Embodied Spirits [Asmat, around Agats (east of Mimika) in Irian Jaya]







Creating Embodied Spirits

Tobias Schneebaum



Managing the Power of Spirits

" "



Primary Religious & Philosophical Concepts

Alphonse A. Sowada




Gerard A. Zegwaard


p. 37 the types (shapes) of shields

visi (‘rayfish’)

mbu (‘turtle’)

pi (‘cassowary’)

pp. 38-9 graphic designs repraesenting various animals etc.


object repraesented



ainor (‘mysterious’)

minuscule "m" with inwards-turned ends


fatsjep (‘cuscus’)

curl curled at each end


wenet (‘preying mantis’)

diagonal interweaving


eu tsjen (‘crocodile vagina’)



emak (‘bone’)

interhooked curves


sanaer (‘spider’)

vertical line of squares vertex-on-vertex


eu djim (‘crocodile ribs’)



pife (‘cassowary’)



pomar (‘heron’)



worot (‘wading bird’)

ainor-sign topped with mushroom-shape


far (‘butterfly’)

concentric lozenges


ufir (‘black king-cockatoo’)

Kemetic "moon"-hieroglyph


ake (‘fish’)

bracket with in-turned ends


taghat (‘river-tributary’)

square spiral


okain gambu (‘whirlpool’)

ordinary (round) spiral

p. 45 soul-ship (caerimonial canoe for voyaging spirits)

"The soulship, or wuramon, ... is carved in the shape of a canoe and might be as long as 11 or 12 meters. ... According to ritual, the carved spirits must be ... :

Etsjo are humanlife creatures that crouch facedown in the canoe;

ambirak is a being that lives in the bottom of rivers and streams and is ... squatting ...;

mbu, a turtle ...;

okom is a spirit shaped like a Z that crawls at the bottom of the ... waters ... .

Sometimes a jenitsjowotsj, a female spirit ..., is included."

{(C&C, pp. 364-5) [C&C, p. 364] "a ci tree ..., which Yepem was shaping into a canoe. ... [C&C, p. 365] "Our brother Suru ..., ... Every day he shapes a canoe out of a huge yuwur tree, but at night it changes back into an unworked tree trunk. ... .""} {This was likewise the plight of [the Maori hero] Rata.}

C&C = Zubrinich, Kerry 1997 Cosmology and Colonisation: History and Culture of the Asmat. PhD diss, Charles Sturt U, 1997. http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/zubrinich/09.pdf [pdf]

pp. 52, 56 death

p. 52

"In the Asmat tradition, when someone dies, the women of the family immediately throw off their girdles".

p. 56

"The skull was inherited by the eldest child, ... who kept it close ..., using it as a pillow at night or carrying it during the day".

p. 53 myth of talking decapitated head {cf. [Cymry] Bran, [Thraikian] Orpheus}

[2 brethren : the elder Desoipitsj & the younger Biwiripitsj] "Desoipitsj, in fact demonstrates what is to be done by having Biwiripitsj actually kill and decapitate him. His bodiless head ... then proceeds to give instructions to Biwiripitsj, even telling him how the various sections of the body should be cooked, ... which parts are to be mixed with sago and made into long tubes before cooking."

{( C&C, pp. 169-70) [C&C, p. 169] At Sitan, Beworpits qnd his wife Teweraut ... lived. ... Suddenly they heard a strange voice coming from the bones of Seitakap which were burning in the fire. The voice asked Beworpits [C&C, p. 170] about the songs they were singing .... Beworpits replied that they were singing the Daiso song {viz., composed by DESOi-pitsj} ... . ...

[C&C, p. 170] Seitakap began by explaining that he was not really dead but, that he had already made the canoe trip to the village of his ancestors to live with them. The place was to the west beyond the sea."}

C&C = Zubrinich, Kerry 1997 Cosmology and Colonisation: History and Culture of the Asmat. PhD diss, Charles Sturt U, 1997. http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/zubrinich/03.pdf [pdf]

pp. 53, 59 women

p. 53

"Women ... were sometimes captured ... and ... raped".

p. 59

"young girls went naked until marriage, when they put on the awer, a girdle".

p. 65 founders of particular villages

"the woman Tjowotsjbiwar ... placed male leaders ... in the spots along the coast that today are known as Owus, Per, Yepem, Sjuru, and Ewer."

