Smiling Pain: Coping with Illness and Death through Humour

Religion and Senses of Humour - Stephen E. Gregg

Giorgio Scalici [+-]
NOVA University, Lisbon
Giorgio Scalici is a Post-Doc researcher at NOVA University Lisbon. He obtained his masters degree in Ethnomusicology at University of Rome “La Sapienza” and his PhD in Religious Studies at Durham University. His main research interest is the Wana people of Morowali, Indonesia, where he conducted a one-year long fieldwork observing and studying their religion, musical and emotional world. Beyond that, other fields of interest include death studies, anthropology of emotion, comic books and videogames.


The death or the illness of a community member, friend or relative is always a critical moment for the Wana people of Morowali, Central Sulawesi. It breaks the delicate balance inside the community, and it casts a shadow of insignificancy on life. To avoid being overwhelmed by the emotional wave caused by an unexpected loss and to retrieve the balance, Wana people follow a series of small and big rituals that guide them and control their emotion and manage to transform a negative event into a positive occasion of celebration and reaffirmation of life. This is also expressed through the smiles and the laughs that are possible to see and hear during these rituals. It is not by chance that a Wana told me “mereka bermain” (they are playing), to explain to me the explosion of controlled violence that characterize their funerals. Indeed, the kayori (Wana funeral) and the momago (Wana main shamanic ritual) are two playful occasions in which every member plays a role and emotion are guided by the tradition. These two rituals bring together dozens or even hundreds of people from all over the area, giving the opportunity to spend some time with friends and relatives that live far away, or to find a new partner. Moreover, Wana people, a culture that refuses to use violence and avoid strong negative emotion, use jokes to control the behaviour of the members of the community, not only during these rituals but in every situation of life. This essay, supported and enriched by photos taken during my fieldwork, will explore the power of smiling, laughing and joking, and the amazing ability of the Wana to accept the inevitability of pain, rooted in the myth, while using it to reinforce the sense of community, celebrate life and achieve the primordial unity.

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Scalici, Giorgio. Smiling Pain: Coping with Illness and Death through Humour. Religion and Senses of Humour. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Nov 2023. ISBN 9781000000000. Date accessed: 07 Dec 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.43243. Nov 2023

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