Spirit Houses of the Sepik

One of the main reasons we wanted to head down the Sepik is its reputation as the cultural treasure house of PNG. The villages are insulated from the outside world due to the difficulty (and, prosaically, expense) of getting up and down river. As a result, the Sepik is an area where tribal traditions are still kept very much alive, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the village Spirit Houses.

In the Sepik, gender roles are pretty well defined: women do the unimportant stuff (cooking, cleaning, farming, fishing, trading, looking after the children, managing the household finances) while men do the important stuff (chewing betel nut, smoking, carving the occasional crude statuette, discussing initiations and how best to placate the crocodile spirits this year). OK, so they also hunt from time to time, build the occasional house (once a decade or so) and hollow out the occasional canoe. Tough life, eh? So that they have an appropriate place to do all this important smoking, chewing and discussing, they build themselves a whacking great frat house in the middle of the village. Did I say frat house? Sorry, I meant Spirit House or – interchangeably – Men’s House.

There is probably some long, hack-journalistic riff I could carry on here about the amusing similarities between frat houses and Men’s Houses, but I won’t. To do so would be to belittle the Men’s houses, which are utterly spectacular. By far the largest structure in any village, they loom over ten meters high on heavily carved hardwood uprights, gables faced and crowned with sculpted eagles and wickerwork demons. Inside their dark and smoky interiors sit terribly, majestically scarred village men, their skin cut in literally hundreds of places during bloody teenage initiations which are virtually indistinguishable from torture. We don’t have any of our own photographs of these “crocodile skins” as we didn’t think it appropriate, but my God are they impressive in the flesh.

The rest of the Spirit House (all of which are utterly off-limits to local women and children) is full of ritual carvings, statues, masks, costumes, massive drums, spears and shields. The level of craftsmanship is variable, but can be extremely high. Everything on display is for sale, with the carver of each piece no doubt sitting within earshot chewing, smoking etc. and eager (but not undignifiedly so) for the cash. Needless to say we went a little crazy, coming out with two beautiful carvings, one statue and two ceremonial spears, all of which are currently on their way to my parents’ house in London (Hi Mum! Hi Dad!). Each village, although no more than a few miles apart, has its own distinct traditional style – the people at the post office were able to tell exactly where we had been by the carvings we were trying to send home.

It was while we were sitting on the river bank drinking homebrew (see elsewhere for the suitably flippant tasting notes) that we had an exciting invitation. There was going to be a crocodile skin cutting ceremony in the neighbouring village the very next day. Would we be interested in attending? Bear in mind that these ceremonies involve bloody, lacerated, eighteen year olds screaming for their mothers while being held down by their uncles and sliced repeatedly with knives. While this isn’t normally something we would go out of our way to attend, given we were on the Sepik at the (pretty rare) moment when an initiation was taking place we couldn’t say no. Unfortunately, after an excited night we awoke to find out that the ceremony had been postponed by 24 hours. Would we be able to delay our departure for a day to witness it? This was, unfortunately, a hard No as we were due in Mount Hagen for the – even more spectacular – annual Sing Sing. So we declined, even though the invitation was repeated by the elders when we passed through the relevant village itself.

We make no bones about this in the other posts: travel in PNG is difficult, uncomfortable and expensive. But being able to see such extraordinary places, with ancient, alien traditions being kept alive in deeply taboo circumstances? Absolutely worth it.