Art of Micronesia and Palau: Charms, Bowls, Sashes and Female Figures in Men’s Houses

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Eric Kjellgren wrote: Scattered across the immense expanse of the tropical northwestern Pacific, the islands of Micronesia primarily lie above the equator and stretch from Belau, in the west, eastward to Kiribati. The region encompasses the arts and cultures of the four main archipelagoes of the Caroline, Mariana, Marshall, and Kiribati (formerly Gilbert) islands, as well as the Para-Micronesian, or "Micronesian Outlier," peoples of Wuvulu, Aua, and the Ninigo, Hermit, and Kaniet islands. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007; Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

The area today is divided politically into the independent nations of Belau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, together with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are, respectively, a territory and a commonwealth of the United States. The Micronesian Outliers form part of the nation of Papua New Guinea. When first encountered by Western explorers, the peoples of Micronesia and its Outliers spoke some twenty-eight different languages; all but two are still extant. 1 In the past the majority of Micronesian societies were ruled by hereditary chiefs, and chiefs remain highly influential in many parts of the region today.

As its Western name, Micronesia (little islands), implies, most of the region 's islands are small, comprising a total land area of roughly 1,050 square miles (2,700 square kilometers) — approximately the size of Rhode Island — spread out across nearly 2.9 million square miles (7.5 million square kilometers) of ocean. 2 Some of its lands, including Guam, Babeldoap, Yap, and Pohnpei, are high islands with hilly forested interiors, but Micronesia consists primarily of atolls, narrow rings or crescents of low coral islets encircling a central lagoon.

History of Micronesia

Micronesia’s people comprises the second-wave settlers of Oceania and includes the people from the islands north of Melanesia, with an artistic tradition partly inherited by early Austronesian cultures from the Philippines and the Lapita culture. Micronesia’s most prominent work is the megalithic floating city of Nan Madol, a complex of artificial islands and canals built in a lagoon over the course of 400 years, from 1200 to 1600, until the arrival of European explorers and its decline in 1800. [Source:]

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Encompassed and linked by the ocean that surrounds them, Micronesia's peoples have from the beginning been master seafarers and navigators. The ancestors of present-day Micronesians arrived by two primary routes. The westernmost archipelagoes, Belau and the Mariana Islands, appear to have been settled directly from Island Southeast Asia, possibly from the Philippines, by at least 1500 s.c., and possibly as many as a thous and years earlier. The remainder of the Caroline Islands, as well as the more distant archipelagoes of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, were settled by Lapita peoples, who were also the ancestors of the Polynesians, expanding northward from Island Melanesia beginning roughly two thous and years ago. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The earliest voyagers likely employed the same navigational techniques that are still practiced in some parts of Micronesia today, or ones similar to them. Using no instruments, Micronesian navigators are guided primarily by the stars and the form and rhythm of ocean swells. In former times navigators in the Marshall Islands constructed charts from thin sticks to show the positions of islands and the patterns of ocean swells. These charts were employed only on land, where they were consulted by experienced navigators and studied by novices, and were not carried along on actual voyages. The design and, in some areas, the ornamentation of canoes, essential to long-distance voyages as well as daily activities such as fishing, are also important art forms across the region.

Beginning in the thirteenth century and continuing until the early 1800s, the ruling chiefs of Nan Madol, on Pohnpei, and Lelu, on Kosrae, also built huge megalithic settlements, constructed from thousands of massive blocks of columnar basalt. These fortified compounds were linked by systems of canals.

Guam and the Mariana Islands were first encountered in 1521 by the Portuguese navigator Fernao de Magalhaes (ca. 1480-1521), often known by the anglicized name Ferdinand Magellan, during his pioneering circumnavigation of the globe. They were claimed, together with the Philippines, by Spain in 1565. The first Spanish missionaries arrived on Guam in 1668, but most areas of Micronesia experienced little sustained contact with the West until the mid-1800s.

Over the next hundred years, Micronesia's far-ftung archipelagoes and Outliers were divided among, and governed by, a succession of Western and Asian colonial powers that included Spain, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, the United States, and Australia. The resulting conversion of its peoples to Christianity, together with the introduction of Western goods such as cloth, containers, and other items, caused many of Micronesia's artistic traditions to decline or disappear.

