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Elema Trance Mediumship in PNG

Maea au huhaharula

a case study of trance and the fear of sorcery among the West Elema of Papua New Guinea



Alastair I. McIntosh  


Published in the Christian Parapsychologist, Vol. 5, No. 1, ISSN 0308-6194, 1983, pp. 9-15. Click here for map and pictures of the location and some of the people associated with this article.



Between 1977 and 1979 I worked as a volunteer in the relatively undeveloped Gulf Province of Papua New Guinea. There I was the deputy-headmaster of an experimental Secondary school as well as being res­ponsible for wiring-up and completing the province’s first small hydro­electricity scheme. Throughout this time it became abundantly clear, both from day-to-day happenings and discussions with the people, that fear of sorcery still retards development at the village level to an extent which may be even more formidable than such impediments as disease and lack of capital.

A lot of young people complain that they are afraid to better their way of life while remaining within the province. To do so, they believe, would cause jealousies to be stirred, and sorcery to be used against them or their kin. This problem has long been recognised by anthropologists. For example, Reo Fortune, a husband of the late Margaret Mead, men­tions “the paranoid fear of sorcery from the ownership of greater wealth than ones’ fellows” as being characteristic of many Papuan peoples.[1]

Amongst the Elema people of Kerema Bay, perhaps the best known anecdote which discourages young people from making a material success of their lives, is told about Papua New Guinea’s international boxing champion, James Hila. Amongst others who have told me his story was his brother, Koivi, who was one of my grade eight students. The tale goes that James made too great a success of his career for the liking of an old sorcerer in his home village of Harona. When James came home for a holiday, together with his manager, Australian girlfriend, and plenty of money, magic was made and within a week he wasted away and died. A memorial monument to him now stands in Mcii village.

Schools too suffer from problems caused by sorcery fears. In 1979 one of our students died from suspected pneumonia with complications. As most death is attributed to sorcery, so was Mainoi’s, and we permanently Lost around twenty students who were so frightened that they returned to their villages.


Reasons for fearing sorcerers


As anthropologist F. E. Williams has commented in writing about sor­cery amongst the Elema people of Gulf Province, “Despite a belief in their own magic it remains obvious that sorcerers are to a very large extent imposters, trading on the superstition of their fellows”.[2]  It is easy to appreciate why this happens in a country where the mechanisms of natural disease are not understood by the majority of the people, and where it is common for people to die rapidly from pneumonia, food poisoning and tropical diseases. In addition to this, some of the rituals engaged in by sorcerers can be very frightening in themselves and therefore serve to reinforce the belief that they have the power to control evil forces.

Throughout my two-year stay in Papua New Guinea I succeeded in finding only one sorcerer who was willing to tell me about his art [see Oceania paper]. He described how most of his magic was carried out with the aid of dis­carnate spirits over which he had control; control which in some cases he had exerted by consuming flesh from the spirit’s corpse after removing it from the grave. Needless to say, the majority of Papua New Guineans feel as repulsed by such practices as we might, but such repugnance all contributes towards strengthening belief in the sorcerer’s power.

On a topical note for this particular journal, it is interesting to point out that my sorcerer acquaintance, Hearo, frequently mixed Christian concepts in with his belief and identified with the side of evil. Thus, in receiving payment to teach an apprentice how to kill using sorcery, he likened his role to that of Judas. Judas did not kill Jesus directly, but, for thirty pieces of silver, contributed to his death by betraying him. Similarly, before killing a person Hearo said he has a duty to lay on a small feast in honour of his intended victim. The reason for this, he said, is that “Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He had his feast, the Last Supper, and only then did they kill him” (sic). Again, once dead as a result of magic the victim’s spirit will be “banished to the place where Satan lives— the place where Adam and Eve who were made by Jesus went to after they died” (sic).

The procedures used by Hearo to kill ranged from pointing a human bone at his victim, to more direct, homicidal methods using poisons. All involved invoking the power of spirits, but they shall be discussed no further here as the purpose of this paper is to look at one particular symptom of the fear of sorcery—a type of mediumistic trance which in the Orokolo (West Elema) language is known as maea au huhaharula (pronounced, my-ya au who-ha-harula). Maea means “body”. Au huhaha­rla means that the body is unconscious, or that it is weak and shaking, perhaps with the jaws locked together. Some cases might be epilepsy mistaken for mediumship, but in my opinion such was not so with the one I am to describe. It is worth noting that trance states are compara­tively rare in Melanesian culture, though not unknown amongst the Elema in a cargo cult context[3]. The West Elema people say that maea au huhaharula is fairly common with them, but as its onset is involuntary I am fortunate to have witnessed this particular case.


