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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Asmat Spirit Canoe

Our previous post featured a large dugout canoe from New Guinea's Asmat culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That one was ceremonial but functional. Beside it in the same exhibit was another Asmat canoe that was purely symbolic and religious in function. We'll quote the display card in full:
"Asmat spirit canoes (wuramon) are ceremonial carvings in the form of supernatural vessels. Wuramon are created for a one-time use during emak cem (the bone house feast), a ceremony that celebrates the spirits of the recently dead and the initiation of young boys. After being secluded within a ritual house for several months, the boys emerge one by one and crawl across the wuramon on their bellies. As each crosses the vessel, he is transformed from a boy into a man. Once across, he is seized by a man who cuts designs into his body; these heal into permanent scarification patterns that mark him as an adult. 
"Crewed by spirits, the wuramon has no bottom to its hull, as spirits do not require a complete hull for their journey. The spirit figures have a dual nature: their outer forms portray supernatural creatures, but each is named for a specific recently deceased ancestor, whose spirit it embodies. A turtle (mbu), a fertility symbol because of the numerous eggs it lays, appears near the center of this wuramon. Behind it is an okom, a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit. The other figures, gazing down through the bottomless hull, represent menacing water spirits (ambirak) or human-like spirits (etsjo). A hammerhead shark is depicted on the prow."
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon), with hammerhead shark figure at the bow (left). Click any image to enlarge.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art. The spirit figures are lashed to the gunwales.
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull on Asmat spirit canoe
Spirit figures looking down through bottom of hull. The gunwale displays a fine pattern on the outer surface.
Asmat spirit canoe (wuramon)  at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Spirit figures at stern 
Turtle spirit figure on Asmat spirit canoe
The turtle spirit figure symbolizes fertility. Behind it is an okom, "a dangerous Z-shaped water spirit."
Spirit figures at on Asmat spirit canoe
More spirit figures looking through the bottom of the hull. Behind the spirit canoe is the large dugout canoe featured in the previous post. Note the fine decorative carving on the gunwale, similar to that on the wuramon. 
Asmat spirit canoe at the Met
Shadow on the floor shows the bottomless nature of the spirit canoe's hull

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