The turtle is
an important symbol to many communities. The form of the turtle
is often depicted in stone and wood. The shell of the turtle is
also used to create ceremonial objects.
TURTLE SHELL The masks of Darnley
Island are remarkable in their scale and beauty. These masks almost
always represent a cultural hero or original ancestor from the
time of creation. They are an integral part of the initiation
ceremonies and were traditionally stored in a sacred site. The
masks of neighbouring islands differ as they mix human faces with
fish and avian forms.
The masks are constructed from select fragments of the carapace.
These are cleaned and shaped by rubbing the edges with stone and
shaped. This is achieved by dipping fragments in boiling water
or by placing them in wet sand under cooking fires. Holes are
made by heated wire and the edges are stitched together with sennit
or cane. (The wire was originally salvaged from shipwrecks in
the Torres Straits). Trade with the Kiwai people from the Fly
River in New Guinea was to be a great influence on these masks.
The Darnley masks, in turn were a great influence on Modernist
art in the western world. Picasso once owned a mask from Darnley
Island probably bought in Paris from Piette Loeb's 1929 expedition
to New Guinea.
The use of sacred objects documents an individuals status
and are critical to cycle of ceremonies from birth to death.
Mariana Matalu, from Pau village, Sumba explains–We
possess the ancient symbol of Hai Kara Wulang – the Crown
of the Turtle of the Moon. According to our people, the Kara Wulang
is ruled by the moon because we can see by the moonlight how the
turtles come up onto the sand. The crown must be worn at important
festivals, especially the death ceremonies for nobles. This is
the ritual attire.
STONE Sumban mythic narratives
tell of the turtle acting as a councillor and guide for heroes
who travel across the sea. As one of the oldest animals in the
sea, leadership qualities of wisdom and diplomacy are associated
with the turtle. Large carved stone pillars, penji stand at the
head of the megalithic graves of Sumba. The turtle carved to the
outer top edge indicates the deceased was a member of noble linage.
This person is referred to as the kataku ghanu, bombu kawica -
the head of the turtle, the body of the octopus throughout the
ceremony. The turtle is the highest-ranking motif; the other images
depicted refer to those who are dependant and follow.
Sacred stones appear in the ceremonies of many of the
great religions across the world. The black stone in
the cosmology of Bali and the Patola stone of Palu'e may well
originate from a black meteorite. On Alor a quartz stone shaped
to resemble a turtle is linked to concept of fertility. Ibu Vina
tells its significance; once our ancestors were shipwrecked
on a small island. There was no food, no water – everyone
was dying. Suddenly a large turtle crawled onto the beach. Under
the full moon she laid hundreds of eggs. The people were saved
because they could eat the turtle eggs. It was like a gift from
God. We still tell this story and when we plant our crops on the
full moon we place the turtle stone in the fields.