(Reprint from Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Prairiemary.blogspot.com)
This is a relatively informal account of a very serious ceremony. I adopt the tone in part because it deals with SUCH serious forces in life, which are often best handled with a bit of humor, but make no mistake: this is “ultimate” stuff in the Tillichian sense. The Umeda are (or were) a small group living in New Guinea in one of those very marginal places where humans can survive only with hard work and good luck. They get to believing in all sorts of talismans and symbols that help them “do what has to be done,” and it was only by living with the people for a while that Alfred Gell, a rather classical sort of Brit anthropologist, was able to dope out what things really meant.
He says: “Ida is a public non-verbal spectacle, whose meaning is also public and non-verbal, and is not given separate existence in the exegetical homilies of ‘ritual specialists’ or ‘doctors’ — of whom there were none in Umeda. Informants were neither willing nor able, in my experience to translate a non-verbal exegesis, beyond the provision of a bare name, details of the status of the role (senior, junior, comic, terrible, etc.) and of its ‘properties’ (masks, body-paint, dance-style, etc.) Both Gell and I greatly admire Victor Turner’s work.
“This general lack of indigenous exegesis does not rule out the possibility of an analysis however; Turner himself stresses all along the native exegesis is not the ‘whole truth’ about the meaning of symbols. In this account of Ida I myself will be concentrating on what Turner calls the ‘positional’ meaning of ritual symbols; that is, on the role of a particular symbol within the context of the rite as a whole, seen, as it were, from ‘outside via an ‘observer’s construct.’ Furthermore, I will be looking at the rite in the context of Umeda social structure and cosmology.”
So, to perform an Ida, first you need a village and then you need that village to be in a deep jungle valley where the sky is never visible, there is very little to eat, and the success of the village depends on the diligence and responsibility of the adult males, who are seen as “cassowaries” who are the opposite of a responsible mature man — the freedom and solitude of the fierce bird is something they earn in old age when they can retire to a little shelter built in the jungle. The main part of their lives is about the hard work of clearing gardens, cutting sago palms (without metal in the old days) and pounding the sago pith into a kind of flour (a pretty suggestive mortar-and-pestle act) which is washed to take the poison out of it so it can be reconstituted into a sort of jelly that looks a lot like semen. It takes a married couple to successfully do this enough to support a family.
When men are young, they wear a gourd over their penis, in part because they think of semen as a kind of “milk” or sago jelly: a food to conserve. They call the sago jelly “jis” — a little echo there. The drive towards sex becomes a drive towards feeding. As men age and become preoccupied with the gardens, they tend to leave their gourds off. The gourd worn by cassowary dancers in the Ida is bigger than usual and the dancing causes it to bounce, striking against a belt with hard seeds fixed to it so that a rhythm is created, a dancing percussion.
Gell was a bit puzzled because the costumes, which consist of paint, the gourds, and a “mask” which is sort of like a frame held over the head, a kind of bell or upside down basket shape with the man inside as the clapper. It doesn’t look much like a cassowary. The men could easily make a costume out of actual cassowary plumes and be much more convincing. But it DID make the men look like palm trees, the trees their mothers planted when they were born, the trees that were considered so much a part of them that they could “commit suicide” by killing their tree. Maybe this was too deep to safely express.
Then one day Gell was in the deep jungle cutting down trees with the men when they felled a hollow tree and out crawled a creature that looked like an independent penis, a skin-colored writhing worm that came out of the hollow and went into the bush while the men turned away in dismay as though it were a taboo and unbelievable creature. Indeed, it was Freudian enough to shake Gell! But then it came to him: the so-called Cassowary mask was really a version of this penis (maleness) housed in a tree. The man in the mask was really this creature, a penis of independent motives, like the man’s own penis in its hollow gourd. (The creature was actually a kind of blind worm or slow worm, which is not really a worm. The ones at Google Image don’t look particularly penile, but they're not necessarily from New Guinea where creatures are often unique.
The crucial center of any persisting culture is food/sex, to keep the existing people alive and reproducing themselves. In such a marginal place, these two responsibilities weigh heavily. An Ida, in an intensely poetic way, says things that should not be said, lets destructive emotions find some kind of release.
The actual Ida consists of a sequence of dancing that lasts for more than a day and a night, inside a long time-frame of about nine months. (Does that catch your eye?) Each “part” is assigned to a different group so that everyone has something to do. They are age-grouped: little kids together, bigger kids together, in the same sequence as growing up. For relief, there are clowns who make everyone laugh and ogres who make everyone shiver and shriek. (Have I noted that it’s Rose Festival in my original home town? Interesting to compare with an Ida. Or, failing that, to compare with Christmas or Easter, each with its Cassowary (old man or rabbit) and cluster of events.)
There are two points that are almost frankly — but not admittedly — connected to male ejaculation. One is supposed to guarantee the fertility of the sago: a pot of boiling sago is provided at dawn and the sago dancers jump over the fire, then plunge their fists into the gruel, burning themselves painfully. (They don’t say that it is torture to guarantee the courage of grown men, not unlike Sun Lodge skewering.) The other is supposed to encourage the fertility of the jungle itself, where the sago palms grow, and it consists of dancing archers who finally shoot their arrows into the trees.
Men in Umeda culture never hold hands, but when they are cassowaries, they occasionally do. There are always two cassowaries who dance wildly and aggressively so that it takes enormous strength and determination to get through the Ida. Taking the role is a huge honor, a pay-off for struggling through all the steps from toddler to aging family man.
There’s much more in Gell’s book: “Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language and Ritual.” It’s out of print but can be found occasionally on used book websites or in academic libraries.