Micronesian Art

Micronesian art is known for its use of minimal mediums worked with refined craftsmanship — simple and functional, yet of high quality. Eric Kjellgren wrote: Micronesian art typically embodies a spare aesthetic in which line and form dominate and surface ornamentation is often absent or greatly reduced. A notable exception is the sculpture of the Hermit Islands, whose complex openwork compositions and intricately carved surfaces make it by far the most ornate of all Micronesian wood carving. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the past, sculpture and masking traditions in Micronesia were rare. Only Belau, Yap, a few other areas in the Caroline Islands, and some of the Micronesian Outliers had any substantial traditions of figural or architectural sculpture. Human figures were typically highly stylized. A study in contrasts, their features often masterfully combine a rigid angularity with gracefully curving lines.

Micronesian peoples have diverse, highly developed architectural traditions, creating imposing council houses, men 's houses, and other structures. In Belau the men's houses, or bai, whose gables and interior architectural beams were adorned with brightly painted architectural carvings, portraying episodes from local oral tradition, were the primary focus of both sculpture and painting.

On some bai, the centerpiece of the gable was the dilukai, a fully modeled female figure attached to the facade. The Belauans and other Caroline Island peoples also created freestanding images, which served a variety of functions. Among the most widespread were the hos, potent weather charms generally consisting of human figures with legs formed from stingray spines, which were used to drive off powerful storms. Micronesia's only masks, created in the Mortlock Islands, were also employed in weather magic, warding off approaching hurricanes from the low-lying atolls. Seabirds are the only animals that appear with any frequency in Micronesian sculpture.

According to Christies: The very rare Nukuoro figures, produced by the people of Nukuoro Atoll, a Polynesian enclave in Micronesia, are likely to also be at the top of any collector's list of Polynesian art. Ancestor figures made of wood and dated the 19th century and early 20th century are greatly prized.

Micronesian Art Objects

Famous artifacts from the Micronesia region include wood carvings of stylized bowls, canoe ornaments, ceremonial vessels and sculpted figures by male artisans, as well as textiles, jewelry, and accessories by female artisans. Eric Kjellgren wrote: Micronesia's carvers devoted the majority of their time and talents to the creation of functional objects such as bowls, covered boxes, and other containers, as well as weapons, dance paraphernalia, and personal accessories. Many objects, such as the sleek hourglass-shaped bowls (apia nie) of Wuvulu and Aua, are starkly minimalist in their conception; their streamlined shapes perfectly merge functionality with an elegance of line that ranks them among the masterworks of Oceanic design. Micronesian artists also created a great variety of jewelry and other personal ornaments in shell, turtle shell, coral, fiber, and other materials, which often exhibit the same harmonious blending of angular and curving elements. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The fiber arts in Micronesia were, and are, highly developed. As elsewhere in the Pacific, nearly all of the region 's diverse textiles and other fiber works are created by women. Across the region artists fashion intricately patterned plaited works, such as dress mats, fans, and family emblems, elegantly decorated baskets, and ceremonial textiles (some of which function as forms of currency), as well as more mundane articles such as everyday garments and sleeping mats. A distinctive feature of fiber arts in the Caroline Islands is the presence of loom weaving, a technique originally introduced from Island Southeast Asia, which in the past was used to create superbly patterned belts, sashes, and other ceremonial textiles.

Most of Micronesia's indigenous arts, such as weaving, wood carving, and canoe building have endured and, during the past several decades, experienced a renaissance. Many of these art forms, especially personal ornaments and textiles, are created for indigenous use. However, today the great majority of Micronesia's wood carvings, as well as many of its works in fiber, are produced for external markets. In some parts of the region there is also a nascent, but growing, contemporary-art movement.

A Coconut Grating Stool in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is from Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands. Dated to the late 19th-early 20th century, it is made of wood and iron and is 14.37 inches high, with a width of 22.25 inches high, and a depth of 11.5 inches (36.5 x 56.5 x 29.2 centimeters).

