Traditional Beliefs in Papua New Guinea

Religious activities, including magical practices, were associated with all important events. Religious, economic, social and cultural activities were interwoven. Religious beliefs governed the villagers’ relationship with their physical environment, the spirits of their ancestors, non-human spirits, relationships within the group, and between groups. Religious activities were an attempt to explain and control the physical environment and social relationships. There are no words which can be equated with the European concept of religion. There are words for particular magical techniques and rituals. Rituals were often supported by taboos on sex, food or water. All societies believed that sorcerers could cause harm by using ritual. Catastrophes, most theft, serious injury, sickness and death were attributed to sorcery. While most sorcerers were men, some areas had women sorcerers and women who assisted male sorcerers.

All societies had myths which supported religious beliefs. There are few myths concerning the creation of the universe but there are many which relate how, and why, people came to live in particular areas and the origins of particular plants, animals and fish. The accuracy of these stories was not questioned but accepted as correct accounts of actual events.

Today over 90 percent of adults profess Christianity. However, for many people, Christianity and traditional beliefs coexist. The most important is the belief in sorcery. Although sorcery is illegal it is still widely practiced. Many people still automatically assume that serious illness or death has been caused by a sorcerer. The response to sorcery is counter-sorcery or physical violence.

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