Out-of-the-Body Experiences in PNG
About Out-Of-The-Body Experiences Among the Elema, Gulf Kamea and Rigo Peoples of Papua New Guinea
Alastair I McIntosh
School students and working people from the Gulf and Central Provinces of Papua New Guinea were asked orally about their own people’s beliefs concerning out-of-the-body experiences (OOBEs). Each of three ethnic groups held some body of such beliefs, though their extent and depth of detail varied. In most respects the beliefs accorded with written occidental and oriental beliefs. This supports the view that the OOBE occurs in most cultures of the world and that some of its chief characteristics manifest cross-culturally.
Keywords: Yoyova, Mulukwausi, Kayga'u, Flying witches, Flying witch, OOBE, OBE, Kukukuku, Kamea, Anga, Rigo, Elema, Samarai, Milne Bay Province, Vailala Madness.
Published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, London, Vol. 50, No. 785, 1980, pp. 460-478. Square brackets indicate hyperlinks or remarks added on scanning in 2000. Click here to see photographs of some of the people and places mentioned in this paper.
a cross-cultural study, Shiels (1978) used the Human Relations Area Files to
demonstrate that about 95 per cent of the world’s cultures for which relevant
information was available, hold a body of beliefs about OOBEs.
New Guinean cultures (i.e. mainland Papua New Guinean and Irian Jayan ones)
are immensely varied, only one mainland Melanesian group, the Papuakuans, was
cited in the study. Of their beliefs, card 345 HRAF # OJ—29 states that:
During the day hours the soul and its body coincide but during the night
the soul—which has its own and higher faculties of perception — leaves the
body and travels freely.
body is in danger as a result of separation only if projection is extended, in
which case the body will die.
the past two years I have worked as a volunteer teacher and for part of that
time as the deputy headmaster of an experimental secondary school near Kerema,
in the little-developed Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea. This has brought me
into very close contact with three Melanesian cultural groups—the coastal
Elema people of the Gulf Province, the Kamea people [sometimes called the Anga] living around Mt. Eruki in
the Gulf, and the Rigo people of Central Province whose villages lie some 300
kilometres south-east of Kerema. Each group differs from the rest in
matters of custom, traditional religion, language and physical appearance.
matters of custom, traditional religion, language and physical appearance.
The purpose of this paper is to record their OOBE beliefs and to compare
these with existing data, drawn mostly from oriental and occidental sources,
with which most parapsychologists will be familiar.
OF GATHERING INFORMATION
In the evenings when schoolboys (aged 11—18) or workers employed to
build new classrooms were sitting together telling stories, I would sit down
with them and after a while ask the questions, “Do your people believe it is
possible for a person’s spirit to leave his body for a short time while he is
alive?” and, “What happens to a person’s spirit when his body dies?”
Although some theologians and ascologists
would distinguish between the words “spirit” and “soul”, I use
“spirit” here as a synonym for “soul” since most Melanesians employ the
word “spirit” simply to denote the spiritual form, or non-material essence,
of a human or other being.
With the Elema and the Rigo information was immediately forthcoming
which enabled me to avoid asking leading questions. The Kamea were not so
forthcoming, for reasons to be discussed later.
After my posing the questions, the groups, which consisted of between
four and 30 people, discussed the matter in their own languages. The eldest then
acted as spokesman to reply in English. The Rigo and Kamea groups were clearly
unanimous in what they wanted the spokesman to say; not so with the Elema. Some
of these held beliefs which others—even coming from the same villages—did
not, or had not even heard of. In these instances the spokesman either explained
the different ideas, or gave me the majority opinion. Sometimes the lack of
agreement was explained by the fact that the belief in question had been
widespread in the past but was now dying out—as the result of the combined
effect of education and of the Christian missions.
BELIEFS OF THE ELEMA
Elema form the largest ethnic group in the school. A total of 42 were in the
three groups I questioned, with students from the Kearu, Vailala and Orokolo
areas of Kerema West, down as far as the Moveave/Lese area of Kerema East (see
map). Between Kerema East and West there was little difference in the nature of
beliefs held, but they seemed notably stronger among those from the Orokolo
region. This may be because until recently mission and educational influences
have been less strong there.
is widely held that OOBEs occur at the moment of death, whereafter the spirit
will stay close to the village for about a week, or until the main funeral
rituals are over. Then it leaves for the spirit world, which many believe to be
a foreign country to the west (cf. Williams, 1940, 1976). It is also widely
believed that sorcerers can induce OOBEs in themselves. While in this state the
sorcerer can travel anywhere, communicate with spirits, and work magic (“puripuri”).