Carved Bowls from Micronesia

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a wooden bowl from the Caroline Islands. Dating to the mid-19th-early 20th century, it is 6.5 inches high, with a width of 12 inches and a depth of 19.5 inches (16.5 x 30.5 x 49.5 centimeters). A Carrying Bowl (Finola) from the Kaniet Islands was made in 19th century from wood, and fiber and is 20 inches (52.7 centimeters) long. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The carvers of the Kaniet Islands, one of several remote archipelagoes north of New Guinea known collectively as Para-Micronesia, are known for the refinement of their wood sculpture. Kaniet wood carving combines the angularity and emphasis on form typical of Micronesian art with complex openwork carving and the embellishment of the major design elements with minute notches, which add a delicate texture. As suitable timber did not grow on the islands, Kaniet carvers were reliant on driftwood, which they shaped with axes and shell knives to create everything from canoes to weapons and personal items. A distinctive accessory for prominent men was the finola, a canoe-shaped carrying bowl adorned with intricate openwork ends that resemble the ornamented bow and stern of Kaniet canoes. Suspended from cords of finely coiled coconut-husk fiber, which served as handles and prevented larger objects from falling out,finola were used to carry essential supplies for chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant used widely throughout the Western Pacific, and other personal items. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Larger examples of finola, which can reach up to thirty-nine inches (one meter) in length, were also used in birth ceremonies. Shortly after birth, the child was laid in a finola and washed with fresh water, after which its hair was singed with a hot coal and its body anointed with coconut oil. Only after this ceremony was complete were the women of the community allowed to offer their congratulations to the new parent

Another Micronesian bowl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is from Wu vulu or Aua Island, Dated to the 19th-early 20th century, it is made of wood and is 12.5 inches (32.1 centimeters) wide. With clean, elegant lines that would be the envy of any contemporary designer, the hourglass-shaped bowls, or apia nie, of the islands of Wuvulu and Aua are a consummate expression of the spare, minimalist aesthetic of Micronesian art. The Wuvuluvians and Aua Islanders, together with the peoples of the Ninigo, Hermit, and Kaniet Islands, constitute a group referred to as ParaMicronesian cultures; they are the descendants of Micronesian peoples who settled a number of isolated islands amid the Melanesian peoples who inhabit the archipelagos north of New Guinea.

Still made and used today, apia nie are employed specifically to collect coconut milk, extracted by squeezing balls of grated coconut meat over the bowl. The wide shallow ends of the apia nie curve gently downward to a deep center, in which the freshly squeezed liquid collects. Many older examples have a distinctive glossy patina, which develops from years of contact with the oil in the coconut milk. Each expertly hewn from a single block of Ca!ophyllum wood, apia nie were made in a variety of sizes.

In most instances the vessel, as here, is unadorned, but in a few instances the interiors are painted with linear geometric designs. Despite their thin walls and apparent delicacy, apia nie are everyday vessels in widespread use. The variety and abundance of Wu vuluvian bowls were noted by the Danish-born German planter and ethnographer Richard Parkinson, who considered apia nie to be the finest type. Visiting both Wuvulu and Aua in 1899, Parkinson remarked that "the great quantity of daintily worked wooden bowls is astonishing." A photograph of a woman sq ueezing cocon ut milk into an apia nie is published by the Wu vuluvian author Browin Pana. One early European observer reported that the distinctively-shaped apia nie bowls were used for serving fish and that the deep central portion collected the fat and broth.

Seated Figures from Micronesia

A Micronesian seated figure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is from Satawan Island in the Mortlock Islands in the Caroline Islands. Dated to the late 19th-early 20th century and made of wood, shell, traces of paint and resin, it is 8.4 inches (21 centimeters) tall. Another from the same time and place is 9 inches high, 5.5 inches wide and 3 inches deep (22.9 × 14 × 7.6 centimeters)

Eric Kjellgren wrote: With its stylized facial features and angular body, this seated figure from Satawan, in the Mortlock Islands, embodies the spare, minimalist approach to the human form typical of Micronesian sculpture. The domed head and smoothly curving brow line contrast with the angularity of the thin lozenge-shaped mouth and markedly pointed chin, giving the face an almost masklike appearance. Of indeterminate gender, the body is rendered as a series of interlocking angular forms, with the hands, resting on the knees, only subtly indicated. Similar seated, or "squatting," figures occur widely throughout the western Caroline Islands, suggesting that the various manifestations of this widespread form share a common origin and function. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The work described above is one of a small group of surviving examples that show evidence of substantial age and extensive use and handling, indicating that they were kept and used in indigenous contexts. However, the vast majority of figures of this type were, and continue to be, created for sale as curiosities. The precise significance and use of these seated figures remains uncertain. The little historical evidence that survives comes mostly from the island of Hatobei, formerly known as Tobi, where a stone example recovered from an archaeological context indicates that the tradition is of some antiquity.

