Tuesday, January 08, 2019


It is early night time when the two Umeda tribesmen disguised as “cassowaries” come leaping into the firelight with huge masks over their heads and shoulders. They are completely painted black but their bodies betray their age: these are old men. They hold hands. In this tribe men wear only a gourd fitted over the penis, but these two men are wearing exceptionally large gourds and special belts studded with seeds and bones so that every time they hop and lurch, the gourd knocks up against the belt and makes a sharp tock sound. 
The two men, older and more powerful among the tribe, were chose for their roles as “cassowaries” about nine months earlier when the “Ida Smav” ceremony was announced by a day and night of mournful, rhythmic horn blowing, done by five men who circled the village while they blew. These same horns now accompany the percussive tocking of the dancers. Since being chosen to be “cassowaries,” the two men have been strictly confined to the village, because it is believed that if they went out into the forest all the real cassowaries would follow them off so no one could hunt successfully. 
Two other dancers are also in the firelit area, but they are much more subdued. These are two youths, painted red, wearing “fish” masks and said to be “the fish of the daughter.” The young men wear everyday gourds and dance sedately single-file around the edge of the area. They are followed by all the male children, who come singing with their arms over each other’s shoulders. Everyone watches, wearing finery, and the men spell each other on the trumpets, which never let up. 
The masks of the cassowaries are heavy and there are only short pauses in the dancing, which lasts until dawn, so the chosen men are truly performing a feat of strength and endurance. Occasionally a cassowary dancer has become ill in the midst of the ceremony, which is considered a very dangerous bad omen. The fish and the children don’t dance all night: only the two cassowaries leap and hop around the fire until dawn. 
When the kib bird first calls, everyone yells “haibudiime,” meaning “it is finished,” and the cassowaries leave, passing their masks to two “sago dancers.” These new dancers are striped horizontally, like the fence rails around the yam gardens. The women must leave, for they are forbidden to see the next part. The men prepare a fire, which the sago dancers leap over. Sago starch is boiled, which converts it to a white jelly, and the sago dancers must perform their own ordeal. They plunge their hands into the boiling hot sago and throw handfuls of it up into the air. All the other men do the same, yelling “ehm bah alehah,” meaning “its head rises up!” The sago is thrown all over the ground and then tramped in by the men dancing on it. The sago dancers leave. 
A new pair of dancers, the “firewood dancers” come in with taller, more narrow masks something like those of the cassowaries. They are striped diagonally as though they were trees with vines twining up them. These two dance for an hour. 
For the rest of the day there are “fish dancers” of two kinds. The “fish of the old hag,” danced by older men, start out and as they tire they are replaced one by one by “fish of the hero,” danced by younger men. The “fish” all wear the large gourd and the belt, so that they keep up the steady tocking. 
When night comes, it is spent by the community singing a capella except that around midnight the “bush turkey” dancers make a quick twirl through the crowd. 
On the second day the two cassowaries dance for fifteen minutes and then the fishes repeat their performance. On both days several varieties of terrible and ridiculous ogres appear for pantomimes, chasing people and menacing children. All the dancers, especially the older men, enjoy the playfulness of the dancing and feel they are more free than usual because of their theoretical anonymity. Though it is possible to recognize body types and styles of movement, the dancers are considered very mysterious, especially to the women, and no one admits they know these people in daily life. 
Finally the “termites” come with big yellow heads for masks and funny tentative steps that make the feathers on their masks wave like antenna or insect legs. The termites are married men with bows and arrows and wear ordinary gourds. 
The dancers who end the ceremony will have made two brief appearances by now, late in the afternoon of both days. At sundown of the last day the reappear. Their name means “red-painted bowmen” -- but both their penes and their arrows are bound up. The arrows have multi-pronged points. 
The bowmen wear fish masks. They are accompanied by old men, their preceptors. The women are sent away again. Just as the sun sets, the bowmen shoot their arrows out into the bush towards the West. Then they dash to the sacred enclosure and the “Ida Smav” is over, though technically the actors must go hunting now to get blood to smear on themselves for cleansing. 