When the spirit is absent the sorcerer’s physical body may be cataleptic, and
some people believe that if it is touched he will die. Nobody in the groups
questioned admitted to knowing how a sorcerer would induce a temporary OOBE in
himself, but some said the process is thought to start by his lying down as if
to fall asleep.
is difficult for a foreigner to speak with a sorcerer about such matters, since
his identity is usually kept a village or clan secret, lest rival sorcerers try
to kill him. However, one of my students, Kopi Heroe of the Ekemeavo clan, told
me that his grandfather, Hearo, is a sorcerer, and could be persuaded to discuss
his practices with me. I had several fascinating discussions with Hearo,
in which he told me about methods of divination, cannibalistic rituals employed
to gain power, curing or killing with magic, and about times long ago (such as
when the “Vailala Madness” supposedly enabled the “head-he-go-round men”
to “see into Heaven” (cf. Williams, 1976)). But he made no claim to be an
OOBE adept. He said that whenever one falls asleep, the spirit leaves the body
and walks around in its vicinity until daybreak. Yet, whether or not the sleeper
is a sorcerer, he never becomes conscious of being out of the body. Dreams do
not result from such wanderings but are given by spirit ancestors.
I was disappointed by this response from the only sorcerer with whom I
have been able to speak. It is interesting, though, that Hearo comes from the
Kearu area, and school students from this district were the least knowledgeable
about OOBEs among the Elema. Other sorcerers may possibly be more talented than
Hearo in this regard, as one does hear of a very small number of sorcerers said
to specialize in OOBE. But Hearo is clearly a case in point where the reality of
what a sorcerer is capable of, is not matched by what people believe and fear he
Many of the Elema believe that non-sorcerers too may have temporary
OOBEs while the physical body is alive. The boys said that old people in
particular believe that OOBEs can occur in sudden fright, and severe illness,
deep sleep and dreaming. There was much disagreement over these last two. Some
thought OOBEs occurred only in deep
sleep and politely laughed at others who said that dreams are the result of the
spirit wandering: a few thought that OOBEs could occur in deep sleep and
in dreaming, and a small number said that they had never heard of the
phenomenon occurring in either way.
About a third believed in sudden fright as a cause. One explained this
as follows: “If you are walking through the bush and suddenly somebody steps
out from behind a tree and puts a hand on you, your body will jump. The spirit
also jumps, but it jumps higher than the body and so for a short time the two
The majority were unaware of any beliefs that the spirit leaves the body
in serious illness. The Orokolo boys, however, said that the spirit may leave
the body in search of drinking water if a person is so ill that he cannot walk
to water and has nobody attending him. Some of the Lese people too believe that
the spirit leaves the body in illness, but only if consciousness has been lost
or temporary heart failure has occurred (“if his heart stops for a little
time—maybe a few hours’’).
None of the students I asked considered having an OOBE to be dangerous.
However, an older person—one of our teachers from Lese—told me that his
people believe that a sleeping person should not be woken up quickly. If he is
out of the body, then he may die. This
be why students have asked me and the other expatriate teachers to avoid
stepping over their sleeping bodies while checking the dormitories at night.
They believe they might sicken if we do, although none that I have asked could
OF THE GULF KAMEA
Formerly known and dreaded by the coastal people as the “Kukukuku”,
the Kamea are a charming, short, stocky mountain people who live in the least
developed part of the Gulf, as well as across the border into Morobe Province.
Their way of life, based on subsistence agriculture and hunting, has remained
much the same for several thousand years. Tribal fighting, which once resulted
in terrible slaughters and caused much fear and insecurity, is now virtually
extinct. Only over the past 10 to 20 years have Catholic missions (bringing
schools and hospitals) and a government station been established.
I have asked priests working among the Kamea what they have been able to
find out about the people’s traditional metaphysics, but apparently they are
very secretive about it, “almost as if they’ve either got a lot to hide or
there’s just nothing there”. This applies specifically to those Kamea in the
Mt. Eruki area who have previously been isolated by communication difficulties
and tribal fighting. Other Kamea may have quite different beliefs.
Initially I could question a group of only four Kamea since very few of
them are educated to the extent of speaking English and attending our secondary
school down on the coast. I could get no response to the questions no matter how
I tried phrasing them. They seemed anxious to help but unable to answer even
such simple questions as, “What happens to the spirit after death?”
Eventually, after much discussion in their own language and with an obvious air
of embarrassment, they told me that their people believe that when a person’s
body dies his spirit dies too. Death is the end of all existence for him.
