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Melanesian Mythology Papua New Guinea

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The people of Tangu who live in small hamlets not far inland from the north coast of New Guinea have a myth about a certain woman who had no husband to protect her. One day, she left her daughter alone and a stranger came and killed the child and buried the body. The woman had a dream that revealed the whereabouts of the grave and she recovered the body carrying it in her string bag from village to village until she found a place to bury it and a man, the younger of two brothers, who would marry her. She had two sons by her new husband.

wooden drum

A wooden drum, three feet high, from the lower Fly River area on the Papuan Gulf, carved as a male figure without a head.

Later she visited the daughter's grave and parting some coconut fronds she found salt water flowing from the grave with fish swimming in the water. The woman took some water and a small fish as food for her family. The results were miraculous. Overnight, her son grew to manhood. Her husband's elder brother was envious and wanted the same for his son so she directed him to the grave. Instead of taking a small fish, the foolish man seized the large eel-like one. Immediately, the ground quaked and water thundered forth from underground, forming the sea and separating brother from brother.

After a while, the two brothers re-established contact by floating messages to each other written on leaves. It soon became apparent that the younger brother was able to invent and make wonderful things like boats with engines, umbrellas, rifles and canned food while the elder brother could only make copies. The narrator's conclusion was that this was why some people were black and ate yams. This theme of the release of the sea is a common one all over Melanesia and is obviously of considerable antiquity.

On the island of Dobu in Massim, New Guinea, it was believed that when the sea was released all the beautiful women were swept in a flood to the neighbouring Trobian Islands while the ugly women were scattered inland in Dobu. In these examples, the consequences that flow from certain kinds of anti-social behaviour for disobedience seems to be much more important than the explanation of how the sea originated. Sot it is not surprising that in many other places besides Tangu this type of myth has been adapted and reinterpreted to account for the differences between white and black men.

sacret bamboo flute

An ornament for a sacred bamboo flute from the middle Sepik Region of New Guinea, carved in the shape of a man.

Before the coming of the European, the Melanesian's knowledge of the world seldom extended beyond its immediate neighbours with whom he traded and fought. Amongst the semi-nomadic Arapesh who lived on the mountains to the north of the Sepik River, the world was vaguely thought of as an island. The coastal Busama of the Huon Gulf saw their districts as the centre of the world shaped like an upside-down plate, and believed that anyone who travelled beyond the neighbouring territories had to climb the vault of heaven which was "solid like thatch".

The Trobianders, who were fine sailors and took part in extensive overseas trading expeditions, had a broader world view that encompassed the few hundred square miles of ocean which they called Pilolu. Beyond this, to the south and west, were the land of people with wings and people with tails; to the north they knew vaguely of a country of ordinary men - probably New Britain - and another extremely dangerous land, the island of women.

Each small community had its own unique way of looking at the world. Each had its own coterie of mythological beings whose names were seldom known beyond its borders. The earliest hybrid group in Papua New Guinea, the Papuans, are mostly found in the western areas of the south coast of New Guinea and in parts of the interior. A scattering of Papuan elements, including languages, are found in some nearby islands as well as in New Britain and New Ireland and the Northern Solomons. A Papuo-Melanesian mixture predominates towards the eastern extremity of New Guinea and the neighbouring small archipelago. The further one moved south the more elements predominates that can be called Melanesians, though distinctions can be made between coastal and bush people.

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Belief about man's origins were many and varied. Some myths say he came into the world fully grown either from the sky or from underground or was released from a tree. Other myths say he was created from clay or sand or that he was carved from wood. These mythical beings who acted as creators were not the sole creators, for each clan or sub-clan within the group had its own view. For example, some Kiwaians believed that their "father" was the crocodile and a modern account of the story had been written by Mea Idei from Boze near the Binaturi River. He tells how a being called Ipila carved a human figure out of wood and brought it to life by painting the face with sago milk. First the eyes open, then the nostrils quivered and the "man" made a noise like a crocodile. His name was Nugu but he was not satisfied until Ipila made three more men as companions for him. These men refused to learn the things Ipila wanted to teach them and turned their backs on him. After a while, two of them became tired of only eating sago and started to kill animals for food. Almost at once, they turned into half-crocodiles. Neither the animals nor Nugu and the other man wanted any more to do with them so they tried to make some of their own kind. But they found that they could only make men because Ipala sequently altered their work. From these new men are descended the people who claim the crocodile as their father. Ipala was so angry with his first creation, Nugu, that he condemned him to hold the earth on his shoulders for ever. The narrator concludes that these events explain why his people only know what they know - not why they are alive, nor what is happening beyond their part of the world.   