The figures may be ancestor images. Describing a religious structure on Hatobei, Horace Holden, an American sailor shipwrecked in 1832, reported that "carved images are placed in different parts of the building and are supposed to personate their deity." Nearly a century later, the Japanese ethnograher Atsushi Someki stated that the seated figures were ancestor images kept in special locations in the home.If this identification is accurate, the figures, like ancestor images elsewhere in the Pacific, likely depict remote or recent forebears through whose images the ancestors could be honored with offerings or invoked for assistance in times of need.

Seated figures also appear to have been associated with canoes. On Hatobei a pair of images was placed alongside the deceased as offerings in canoe burials, in which a sealed canoe, serving as a coffin, was set adrift at th e conclusion of the funeral rites. The figures were also reportedly used in canoe magic, in which malevolent spirits were captured within, or lured away by, the figure, which was sent out to sea in a model canoe to expel them from the community. Whether the seated figures of Satawan, which bear a close formal resemblance to those of Hatobei, were likewise used as ancestor images or in canoe magic is unknown.

A figure from Palau — one of a pair — is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Dating to the Early 20th century, it was made of wood and paint and is 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) tall.

Ceremonial Sashes from Pohnpei

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Said to have been given to humanity by divine beings, the art of loom weaving is highly developed among the women of the Caroline Islands, who employ a simple backstrap loom to create textiles of consummate aesthetic sophistication.' The loom was introduced to the islands from the great weaving center of the Pacific, Island Southeast Asia, probably by Carolinian voyagers, who in their far-ranging ocean journeys reached the islands of eastern lndonesia. Among the most complex and colorful of Carolinian weavings are the large men's sashes formerly produced on the high volcanic islands of Pohnpei and Kosrae, in the eastern Carolines. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a Man's Sash (Tor) made in Pohnpei in the Late 19th-early 20th century. Made of banana fiber and trade yarn, it is 4.75 inches wide and 72.7 inches long (12.1 x 185.1 centimeters) long. Reserved exclusively for high-ranking men, tor were ceremonial regalia, worn as belts over grass skirts during dances and feasts. According to some accounts, in the past a commoner could be put to death for wearing the tor of a chief. The sashes were woven from fiber obtained from the tough, stringy trunks of banana trees, either left in its natural light tan color or tinted red, black, or light purple with vegetable or mineral dyes.

The intricate geometric ornamentation of the sashes varied greatly, and the right to use some patterns and colors belonged exclusively to particular families. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, weavers frequently, as here, embellished the indigenous banana fiber by interweaving it with red wool obtained from European traders. The result is a series of slightly raised designs that softly accent the ambitious design formats conceived by their Pohn peia n creators.

Weather Charms from Yap

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Caroline Islands in Micronesia are home to some of the most accomplished long-distance voyagers in the Pacific. Among the greatest hazards facing Carolinian sailors are powerful storms, which can destroy a sailing canoe, drowning the crew or leaving them adrift far from land. To avert such disasters, canoe navigators employ weather magic, believed to have the ability to prevent or alter the path of approaching storms. An indispensable element of weather magic is the hos, a potent charm frequently consisting of a stylized human image whose "legs" are formed from the daggerlike spines of stingrays, which are the source of its supernatural power. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Before beginning a voyage, the navigator grasps the hos and, sounding a shell trumpet to invoke the spirits, recites a chant to drive away any approaching storms. The charm is then carried aboard, where, in the past, it was often kept in a small spirit house set atop the booms connecting the hull to the outrigger. If bad weather threatens, the navigator takes the charm and holds it into the wind, reciting incantations. Once the storm has passed, the hos is returned to the spirit house. Back on land, the potent charms are kept in the canoe house and cannot be stored in ordinary dwellings.

