A New Guinea Oracle

By: H. U. H.

Originally Published in 1934

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IN the coastal region of Geelvink Bay, in the north of Dutch New Guinea, the people practise a cult of the dead, in which images, called korwar or karwar, of deceased relatives play an important part. When a death occurs in the household, a small wooden figure is carved and taken to the grave or tomb. The ghost enters this image, which then becomes a means of communication with the departed, a protector against danger, and a healing agent in disease. It is kept in the house, offerings of food are made to the spirit which it harbors, and it is taken on sea-voyages to ensure a safe and successful journey. On all important occasions it is appealed to for advice and instructions; the spirit is said to pass from the image into the person consulting it, who then becomes the medium for uttering the oracle. The presence of a korwar is beneficial in illness, even if the patient is not a member of the family of the deceased.

Wooden carved figure of an ancestor behind an ornate shield with a realistically carved face
Plate I — A Korwar or Image Used as an Oracle from Dutch New Guinea
Museum Object Number: P3587B
Image Number: 256

Korwar have been reported from some of the islands in Geelvink Bay and from places beyond its immediate confines: as far west as Macluer Gulf and to the east as far as Liki Island, the westernmost of the Kumamba group. The people of the lower Mamberamo River at the eastward extremity of the great Bay, who are said to be for the most part immigrants from the northern islands of the Bay, make korwar into which the ghost enters from time to time and foretells the future and declares his wishes to the family. At Windessi (Wendesi) on the western shore of the Bay, where the dead are buried on platforms, a feast to the dead is celebrated a year after the burial, when the skull may be taken and inserted in the head of a large korwar. Elsewhere also the skull may form part of the image made to commemorate an important person. On the island of Rön, east of Wendesi, korwar are made for living first-born males, when they reach the age of twelve; these images also are consulted as oracles.

Usually, korwar are made only to persons who have died at home; but sometimes the ghost of a man who has died elsewhere may be induced to return and enter his korwar, by setting fire to a large tree near his house. Exceptions like this apart, the rule seems to be that the korwar attracts the spirit whose habitation it is to become, either through contact somewhat remote, as when the image is taken to the tomb or grave, or by direct contact with the remains of the dead, to which the spirit is believed to cling, as when the skull is incorporated in the image. The image has no virtue in itself; it is thrown away if a satisfactory oracle cannot be obtained from it: the spirit has discarded its shrine or receptacle and the latter is now worthless.

The means by which the person consulting a korwar becomes inspired by the spirit is, in general, obscure. Only from Dore (Dorch, Dorei), a district of the northwestern shore of Geelvink Bay, and the place of origin of the image figured in Plate I, do we have a brief statement of the procedure. In Dore, the women are the mediums. Carrying korwar, they dance to the accompaniment of drums until they fall in a trance and in this condition deliver the oracle. This method of inducing possession by the spirit is apparently due to Malayan influence; other instances of Malayan contacts occur here; and the figure itself, as well as the screen or shield which it holds before it, presents stylistic evidence of the same relationship.


Cite This Article

H., H. U.. "A New Guinea Oracle." Museum Bulletin V, no. 1 (January, 1934): 3-4. Accessed June 19, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1298/

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