{[C&C, p. 362] "Baitep’s sons were Nanew, Ewer, Kamkai, ... Yepem, Suru ... . Baitep’s father was Manufuko. ... A big boar had sired him, and his name was Baitep. ...

[C&C, p. 363] He rooted up the tubers of the yen and mambu plant, and also a mimikam vine. When he had lifted them out, thus opening a hole in the sky, Baitep slid down through it. {Likewise in Iroquois mythology, a plant is uprooted in the sky-world, thus producing a hole wherethrough the sky-people descend to earth.} There, underneath the hole, stood a tall breadfruit tree which was forked. ...

[C&C, p. 364] There in the river lived a tortoise, Buciawuc. She was an Asmat woman. ... . ... up the river ... lived ... that woman Okomberawuc!"

{(C&C, pp. 362-3) [C&C, p. 362] The sky-world is inhabited by "the Bleeding-shin people, the Crooked-shin people and the Protruding-Forehead people"; also by [C&C, p. 363] "the Bleeding-Buttocks people, the Crooked-Thigh people and the Deformed-Buttocks people".

C&C = Zubrinich, Kerry 1997 Cosmology and Colonisation: History and Culture of the Asmat. PhD diss, Charles Sturt U, 1997. http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/zubrinich/09.pdf

pp. 26, 65-6 myth of Fumeripitsj




"When Fumeripitsj, with his friend, traveled downstream to the mouth of the Suretsj River, he happened upon a group of beautiful young women. Fumeripitsj immediately became enamored with one ... .


The favored woman, in order to hide Fumeripitsj from ... her sisters, wrapped him in sago leaves.

{("LC") "Coyolxauhqui's brother jumped out of his mother to kill Coyolxauhqui. Lord Huitzilopochtli sacrificed Coyolxauhqui by ripping her to pieces and throwing her body parts into the sky".}

66, 26

[p. 66] On the rough trip across the Suretsj River, a wave swept him into the turbulent waters. ... .

[p. 26] "Fumeripitsj, the creator, fell into the river and drowned. ...

66, 26

[p. 66] ... the medicine bird, the eagle, ... performed a healing rite over him, bringing him back to life. ... .

[p. 26] War, the great sea eagle, ... anointed the joints {cf. belief, in Borneo, of souls at the articulations of joints of the body} of Fumeripitsj ... . ... Fumeripitsj began to move. Suddenly he began to scream ... .

66, 26

[p. 66] ... Fumeripitsj ... carved wooden male and female statues."

[p. 26] Fumeripitsj ... cut down trees and carved figures ... . Some were male; some were female. ... {(C&C, p. 383) "Fimbiriw created the first men ... . ... All the time he carved figures."}


Fumeripitsj ... hollowed out a section of log, and carved a drum. He covered one end with a lizard skin, gluing it there with lime and some of his own blood ... .

66, 26

[p. 66] "These he brought to life by drumming and singing. This story, however, specifies these people as Mimikan, not Asmat – namely the villagers of Atuka, Timika, Kekua".

[p. 26] When Fumeripitsj beat on the drum, the figures began to move, awkwardly at first, but then their joints loosened {puppets’ or dolls’ articulated joints}, and they began to dance ... . Thus the Asmat came into being." {cf. dancing by trees to the music of Orpheus (GM 28.a, 28.2)}


"Later, Fumeripitsj was attacked by a crocodile. He ... killed it, cut up the body, and threw the many pieces up into the sky." [This crocodile may have been female, in view of the design-element "eu tsjen" (‘crocodile vagina’ – p. 38)]

{("LC") "After cutting off the head of her mother, Coyolxauhqui's brother jumped out of his mother to kill Coyolxauhqui. Lord Huitzilopochtli sacrificed Coyolxauhqui by ripping her to pieces and throwing her body parts into the sky".}

C&C = Zubrinich, Kerry 1997 Cosmology and Colonisation: History and Culture of the Asmat. PhD diss, Charles Sturt U, 1997. http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/zubrinich/09.pdf

GM = Robert Graves : The Greek Myths. 1955.

"LC" = http://www.jaguarmovement.org/coyolxauhqui.html

pp. 74, 66-7 varieties of souls




"human beings are born with two internal animating forces, yuwus and ndamup. ...

