Paper Short Abstract:
I analyze practices surrounding the statue of Mother Mary in a Sepik village. I argue that personhood is central for understanding the agency of objects in religious practices as well as the appropriation of Christianity that is currently changing gender relations in the village.
Paper long abstract:
A Sepik myth tells the story of two sisters, who, while fishing for shrimps, caught powerful spirits in their nets. From then on, women guarded ancestral spirits, met in ceremonial houses and took care of important business, while men looked after children and cooked food in family houses. Jealous of women's power, men gained access to spirits by force and reversed gender relations. However, today the men of Timbunmeli village (Nyaura, West Iatmul) have lost control over spirits who have started to act through female bodies. During a catholic charismatic movement in the 1990s villagers received gifts from God enabling them to heal, prophecy, speak in and interpret tongues. Today, predominantly women are the recipients of God's gifts. In Christian rituals villagers are reminded that women have originally been the custodians of ancestral spirits that are now understood as being spirits of God. During the celebration of the month of Mother Mary, women catch her statue with nets, carry it around in the village influenced by Her spirit, or are possessed by spirits of God and Mother Mary herself. Analyzing current religious practices in relation to the local concept of personhood, I show that dividuality has not only informed the way the Nyaura have made Christianity their own but that it is also crucial for understanding current events impacting on gender relations in the Sepik village. Furthermore, I argue that the concept of personhood is crucial for understanding the agency and effects of objects in religious practices in Timbunmeli.
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.