Attainment of Adulthood

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For both men and women, adult personhood is attained mainly on the basis of marriage and the subsequent birth of children. Traditionally, Iatmul men were initiated into adult manhood and the male cult. The bloody painful ordeals of initiation allowed men to emulate the fortitude of women during childbirth, and to "grow" boys into adult males. Although men never attend birth, since they deem it polluting, male initiation is permeated by symbols of parturition and maternal nurture. This way, men effectively supplant the culturally lauded role of motherhood. Cicatrization purges neophytes' bodies of maternal blood, which inhibits the development of a masculine physique. But the resulting scars, which are visible emblems of manhood, are said by men to resemble the breasts and genitals of woman and female crocodile spirits. The rite forges exclusive masculine identity by aggressively exaggerating birth, maternal feeding, and moral mothering. At the same time, male initiation associates the female body with danger, pollution, castration, and somatic atrophy. Initiation thus constructs Iatmul manhood as an identity that opposes yet emulates motherhood.

Women were once initiated if men judged them to be excessively aggressive, if they espied male cult secrets, or if a sonless father wanted a daughter to inherit his totemic esoterica and magic (see also Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, p. 178; 1995). But this practice was rare; it remains poorly understood today by either ethnographers or Iatmul.

Initiation offered novices only a little guidance about adult behavior. However, they were admonished to avoid adultery and practice birth spacing. Upon the attainment of adulthood, men and women are expected to be busy with adult activities, which are almost always gender segregated. Men tend to gather in cult houses and related ritual spaces unless otherwise engaged in occasional subsistence and work activities. Women are responsible for daily fishing, preparing meals, and maintenance of the household.

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