marks the passage of boys into manhood, which reflects the sacred and secret bit. Where it turns deadly serious is that it involves cutting the boys with crocodile markings. While these men are happy for us to learn about the import of the ceremony, they are very circumspect with the details.

The Iatmul tribe have to share the Sepik river with crocodiles The people must take constant care not to upset or intrude on the crocodile, so that its danger is minimized. The tribe has come to revere the crocodile and we have already seen how it plays an important part in some of their rituals. We now learn of its importance in the Initiation Ceremony.

It used to be mandatory for all boys to go through the process, as it was the only form of education available to them. The initiation usually takes place when they are between 16 and 22 years old. The process can take from one to six months during which time the young man is taught everything about the tribe’s history, tribal life, spiritual beliefs, and more down to earth topics such as the paths through the jungle and how to hunt. There are no documents, no written history. This is the only way that the tribal history and its spiritual beliefs are passed from generation to generation, so it is incredibly important. But once the missionaries arrived and set up schools for the children, young men were given a choice. Go to school or go through the Initiation Ceremony.

When you hear what is involved in the Initiation Ceremony you will wonder why any of them chose to go through it, and indeed most young men didn’t. They went to the missionary schools. The number of initiations dropped dramatically. But with the advent of schooling came the realisation that their culture was very special, and that it was being eroded. So interest in the Initiation Ceremony has been renewed and today about thirty percent of men go through the process.

The first part of the initiation is the education. The learning process that takes place is not only difficult but also involves depravation of sleep and food. At the end of a minimum of one month the young man is almost delirious, but this helps him go through the actual initiation process which is incredibly painful. A depiction of a crocodile is carved into his body, from the top of his buttocks, going up his back and over his shoulders and onto his chest. The upper arms are also carved. The carving represents a crocodile at rest on the shores of the river. The carving is done with a sharp knife or these days with a razor blade. Hundreds of small cuts are made over his body to represent the skin of the crocodile. Then every day for over a week the cuts are opened up again and mud is rubbed into each one. This is done to purposely infect the cuts so that they become raised on the skin. At the end of the process the skin of the young man does indeed bear a strong resemblance to the skin of a crocodile

During this process the men are again prevented from sleeping and are driven out of the Spirit Hut into the jungle to fend for themselves. This is supposed to take their mind of what they are going through. I would find vicodin and ambien much more helpful. It is impossible for me to imagine the pain and depravation these young men go through. School was never my favorite thing, but if this is the alternative I would embrace it.

You will remember, dear reader, that these tribes view the blood of women as dangerous to men. Coming into contact with it can drain their strength. This belief is another reason for the cutting of the boys in the initiation ceremony. It allows the tainted blood of their mothers to be drained out of their body, facilitating their entry into manhood.

The end result of the pain and indoctrination is that the men who chose to go through the Initiation Ceremony are held in high esteem throughout the village because they are the only ones who have the knowledge of the tribe and its spiritual beliefs. They are accorded many rights within the village that others do not have.

After the discussion, the two initiated men agree to have their photos taken. This is a great honour for us as photos are very rarely allowed. The tribal leader politely suggests that if we would like to take photos we should offer each man the equivalent of $2 as a gesture of thanks. For some reason or other most of the group do not want to do this. Diana and I are the only ones who ask to take photos. I am doing it because I am genuinely intrigued, but Diana confides in me that she is doing it because she finds the young men hot! The scarring really turns her on. You can take the girl out of the Bunny Club, but you can’t take the Bunny Club out of the girl. It is in fact a rather unsettling moment. The men are clearly embarrassed at posing for the photos and Diana and I feel a little like exploiters. When we leave the men recover their composure by rolling two very large joints..100_0737

(And an example seen on one of the crocodile dancers earlier)


We rejoin the rest of the group and board the pontoon to make our way to Kanganaman, another village with an impressive Spirit House. The drums have been announcing our progression down the river and this time the villagers are ready for us. We are actually greeted by two dancers who emerge from the spirit house. Their costumes look like left overs from Beach Blanket Babylon (you have to have been to San Francisco to understand that reference) or the Radio City Xmas Show100_0746

They could be the dancing Christmas trees, but instead they are performing a traditional Tumbuan dance that represents the cleaning up of the village making it ready for important visitors. That would be us. How perfect. The tumbuan is the name for the costume, which is in fact a large woven mask with a shroud covering the body.

There are only two dancers, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in length of performance. It is one of the least impressive dances we have seen so far and it seems to go on for ever. One of the dancers is extremely energetic and impressive as he bounces around to the beat of the drums. The other however is there to prove that not every black male has an inbred sense of rhythm.

Watch ’em dance right here!

He should never be allowed to grace a dance floor, or in this case the village green. His movements have nothing to do with the music and as the music goes on and on, he gets visibly more tired until it seems that he is about to keel over from exhaustion. Finally it comes to an end and we try to be enthusiastic but they have kept us standing in the hot sun for too long.

Behind them is the Spirit House. Again it is on two levels, and this one is full of some incredible artwork.

The structural columns are beautifully carved and there are beautiful masks








amazing head gear and ceremonial figures100_0760This Spirit House is open at both ends. On the front of the House facing us over the entrance is a carving of a woman giving birth.100_0743


We are told she represents creation, and that the Spirit House is like a womb. On some Spirit Houses the entrance is actually shaped like a vagina. I thank my own personal God that I haven’t had to see one of those houses

But if the Spirit House is like a womb, and if the entrance can be a Vagina, and the Initiation Ceremony is a rebirthing, how ironic is it that this is a Mens Cult, and that women are not allowed into the Spirit House. Either they are very confused, or I am.

Either way, I need a drink and it is definitely time we return to the Septic Tank and the bar.



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