Papua New Guinea – Music, magic and religion
Music, dance and feasting were key elements of religious ceremonies in traditional New Guinea.
Objects in Plymouth’s collection relating to music, magic and religion in Papua New Guinea (PNG) include headdresses, a dance staff, drums and a mouth bow, bullroarers, charms, figures, masks, and items associated with headhunting.The scene in this photograph  shows a group of men ready to dance. Several of them are holding drums. The men’s communal ceremonial house is visible in the background.
Traditional religion in New Guinea venerated ancestors. The men’s house in each village was understood to have been established by a founding ancestor. Spiritual care was given to ancestors in return for their assistance in daily life, such as ensuring success in warfare, hunting, pig husbandry and gardening taro, the staple crop. Boys and men were initiated into secret aspects of myth, religion and the ancestor cult at different stages of their lives. These initiations took place through a series of ceremonies which began in childhood and continued until each man’s late twenties. For ritual specialists, this accumulation of sacred knowledge continued throughout their adult lives.
Use the links to see all of the different types of objects associated with music, magic and religion.
Many of our catalogue records were created in the past and have yet to be updated. Some of the historic wording may now appear outdated and even offensive. Please be aware that the database may include records for objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities. If you see anything that concerns you, please get in touch with us.
There is one dance staff in the Plymouth collection. This flat wooden staff would have been held during dances. A bird is carved at each end.
Traditionally, there were just two types of musical instrument in what is now PNG – drums and mouth bows (also known as Jews’ harps). Only men were allowed to make and use these, and only after they had reached a certain level of initiation.
Hourglass-shaped drums, held around the ‘waist’ in the middle, are characteristic of PNG. There are two types – one sort has a tympanum (drum-skin) at each end, the other has a mouth-shaped end. There are examples of both sorts in Plymouth.
Making a drum is a ritual act, during which ritual words are spoken at the point of carving when the ‘waist’ breaks through, like the opening of a throat, enabling the drum to cry like a bird. The tympanum is made from a lizard skin, stretched over the end of the drum and glued in place with tree resin. Small lumps of beeswax can be pressed into the skin to improve its tone. The carved and painted patterns are similar to those found on charms, and on men’s bark belts. Drums are used in ceremonies to ensure the fertility of taro.The two men in the photograph  are dressed for a ceremonial dance. Each holds a hand-drum with a tympanum at each end.
There is also one mouth bow in the Plymouth collection. It is made from a slice of bamboo, with a zig-zag pattern scratched around the edge, and a plaited string.
When a bullroarer is whirled around the head on a string, it makes a strange roaring sound. This was understood to be the voice of ancestral spirits. There are five bullroarers in the Plymouth collection. Each bullroarer in Plymouth’s collection is a long oval shape made of wood, and four have a plant-fibre string attached through a hole. Four of them are carved – one with figures representing spirits – and coloured white and red. One has two ‘clappers’, one has a netted enclosure at one end, and one has three nutshells attached to make a rattling sound.
Masks in PNG can take three forms, each understood to be the face of an ancestral spirit. One sort is made of palm-fibre and is worn pulled over the head. Another sort is cone-shaped and painted with a face, while a third – more unusual – sort is carved from wood. Masks were worn only by senior men, as part of significant ceremonies, and they were stored in men’s houses. When Christian missionaries arrived in PNG, they encouraged the islanders to give up their masks as a sign of conversion – but cultural practices have adapted and survived, and today each group in PNG has its own set of masks, made from modern materials.
Plymouth does have one mask from Dauncey, but it is not from PNG – it is from the Torres Strait, a group of islands between PNG and Australia. This mask is painted black, white and red and has holes round its chin and ears where decoration, perhaps fibre or feathers, would have been attached.
There is one spirit board in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth, and several more collected by Dauncey at the MAA in Cambridge. Spirit boards are ceremonial objects associated with men in the Gulf region of PNG. Ancestors or other spirits flow into these boards, giving them power. When not in use, spirit boards are kept out of sight in the men’s house. Boards are carefully repaired, if damaged, and passed down from father to son.
There are two carved human figures in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth. The elaborate figure sitting on a stool looks similar to those seen on lime-spatulas, but it may be from the Trobriand Islands rather than PNG. The other figure is more roughly carved, appears to be female, and may have spiritual significance.
There are two types of magical charms in the Dauncey collection at Plymouth. One type is a series of hunting charms made from small coconut shells. They have carved, open-mouthed faces representing spirits, similar to those seen on drums and men’s bark belts. Dauncey collected several of these, to illustrate the process of making a charm, from raw coconut shell to finished product. They are coloured black and white, and some have strings attached for suspension.
The Plymouth collection also includes a net bag that belonged to a sorcerer, which was filled with tiny objects used as charms – pebbles, pieces of coral, animal bones, bits of stick, resin and red cotton cloth, and a crystal wrapped finely with plant fibre. Dauncey’s collection at the MAA in Cambridge contains a whole ‘sorcerer’s kit’ in a basket.
Dauncey’s collection at Plymouth contains a head carrier formed from loop of cane, attached to a carved wooden handle with plaited plant fibre. This would have been used to carry a human head, by tying the jaw onto the cane. Headhunting was a significant element of PNG culture and something to which missionaries like Dauncey were particularly opposed. There is one human skull in the collection. Human remains at the Museum are kept separately, in a special place.