Ancestor Spirits in Papua New Guinea

Though there is in PNG an extraordinary range of styles, materials and motifs, there is also an underlying unity in that their art is a manifestation of the religious beliefs of the people.  Firstly, the necessity of obtaining and retaining the support in all life’s endeavours of the group’s ancestors, both actual and mythical.  Secondly, the identification of the spirits of the living and the dead with the spirits of certain animals e.g. the crocodile, pig and cassowary (a flightless bird up to 5 feet tall).  Everything, both animate and inanimate, has a spirit essence that survives indefinitely and, therefore, needs constantly to be acknowledged and appeased.


The cult of ancestors is secret and practised by men only and is centred, as is much of ritual life, on the men’s spirit house.  This is a very large communal structure where initiated men congregate and, in some regions, where the men live segregated from the women.  It is the residing place for ancestor spirits, the place where warring and hunting expeditions are planned and where sacred ritual artefacts are fabricated.  It is the centre for the dramatic and elaborate rituals associated with boys’ initiation (tambaran rites) and clan funerals.  All of these require special cult objects that are characteristic of kinship groups, such as dance masks, costumes, effigy figures, drums, flutes and other paraphernalia.  Similarly, in cultures that cultivate yams, great importance attaches to yam fertility and harvest which is reflected in rituals that require special sculptures and paintings to be made.  After use, artefacts that are not sold and are not intended to be seen by the uninitiated, are kept on display in the men’s house which is also decorated internally and externally with brightly painted panels.