Paradoxically they still hold a strong belief in magic and the spirit
world. This, they said, bears no relation to the ordinary world, and the spirits
in it are not the spirits of dead people: the origin and nature of the spirits
is a mystery. Ordinary people are unable to have OOBEs under any circumstances,
but those trained in sorcery can use magic to induce temporary ones in
themselves. Sorcerers in this state can travel to any place in the world, use
their invisibility to steal things, and communicate with spirits. Should he so
wish, the sorcerer can
his spirit assume a form, and usually that of an animal will be chosen.
After further questioning, they told me that they have no traditional
belief in either gods or spirit ancestors. Their only metaphysic, which enjoys
no more status than a legend, is that the world is sustained by and incorporated
into a gigantic snake. The snake is guarded and looked after by sorcerers, and
can be harmed only by other sorcerers. Were it to be killed, that would bring
the end of the world and perpetual darkness.
An opportunity to find out more about the Kamea arose during our last
three months of working in Papua New Guinea. We moved up to the mountains to
live among the Kamea on an outstation, where my wife was needed to help in an
understaffed hospital, and I carried out the electrical installation and
site-wiring for a small hydro-electricity scheme. [pictures
include one of a pre-mission Kamea graveyard, where smoked bodies were placed
out on a mountain ledge].
Despite working closely with the people, I learnt most from the
expatriate priests who had lived there for many years. It would appear correct
that most present-day Kameas have very few indigenous metaphysical beliefs.
Even stories such as that of the snake protected by sorcerers are very
localized. A body of special and important traditions does exist, but seem to be
carefully guarded, and handed down only by a father, on his deathbed, to his
eldest son. Another factor which may contribute to the lack of a popular
metaphysical system and folklore is the people’s very short life expectancy.
This greatly reduces the number of old people who might normally fulfill a
OF THE RIGO
Working on the school site in 1978 was a group of young men from the
Rigo district of Central Province. They belonged to the Gabbonne villages where,
I am told, traditional beliefs are taking longer to die out than in more
developed Rigo areas. Having got to know them very well after sharing their
accommodation for six weeks, I asked a group of five about their OOBE beliefs.
With virtually no further questions required they proceeded to describe one of
the most comprehensive bodies of OOBE beliefs I have heard of outside occidental
and oriental cultures. [See picture of Noel
Gaguna, one of the Rigo key informants].
The Rigo distinguish between two different types of OOBE: the dreaming
and sleeping type, and the magic type.
They believe that everyone leaves the body in sleep and that dreaming
pertains to the spirit’s wanderings. Such OOBEs, however, are said to be
“unreal” in comparison with “real” magic-induced ones. The only other
times when people can have an OOBE without sorcery are if they receive a sudden
fright, and at death.
The day before somebody dies all the spirits in the nearby spirit
village will come to the real village to greet the deceased as the spirit is
released from the dying body [note the similarity of the idea that there is a
nearby spirit village to the idea of the faerie world, and the faerie hill where
the spirits of the dead may await judgement day, in the Gaelic Celtic tradition
– see paper on faerie hills in Scotland].
These spirits may be perceived by dogs, cats, babies, and sorcerers who have
prepared themselves by roasting a special long variety of banana to ashes in the
fire, then eating it complete with the skin. Within a day of dying the spirit of
the deceased will cause an omen to appear showing who used sorcery to cause the
death. This omen consists of some unusual form of animal behaviour to which a
symbolic meaning is attached. Knowing that the person responsible will be
punished by more sorcery, the discarnate spirit then leaves to enjoy its
afterlife in the spirit village.
Magic OOBEs are induced only by certain women who are usually also
sorceresses. As young girls their elders take them into the bush to be trained
in the techniques of induction. These consist of using magic incantations and
either swallowing or having under one’s pillow a charm made from the roots and
leaves of magic plants. The OOBE will then ensue during sleep.
OOBEs are normally induced in order to travel to another place and bring
back food or information. Before starting the OOBE, the sorceress announces her
intention to others nearby so that she can sleep in a hut undisturbed. This is
important because if anyone touches her physical body while the spirit is out
she will immediately die.
During separation the physical body and the spirit remain attached by a
“magic cotton”. It acts “like a fishing line”, in that it is usually
taut but will extend indefinitely to allow the spirit to travel freely. If it is
broken while the spirit is far away, the physical body will die. In order to
re-enter the physical body the sorceress herself must break the magic cotton
when standing beside her body. This cotton is vulnerable, and the greatest
danger of induced OOBEs is that evil spirits might try to cut it to kill the
physical body. In the event of an attack the sorceress must use all her strength
to fight off the assailants.