66, 74

[p. 66] Yuwus is considered ... proper to humans only. Yuwus resides in the area below the navel because it is in this region that the emotions ... are experientially felt. It is a power center {cf. Japanese /hara/} with a threadlike connection to the navel. {cf. the "silver cord" of European occultists} ...

(p. 74) "the word yuwus means both soul and name. Yuwus resides in the areas beneath the navel, the center for emotions ... . The yuwus may leave the body for a short time when its owner dreams. ... It is imagined as a small being ... . ... The nat {cf. Skt. /natha/ ‘refuge’} yuwus, or spirit name, is highly taboo, only divulged to close relatives {there is likewise a Chinese type of name divulged only to close relatives and affines}, and is used exclusively during the day."


All people, but also animals, are born with the power of ndamup. The Asmat ... believe that when a person sleeps, his or her ndamup is able to leave the body and roam about. Upon meeting the roaming ndamup, people mistake it for the real {material} person. It responds as a normal human being would when addressed."


"Ndet is an ancestral spirit that infuses itself in a human being ... . ... Until an individual receives ndet, he or she is not yet a real person and is just called joser (no name)."

p. 67 ndet & samu

"when the time arises for ancestral spirits to return to the world of the living again as humans, the usually hide themselves in the bodies of green tree frogs. They hop about ... among the women ... . Each spirit searches for an exemplary woman to become its mother ... . Once the spirit determines who will become its future mother, it hops upon her right shoulder and conception takes place instantaneously. However, ... the spirit actually ... completes the individual later, only when the child is named after it. The child is unerrringly given the correct spirit name – that is, the exact spirit who hopped upon the woman’s right shoulder, because the ndamer epcon ow, a person gifted with contacting the spirits directly, obtains exact knowledge about the matter. ... The Asmat believe that all living things possess ndet : humans, animals, and plants. ... The Asmat also give ndet names to ... the figures on ancestor poles, statues, ceremonial house poles, foundation poles ..., shields, and the prow-heads of dug-outs. Once these objects are named after the ancestors, the ancestors imbue them with powers and thereby protect the user."

"another spiritual force in the body known as samu ... prompts abnormal behavior."

pp. 68-9 ritual & magic

p. 68

"The mask feast, a time when the ancestors visit the living, ... dramatically brings the ancestors to the sight and presence of the living. ...

p. 69

Ritual, if correctly performed, is always efficacious."

"A man becomes a successful hunter because he has hit upon ... a magical potion. ... Once a person, a family head, or a clan leader has discovered efficacious magic, he will hand it down to his son or to ... relatives ..., but it must remain secret to be efficacious, for therein lies its efficacy."

p. 69 prohibitions

__ is forbidden

lest __

"[Sexual] intercourse ... between parents until the child either begins to walk or grows its first tooth"

"the child might die."

"pregnant mothers ... to eat fish with scales"

"doing so might harm the new life."

pp. 70-1 return by souls of the dead in order to become redincarnate

p. 70

souls of the dead : "Once freed, they can journey to the land of the spirits, safan, in the land of ji ow. ... From here, they return to the living – for instance, during the spirit mask feast – and from here, too, they come to be reincarnated."

p. 71

"they stopped at a whirlpool in the river and told ... that the Uwus {cf. the name of the />UWaySi/ s.ufi-s (of the Uighur)} men and women believe that this whirlpool [p. 37 : "beheaded at whirlpools ..., where the spirits dwell."] is the exit for spirits living down below. Women ... who want to have a baby ... go up close and scoop up a few handfuls of water and drink them down."

p. 70 praedatory souls of dead women

"In the case of women who die during childbirth, ... their spirits, tememer, ...

{"Pontianak by all accounts are thought to be that of young women who have unexpectedly just died during or from the pains of childbirth and became undead vampire like beings" ("MVRS")}

capture unwary males and take them to huts beneath the water built on river bottoms.

{cf. the submarine abode, built on the ocean-bottom, of Eskimo goddess Sedna, often visited by a male shaman seeking to mollify her}

Here they imprison and torture the men by sticking thorns into them until they die.

{cf. "the penggalan’s dread of thorns in which her intestines with its entrails dangling down may happen to get caught." (MM, p. 329)} {St. Paul, who conspicuously lacked a wife, described himself as suffering a "thorn in the flesh"} ...

However, men exercise care so as not to be captured by a tememer. The only refuge is to climb a pandanus palm tree."

