Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Betel Nut Mortar and Pestle

late 19th–early 20th century
Papua New Guinea, Milne Bay Province
Massim people
Wood, traces of lime
H. 12 3/4 x W. 1 9/16 in. (32.4 x 4 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
1979.206.1670a, b
Not on view
This wooden mortar and pestle is part of the betel nut chewing paraphernalia of the Massim region of southeastern Papua New Guinea. The mortar and pestle are used to crush the required ingredients – betel nuts, mustard plants and quicklime – that make the chewing quid. The pestle is a cylindrical shaft that tapers to a rounded tip used for pounding. At the opposite extreme, the mortar is topped by an anthropomorphic head with carved facial features, some of which are filled in with white lime for decoration. The eyes are rendered with two etched white circles; under each eye is another incision with white lime filling, roughly in the shape of two mirroring triangles connected by a thin line. These engravings likely represent the bright facial decorations that Massim peoples don on special occasions. The mouth is suggested by a thin incision running horizontally at the lower end of the face. The finial of the pestle is completed with a series of carved out volumes: the ears, split in the middle; the brow, slightly projecting above the eyes; and the thin strip of the nose, descending perpendicularly from the brow to cover two thirds of the length of the face and ending in the two bulging protrusions that form the nostrils. Right under the flat horizontal plane that marks the base of the head, the pestle has been carved out to form a joined pair of arms that curve together in a serpentine shape under the face’s chin. The mortar is an undecorated hollowed-out cylinder where a distinct lip marks the wider opening in contraposition to its narrower base. The hieratic stasis of the sculpted figure atop the pestle is animated through the contrast between the darker sculptural volumes and the lighter incisions, rendering the ensemble with stylized simplicity.

Betel nut designates the seed of the tropical areca palm (Arecha catechu), a mild stimulant popular in Papua New Guinea as well as in other parts of South-East Asia ranging from India to the Philippines, as well as parts of the Western Pacific. In Papua New Guinea, betel nut is mixed with the leaves or inflorescences of the betel pepper plant (Piper betle, referred to in Papua New Guinea as “mustard”) and mineral lime obtained from burned coral. When properly prepared, the admixture acquires a bright red hue that colors the mouths of chewers. Both the color and the fragrant scent imparted by the betel nut quid have positive connotations and are considered to be pleasant to the senses in the Massim, where chewing betel nut is very common. People start chewing as soon as they have teeth and never stop, even in old age, when they can no longer crush the nuts in their own mouths and use mortars to do so.

Chewing betel nut is a social activity, carried out when two or more people sit down to talk or when doing communal work. It encourages conversations and momentarily excites the mind and the body, as well as perfuming the breath and stimulating the production of saliva. Its astringent effect also helps control pangs of hunger. Unlike other consumers of betel nut, Massim chewers consider it bad manners to spit out the red spittle. Instead, they swallow the mix progressively as they chew. The bright red color of the betel mix has positive aesthetic and symbolic connotations. A red-stained mouth is a sign of vigor and beauty, and elder people who have red-black teeth due to constant chewing are said to have “burned” mouths, a sign of wisdom that usually commands respect.

The consumption of betel nut is closely tied to a number of esoteric practices in the Massim which include the preparation of magic substances in mortar and pestles such as this one. Bespelled with the right charm, the red mixture is used in magic incantations as a means to impart certain qualities to objects and people. Thus, bespelled betel nut is given to young carving apprentices during initiation rites to “open up” their minds, so that they can dream of the designs they are to carve in canoes or decorated yam houses. Apprentices have smeared in their body joints with a stained pestle containing a bespelled quid so that they will not get tired while carving. Magic betel nut mixes are also given to poets, storytellers, singers and dancers at an early age as part of a ritual to enhance their memory and expand their creativity, making them excel in their respective arts. The red betel nut mix is also applied with the pestle to infants’ cheeks for decoration or, when protective magic spells have been recited over the mix, to safeguard them from black magic.

The presence of carved anthropomorphic elements with human-like features in betel nut chewing equipment points to its potential uses for black magic. In one particular instance, the carved faces are associated to evil spirits known as gamagelina in Kiriwina, one of the main islands in the Massim region. Gamagelina are bespelled by the owner of the mortar and pestle, who “feeds” them some betel nut. The evil spirits will then come to life and harm the person targeted by the performer of the spell. The circular eyes found in some Massim carvings in particular are often associated with supernatural beings, as Massim peoples recognize these features as non-human and belonging to spirits.

Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow, 2017

Further reading

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Lillian Schoedler, New York, until 1962; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1962, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962–1978

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Vol. 2nd ed.. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1984.

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