While disembodied the spirit can appear in any of three ways: as a
facsimile of the physical body; in the form of a bird or flying fox (fruit bat)
if further magic is used; or as a light. The size of the light varies from
“small” to “football sized”. In motion it twinkles like many stars
compacted together and is shaped like a shooting star with a tail. It can
radiate several different colours—yellow, red and blue usually being most
prominent. The faster it moves the more brightly it shines.
The Rigo say that many of their beliefs and practices concerning OOBEs
have come to them from the “Samarai” people—this being the popular
collective name for the inhabitants of Milne Bay Province (i.e. the south-east
tip of New Guinea and island groups such as the d’Entrecasteaux, the
Trobriands and the Louisiades). [pictures of
Wesley & Davis, Samari boys who studied at the school]. David, a
carpenter, backed this up by telling me about an experience undergone by his
brother who has a Samarai girlfriend. The girlfriend told David’s brother
about her mother’s OOBE capabilities, but he was sceptical. It was therefore
arranged for the brother to sleep with the girl’s mother so that during sleep
the woman could help him into the magic OOBE state and he could experience its
reality for himself. The brother agreed to this experiment. While he slept, he
became conscious of himself standing beside the woman, and having an OOBE. She
asked him where he would like to travel to, and he said his village in Rigo.
Together they travelled through the air to Rigo some 250 miles away, and while
there the woman took a bunch of bananas from David’s father’s garden and
carried them back to Milne Bay with her. On returning to his physical body the
brother had difficulty in getting back inside. The cotton which is normally taut
had somehow got tangled up, so it had to be unravelled before it could be broken
to gain re-entry.
The next morning when his father went to the garden he thought that the
bananas had been stolen, until he later received an explanatory letter from his
Although I should want exceedingly concrete evidence, before believing
that a bunch of bananas had been transported in this manner, I find it
interesting that a number of Papua New Guineans have told me similar stories
about the Samarai sorceresses.
Milne Bay Province is clearly an area from which a lot of OOBE folklore
has emanated. This aspect of the Samarai people’s sorcery is greatly feared
even from as far away as the Gulf Province: I was once sitting in my room
working while about 20 students were doing night study in a classroom
downstairs. Suddenly they all ran outside—the girls screaming. A young flying
fox had flown into the classroom causing them to fear it might be a Samarai
In Tables 1—5 the following symbols are used to summarize the main
characteristics of OOBE beliefs in the three cultural groups just discussed:
Belief said to be held by a majority of the people.
Belief said to be held by a minority.
No such belief known to exist.
People questioned were uncertain about this aspect of belief, or information not
Included in the tables for comparison is an assessment of how widespread
is belief in the various OOBE features among proponents of classical
“astral projection” theory (henceforth CAP) in our own culture: a
body of theory which, we should bear in mind, owes much to oriental metaphysics
as well as to the supposed experiences of the “projectors” themselves. This
assessment is based on the classical OOBE literature—Crookall, Muldoon and
Carrington, Yram, Fox, Monroe, et al..—and since such a quantitative
assessment is difficult to make it is
intended only as a rough guide. The symbol XXX indicates a strong and widespread
belief among “projectionists”; X is used where belief is not so heavily
emphasized in the literature, or involves details little discussed; and the
symbols - and ? are used as above.
1. Conditions under which OOBEs are believed to occur
Except for the Kamea, the Melanesian beliefs studied correspond closely
with CAP theory. The Kamea I talked to believe that sorcerers are the only
people who can experience an OOBE, which is why they held no beliefs concerning
With the category for OOBEs self-induced by sorcery I have given CAP
theory an XXX rating; meaning not that CAP proponents necessarily have a strong
belief that sorcery works but that they use a number of OOBE induction
procedures which seem akin to magical ritual.
The only matter in which the Melanesians as a whole believe less
strongly than CAP
proponents is that of whether OOBEs occur in serious illness. In the West,
CAP theory has received a boost in this respect with the publication of reports
of people having OOBEs and related ASCs while advanced resuscitation equipment
nurses them back from death’s doorstep (Moody et a!.,
1976). Here in rural Papua New Guinea, however, the chances of people living
to describe near-death experiences are much slimmer. I suggest that this is
probably the reason why neither the Rigo nor the Kamea believe OOBEs occur in
serious illness, and only a small minority of the Elema do.
