Elema Trance Mediumship in PNG
case study of trance and the fear of sorcery among the West Elema of Papua New
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.
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.
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.
for fearing sorcerers
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”.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
maea au huhaharula
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
F. Fortune, Sorcerers
of Dobu (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1932; revised, 1936), p. 306.
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