The idea that there was a sky world which was a replica of this one was fairly widespread in Papua New Guinea. The Ayon pygmies of the interior tell how Tumbrenjak climbed down to earth to go hunting and fishing. When he tired to return, he found the rope cut. He cried and his wife looked down and cried. His wife threw down fire and all the fruits and vegetables, including four cucumbers. As soon as the man walked off into the bush, these turned into four women. When he returned he found all his work done and heard the women's laughter. The offspring of this man and his four wives are the ancestors of the different tribes.

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A wooden figure from the lower Fly River area on the Papuan Gulf. It was probably associated with the Moguru ceremonies.

The Keraki Papuans of the southwest coast often say that there is a sky world from which the first beings came - these were called Gainjin. All agree that they went back into the sky when their time on earth was finished. The exception was the two Gainjin animals, Bugal the snake and Warger the crocodile, who still haunt the bush. An excess of rain is regarded by the villagers as a sign that the sky beings are displeased. They fear that the great rattan cane which supports this aerial world will one day break, so during heavy storms they stand ready to defend themselves in case any of the sky beings should tumble down.

There are many stories about how man was released from a tree. There are two Keraki mythologies, each associated with its own sacred site, and in one of the Kuramangu stories a sky being, Kambel, was curious about the unintelligible sound which issued from a palm tree and he cut it down, releasing the people. In the evening, a shiny white object rose from the palm and slipped from his grasp into the sky. It was his son, the moon. (Both father and son are associated with the moon).

There are also many stories about how man emerged from underground. The northern Massim area is a relatively homogenous cultural grouping and there it is believed that the life which existed below ground was exactly like the one above, so that the people who emerged brought with them the rules governing conduct as well as the knowledge of special skills and magic lore.  Among the Trobianders, for example, each small sub-clan had an ancestress who emerged with her brother from a particular spot sighted in a grove grotto lump of coral or rock. With each of these hole of emergence were associated certain territories including garden land and seashore so that each particular myth determined land usage and inheritance. One particular site on the peninsula of Kirawina was especially renowned because from it came the first creatures to emerge on earth. They were the iguana, the dog, the pig and the snake - the animal ancestors of the four principal clans.

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A wooden trumpet used by war parties in the Sepik River region of New Guinea.

The central characters in a number of Melanesian myths are two brothers, who although they have different names from place to place tend to be associated with the same mythological theme. They often share the laurels in Ogre-killing stories but sometimes victory is achieved because of one's brother's superior strength and astuteness. In other stories it is this very difference between the brothers' abilities which determines the outcome of events.

In a tale from Mekeo in New Guinea, one brother only has fruit to eat while the other eats meat. The former spies on the latter, and sees him enter a hill which opens at his command and then closes it behind you. A little later he emerges with a wallaby and two scrub hens. When the foolish brother tries to do the same thing, he was too slow and all the animals escape. The two brothers begin to fight but their wives separate them and send them off to fight an ogre instead.

In several places along the north coast of New Guinea and inland amongst the Arapesh there are myths in which the jealousy and rivalry between two brothers reaches such a pitch that one tries to kill the other by crushing him in a post hole.

A carved post of a ceremonial house from the Sepik River region, showing the way in which the top is hollowed out to support the carved surface of the horizontal pole which rests on it. The carving probably represents a wood spirit.

corner post

One of the great heroes of the Kiwai Papuans was Marunogere. Before he taught them how to build their great communal houses - some exceed 300 feet in length - they lived in miserable holes in the ground. As soon as the first ceremonial house was built, he inaugurated it with a moguru or lifegiving ceremony, which also aims at making men great fighters. The ritual with a dead pig did make the men great warriors and it was re-enacted yearly in the moguru when young boys crawl over the corpse of a wild boar decked out in the finery of a fighter. Marunogere also bored a hole in each woman to give her sexual organs and in the evening he was content to die after he felt the gentle rocking of the great house as the men and women were locked in the first sexual embrace. This part of the myth provided the sanction for the ritual initiation, during the moguru of the young boys and girls into adult sexual life.

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The korwar figures from Geelvink Bay in north-west New Guinea were carved when death occurred. Sometimes the outsized head was hollowed out to take the skull which was believed to retain the essence of spiritual power of the person. The spirit was thought to inhabit and its help was invoked in times of danger or illness. Often an intermediary held the head and was possessed by the spirit who spoke through him. Then snake motif is common in this area and the decorative style reflects a contact with a culture with a knowledge of metal-work.

For the Melanesians, the bush and sea around him is made dangerous by a great variety of supernatural emanation. There are special ghosts like those of beheaded men whose wounds glow in the dark. There are also the spirits doubles of living men. The mountain Kukukukus of New Guinea tell how a boy was approached by a spirit with the face of his mother's brother, who pierced his nose septum and inserted a bush fowl's bone. His real uncle found him and took him home. It was noticed soon after that he became a great fighter, so henceforth initiation included the nose piercing ceremony.

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By Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 9th May 2002)