One such Weather Charm (Hos) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of wood, stingray spines, fiber and lime. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it originates from Yap and is 13.5 inches high, with a width of 1.62 and a depth of 1.12 inches (34.3 × 4.1 × 2.9 centimeters). With its subtle facial features and stylized angular torso, this hos embodies the spare, minimalist approach to the human figure typical of Micronesian sculpture. Though relatively small in scale, its compact, understated form nonetheless emanates an aesthetic power that echoes its supernatural potency. Another is 13 inches (33.7 centimeters) tall.

Production and Uses of Micronesian Weather Charms

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Hos were formerly made and used widely throughout the Caroline Islands, from Yap in the west to Chuuk in the east. The specific details of their use varied from detail place to place, but the charms were employed in a similar manner throughout. Once a navigator had completed his training, he acquired and consecrated a hos. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The wood portion of the charm, which served as a handle for the attachment of the powerful stingray spines, could be made by any carver with the necessary skills and took a number of different forms. Most weather charms depict stylized human figures. Some images, such as the present work, are naturalistic in form, but the figures more frequently have two faces and, in some cases, two fully modeled torsos depicted back to back.

Once the charm was completed, the navigator carried it to a specific coconut tree, often a gift from the master navigator who had instructed him, which stood near the canoe house with which he was associated. Here he recited a chant asking the local deities, often the sea spirits known as yalulawei, to ensure good weather and safe passage to him in all his journeys through the proper use of the hos and its associated chants and paraphernalia.

Before beginning a voyage, the navigator grasped the hos and, sounding a conch-shell trumpet to invoke the spirits, recited a chant to drive away storms.This poetic example comes from the island of lfaluk:

Dark clouds, the conch, my conch calls out to the gods.
My ode is addressed to the clouds, like a fire.
Don 't come any closer, dark clouds, stay far away.
No more, no more, no more.
Turn away, winds and clouds.
Bad weather, turn away.
Go and die far off, go away! Sail away, bad weather.
Come to us, fine weather, clear and lovely.
May the days here be beautiful and the sky cloudless.

The hos was then carried aboard the canoe to ensure safe passage. On board the canoe it was often kept in a small spirit house constructed atop the booms that connected the main hull to the outrigger, accompanied by offerings to the yalulawei, such as turmeric (a powdered yellow pigment), coconut oil, and mats and textiles. 9 If bad weather threatened, the navigator took the charm and held it into the wind, reciting incantations. Once the storm had passed the hos was returned to the spirit house. 10 Back on land, the potent charm could never be stored in an ordinary dwelling and was kept in the canoe house.

Toluk — Women's Valuables from Palau

On the island of Palau, turtleshell "money," known as toluk, is exchanged between women to mark significant moments in their lives. Made from the shell of sea turtles, these shallow, oval-shaped bowls were originally used as serving vessels but eventually evolved into ceremonial objects that function as a traditional form of currency. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The accumulation and exchange of wealth in the form of prestige valuables are important aspects of Belauan (Palauan) culture.' Although often referred to as "money," Belauan valuables are not currency in the ordinary sense. They are, rather, treasured objects, often with extensive individual histories, which are exchanged between families only on important occasions such as births, marriages, or deaths. Men and women each have their own forms of wealth, which cannot be owned or exchanged by members of the opposite sex. Men 's wealth is comprised of ancient glass beads and crescent-shaped pendants made from fragments of glass bracelets, acquired generations ago through trade with peoples to the west. Although owned by men, the beads and pendants are often worn by women as jewelry. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Women 's wealth consists of toluk (shallow trays), such as the present work, and itrir (spoons), both made from turtle shell. Toluk and itrir are created by Belauan artists through a complex process, in which fiat plates of turtle shell are transformed into three-dimensional objects. Turtle shell consists of the thin translucent plates that cover the thick bony shell of the hawksbill sea turtle.

To create toluk, the individual plates are removed from the shell and immersed in hot water to soften them. ow malleable, the plates are placed in two-part molds of wood, which are tied tightly together and further heated to press the plates into the desired bowl-like form. Still within the mold, the turtle shell is placed in cold water to harden. Once cooled, the newly formed toluk is ready for use. Exchanged between rather than within families, toluk are owned and used exclusively by women and are presented as ritual payment to female in-laws for food or services, such as assistance in the preparations for a feast.-When the trays are first received, the are carefully preserved and form part of a family 's store of wealth. Through years of exchange and handling, toluk acquire a rich, glossy patina, and old and storied trays are valued far more highly than more recent examples.