This ceremony is included here to get entirely outside the Christian worship context. Just the same, as one gets deeper into the hidden meanings of the rite, one begins to find significant parallels. This is a relatively simple, if long and intense, ceremony in the context of a primal and geographically limited culture. The sensitive interpretation supplied by the anthropologist, Alfred Gell, has been challenged, but nevertheless is enlightening in terms of personal psychology and material culture, illustrating how human beings create worship out of their own substance. 
Impressively mysterious and arbitrary without context and inner connections, the ceremony becomes coherent in terms of metaphor as well as form in the Turner sense. Several dramatic acts, such as throwing hot sago jelly and shooting arrows, become explicable when one understands that these people have deduced that semen is a male version of breast milk -- not just seed but also nourishment. The gourds on their penes are meant to save every drop of precious food. They see intercourse as a way of feeding the infant while it is in the mother. (Gell didn’t venture into oral ejaculations.) They will sprinkle dried semen onto food as a condiment. 
In terms of the environment, these people are slash-and-burn agriculturalists in the jungle hills of New Guinea, which means that their spaces are structured by clearings in the forest. From ridge tops they can see into other valleys, where they never go. Territoriality here is highly belligerent because food is very scarce. This tribe is small, divided in half- a-dozen villages. Their life-span is short: there are few grandfathers and a serious shortage of women because of death in childbirth. Since a team of two, usually a married couple, is necessary to plant sago (the main nutrient), maintain it and eventually prepare the starch (it’s poisonous if this is done improperly), the basic economy rests on the marital couple. 
Other crops are gathered, some are raised (yams), and protein -- much needed and valued -- comes from fishing and hunting. There are relatively large animals -- pigs and cassowaries -- but they are hard to catch in jungle with stone-age weapons. A pig-kill is a major event. People cheerfully eat lizards, smaller birds, fish and insects. The father of the family guards and rations all mammal meats, though it is usually the sons who hunt. Even the young boys hunt, though they may only catch larvae from under rotten logs. 
Villages are a circle of shelters around a cleared arena. Most people only use their houses for storage, sleeping and working outside under the foundation stilts. Women work around the edges of the village, near their supplies and fires. Men gather in the middle to chew and talk. Families live together and in the garden season, which is most of the year, they live in bush-houses away from the village to guard their crops. The annual cycle is dominated by the timing of crops, especially sago. Most babies appear to be conceived when the people move to their bush-houses, which coincides with the announcement of the beginning of the Ida Smav, which lasts nine months. Intercourse is thought to help the sago grow. Preparing the sago pith is a matter of boiling it and then pounding it mortar-and-pestle style with poles that take two to manage in a marital thrust rhythm. 
The tribe is conservative and, like all small towns, closely supervises each other’s behavior. The men have a joking style, half-insulting, rather obscene, much like that of hard-working men in American culture. In the old days this prodding could escalate to feuds between villages. Today fighting is suppressed by white authorities, so they mostly have shouting matches. 
Around the villages are two circles of trees: areca nut palms and coconut palms. An areca nut palm, which looks like a smaller version of a coconut palm, is said to be the “younger brother” while the coconut palm is the “older brother.” The coconut palms are the inner circle and shade the houses. The areca nut, chewed with lime and betel, produces a red narcotic juice used in ceremonies and chewed daily like tobacco. Out in the bush the fence around the garden has the same name as the areca palm. 
Umeda divide space into bush versus village or inner circle versus outer circle. Status is related to this: women and “younger brother” trees are on the edge, while the men and the “older brothers” are in the middle. The “fish” dance on the edges, but the “cassowary” goes where he likes, especially in the middle. Rest, peers, and sociability are in the village -- work, family and procreation are out in the bush-houses. Real escape is in the jungle itself where the actual cassowaries wander. 
When a man is born, his father plants a coconut palm that is identified with the baby so closely that a suicidal man might try to chop down “his” tree unless the village prevented him. Gell noted that the mask that is supposed to look like a cassowary in fact looks a lot more like a palm tree.  A second dynamic is that a man’s life cycle starts out like any baby in a sling on his mother’s back. He is weaned late as a means of birth control. When the boy is old enough to get around on his own, he leaves the woman, goes to his father in the village center and sleeps with his father. 