2. Reasons for
Again there is a close correspondence between the Melanesian and CAP
beliefs; with the major exception that all the Melanesian groups examined here
believed it possible for sorcerers (esses) to transport physical objects while
OOBE. I know of no reputable CAP source claiming that OOB psychokinesis can be
applied to robbing a trade store or transporting a bunch of bananas from one
place to another. Although I have yet to hear a first-hand account of a sorcerer
demonstrating psychokinesis, belief in their ability to do so is common in
Papua New Guinea, so it is not surprising that the power is attributed to them
even when out of the body. Personally I think that most, if not all, instances
of sorcerers allegedly demonstrating PK are conjuring tricks. One of the
commonest is for the sorcerer to “cure” somebody by pressing his hands on to
the sufferer’s body, then removing them, covered in blood, and holding a bone,
stone or other “obstruction” said to have been inside causing the illness!
Little wonder if after witnessing such “miracles”, unsophisticated people
can believe that the sorcerer has acquired material goods by paranormal means,
when in truth they have probably been gained in a much more mundane way. [I
note, year 2000, a little cultural relativism present in my use of the word
“unsophisticated” there! In certain ways these people were, of course,
considerably more sophisticated than we Westerners.]
Characteristics and appearance of the “double” or “astral body”
All the groups agreed that the double is usually invisible to ordinary
people who lack the special perceptive powers of a sorcerer. However, with the
use of appropriate magic, the double may present itself in visible
form—usually that of an animal. There was some confusion with the Elema on
this point because like many other Melanesian cultures, they believe that
sorcerers can change their physical body into animal form for disguise. Many of
the students were unsure whether the double could also be changed in this manner,
which is why I have given it only the X rating of a minority belief.
There was uncertainty among the Elema and Kamea as to whether or not the
double could appear as a facsimile of the physical body. Most of them felt that
if it wasn’t totally invisible, the form of an animal would be taken.
beliefs about the characteristics and appearance of the double closely resemble
CAP theory. They hold that the double can take on a wide range of forms,
including that of a ball of light. Reports of people having OOBEs finding
themselves to be a ball of light are not uncommon in the West (Green et at., 1968), and my own experimental work with inducing OOBEs
suggests that subjects in higher states of consciousness are more inclined to
find themselves taking on a ball or pinpoint form than any other (McIntosh,
1978; 1979). The shooting star shape of the ball of light when in motion
accords with the CAP notion that, “a forward-moving ‘double’ may leave a
trail of ‘light’” (Crookall, 1964, p. 65). Its composition being reported
by the Rigo to be of many colours could fit in with the CAP idea of a coloured
In pointing out these similarities I do not wish to imply belief in the
truth of either CAP or Melanesian beliefs.
In his study of a selection of 67 of the world’s cultures, Sheils (op.
cit.) found only one, the Kol of India, who believed that the double and the
physical body are linked together by a “cord” during separation. He
concludes his paper by emphasizing this as being one of the very few areas in
which the ethnographic evidence and CAP theory fail to corroborate each other.
The Rigo, however, have been shown to provide an ethnographic case corroborating
CAP theory on the “silver cord”. Their “magic cotton” connects the
double to the physical body; it can, like a fishing line, be extended as the
double moves farther away from the physical body; and if it is broken the owner
dies. Rigo beliefs about the cord do differ from CAP theory in one way, however:
they hold that in order to re-enter the physical body the person herself has to
break the cord. My friends who told me this did not know why the breakage was
It would be interesting to find out more about the cord from a Rigo, or
perhaps a Samarai, OOBE adept. Further details of its function, composition and
appearance could do much to corroborate CAP ideas, but as the Rigo beliefs known
to me stand, there is little which could not conceivably have been inspired by
the idea of a foetus being attached to its mother by the umbilical cord, In
fact, granted this potential source of inspiration, I am surprised Sheils did
not find that more cultures held at least an elementary form of belief in a
4. Types of
danger risked when having an OOBE
CAP theory the dangers most widely associated with OOBEs are:
Repercussion: a term used particularly by Muldoon to indicate what
happens when the double ostensibly snaps back into the physical body too
suddenly—usually because this has been woken up. Repercussion can cause shock
and possibly sickness or even heart failure.
Hindrance: an attack on the double by malevolent spirits or forces,
causing distress or an unsuccessful experience.
Prolonged projection: causing headache, illness or, conceivably, death.
noted, the Rigo think it essential that before inducing an OOBE the sorceress
should ensure that she will not be disturbed. A minority of the Elema also
believe that the physical body should not be touched while the double is out.
Both these groups believe that if it is touched the projectionist will die. The
Kamea held no opinion on the matter. Citing death as a danger of contact with
the physical body is probably an exaggeration, and I suggest that this danger is
akin to the CAP concept of repercussion.
