Massim lime Spatula
It was on Basilaki Island in New Guinea that I first became aware that the Massim have entirely different views of lime spatula than those currently assumed in the West. I was stranded due to high winds in a small village, and in the evening an elder, Joe, introduced himself and showed me a wonderful spatula with long ears. While I cannot recall his exact words what he basically said was, “I know you are looking for lime sticks and I don’t have any, but I have this old House Guardian and thought it might be of interest to you.” To me, it was a lime stick but Joe explained that the figure on the end depicted a Masali (bush spirit) known as Susu Kadek Kadre and that it was used to guard the house against sorcery and night riders.
Up until the time I met Joe, I had not thought about massim lime spatula at all in terms other than for chewing betel nut. In my mind, I had always categorized them purely in descriptive terms, such as being forward facing or as having asymmetric brackets, reverse scroll work or of being from this school or that. Although this descriptive mindset of spatulas is useful, I now feel it misses the critical point of why certain massim lime spatula were made.
Thus, what I hope to do here in this essay is suggest ways Massim lime spatula can be classified by function or use. While I am not an anthropologist or an art historian, I have been lucky enough to experience dozens of discussions with elders in New Guinea while sitting around drinking coffee in their beachside huts in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
Wealth Display lime Spatula
In the Louisiade Archipelago there are crescent-shaped lime spatula made of wood and turtle shell and their primary purpose is not to transport lime from the gourd to the mouth but to display a form of currency known as bagi. These spatulas were used for displaying bagi, a form of shell wealth, and were given to a widow during elaborate funeral feasting ceremonies. In the Southern Massim there are large whalebone lime spatula also used primarily to display bagi, to increase its value.
Kula Partnership lime Spatula
Throughout the Kula ring there is a tradition of giving gifts to a man one hopes will become a future Kula trading partner. Amongst these gifts are spatulas. They were often overly elaborate and quite impractical for use as lime sticks, being too large in the blade to fit into the mouth of a lime gourd. They can be, however, amongst the most wonderful spatulas, as they were gifts whose sole function was to impress.
House Guardian lime Spatula
House Guardian spatulas are most common in the Southern Massim and are usually figurative. They were placed in the house to ward off the supernatural threats faced by their owners. Many depict a creature with long ears and/or a large snout, while others are humanoid.
Magical lime Spatula
Some spatulas were made for use in ritual betel chewing practices associated with magic. The magical intent varied vastly, some encouraged the propagation of food crops, others was meant to encourage fine weather during a Kula journey. No doubt some magic was intended for less peaceful purposes.
Among the finest non-figurative lime spatula are those that have blades shaped like steering paddles and these, according to a Gawa Island elder, were treasured for their magical abilities to produce fair winds and smooth seas for Kula traders.
I have even collected a lime spatula designed to reduce tooth pain. This is a bit ironic, as it was probably the chewing of lime that caused the pain in the first place.
Status Lime Spatula
In different parts of the Massim region there are lime spatula which were to be used only by chiefly persons. These include the extra-long spatulas of the Trobriand Islands known as kenayapu, as well as spatulas decorated with bagi (spondylus shell discs) on Woodlark Island.
Clappers, a type of spatula of the Southern Massim, were also used only by chiefs. The chief tapped it, normally against his thigh, to let other people know he was coming so they would clear the path. Many of these status lime spatula were too precious to use on an everyday basis and were brought out only when the occasion suited. On Sudest Island, only the daughter of a chief may use a crescent-shaped spatula, which is usually reserved for currency displays and funeral feasts.
Of course, the most common spatula is the everyday lime stick used when chewing betel nut (not only by the massim ut throughout New Guinea). They are often plain or have minimal design and therefore rarely favored by collectors, either now or in the past, and thus tend never to make it into any art books.
I believe thinking about spatulas in terms of their differing functions can help us understand them, and the people of new guinea who used them, better. Thus, it is no longer a mystery as to why so many figurative spatulas (House Guardians) from the Southern Massim show little or no signs of betel stain on the tip or why so many elaborate Kula partnership spatulas have blades too wide to fit into a lime gourd.
It is a pity that the function of the vast majority of New Guinea massim spatulas can only be speculated about, as the critical question of the spatula’s function was probably assumed rather than asked at the time of collection. When you next look at an old spatula and it seems to be something much more than an implement used to put lime into the mouth, the chances are, it probably is.
Should you require more evidence or detailed data, I highly recommend you travel to the New Guinea islands yourself, take some good coffee, vast quantities of sugar and perhaps a fishing rod.