Now he travels from place to place on the shoulders of his father. The pair become closely bonded. Gell says, “This relation has a very important physical aspect. I was much struck by the way in which a small child, having found its father amid a group of adult men, would engage in a minute and prolonged physical exploration submitting hair, beard, limbs, weapons and accessories to a concentrated scrutiny, by touch, taste, and smell as well as by sight, quite mindless of the perfunctory caresses it received in return, and still more so to the adult conversation going on around it.” 
But, alas, with the coming of the next younger sibling, the child is forced into traumatic independence, “dethroned.” Abruptly and unfeelingly, the father turns him away and gives all his attention to the new child. Children still have access to their mothers, who dependably feed and comfort them, but the person who has been the center of their world totally rejects them. The boys are drawn into a peer group with whom they will spend their time until they marry in their late twenties or early thirties. (No hurry to take up an arduous life.) In this peer group they will complete the task of changing through adolescence, but it was clear to Gell that a deep, hot legacy of jealousy remains towards the younger sibling and is reflected in the myths of these people which are always about a rivalry between brothers that leads to trouble. (Think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau.) 
Young men, hunters of the village, dress splendidly, complete with scented herbs and fancy feathers. Once they begin to wear the gourd on their penis at puberty (a sign that says both “I am equipped,” and “my equipment will not be wasted”) they are supposed to be ascetic in lifestyle. (One suspects this only applies to relations with women.) Though they do the hunting, the meat is surrendered to the fathers, who hang it in a net bag over the campfire to smoke, then dole it out to family members as they see fit. 
The shortage of women means that a young man may marry late, but his bride will be a girl too young to reproduce so he will have to wait for her to grow up. A man gets a wife by trading his own sister to someone in the proper outgroup who has a sister. There is always an undercurrent of homosexuality, but since marriage is the only way to be independent and powerful, the bachelors finally give up the hunting life and turn to the duller job of gardening. This is the second major transition of their lives. Once a man is established as head of a successful family, he need not be so concerned with social pressure. He may leave off his gourd except for formal occasions and let his hair grow wild and unkempt. Now he’s a boss -- a Big Bird. 
Gell worked out that the ceremony was what Erikson called “the cog- wheeling of the generations.” At the beginning the cassowaries that look like trees are autonomous family men. The fish are the younger generation. The fish of the mothers are gradually replaced by the fish of the daughters. Eventually, the older cassowaries (black like the adult birds, like the burnt remainders of fire, like smoked meat) are replaced by the young red bowmen (red like areca betel juice, like the blood of hunted mammals), though the old men are still present as mentors. 
The transition from cassowary to bowman is intricate, played out in details of mask construction, style of dancing, language, and so on. When the bowmen shoot into the jungle, they are said to be causing the bush to generate, to reproduce, to yield nurturance, just as the ceremony of the sago boiling to jelly was intercourse to make the sago grow. (“Hot sex!”) This ceremony reconciles the men to their hard but desirable lives as fathers/providers. Then they can rest in small huts they build as hermitages in the jungle, maybe near their first lovers, men like themselves. 
Why do we find ourselves interested in the liturgies of a small tribe on a jungle ridge in a place far from modern civilization? How is it that their human nature and experience can be understood by us? 
Cassowaries are close to being the oldest living descendants of dinosaurs -- not the big ones, but the fast ones like the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park.” They are rattites, which means they have no keelbone in their breasts -- the anchor-point for the broad wings that allow eagles and geese to fly. Cassowaries, like emus and ostriches, are without wings fit for flight. They look a little bit like guinea fowl on steroids, which is natural since they are found in New Guinea these days. 
The rattites evolved in Gonwandaland, the continent that pre-existed what today is South America, Africa, Madagascar, Antarctica, India, other parts of South Asia, and Australia. At one time it even included Florida and most of Southern Europe. “Science tells us that the Continents of Australia, India, South America, Africa, and Antarctica, existed together as a separate landmass as long as 650 million years ago. And as these continents only began to break up some 130 million years ago, this great supercontinent had a life of around 520 million years; making it perhaps the most important geological structure of the last billion years.” 