One Toluk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to late 19th-early 20th century and is 4.25 inches wide, with a a depth of one inch and a length of 7.12 inches (10.8 × 2.5 × 18.1 centimeters). As seen in this example, decoration is typically limited to abstract forms around the edges of the bowl, which may represent the wings of a frigate bird in flight.

Palauan Men’s Houses (Bai)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In Belauan society, men are grouped according to age and status. Until the mid-twentieth century, each group had a separate men's house in which they spent most of their time. Men's houses (bai) were impressive structures with high pitched roofs and large triangular gables, decorated with carvings and paintings. The interior beams and gable planks were adorned with incised and painted images depicting scenes from local legends. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Female figures were often placed above the entrance to the men's house. One of the most common figures depict a legendary woman named Dilukai whose excessive promiscuity caused her angry father to tie her in an exposed position to warn village women to be more chaste. Ironically, men's houses were frequently home to prostitutes sent from other villages to earn wealth for their families..

Men's houses (bai) traditionally served as venues for meetings, dancing, feasts, and informal social gatherings.' Under normal circumstances, women were prohibited from entering bai. The exception was the mangol, a woman who in former times lived within and served as a sexual consort for the men. In some cases women, too, had bai, although they were smaller in scale than the men 's; in some villages women were permitted to use the men 's houses at certain times.

Dilukai — Gable Figure from Palauan Men’s Houses

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Although the bai was predominantly a male domain, the central image on the gables of some, but not all, of these men's houses was the image of a woman, the dilukai, which was attached to the gable planks above the entrance. The precise nature and interpretation of the dilukai image are uncertain. Due to the growing influence of missionaries and colonial authorities, who banned the institution of the mangol in 1905, the creation of dilukdi appears to have ceased about the first decade of the twentieth century. The term dilukdi was used to refer both to the female figure and to the gable board to which it was attached.[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to some oral traditions, Dilukai was the sister of Atmatuyuk, a quarrelsome man who fled to a bai with Dilukai (accompanied, in some versions, by their mother) when escaping his enemies. Here Atmatuyuk later made Dilukai serve as the mongol. Atmatuyuk was eventually driven out of the bai, and the men fashioned a naked image of Dilukai, which they set up above the house entrance to prevent him from reentering, for it was strictly forbidden under incest prohibitions for a brother to see his sister unclothed. Upon seeing the naked image of his sister, Atmatuyuk was transformed into a shooting star. Afterward, at the consecration of subsequent bai, the spirit of Atmatuyuk was likewise driven away, and the dilukai image was placed on the gable to prevent its return.

In other accounts, some of which likely reflect the influence of Christian missionaries, the dilukai is said to represent a woman whose excessive promiscuity caused her brother or other men to place her image on the bai, as a mark of shame and a reminder to women be moderate in their sexual activities. The dilukai image also appears to have been connected more broadly with the sun, with fertility, and especially with the cultivation of taro, which was a women 's activity.

Dilukai images are shown wearing the insignia of wealth and status. According to one oral tradition women went to a particular dilukai figure and presented it with offerings, hanging valuables from her lower body to assure a successful taro crop. One Dilukai in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the late 19th-early 20th century. Made of wood and paint, it is 26 inches high, with a width of 38 inches and a depth of 10.25 inches (66 × 96.5 × 26 centimeters). The present dilukai wears a red bachel (a highly prestigious valuable made from a section of an ancient glass trade bracelet) around its neck, and the cylindrical form around its left arm represents a derual, a woman 's armb and made from stacked rings of turtle shell, again a mark of wealth. The presence of these ornaments indicates that, whatever her precise identity and circumstances, the dilukai portrays a woman of status and power. Another dilukai at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is 25 inches (65.2 centimeters) high. A 1908-1910 photograph shows the western gable of a bai in the Belauan village of Gurdmau, with a dilukai figure positioned prominently above the entrance.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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