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Society, ritual and symbolism in Umeda village (West Sepik District, New Guinea)

Gell, Antony Francis (1973) Society, ritual and symbolism in Umeda village (West Sepik District, New Guinea). PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) .

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This thesis concerns the people of Umeda village, one of the four villages which make up the Waina-Sowanda Census district of the West Sepik district of New Guinea. The thesis falls into three major parts. In the first part (Chapters 1 and 2) the major features of the social structure are outlined. The economy (based on Sago, hunting, and gardening) is described. The discussion of Social Structure looks at various 'levels' of organisation starting with the cost inclusive and working downwards. These levels are 1) the connubium, 2) the village, 3) Village societies 4) Bush associations 5) the hamlet 6) hamlet societies 7) clans and sub-clans, and 8) the household. The main theme of the discussion is the role of marriage alliance, set up through sister-exchanges between exogamous (patrilineal) clan-hamlets, as the 'lateral’ bonding element in the social structure. It is shown, for instance, that members of the society conceptualise its overall structure in terms of 'compatibilities’ set up by alliance relationships. These alliance relations, though actually shifting slightly with each generation are seen as permanent structural features. This is given symbolic expression in the Village- and Hamlet-moiety organisation. The opposition of kinship relations (within the clan-hamlet) and alliance relations (outside it) is postulated as the basis of a pervasive opposition between ‘central’ and 'lateral' -- an opposition which underlies the moiety organisation, and which is also of crucial importance in understanding the Symbolic System as found e.g. in Ritual. Later sections of Chapter 2 (viii - xi) discuss interpersonal relations in more detail. The problems posed by sorcery beliefs are discussed in relation to marriage and sexual relations generally. The concept of 'tadv' - relations (killing, eating, shooting, and copulating with the other} are discussed as the basic modality of ego-alter relations across sociological boundaries. Sorcery is the reciprocal of marriage. Chapter 3 takes up the second major theme of the Thesis. This chapter is devoted to linguistic symbolism, particularly in relation to the basic social and kinship roles. Three forms of linguistic symbolism (or 'lexical motivation’) are distinguished; 1) semantic motivation 2) morphological motivation 3) psychological motivation. Chapter 3 concerns itself only with the first two kinds, Phonological motivation in Umeda being explored in Appendix I as it poses problems which go beyond the purely Anthropological. It is shown that the Umeda vocabulary contains many implicit clues as to the symbolic system of the people. A system of analogies is demonstrated, using lexical evidence, between the structure of the body, the structure of botanical entities such as trees and the overall structure of the society. Once again the ‘central/lateral’ opposition is shown to be crucial, but this is further elaborated into a notion of ‘organic structure’ -- a structural model applicable both to biological and sociological organisms. Considerable attention is devoted to an analysis of Umeda tree symbolism: for instance, the fact that the Mother's Brother is (lexically) identified with the Sago Palm, the Ancestors with the Coconut palm and so on. Chapter 3 thus performs a 'bridging’ function between the first part of the thesis which is basically concerned with Sociological questions, and the second part which is concerned with Ritual Symbolism. Through a consideration of language, an understanding is gained both of the 'organic' metaphor at the heart of Umeda symbolism, and of the way in which this kind of metaphor meshes in with the details of the functioning of the social system, dominated by certain basic kinship roles. Chapter 4 is mainly descriptive. The Ida fertility rites, performed annually to increase the productivity of the sago palms are described in detail. A discussion of the actual ceremonies is preceded by an account of the many months of preparations for the ritual. It is argued that the ritual, and the need to accumulate supplies of food for its performance, imposes pattern and discipline on mundane economic activity. The ceremonies themselves consist of the appearance, over the course of a night and the subsequent two days, of a sequence of masked dancers (all male) representing various ritual roles. The most important roles are those of 1) cassowaries, 2) fish --- of which there are two kinds, the one red, the other black, 3) sago, 4) termites and 5) ipele bowmen, representing neophytes accompanied by preceptors. Chapter 5 takes the various ritual roles in order of their appearance and analyses their symbolic significance. A preliminary discussion is devoted to methodological issues. Subsequent sections discuss ritual roles under a number of rubrics e.g. the significance in practical or mythological terms of the animal or species represented, the significance of the constraints on actors taking certain roles, the significance of body-paint styles and mask styles, the (significances of various methods of dancing etc. All these ‘role attributes’ are set out in Tabular diagram-form (Table 5). The problem then becomes the analysis of the ritual process, seen as a sequence of transformations taking place in the attributes of successive ritual actors over the course of the total rite. It is demonstrated that the Ida ritual can be best understood as a concrete and dramatic representation of the overall process of bio-social regeneration. The cassowaries, who open the ritual, are shown transformed, and regenerated, as the (neophyte) bowmen, whose loosing off of magical arrows (ipele) is the culmination, and concluding, act of the ritual cycle. This finding is supported by detailed analyses of the transformations of mask-styles and body paint styles throughout the ritual. An extended account is given of Umeda colour symbolism. This leads, finally, to a discussion of the ritual representation of Time. It is argued that the ritual is a means of (symbolically) renewing Time. Certain contradictions inherent in the notion of temporality are specified, and the ritual is seen as a means of overcoming these contradictions within the cultural and symbolic milieu of Umeda. This chapter concludes the main part of the thesis. Two appendices deal I) with phonological motivation in Umeda – it is argued that articulatory features are employed expressively in the structure of Umeda lexical items. II) An appendix gives the complete Pul-tod Myth – a myth referred to at various points in the structure in the thesis, concerning the adventures of the ‘Oedipal’ hero, Pul-tod (Areca-man).

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 1973 Antony Francis Gell
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Forge, Anthony

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