Dinosaurs crashed about 65 million years ago. By that time Gonwandaland had reconfigured very slowly but quite a lot, changing ocean currents -- which changed weather -- and slowly separating in some places while staying attached in others, so that the evolution of those animals stayed connected as well. But the evolutionary paths were QUITE different, as platypuses, kangaroos and koalas demonstrate. This sort of National Geographic history appeals to our sense of wonder. We are invited to consider Time itself. 
The inhabitants of the little complex of villages studied by a man named Andrew Gell in the 1960’s didn’t know anything about plate tectonic geological history, but they knew a lot about today’s cassowary. The bird lives in jungle, has a five-inch blade of a claw, and can disembowel an adult human. They are the second biggest bird on the planet (after ostriches) and the third tallest. (After ostriches and emus.) So elusive that they can stand within a few feet without a person realizing it and then slip away without ever being sensed, they sometimes go on reckless crashing flights through the thick tropical growth, even smashing headlong into tree trunks, achieving speeds of over thirty mph and jumping five feet in the air. They are good swimmers. Is this not impressively mythical? 
A cassowary might be five and a half feet tall and weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, roughly the size of a sow grizzly. Like grizzlies, they are frugiverous (they love to eat fruits) and are interwoven with the forest in part because their droppings distribute the seeds of the plants (well- fertilized) over a wide area. Unlike grizzlies, cassowaries lay three to eight pale aqua eggs at a time, each one three and a half by five and a half inches. “The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks; the male incubates the eggs for two months, then cares for the brown-striped chicks for nine months, defending them fiercely against all potential predators, including humans.” And against that scourge of wilderness, pigs. A cassowary, though it produces no nourishing semen, is a good father. 
On the top of a cassowary’s head is a kind of callus structure that is evidently a sort of crash helmet. But they are also very aggressive, ferocious fighters, which might make an extra-large protection like that attractively potent silhouette for the ladies. Birds seem to admire headgear (which is ironic since so many were almost stamped out when they became popular decorations for human ladies). Google reports no athletic teams called “The Cassowaries” though one could easily imagine someone in a mascot suit disguised as a big aggressive bird with a helmet. (I note that there is no school team called the “The Pigs” either.) 
New Guinea as it exists today is the product of a plate tectonic crash that left it with a miserable combination of swampy bug-ridden lowlands, tilted rocky foothills, and highlands so tall that they cast their rain shadow over Australia, making that nation the fire-swept droughty continent that it is. The humans who live in New Guinea have a precarious existence, always on the verge of starvation. The people are among the last to be introduced to the contemporary world. One should not deduce from this that are not smart and resourceful -- indeed the environment is so harsh that the weak and stupid don’t last long and Gell reports that no man was able to point to a grandson -- only sons. Life was only two generations long. Cannibalism was not unknown. The first missionaries were eaten, a reverse communion. Their genes are very much like ours, so far as we know, but their memes are quite different. 
My hypothesis is that meaningful ceremonies are as ecological as life itself is -- that is, what people believe is true is shaped by the world around them. The efficacy of their symbols is directly drawn from their familiarity with the phenomena. “The Lamb of God” can hardly mean much to a New Guinean tribesman, but it means a great deal to a sheep rancher who has delivered a real lamb, held it in his arms, and taken it to maturity. Still, raising a lamb in Mexico is different from raising a lamb in Montana or Australia. Knowing that a cassowary is a vital symbol to the Umeda tells us what they think the world and the sacred is “about.” At heart it is the same as what we think it is about: survival. 

Today most people in the world are no longer “emplaced” as were the New Guinea tribesmen of the Sixties who had never left their ridges. Now we look at ecology on a cosmic scale and see relationships over incredible spans of time. In spite of Planet Earth images, many no longer have the rich tactile and concrete nourishing connections with the local ecology. Many don’t know where our food was grown, what it looked like before it was picked or killed, what its habits were, its style, its charisma. The Umeda know cassowaries very well, especially how they taste. 

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