Date: 19th century
Geography: Indonesia, Sumba Island, East Nusa Tenggara
Culture: Sumba Island
Dimensions: H. 3 3/4 x W. 10 13/16 in. (9.5 x 27.4 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Anita E. Spertus and Robert J. Holmgren, in honor of Douglas Newton, 1990
Accession Number: 1990.335.4
Gold ornaments play a central role in marapu, the indigenous religion of the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia, which continues today. In the ritual exchanges of gifts that accompany marriages, alliances, and other rites, gold jewelry and other metal objects, considered symbolically male, are exchanged for textiles, which are identified as female. Perhaps the most important Sumban gold objects are the Omega-shaped jewels known as mamuli. In earlier times, when the Sumbanese practiced artificial elongation of the earlobes, mamuli were worn as ear ornaments, but today they are hung around the neck as pendants or attached to garments. In Sumbanese culture, precious metals are believed to be of celestial origin. The sun is made of gold and the moon and stars of silver. Gold and silver are deposited on earth when the sun and moon set or shooting stars fall from the sky. Golden objects signify wealth and divine favor. Kept among the sacred relics housed in the treasuries of Sumbanese clans, mamuli are employed, in some cases, by religious specialists to aid in contacting ancestors and spirits. The most precious and powerful examples are rarely removed from their hiding places as their dangerous supernatural potency is believed to be able to kill unsuspecting onlookers or cause natural disasters.
The overall forms of mamuli represent stylized female genitalia; however, each is considered either male or female depending on its secondary characteristics. Male mamuli, such as the present work, have flaring bases, which, in the finest examples, are embellished with minute figures of humans, animals, or other subjects. This exquisitely detailed mamuli depicts warriors clad in turbans and loincloths brandishing swords and shields as they stride boldly forward accompanied by smaller figures, who appear in attitudes of supplication.