Ancestor poles

ancestor pole

Bis - poles

The ancestor poles (bis) are the best-known and most impressive sculptures of the Asmat. They can be up to 8 meters high and always have the characteristic wing (cemen) at the upper part.  The ancestor poles are mainly found in central Asmat.
The reason to start a bis-feast was the feeling of the village people that the cultish obligations were neglected and that the public welfare was disturbed. In former days this feast was always connected to headhunting because of religious reasons.

The preparations for the feast lasted several month with numerous ceremonies.  The most important aim of the feast was the deliverance of the decedents, who died because of black magic or warfare. With the feast they can leave the lowest existence in a world between and can enter in peace the empire of the ancestors (safan).
Bis-poles were ordered by the families from well known artists. The climax of the feast was the exclamation of the names of the dead family members that were displayed on the bis-pole. In this ritual the spirits incarnated in the carving and were once again alive in the village.  After the feast the poles were brought to the sago grounds of the owner and the decedents were asked to leave for safan. The poles were destroyed with the ax to prevent the return of the spirits and than they were covered with leafs.
The bis-feast is base on a myth. It is the myth of the young and beautiful Bis. Her lover Pupuripits was an artist and she was his model when he carved a pole for his ancestors. Bis died because her spirit went into the figure.
Bis-poles are carved from the mangrove trees. The filigree wing is worked out the root. The stem is put up upside down so the root comes to the top. It represents a phallus and stands for power and fertility.
Bis-poles can be divided into two categories. The purpose of the big ones, 7 to 8 meters high, is only for one feast. Afterwards they are destroyed. The smaller poles remain as house posts at the fireplaces in the men house. They support the living.


Carver with bis-pole