Glass Menand Spirit Women in Papua New Guinea
Missionaries have seriously impacted the world’s rich diversity of traditional religions. In Papua New Guinea, the loss of traditional spiritualities has been particularly severe because most groups experienced first contact with the West in the last 100 years. Novel religious forms have come into being, however, through the collision of cultures.
The Asabano, a group of 200 living at Duranmin, near the center of New Guinea Island, are among the most recently contacted groups. Traditional spiritualists, known in Papua New Guinea’s lingua franca Tok Pisin as ol glas man—“glass men” or seers—have been replaced by mainly female Christian spiritualists called ol Spirit meri, or “[Holy] Spirit women.” Both types of practitioners use soul travel that is characteristic of shamanism and spirit possession that is characteristic of mediumship to contact supernatural beings.
Pre-Contact Shamanistic Healers
Techniques to directly contact supernatural beings through altering consciousness and dreaming were a relatively informal part of traditional Asabano religion. Both men and women were involved, though male practitioners were more common, and people varied in the intensity with which they pursued healing, hunting, and other practical ends through direct spiritual contact. The specialist or glass man, known in the vernacular as sanewalemawdu or “secret-sacred man,” was able to see sprites (wild, powerful, humanoid beings) and deceased ancestors, who the Asabano believed provided wild game, enabled healing, and gave other support for people. Glass men could also see the nefarious activities of witches, sorcerers, and evil spirits of trees, stones, and waters. Glass men could see these spiritual beings and doings because “sprites put something in their eyes,” and they were able to travel at night, primarily in dreams, to visit the supernatural beings. They also smoked tobacco to consult with the sprites, who, they say, sat on their backs, caused them to shake, and told them what to say.
When someone was sick, they consulted a glass man to find out the cause, which Asabano understood to be the actions of witches who cannibalized people; sorcerers who poisoned them; or vindictive spirits of stones, trees, and waters who trapped human souls at their haunts. Glass men compelled tree spirits to release souls by offering a pig and singing and identified witches and sorcerers who could be killed.
“Before, when someone was sick they thought a stone or arrowhead was inside the sick person,” elaborated Kanau, a middle-aged father. “So if you were sick, the sprites could come and take it out. The sick person would point to the part that hurt, and they [the glass men working with the sprites] could take it out, show it to the person and then throw it away. But [we now know that] the sprites are not able to break this [magic], only the Spirit of God can do so. Before, witches made people sick. So a man or woman would stand next to a sprite and speak, and remove the object —he or she was a friend of the sprites. The person would smoke, begin to shake just like when the Spirit of God possesses a person, and then he or she would be able to remove the object. The sprite comes and talks with the person, who sees the sprite and the sprite can tell him or her what’s wrong, and then he or she translates.”
In traditional Asabano thought, each person has a little soul, responsible for selfish behavior, and a big soul, responsible for generous behavior. The little soul stays with the body at all times, but the big soul journeys abroad in dreams and death. The big soul is the quintessentially positive self who is capable of meaningful sociality. Glass men exploited the practical implications of these traditional beliefs: dreaming as a way of gathering information, and spirit work to initiate a benevolent social exchange with the sprites. In dreams, the big souls of all people could explore and discover, but those of glass men, with their “opened” eyes, could see what was hidden from most, including the destructive actions of malevolent tree spirits, witches, sorcerers, and little souls of the dead. Through spirit work, when glass men smoked and shook, their big souls could seek contact with benevolent sprites on behalf of people in need. Both of these means allowed them to work for the good of their people.
Missionaries arrived in the 1970s and before the decade ended a charismatic “revival” converted all the Asabano to Baptist Christianity. The movement began with a series of dramatic possession experiences. These mainly struck women, who shook, collapsed, saw visions, and spoke in tongues. Many also experienced dreams in which Jesus and other Christian spirits appeared. These so-called “Spirit women” believe the Holy Spirit descended into them, and continues to do so periodically for a few specialized in “Spirit work.” Christian spirit work has replaced traditional spirit work with sprites, who missionaries and pastors have labeled “Satan’s family.”
Spirit women pray with the sick person, and may experience changed consciousness similar to that which characterized the early revival. In this condition of spirit work, or in a dream on the following night, they say the Holy Spirit shows them pictures, like a video, revealing the cause of the illness, exactly as the sprites formerly showed these things to traditional glass men. Christian spirit workers’ diagnoses are almost identical to those of traditional glass men, with the addition of the client’s own sinfulness as a cause of illness. If sin is revealed to be the cause, prayer and repentance are prescribed. Spirit women prescribe forms of prayer for any illness, though their discoveries tell them how to direct the prayer. If a stone spirit is holding the soul of the person, following fervent prayers a wooden cross is constructed and placed in the path revealed to have been used by the offending spirit, so that Jesus will block it. As an elder named Fugod explained, “The Spirit women say to plant a cross at a certain place, and then when they do the sick person will get better … just like the glass men who would say where to give the offering.” A Spirit woman named Isaguo said that following a Spirit woman’s prayer, “the sick person will get better. When we feel the Holy Spirit go through our belly we feel very happy and nice, and feel like talking. We feel like moving and singing songs. … If people are talking a lot about fighting or other sins are coming up, then the Holy Spirit will come to the [Spirit] woman and help her to say, ‘Stop this, let’s have church.’ ... I think it is the Holy Spirit, not me who is talking.”
