Ancestor Figures in Papua New Guinea

Kowars: Honoring Discerning Decedents/Dissing the Doltish Dead

Last week we were treated to a wonderful tour of some of the Oceania collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Our extremely knowledgeable and entertaining guide, Dr. Eric Kjellgren (a curator at the museum), showed us some great pieces including these korwars (ancestor figures).

Kowars were made by people living in northwestern New Guinea, Indonesia.  According to Dr. Kjellgre, when a person died, his or her family would hire a special carver/priest to fashion a figure to contain the decedent’s soul for when the family wanted to consult the decedent.   The korwar would stay with the decedent’s family and they would consult it before making any big decisions (whether to take a boat voyage or enter a war, for example).

Kowars that gave good advice were highly valued, but kowars that gave bad advice were punished! Descendants might toss around a kowar that gave bum advice.  They might even smash it.

Even sensible kowars lost their powers over time though.  Once the powers were gone, the family would reunite the kowar with his or her bones,  which were waiting for the kowar in a cave because the people who made kowars didn’t bury decedents – they left them in caves.

An Ancestor Who Came to Life

The Sawos people who lived in another area of New Guinea made large ancestor figures of particularly important warriors who would guard over their villages, if the villagers treated them respectfully.  Ancestor figures who were mistreated could wreak havoc.  This figure, made in the 19th century (or even earlier) was of a powerful ancestor named Minjemtimi.

The people of his clan claim that during an attack by another village, Minjemtimi came to life and entered the battle.  His arm was cut off during the fray and he turned back into wood.  You can see the holes drilled to reattach his arm to his body with cord.

We will be sure to visit Minjemtimi on our class tour!


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