In this excerpt of my new novel, Rituals of the Dead, Zelda sees a bis pole for the first time. She’s not as impressed as you might think. Find out why:
Once the pole rested on the gurney, the assistants slid the canvas strips out from under it and stepped back, allowing the room to view it in all its glory. Zelda couldn’t help but wonder if it was the ugliest thing she’d ever seen. She’d grown up with totem poles in the Pacific Northwest and knew they were often meant to scare off ghosts or serve as a territorial marker warning other tribes of their presence. But this seemed evil.
Three life-sized carvings of men standing on each other’s shoulders made up the bulk of the pole. Their faces carved into grimaces, their menacing expressions, and sharp, black teeth made her shiver. Their bodies were decorated with white and red stripes, two having palm frond tassels adorning their ears, and their masculinity was confirmed by their well-defined genitalia. Protruding from the belly of the topmost figure was a lattice-carved wing with a bird and small child worked into the intricate pattern.
Full of enthusiasm, Johan Dijkhuizen stepped forward, clearing his throat loudly to get the press’s attention. “Here we have a spectacular Asmat bis pole, carved from a wild nutmeg tree. A bis pole, also called an ancestor or spirit pole, is a way of making the spirits of the recently departed visible.” Johan spoke slowly, enunciating his words to ensure the journalists and cameras understand his introduction to Asmat art.
“They were carved during a bis ceremony, which is in effect a six-week long party honoring the dead. Special meals were prepared, music played and new objects carved, which incorporated the image of their loved one. Because the Asmat did not believe an adult could simply die, there was always an enemy to blame, usually a neighboring village. To restore the spiritual balance in their community, the ceremony concluded with a headhunting raid.”
Johan paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. Zelda gazed across the press corps and saw the journalists were doing their best to write down all he said while the camera crews and photographers were using his momentary silence to get close-ups of the pole.
As soon as most of the reporters looked up at him expectantly, Johan gestured toward the figure at the top of the pole. “Here we see the man who has recently passed literally standing on the shoulders of his forefathers. Note the designs painted on his arms and legs. He would have received these scar tattoos during the men’s brutal initiation ceremony. Generally, two or three figures—or generations—were depicted on one pole. This is a way of summoning their ancestors’ spirits and asking them to help ensure the success of the upcoming headhunting raid.”
He laid his hand on the large protrusion jutting out of the pole. “This wing is actually the root of the nutmeg tree. To create the bis pole, they turned the tree upside down and carved so the wide plank root protrudes out of the topmost figure’s abdomen. The Asmat call it the tsjemen, which means both ‘projection’ and ‘penis.’ Though, if you look carefully, you will see this figure also has genitalia.” Zelda couldn’t help but stand on her toes and look for it.
Despite the feeling of dread they incited in her, she was in awe of the Asmat’s artistry. Native American totem poles were solid tree trunks carved in relief. Yet these figures were three-dimensional humans, whose appendages were fully formed, which meant the carver had to remove a significant portion of the tree without breaking off the arms, facial features, genitalia, or legs. Zelda marveled at what they were able to achieve with the tools they had available.
“In Asmat culture, headhunters see themselves as the siblings of animals that eat fruit, such as flying foxes, hornbills, or black king cockatoos. Here we can see the stylized head of a hornbill worked into the tip of the tsjemen. The small boy carved close to the base represents the children this man left behind. Women were sometimes depicted at the bottom of the pole, closest to the earth. They represent the continuation of life. The dugout canoe at the bottom is meant to carry this person’s spirit to the realm of the dead.” Johan walked slowly from one end of the gurney to the other, pointing out the different shapes on the long pole as he spoke. The press was eating it up, their silence only broken by the clicks and flashes of their cameras.
“Bis poles are carved by other villages in the region, yet those created by the Asmat are considered to be the most exquisite. As you will learn during our upcoming exhibition, they were desired by ethnographic museums as well as art collectors. Heck, even the American anthropologist Nicholas Mayfield collected several poles for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in the 1960s. Two of which were later donated to the National Ethnography Museum because of the Dutch government’s assistance searching for—”
A short round of applause stopped Johan short. The clapper, Albert Schenk, chuckled as he said, “Thank you for your fascinating introduction to Asmat art, Johan. You are clearly the right curator to lead the exhibition team. Now, why don’t we open the second crate? I can’t wait to see what we find next,” Schenk said as he shifted the media’s attention a few feet to the right…
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Click here to read more about bis poles and see photos of the Tropenmuseum’s collection. You can also pre-order Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery now on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes and Noble NOOK, Google Play, or Smashwords.