The Asmat Shields
Traditionally, shields were carved prior
to a headhunting reprisal raid, which was organized to avenge the
death of the ancestor for whom the shield was named. A shield always
represents an ancestor. It is named after him and the ancestor's
spirit is believed to be present in the shield and make the owner
fierce, powerful and invincible. Shields are considered so powerful
that it may control the owner. Shields also provide spiritual help
to the owner in hunting regular prey for food.
A shield is carved out of the lightweight
flattened (or plank) buttress root of a mangrove tree-- the root
is planed to half an inch thick, except for a protrusion left on
one side for a handle. The front of the shield is carved in high
relief. They include symbols of wild boar tusks or bones, flying
foxes, the tails of tree kangaroos, whirlpools. Some symbols are
believed to be so powerful that just by seeing these symbols, the
enemy will flee in terror or be immobilized in fear. But such powerful
symbols require strict rituals of appeasement. A special feast,
the yamas pokumbu is held to call upon the ancestor's spirit to
enter the war shields.
The spirit in the shield must be properly
treated or it might cause disease, or doom hunting efforts and rot
the sago palms. During festivals, shields are decorated with tassels
of sago leaves and placed near each other so the spirits may interact.
Shields are placed near doorways to protect the home from evil spirits
and human intruders.
Shields from different areas have different
features: some have a phallic protrusion at the top; others have
a symbolic head at the top, yet others add facial features of the
ancestor at the top.