{cf. Malayan "Maneden- A creature that dwelt in a wild pandanus plant. If a human attacked the plant, the creature would retaliate ... . ... Pontianaks also seduce young men, in the form of a maiden. (Java)" ("VN").}

"MVRS" = http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/ghosts/Pontianak.php

MM = Walter William Skeat : Malay Magic. Macmillan & Co. http://www.archive.org/stream/malaymagicbeingi00skeauoft/malaymagicbeingi00skeauoft_djvu.txt

"VN" = http://www.vampyres.ca/20070524/vampyre-his-kith-and-kin/vampire-names

pp. 71-2 prae-incarnational & praenatal memory




" "Before I was born," he said, "I used to live in the jungle with my spirit parents. We were embodied in yok lizards ... . I was still very young when one day ... I ... took a banana from the bunch my mother had stored away ... . {cf. eating of forbidden fruit by >adam and his wife (B-Re>s^it 3:6)} I decided to hide. {">adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of YHWH >lohi^m" (B-Re>s^it 3:8).} ... I saw a young woman. She was chopping fire wood ... . ... I followed her into the house and ... she undressed and took a fresh skirt from the attic where I was hiding. ...


The only thing for me to do was to enter her womb. Meanwhile, ... My spirit ... mother followed my track all the way to the village. She knew what had happened ... . She contacted Amfar, a female spirit familiar, and told her that she was anxious to have me back after my human mother ... . ... My human parents protested"". {cf. Taoist consultation with spirit-medium after an infant’s birth, in order to determine the infant’s parentage in the praevious incarnation}

p. 72 origin-places of non-yet-incarnate souls {cf. similar Australian aboriginal beliefs}

"When an embryo in the womb of a pregnant woman ... suddenly starts to move ..., ... the Asmat-ow explain by the impact of an invisible being or spirit, exactly in the way that they explain the movement of celestial bodies."

"Spirit children originate from various places.

Some arrive on the beams of the setting sun and

others from the other side of the sea (the underworld) {this would be metempsychosis : "Simpelaere (1983:164-165) ... does ... impute reincarnation" (C&C, p. 147)};

some come from the jungle, where they are embodied in lizards, frogs, or birds;

and some emerge from a place below the water of a river."

C&C = Zubrinich, Kerry 1997 Cosmology and Colonisation: History and Culture of the Asmat. PhD diss, Charles Sturt U, 1997. http://www.papuaweb.org/dlib/s123/zubrinich/03.pdf [pdf]

Simpelaere 1983 = P. Simpelaere : Bij Het Volk Van De Asmat. Bussum.

p. 73 ro^le of paternity in conception of a foetus; example of bestowal of a name on a female

"The father’s role in the reproductive process is restricted to two functions :

he must feed ... the embryo with his sperm by frequent copulations; and

he must shape the embryo with the motions of his penis during copulation."

"When [a new mother] delivered a baby girl resembling herself, ... her husband ... saying, "Cen Pecak" (her vagina is no good). The baby was then named Cenpecak, a name she lived with all her life."

p. 74 spirit-familiars

"In every men’s house there are one or more spirit familiars, usually female, who receive messages from their contact spirits – that is, from the spirits of the tribal ancestors or other culture heroes. {In more customary usage, the term "spirit familiar" (in the form "familiar spirit") would refer to the spirit itself, rather than to the human spirit-medium.} These are benevolent spirits concerned with the well-being of their descendants. The spirit familiars either understand and communicate with the spirit world through the spirit language (such as whistling sounds ...) or are able to see their contact spirit in dreams ... . ... The spirit familiars depend on the pleasure and mood of their "bosses." ... The spirits know where their agents live and identify them by the odor of their bodies. Spirits are well known for their keen sense of smell. ...

The spirit familiar instructs the parents on how to keep their child ... . To prevent it from returning to its place of origin, that place must be kept secret. Everything relating to this place – food, firewood, and so on -- is karo, or ... forbidden.

p. 74 spirit-based human cognation

"Children who receive their names from the same spirit familiar ... are spirit brothers and sisters to one another; they are ... as-akap and ai-akap. As long as they are children, their parents make them play together ... . As adults, spirit brothers and sisters are not permitted to" marry.

Tobias Schneebaum (ed.) : Embodied Spirits : Ritual Carvings of the Asmat. Peabody Museum of Salem (MA), 1990.