Rigo believe a major source of danger is an attack by malevolent spirits
fighting the double to cut the magic cotton. In CAP theory also attack by
malevolent spirits is considered to be a danger (Fox, Munroe, Muldoon, Yram, et
al.), but not usually a mortal one.
none of the three Melanesian groups mentioned prolonged projection as a
danger, yet CAP proponents and other culturesin Sheil’s sample emphasize it.
Again, it would be interesting to be able to ask a Melanesian OOBE adept in
person about this to find out from first hand.
5. Beliefs about
physical catalepsy during OOBEs
Catalepsy, rigidity of the physical body, is by no means the rule when
somcbody is having an OOBE: there are cases on record of people finding
themselves out of the body while walking along the street or driving a car
(Green et al. 1968). CAP proponents, though, quite often describe feeling
the physical body go rigid at the time of separation, and finding it still rigid
on returning. In my own research I found that catalepsy nearly always occurred
when a subject was ostensibly out of the body (McIntosh, op. cit.).
The Kamea knew nothing about this but some of the Elema said that when a
sorcerer has an OOBE his body becomes rigid.
The Rigo once again, were of particular interest here. As we have seen
they distinguish between the ordinary kind of OOBE which occurs when sleeping or
dreaming, and the fully fledged “magic” type. With ordinary OOBEs the
physical body is relaxed1 but in magic ones it becomes rigid. It
seems that the Rigo position on catalepsy is similar to, but more clear-cut,
than that of CAP.
“FLYING WITCHES” OF MILNE BAY PROVINCE
After I had submitted the original manuscript of this paper, the Society
for Psychical Research very kindly awarded me a grant towards travel
expenses in order to find out more about the OOBE beliefs of the Samarai people.
This enabled me to look up anthropological references in the university
libraries at Port Moresby and Lae, as well as making a boat journey down to
Milne Bay Province to question some of the people there. Being short of time I
paid particular attention to high school students, since having a good command
of English they are easy to approach.
I wanted to see if OOBE beliefs, said to originate among the Samarai
people, were as strong as other ethnic groups believed. I was well rewarded. Not
only do the Samarais still maintain a rich folklore, and considerable fear, of
the so-called “flying witches”, but a certain amount of work on this has
been carried out by anthropologists in the field some decades ago (Malinowski,
1922; also, Fortune, 1932; Jenness and Ballantyne, 1920).
Bronislaw Malinowski devotes Chapter Ten of his Argonauts of the Western Pacific to native beliefs about flying
witches, especially where shipwreck is concerned, noting that if a man is
shipwrecked, or lost at sea, he is believed to face no danger unless flying
witches learn of his location by psychic means, and come to feed on his corpse.
One sorcerer is quoted as describing the threat in this way:
The yoyova (witch) casts off her body (inini wowola—which
really means “peels off her skin”); she lies down and sleeps, we hear her
snoring. Her covering (kapwalela that is, her outward body, her skin)
remains in the house, and she herself flies (titolela biyova). Her skirt
remains in the house, she flies naked. When she meets men, she eats us. In the
morning, she puts on her body, and lies down in her hut... (Malinowski, op.
cit., p. 251).
Protection from the witches can be obtained by reciting a spell over
ginger root. This befogs them with a magic mist known as the “Kayga’u”:
mist springs up;
mist makes them tremble.
befog the front, I shut off the rear;
befog the rear, I shut off the front.
fill with mist, mist springs up;
fill with mist, the mist which makes them tremble...
op. cit., p. 249).
Although the schoolboys I spoke to admitted that they feared night
attacks from flying witches, I think many of their stories (such as ones of
ghost ships crewed by witches) should be taken no more seriously than our ghost
stories back home. What does warrant serious attention are the frequent
reports of flying witches knowing when one of their kinsfolk living far away has
died. In typical cases, the witch sensing that something is wrong, induces an OOBE to fly to where the person is. The problem with cases of this
nature is that it is usually impossible to check them sufficiently to ensure
that a paranormal explanation is justified.
I had a first-hand account of an ostensible encounter with a witch told
me by Daniel, a trades union official from the Trobriand Islands. He did not
believe in the alleged abilities of flying witches until one day at school he
unjustly beat up a friend in an argument over a cricket bat.
The friend’s grandmother was what Daniel described as a “champion
flying witch”. That night he had a terrible “nightmare” that the witch was
flying around his bed and trying to swallow him up with an enormous mouth. He
could not move but was able to scream and wake up his friends, who came and
calmed him down.
Later on, still awake and with his eyes open, he saw a fiery square
shape moving towards him. He knew this to be the witch again. After hovering
around for some time she disappeared, leaving him terrified.