The maea au huhaharula


At around 10.00 p.m. on the night of Saturday 28 July, 1979, my [then] wife and I were disturbed by loud knocking on the door. On answering it, I was confronted by a group of students armed with sticks and bush knives. I was about to slam the door on them, but stopped when they said that a student called Michael had had an accident. They wanted my wife, Dorothy, to see what was wrong with him.

Asked what they were doing out after bedtime, they replied that to­gether with the traditional arts teacher, they were hunting for sorcerers. This was why they were all armed. Over the past fortnight the school’s generator had been out of action, and a story had started that various sounds heard in the darkness were caused by a band of sorcerers. The students’ idea had been to try and intercept the sorcerers, then ask who they were seeking and for what reason.

Close to the generator house they had heard mysterious sounds, which were interpreted as knives being struck together. As nobody was visible there, they imagined the sorcerers to be hiding in the vicinity. Before approaching, they made a detour to collect a torch, and it was while coming back up to the generator house that Michael (aged seventeen) started to feel weak, then collapsed unconscious.

When Michael was carried inside our house he seemed to be completely unconscious, but started to come round and began to mutter in Orokolo language after about five minutes. With the help of one of his friends to interpret, Dorothy checked to ensure that there was nothing physically the matter with him. His only complaint was of stomach pain, but he had had that quite a few times recently, and the doctor considered there to be nothing seriously wrong.

Although he could speak, Michael did not behave normally. From time to time his body jerked in a convulsive manner. His back would arch, and the arms raise themselves a little off the ground. Very rapid contrac­tions of the belly, muscles occurred—a symptom which could not be produced consciously. His voice was inconstant: it moaned and wavered eerily.

Continuing to speak in Orokolo, Michael said that the spirit of his deceased father was communicating with him. His father was saying that he had come to warn all the Orokolo boys that three or four sorcerers were indeed hiding close to the generator house as was suspected, in order that they might observe the dormitories. Presumably they were out to kill somebody, and could be expected to take the opportunity if whoever they were after left the dormitory on his own.

The father wanted the other students to try and get Michael back to the main dormitory so that they would have the safety of numbers. To make it safe for us to walk the necessary half kilometre, he was trying to chase the sorcerers further away. The attempt apparently met with only limited success, as it was one person against four.

The suspense amongst the dozen or so students in our house reached its peak when one of the sorcerers was said to have become very angry, and was performing a death dance. The students said that we would very likely find that someone would die during the night as a result, but that if we did not, it would be thanks to the protection of Michael’s father. (Nobody died.)

It is worth commenting that the sorcerers’ alleged degree of mobiIity was remarkable: if they did exist and were being chased as described, they must have been very fast runners, as well as being capable of some­how getting up onto the first storey verandah of a residence without being seen by the occupants.

After managing to chase one of the sorcerers into a drain, the father considered it to be safe enough for us to walk outside. He ostensibly came down to the house to escort us, and although our door was kept closed, the students moved away from it. They believed that by doing do, the spirit would have greater ease of access. Michael reported his father’s arrival, then gently sat up. With his friends helping him, we went outside. The bright kerosene lamp had to be left behind lest it attracted the sorcerers’ attention, but dim torch light was permitted.

On arriving at the dormitory, Michael claimed to be still in contact with his father, although the symptoms of his trance state were fast wearing off. His father’s main concern was that all the Orokolo boys (i.e. those coming from the area between Vailala West and the Purari Delta) should go back to their villages, and with the help of parents and village sorcerers, find out which of them was under threat. Also, none of them should return until the generator was working again, since it would otherwise be unsafe to walk around in the evenings.

Fortunately the generator was repaired the next day. Howcver, the Orokolo boys still insisted in their strongest terms on being allowed to go to their villages. This was permitted, with the proviso that they should be back within a fortnight.

To our surprise, all of the twenty-seven students involved returned to school after five days. If nothing else, this demonstrated their good faith, as four of those days would have been used up in walking. Each had seemingly been reassured that his family had done nothing to warrant the wrath of sorcerers, thus each was satisfied that he personally was safe. Complaints of sorcerers prowling around the dormitories at night ceased thereafter.


Discussion and analysis


My students and our [Papua New Guinea] national teachers tell me that maea au huhaharula is a fairly common occurrence amongst the Elema people. They also say that it occurs amongst coastal people throughout the nation. Knowing of no other written record of the trance I am unable to corroborate this. However I can say that two students from the Milne Bay Province islands who were present when Michael was down in our house stated that the same phenomenon takes place amongst their people too.

The Elema believe that the maea au huhaharula is caused by a dis­carnate spirit wishing to warn that a member of the family or kinship group is being, or about to be, attacked by sorcerers. Usually the justifica­tion given for the sorcery (puripuri) is that somebody from within the group has seriously wronged an outsider. Revenge is therefore to be expected.

