Bis Feasts

The Asmat people in Indonesia do not believe in death. Well, not in the way most cultures do. There is no death from accidents, disease, natural causes or old age. Here, all death is caused by vengeful magic brought about by an enemy and it must be avenged.

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Once a certain number of deaths have occurred in the community several months of feast days occur to honor the dead, restore balance and avenge their deaths. Food consists of sago palm dishes, fish and chicken. In some instances a butterfly larva may be incorporated, as it is considered to be a food item of great ritual significance.

During the feasts a number of important rituals will occur, the most well known being the creation of Bis poles. Mangrove trees are cut down and carried to the village where they are received by crowds of people who welcome them as though they were presenting the corpse of an enemy. The carver creates elaborate 15 feet high poles, much like totems, adorned with various important symbols and likenesses of the deceased. Fertility symbols, wumaron – canoe-like boats believed to ferry away the souls of the dead, and images of ancestors are incorporated.

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Once the poles are completed they are presented and displayed at a Bis feast. Following the presentation feast for the dead, vengeance would be sought though the act of headhunting, which is no longer practiced. The heads would be brought back to the community and displayed on Bis poles and another feast would occur celebrating the completion of a promise to the dead being carried out and balance restored in the world.

At the final feast the poles are carried out of the village and planted in the groves. Here it is believed their magical powers will absorb into the earth which, in turn, nourishes their food and their people.

Images

Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Asmat Shop 

Resources

Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology 

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rockefeller, Michael The Asmat of New Guinea , 1967.

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