Hello again! I am Lauren Nowakowski, the Ethnographic Collections Intern here at the Ohio History Connection. My job is to photograph and organize the objects in their ethnographic collections. There are items from all over the world, so I never know what I will find in the next box or drawer. Last week I came upon a delicate paper mache piece hand-painted to resemble a human face. I had never encountered anything like it before, so naturally my curiosity took over. Researching objects from faraway cultures can be difficult due to language barriers and lack of recordkeeping. With vast amounts of information on the internet at our fingertips, one can feel overwhelmed.
I started looking into the origins of the effigy head, but found very little information in OHC’s records. The only documentation accompanying it when it was donated in 1934 is that it came from the “Bulan Tujoh Festival” in Java. Bulan tujoh means “seventh month” in Sundanese, which is a dialect spoken on the island of Java in Indonesia. The first Google hit I got was text in the bahasa dialect describing an event known as “the Ghost Festival”. Did this beautiful yet fragile piece of art really travel from the other side of the world nearly a century ago? After my supervisor, Assistant Curator Juli Six, confirmed my findings I kept digging to find out more.
The Ghost Festival is observed by both Buddhists and Taoists in many countries in Southeast Asia. It occurs on the 15th Lunar day of the seventh month (the Ghost Month) of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. The exact date may change from place to place and from year to year, but in Indonesia it usually falls in mid-August. During the Ghost Month, folklore states that the gates of Hell are opened and ghosts who have not found rest on the other side are able to roam free. Throughout the festival people burn make-believe paper money and incense. This burnt money is seen as a gift to the ghosts to protect the living from pranks that ghosts might try to play on them. Some Buddhists believe that offerings and prayers by monks can ease the suffering of seven generations of ancestors. For the main ceremony, images of ancestors and offerings of food are laid out in amazingly elaborate displays. The living feast and provide space for their ancestors to sit with them. At the end of the month, the gates of Hell are said to close and ghosts must return. In a final goodbye, families float river lanterns at night, writing their ancestors’ names on them so that the ghosts will follow them back to the other side. Like rituals in many cultures, the Ghost Festival maintains community connections and allows the living to honor their ancestors.
You can learn more about the Ghost Festival here and here. Try some creative “googling” and see what information you can find!