The onset of the trance is characteristically marked by a person fainting, and after lying unconscious for several minutes, commencing to speak and act as was described above. Often the medium has had no previous experiences of this nature, as was so with Michael. On being warned that sorcery is being practiced against a certain person, the family will gather together as much money as it can afford. This is used either to pay another sorcerer to invoke counter-magic, or, if the identity of the practicing sorcerer(s) is known, persuade him to start healing the victim instead of killing. In this way a cure may conveniently be effected even before any sickness manifests itself.

That discarnate spirits are involved is one hypothesis with which to explain the maea au huhaharula. However, this would be virtually im­possible to substantiate in a scientifically acceptable manner. We would face all the problems normally involved with investigating Spiritualist mediumship, plus more, since the maea au huhaharula is supposed to have an involuntary onset.

In Michael’s case, a second hypothesis would be that he faked the incident, perhaps to boost his prestige and secure a short holiday for the Orokolo students. I think this unlikely for a number of reasons, of which the most objective is the involuntary twitching of his belly muscles during the trance. Other reasons include Michael’s own integrity, the depth of anxiety displayed by him and the others, and the speed with which they all came back to school after seeing their parents.

I therefore favour a third hypothesis; one which can account for the maea au huhaharula in general, as well as for the specific case under discussion. I would suggest that maea au huhaharula is an hysterical symp­tom. It manifests if there is some reason to fear a sorcery attack, and serves to reduce the group and individual anxiety thus generated. In general terms, the sequence of events might be as follows:


(a) A person wrongs somebody who is outside the kinship group, causing collective guilt to be felt within the group.

(b) The guilt is associated with a fear of “payback” (or revenge) through sorcery. In accordance with belief, this could affect anybody in the group, and not necessarily the wrong-doer himself.

(c) Anxiety, caused literally by the fear of death, builds up within the group. It reaches proportions at which hysterical behaviour is likely to occur.

(d) One of the group becomes afflicted with maea au huhaharula. It is basically a cathartic response from the person’s unconscious, but is interpreted as being caused by a benign spirit. The “spirit” gives confir­mation that sorcery is being practiced, and a victim is often named so that he or she can be helped before it is too late.

(e) Anxiety and uncertainty within the group is relieved. A sorcerer is paid to employ counter-magic to prevent the victim from being harmed, and the monetary sacrifice which this entails no doubt helps to alleviate feelings of guilt over the wrong-doer’s action.




With the case involving Michael, my interpretation of its cause is that due to inadequate lighting around the school at night, various sounds heard in the darkness were interpreted by the Orokolo students as being caused by sorcerers. The expatriate members of staff considered these sounds to have had normal explanations, for example, a wild bull which was on the rampage, coconuts falling on timber, and loose roofing iron flapping in the wind. However, strong pressure within the Orokolo group to conform meant that if one or two of the younger boys thought they saw or heard something ominous, the others all agreed that they had perceived it too. Interpretations were exaggerated. That this did happen was established by questioning, and noting that non-Orokolo students had not jumped to the same conclusions.

Michael’s trance confirmed all their fears for them. It provided the necessary grounds for insisting that they be allowed home so that each individual could be reassured that he was safe. In this way the group’s anxiety was relieved.

In terms of retarding development, this particular incident resulted in the loss of twenty-seven student-weeks of schooling. But multiply such problems by all the province’s schools, the government hierarchy and private enterprise—all of which are affected by people returning to their villages when worries about sorcery surface—and some idea of just the absenteeism side of the problem alone is achieved.

In other provinces, belief in sorcery has diminished as the quality of life has been improved through overall development. By creating facilities for education and basic health care, by building roads through the swamps so that people can communicate and trade more easily—all such measures help to loosen the stranglehold of the less pleasant aspects of traditional life which sorcery epitomises. The spread of Christianity is also an im­portant factor, for amongst a people for whom spiritual matters are of great importance, it is futile to reject one metaphysical system unless it can be replaced by something better—something more conducive to human happiness and dignity. In my opinion, the removal of fear by substituting a philosophy of love must be counted as the greatest single contribution being made by Christianity in Papua New Guinea.

Perhaps, when one reflects on our own country, the same could be said of here too.

Alastair McIntosh returned to Scotland in 1980 after service in Papua New Guinea, and is now the Scottish Organizer for a national oversees aid agency.

[1] R. F. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932; revised, 1936), p. 306.

  [2] F. E. Williams, Drama of Orokolo: the Social and Cere,nonial Life of the Elema (Oxford University Press, 1940), p. 109.

  [3] See F. E. Williams, The Vailala Madness and Other Essays (University of Queensland Press, 1976).



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