Spirits and People
Asabano believe that in their spirit work, other spirits may approach and communicate with them; on the other hand, while in a dream, their own spirit leaves their body and may approach the spirits. The term “shaman” is typically applied to practitioners who send their soul away from their body, while practitioners who receive visits from spirits in their own bodies are usually called “mediums.” Both traditional and Christian Asabano practitioners made use of both techniques in dream and possession experiences. For glass men and spirit women, however, changing clients’ health was not their only purpose. Both also aided in hunting and other practical purposes.
Keeping a Connection
For supernatural practices like shamanistic healing, conversion to a new religion may mean the loss of perceived contact with one set of spirits but a concomitant gain of contact with another set. The most important thing, for those who continue to value religious sensibility, is to retain some means of contact with spiritual forces relevant to continued life. The Asabano, having lost certain religious traditions, have succeeded in continuing to perceive a sense of contact with spiritual powers that are central to their culture.
Rogar Ivar Lohmann is an assistant professor of anthropology at Trent University. He has conducted field research among the Asabano in Papua New Guinea on religious change, and is the editor of Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific and Perspectives on the Category 'Supernatural,’ a special issue of Anthropological Forum.
References and further reading
Herdt, G. (1989). Spirit Familiars in the Religious Imagination of Sambia Shamans. The Religious Imagination in New Guinea. Stephen, M. & Herdt, G., Eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Lohmann, R.I. (2000). The Role of Dreams in Religious Enculturation among the Asabano of Papua New Guinea. Ethos 28:1, pp 75-102.
Lohmann, R.I. (2003). Supernatural Encounters of the Asabano in Two Traditions and Three States of Consciousness. Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific. Lohmann, R.I., Ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
A Former Glass Man Tells His Story
“Okay, the story of wild sprites. Long, long ago, yes, I used to know about them,” said Walen, a former glass man. “I knew about this, but now, at this time, no. Now I … the revival [in which the Asabano converted to Christianity] happened, and I left it [traditional shamanic practice].
My mother, the one who bore me, my mother was a sprite, and my adoptive mother was a woman of the visible world here—the woman who took care of me. My adoptive mother’s child, the sprites got him. [The infants were exchanged while the human mother was at work in a garden.] After a little while, my sprite mother came back to visit me. I was her child, so she came to see me. When she came back … plenty of men were short on money, but I wasn’t. I was never short of money. My mother was a sprite, and she gave me money and I received it.
“After some time, the revival time came up and I left Duranmin and traveled. I didn’t want to reject my sprite, and so I was unhappy and went to Telefomin, to Oksapmin; I traveled all over the place aimlessly. I had this sprite at home, so I didn’t want to reject them and have them run away. Then I came back, sat down, and left them. “I used to get pigs and bring them home. I used to shoot and eat them. Cassowaries—my mother looked after them and I used to get them and bring them home. I shot them and ate them. Pigs too, my mother looked after them and when I was hungry I would talk to her, ‘Mother, I’m hungry for pork, is it all right for me to see a pig?’ And mother would give me a pig. I would carry it to the village—I used to shoot them and eat them.
“Now, not me. The revival time came up, and I left my mother and father, and now it’s just me. I was afraid I’d go to the fire [Hell], so I left them.
“Before, I went to visit them [the sprites]. My mother was there, and we stayed together at her place. My mother and parents were there. I went to sing and dance at their house. When they wanted to have a drum dance they called my name, and I would go. I went and sang with them, traveled with them, and then came back and slept here. After some time, I announced to my [human] father’s family here, ‘Now we’re going back to stay at my parent’s place.’ We were almost ready to go outside, but the revival came up and we gave it up. I gave it up.
“I was there when men were dying, they were sick and nearly dead, but I used to cure them. Before, the false god—the sprites—and I used to cure. Folen’s mother [nearly] died, but I cured her. And Alimisep, whose wife recently died, he was nearly dead and I cured him. Obai’s father was nearly dead, and I cured him. Not anymore. Now I feel that if I follow this path I’ll go to Hell. Or will I be following the good path? Anyway, I left this path. Pigs and cassowaries are finished. I never kill animals anymore: I just watch without seeing anything. That’s all, my story is finished.”