Gender and Religion

The central feature of Iatmul religion is the male cult, which by definition excludes women. However, the Iatmul pantheon is dominated by neither male nor female spirits. The spirits mete out magical punishment to those who transgress social and ritual norms. More broadly, they are responsible for creating and sustaining the cosmos. But the spirits communicate only through men since men alone are the current custodians of magic, flutes, ceremonies, and other sancta. Men, not women, recollect cosmogonic events by chanting totemic names during ritual. Men alone impersonate spirits during religious rites in the guise of bamboo flutes and other sound-producing objects, masked costumes, and various artistic displays. Female religious practices, such as keening before effigies during annual funerary rites, are said to be subordinate to rituals enacted by men.

Virtually all forms of male-enacted ritual are intended to awe (and sometimes seduce) women with beautiful melodies, frightening sounds, and dazzling spirit displays. Women are not supposed to know that spirit expressions are male impersonations. A major concern of men is to prevent women from achieving this revelation.

But men did not always maintain exclusive custodianship over religious rites, sacra, and sprits, at least according to myth. Originally, women blew the flutes— and gave birth. One day, men frightened away the ancestresses with the sound of bullroarers and stole the flutes and ritual paraphernalia. Ever since, men have blown the flutes—although never with the beauty of the original ancestresses. Today, women hear the flutes during ritual—but they must never glimpse them. Otherwise, men say, women might steal them back! Major Iatmul rituals are thus dangerous to men since women might reclaim their dominance over cosmic forces by unveiling the spirits as men and stealing back their sacra. Ritual, too, is dangerous to women. Their reproductive potential is imperiled if they glimpse the flutes or view "too carefully" the sacred art. In sum, Iatmul religion expresses yet denies male desire for female fertility (see also Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, p. 147; Mead, 1949, ch. 4). While men purloined the flutes from ancestresses, primal women stole nothing from men. The ability to birth children is a considerable source of pride for women. I suggest that, through their rituals, men aspire to the same form of self-respect.

In Tambunum village, an elderly woman must always know the "truth" about the flutes and sacra—that men stole them from women. In another village, all women are knowledgeable about the primal theft and, indeed, they are proud of this former privilege (Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, p. 165). There, too, some female rites mock male ritual. Hence, Hauser-Schaublin (1977, p. 146) describes the flutes as "secretive," not "secret." Yet these women do not view this myth as a model for an egalitarian society. Rather, suggests Hauser-Schaublin (1977, p. 66), the primal theft expresses the cultural value of motherhood, the dominant maternal role in child-raising, and early male cross-sex identity through the close mother-child bond.

The mythic origin of the cosmos—and its possible demise—was aquatic. Water, especially the river, is feminine. Trees, land, and villages, which were created by male culture heroes in mythic history, are masculine. The yearly cycle of rain, flooding, and dryness thus corresponds to a cosmological tension between female watery erosion, which is also linked to death, and masculine stability. Mythic time is also gendered: male time moves forward, while female time moves backwards (Silverman, 1997). Esthetic idioms of watery fluidity and terrestrial permanence, which evoke notions of female and male, pervade the religious system.

Witchcraft, now largely extinct, was attributed to both men and women. Yet most witches were female. Witchcraft was often transmitted from mother to daughter, and menstruating women were particularly prone to this nefarious craft (Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, pp. 139-140). Conversely, only men were sorcerers. Both men and women know myth, but male tales contain totemic names and are thus more "truthful." Still, some men ironically rely on their wives for mythic knowledge. This way, male prestige is supported by female erudition

(Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, p. 169). Both men and women can employ magic, but male spells are more potent. Women may call upon male magicians to assist pregnancy and birth.

Today, men and women adhere in varying degrees to Christianity as well as to the traditional religious system. But this new religion tends to empower women by extolling the virtues of cooperation, passivity, and temperance. Still, Iatmul women do not harness Christianity to any sustained critique of the male cult and its religious conceptions.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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