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Gope Board
Papua New Guinea (Epagau Village), <i>Gope board</i>, 18th century, wood
zoom Papua New Guinea (Epagau Village), Gope board, 18th century, wood


Take a look at this gope (GO-pay) board, made on the Pacific island of New Guinea sometime in the 1700s. Does its shape remind you of a shield? In a way, the gope board is a shield. Its makers believed it held a spirit with the power to protect them from harm.

In New Guinea, harm might come in the form of tropical storms, tidal waves, or starvation. People believed they could influence nature with help from their ancestors' spirits. They created objects like this gope board as homes for the spirits. Like tools, gope boards were made to be uselful not for decoration.

The figures on this gope board represents an ancestor spirit. The head is far bigger than the body. The people of New Guinea believed a person's spirit was located in the head. An image with a big head made a good "container" for the protective spirit. It was not important that the face be lifelike. This one is simply a pair of eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a beard. These shapes were enough to suggest the ancestor described in the words of the village elders.

Most villagers never saw the gope board. It was stored out of sight under the roof of the "men's house," the social and spiritual center of the village. But everyone knew it was there, and the community took comfort in knowing the spirit of their ancestor was protecting them.