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Crocodile initiation ceremony, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

Bloody scarring ceremony of initiated men, Yenchan Village, Middle Sepik River.....................Ramdas A. Iyer


The Sepik River

With a fascination for primitive cultures and as a collector of primitive art, Papua New Guinea was a country I had always wanted to explore. In 2010 I made a brief foray into Irian Jaya or West Papua ( part of Indonesia) to live among the Dani tribes. I had barely scratched the surface of this island with over 1100 cultures and 850 unique languages; the most diverse human population in the world. In 2017 I gave myself three weeks to experience river, oceanic and mountain cultures of this independent nation of only 6 million people. I chose the magnificent Sepik River province for my first article on PNG in this publication . I so thoroughly enjoyed myself that it resulted in my coming home with malaria contracted perhaps in the swampy areas where most people are always afflicted with the dreaded malaise.

The Sepik River at 1126 km in length and covering an area of 7.7 million hectares is one of the world's greatest river systems. The Sepik River is one of the least developed areas in PNG and home to approximately 430,000 people who depend almost entirely on products from the rivers and forests for their livelihoods. This is perhaps the most linguistically and culturally diverse area in the planet with over 300 languages in an area the size of France. The area is famed for the gabled spirit houses or "haus tambarans", one of the most dramatic examples of indigenous Melanesian architecture, and a very rich ceremonial carving and music tradition. Sepik peoples maintain their cultural integrity proudly and have influenced styles across the nation. Vegetation types, at altitudes from 0 to 3800 meters mean sea level include mangrove forest, herb swamps, tall lowland rainforest, cloud forest, and alpine heaths . Important water bird and crocodile populations are supported by the 1500 lakes and other wetlands associated with the basin.

Winding down from the timeless cloud forests of New Guinea’s Central Range, the Sepik River is most intact freshwater basins in the Asia Pacific region. The soul of Papua New Guinea, the Sepik is often compared with the Amazon and the Nile, and it sustains an amazing variety of flora and fauna — much of it endemic — along with a wellspring of human cultural expression. In particular, many of the region’s people are economically, culturally and spiritually tied to the crocodiles of the river. Along the banks of the river and its many tributaries live sparsely scattered, remote villages, scarcely contacted by the outside world, where people live a lifestyle that has changed little for thousands of years.

Revering the crocodiles that inhabit the rivers, the people of the Sepik have traditions and customs that can be found nowhere else, building large and elaborate twin level spirit houses (haus tambaran) in their villages to house the good spirits while producing intricate wood carvings to ward off the evil spirits. The top level is normally reserved for initiation ceremonies and a place holder for war shields, weaponry and skull racks containing decorated skulls of ancestors and enemies. This practise was stopped by missionaries in the 1950s. A dugout canoe journey through the Sepik Basin is both a cultural discovery of National Geographic proportions, and a retreat to a world where mankind survives at the mercy of nature. Ritual, genealogical and historical knowledge defines one group from another and maintains the distinctions that facilitate trade. The Sepik is a gallery of tribal art, where each village boasts a unique style and every villager an artisan.

Small wonder that the Sepik River area was declared a world heritage culture by UNESCO in 2006.


Head hunting was a river culture practice in the Sepik area. The fact that young men could only come of age in these regions by taking a head, suggests how incessant warfare must have been. The Iatmul people of the Sepik would take the heads in battle, boil away the flesh and hang the painted and decorated skulls as trophies in the men's houses. The head hunters were not necessarily cannibals, but many were. Human flesh was eaten until fairly recently and some of the older men from villages remember tasting it as children.

The men's house ( haus tambaran in pidgin) is the place where important decisions regarding the village are made, where boys are initiated and become men and ceremonies to please the spirits are performed. Here the crocodile is worshiped as the water spirit. In excruciatingly painful ceremonies young men have their backs cut to resemble the markings of the crocodile, which is a symbol of strength and power.
My itinerary took me from Pagwi, where the road from the coastal town of Weewak ends, in the middle Sepik area to Tonganjamb in the upper Sepik region. My trip also allowed me to navigate the large Chambri and Wagu lake areas and their associated cultures. On the first evening I arrived at a riverside hamlet attached to the ancient Palembei village of the Iatmul people. The Iatmul numbering around 10,000 inhabitants are the original crocodile worshippers and their clan and sub clans inhabit villages such as Kanganamun, Palimbe, Korogo, Tanbanom, Pagwi, Kamanibit, Yenchen,Chambri and many others. My host who was the son of the chief of Palembe, mentioned that at Yenchan village across the mile wide river an initiation for 5 youths was underway.

I immediately seized the opportunity and reached the village before sundown. Yenchan has a small spirit house by the river bank and as I arrived along the river I could see the entire structure fenced off with palm leaves to create a curtain for the secret affairs taking take place inside. Local women and the uninitiated are forbidden to see the rituals but an exception is made to travelers as they are not considered one of their own.
The Yenchan boys who undergo the ritual can be anywhere from 12-35 years of age. This is an expensive ritual, which takes the parents and families a long time to save money for their sons to undergo the skin cutting ceremonies. The age gap is also wide because these rituals only occur every 4-5 years. During this time, the boys reside in the Spirit House for 1-3 months, where they receive training, from the elders, on how to be a man and how to embody the manly identity. They are submitted to the scarification rituals, which may take days to weeks to finish. Once the scarring is done, the boys’ cuts are filled with medicinal mud and herbs to aid in the healing of the scars. The place where the cutting takes place resembles that of a bloody war ground. This is done on purpose, to symbolize strength and survival. It is of Iatmul belief that men should reside in Spirit Houses for a major part of their day after they have undergone initiation rituals, because it is there where they discuss village matters, where they bond with other men, and where they ultimately prepare for war, if needed. It is also important that men travel in groups and undergo scarification rituals in groups to strengthen their bonds and relationships.