The grandmother lived on another island about half a day’s journey
away, and there was no direct means of communication with the school. However,
two days later the old woman arrived by boat, summoned Daniel and said she had
come and frightened him in the night as a warning not to hit her grandson again.
Another time the punishment would be much worse.
Before sailing back home she made the two boys resume their former
friendship by sitting down together and enjoying some food which she had
Though this anecdote might have a number of normal explanations it does
demonstrate the importance of OOBE beliefs even among the educated, and shows
how such beliefs are perpetuated.
The people I met, and all the relevant anthropological works I could
find, were concerned with either the Milne Bay Province islands, or the
Goodenough Bay region of the north coast. For a better comparison with the Rigo
beliefs I should have liked to visit the south coast of the mainland, but this
was not possible as there were no roads. Nevertheless, I think most of the
Samarai beliefs about OOBEs resemble the Rigo ones, with two exceptions: beliefs
about OOBEs during sickness, and beliefs about the silver cord or
Whereas the Rigo held no beliefs about OOBEs during serious illness,
people of the Goodenough Bay region think that in such cases the spirit may
leave the body, and that a sorcerer should be called to use magic to draw it
back in again.
Although I found in this area no strong evidence of belief in a cord
such as the Rigo have, there is a notion that witches travel along creepers when
flying which perhaps resembles it. School students told me about this, and
Malinowski also describes two variations:
When she goes out..., the yoyova leaves her body behind. Then she
climbs a tree, and reciting some magic, she ties a creeper to it. Then, she
flies off along this creeper, which snaps behind her. This is the moment when we
see the fire flying through the sky. Whenever the natives see a falling star,
they know it is a mulukwausi (i.e. OOB double) on her flight. Another
version is that, when a mulukwausi recites a certain spell, a tree which
stands somewhere near her destination bends down towards the other tree on
which she is perched. She jumps from one top to the other, and it is then that
we see the fire (Malinowski, op. cit., p. 241).
it is mostly women who can induce OOBEs, some men are also believed to have this
ability. Usually—though not always—the woman is a sorceress, and the
training starts from babyhood. Secret magical spells are recited over the
child by its adept mother, and rituals are carried out which people believe
involve such ordeals as sleeping out in the cold, being thrown through the air
but caught again (“to make the spirit feel light”), cannibalistic practices,
and being smoked, by a fire burning leaves with magical properties. Although
such beliefs are still widely held by the Samarai people, I think it wise to
heed Malinowski, who, after giving a particularly lurid account of them,
comments that: “These statements I could never verify by direct observations,
and they may be only the result of very strong belief projecting its own
realities” (op. cit. p. 240).
Once a person has been trained, OOBEs can supposedly be induced at will.
The routine procedure is the same as that described by the Rigo—reciting the
appropriate spells, then sleeping alone in a hut with a pillow-full of special
leaves. Another way is described by Jenness and Ballantyne (1920). It involves
making the body “hot” by rubbing it with the warmed leaves of a tutumuna
tree, and then lying down, as if to fall asleep, in a place where there will be
no disturbances. Like other Melanesians, the Samarai believe that the person
will die if the physical body is touched during an OOBE.
In each of the three Melanesian cultural groups with which I have had
close contact, there exists a body of beliefs about OOBEs. These differ
considerably in extent and depth of detail, but are broadly in agreement, both
with one another, and with CAP theory. A subsequent back-up study showed that
the same holds good of the people of Milne Bay Province, who maintain a
particularly strong belief in the efficacy of their OOB “flying witches.”
These findings add support to other evidence (Sheils, op. cit.)
suggesting that the OOBE and many of its chief characteristics occur in most of
the world’s cultures, and not just in our own.
How far cross-cultural similarities can help in determining whether or
not some aspect of the human psyche actually leaves the physical body in an OOBE
is hard to judge. If very close and detailed correspondences could be shown to
exist on matters such as the silver cord and the appearance of the double, CAP
theory might well be justified. Though such correspondences exist in the
instance of Rigo beliefs, they are less marked in other cultures.
Overall I do not think they are enough to make CAP theory the only
explanation. More support for it might be found if individual OOBE adepts could
be questioned about their experiences, but so far I have only been able to find
out about general beliefs. That such general beliefs are prone to the
incorporation of fantasy elements, is clearly demonstrated by the absurdity of
beliefs about matters like OOB cannibalism and PK. Unfortunately, it is very
difficult for Europeans to find an OOB adept willing to discuss such
experiences: but even if the barrier of secrecy were broken down, we should
probably still be left with the same problems as those faced when analysing OOBE
data from our own culture.
