Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Sepik Spirituality: Totems

The Sepik people’s rich spirituality draws from the grandeur of their natural surroundings, and the objects they created reflect these beliefs. The headrest is imbued with an especially significant spirituality because of its association with the mystical aura of sleep. Sleep was recognized as the most intimate relationship with the spirit realm, therefore the decoration on headrests was especially intertwined with their spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, the human head is associated with concepts of power, therefore anything that was created to support this power was subsequently revered.

    Sepik spirituality was highly individualized, with each kinship group within a village taking an emblematic name, or totem, from the birds and animals of the Sepik River region. A totem serves as the group's symbol and signifies their ancestral heritage — though they all recognized a common ancestry with the crocodile. Elders who have memorized the copious totemic emblems hold great prestige and power within the village. Representations of the animal totems, such as the crocodiles on this headrest, are important in honoring and nurturing relationships with the ancestors.

    Crocodiles feature prominently in the legends and rites of passage of various Sepik tribes, as the river is one of the most densely populated crocodile habitats in the world. Stories vary among the hundreds of villages, but there is a common belief that the men have descended from crocodiles, and return to this powerful state through a ritual scarring process that emulates the raised bumps of crocodile skin.

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