For these young men, not only does it signify strength, masculinity and dedication to the tribe, but it is an exclusively male practice that emphasizes the importance of brotherhood. These rituals symbolize the expelling of the mother’s post-partum blood. This is why there are hundreds of small cuts made in the torso area, to expel blood from the mother and to allow the crocodile spirits of manhood to enter the male body. This symbolizes the divorce of young men from their mothers, and it prepares them for a symbolic transition into being “as strong as the crocodiles of the Sepik.” These rituals emphasize the importance of a “male-centered” community and symbolize the idea that “men come from other men.” According to their myths, it was initially women who resided in the Spirit House, but the men stole the right and became the “bearers of man.” This is evident in the fact that women are not allowed anywhere near the Spirit House.
I proceeded to discuss the details of this process inside the spirit houses where several senior members were keeping an eye on the young initiates.
Myth of the Crocodile

According to their verbal history, an ancestor was hunting in a canoe and saw something in the water so he dived deep into the water where he spotted a spirit house and within it lived a crocodile. The man remained
with the crocodile for months learning its secrets and power. When the man returned to his village, he taught his people how to build spirit houses as well as how to cut their skin to
resemble a crocodile. The Iatmul rely on the power and knowledge of the crocodile spirit ever since ( source: Tattoo Hunter, 2011).

The initiation ceremony
The young boys are secluded for 2 months upstairs in the Spirit House where they learn carefully guarded secrets of tribal knowledge from elders. The initiates are only allowed outside briefly but only if they are covered in a shroud. As part of the preparation, the village men sing in the spirit house teaching the initiates sacred chants and mythologies which will help them become men. This education also allows them to train for their future roles in society. Sacrifice plays a major role in their coming of age ritual. First off, the men sacrifice eight weeks of their lives, separated from society and every family member in their village, for this brutal rite to occur. During this time, they are put under strict regulations and are forced to meditate for around 6 hours each day. They are also not allowed to eat or take actions that may please their desires. The offering of each man’s body for the brutal ritual of skin cutting is the most intense sacrifice in this ritual. The pain these men must endure is incredibly severe. Even though it is rare, there have been cases of men dying during this ritual. The offering of their bodies to this suffereing shows their dedication to their tribe and is taken seriously by one and all.

Since pain is crucial for transforming a boy into a man it is believed that after the ritual they are capable of conquering any problems in life. It is a test of strength and discipline The initiates lay down and are cradled by their uncles while the professional cutter cuts open onto the initiate’s body ( Borrowed pictures from the web). Traditionally, the tool used for the ritual is a bamboo sliver, today razors are used. The ritual takes over an hour where they will receive over 1000 severed cuts. They are given a leaf to chew their teeth with during the cutting. Their backs, buttocks, and chest all receive multiple lacerations with bamboo slivers, creating scars that when healed form keloid scars. For days they rest and recuperate in order for the crocodile’s power to seep into their bodies. A special paste made from clay is put into their cuts with a feather to become infected. In many cases death has been reported from these infections.

The more infected the cuts, the more larger and raised the scars become. A week after the scarring, the elders prepare the new men for the graduation ceremony where they are presented to the rest of the tribe and honored for their strength and bravery. Usually a crocodile masked dance is organized while the mothers and family of the new initiates welcome them with happiness and tears. This scarring ceremony is considered one of the most painful and agonizing of rites of passage ceremonies among tribal tradition watchers around the world. As an example in nearby Vaanatu, these Melanesian islanders have their youth jump on bungee chords over land from towers erected for initiation often breaking their fall a few inches from ground. ( Bungee tradition started there).

As you can see from the photos attached, I was not there for the cutting ceremony but caught up with the boys during the healing process. The spirit house, the center of which sits the orator's stool where myths, legends and preparation for war are all discussed by the elders. Like most tribes the Iatmul were a warring tribe and planned ritual wars against their traditional enemies that resulted in head hunting. I cannot but thank my stars for actually witnessing one of these ancient rituals which may not stand the test of a few more years. The boys were in apparent pain especially with coal embers scorching their already maimed skin. Yet they found it interesting to talk to me briefly as some of them spoke a bit of English having worked in bigger cities. They are normally naked and cover themselves when women are present. My travelling companion from Wiesbaden, Tanja Rothermel, with whom I shared the costs of the river journey, was with me so they covered themselves with leaves during her time inside the spirit house.
For people interested in seeing the entire ritual this You tube video from National Geographic offers a good visual.( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJDOh3VSoxQ).

Author's conclusive remarks:

Initiation ceremonies such as baptism, upanayana, confirmation and Bar or Bat Mitzvah are considered important rites of passage in their respective religions. Initiation rites are seen as fundamental to human growth and development as well as socialization in many communities.
Initiation rites are a natural and necessary part of a community. These rites are paramount to the development of an individual as well as the community.
Most of the ancient rites of passage can be separated and classified into five groups. Birth as a rite of passage, rite of passage into adulthood, marriage rite, riteof household leadership and rite to becoming stellar ancestors. This fascination with primitive cultures and their attention to detail to the various stages in one's life makes it a fascinating observation for me. I am fortunate to have an Indian upbringing that allowed me to enjoy this path but occasionally lament their loss for my own progeny who were raised in the USA.


Onnit Academy- Rites of Passage
UNESCO website
From Boys to Men: Suzanna Carranza
Scarification Rituals of PNG: Jessica Gray
Alamy Photo web images ( non profit use)



Questions and Comments: [email protected]

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 05:21 Archived in Papua New Guinea Tagged river new crocodile guinea spirit cult haus initiation tambaran housepapua iatmul palembe yenchan sepik Comments (4)

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