To sum up, the broad universality of OOBE beliefs is exciting and must
certainly influence our views on the nature of OOBEs. Yet, this in itself is
insufficient to prove that the CAP interpretation of the phenomenon is correct.
Much research needs to be done into the OOBE and altered states of consciousness
in general before we can reach a better understanding. This must be conducted
not only in the field or the laboratory, but also through philosophical enquiry.
The latter is particularly important, since the way in which we look at the OOBE
is inevitably influenced by our metaphysical assumptions, which are not
necessarily correct [see “A
spiritual-monistic theory of out-of-the-body experiences”].
I should like to thank my Melanesian friends who have made this study of
their beliefs possible, by being so open and helpful. This is not always easy,
for in an age when their world is changing so rapidly, shame is sometimes felt
about existing traditional beliefs. I hope that studies like this will help to
show that they are by no means alone in the world, at least where most of their
beliefs about OOBEs are concerned.
Blackmore, S. Parapsychology and
Out-of-the-body Experiences. UK: Transpersonal Books and SPR, 1978.
Crookall, R. The Study and
Practice of Astral Projection. UK: Aquarian Press, 1961.
Crookall, R. The Techniques of
Astral Projection. UK: Aquarian Press, 1964.
M. Proceedings of the Society for
Psychical Research, 53, 1962.
Fortune, R. F. Sorcerers of Dobu. UK:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932; revised 1963.
Green, C. E. Out-çif-the-body
Experiences. Oxford: Institute of Psychophysical Research, 1968.
Jenness, D., and Ballantyne, A. The
Northern d’Entrecasteaux. UK: Clarendon Press, 1920.
Malinowski, B. Argonauts of the
Western Pacific. UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922. (I am most grateful to
the publishers for allowing me to quote the passages cited in the text.)
McIntosh, A. I. A commentary on the “Christos” technique. In G.
M. Glaskin, Worlds Within. UK:
Arrow Books edition only, 1978.
A. I. The “Christos” procedure: a novel ASC induction technique. Psychoenergatic
Systems, Gordon & Breach
Science Publishers Inc, Vol. 3, 1979.
Monroe, R. A.
Journeys out-of-the-body. UK: Corgi Books, 1974.
Moody, R. Life after Life. UK:
Corgi Books, 1976.
Muldoon, S. J., and Carrington, H. The
Projection of the Astral Body. UK: Psychic Book, 1929.
S. J. The Case for Astral Projection. UK:
Psychic Book Club, 1963.
Palmer, J. The Out-of-Body Experience: a psychological theory. Parapsychological
Review, USA, Sept/Oct 1978.
Sheils, D. A Cross-cultural Study of Beliefs in Out-of-the-body
Experiences, waking and sleeping. Journal of
the Society for Psychical Research, 49, 775, March 1978.
Tart, C. T. (ed.). Altered States
of Consciousness. USA: Wiley, 1969.
Williams, F. E. Drama of Orokolo:
the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Elema. UK: Oxford University Press,
F. E. The Vailala Madness and other
Essays. Australia and UK: University of Queensland Press, 1976.
Yram, Practical Astral Projection. UK: Rider. No date given.
As we lack terms
for the study of ASCs (altered states of consciousness) and the people who
study them, I have suggested ascology and
asco1ogist respectively (Journal
of the Society for Psychical Research, 50, 782).
See my “Sorcery
and its Social Effects Amongst the Elema of Papua New Guinea”, Oceania,
University of Sydney, LIII:3, 1983, 224-232. All the Melanesian names cited
in this paper are pronounced phonetically. With names containing an ea, the two vowels are pronounced independently. Thus, Hearo,
is pronounced. He-a-ro: Ekemeavo,
I am unable to say whether such beliefs could have been inspired or
influenced through contact with coastal people.
many Melanesian cultures it is believed that all
death and sickness
are caused by sorcery. This holds even in cases which we should consider to
be purely accidental. “Payback” is sought by inflicting sorcery on the
accused, fighting, or demanding material compensation. ln Gulf Province, the
fear which sorcery generates is one of the biggest factors causing young
people to leave their villages for a more secure life in the cities.
“magic mushrooms” containing psychedelic substances are fairly common in
Papua New Guinea, none of the people I spoke to were aware of their
sorcerers using fungi. My friend, Hearo, affirmed that “hiva”
(mushrooms) played no role in his magic. However, I would not be at all
surprised if certain sorcerers do use plants which contain ASC-inducing
These are names
of islands in the Province.
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