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Papua New Guinea - Sorcery




The following information on sorcery in Papua New Guinea was taken from an article published in The Papuan Achievement by Lewis Lett in 1942. His observations are most interesting and give a detailed account of his impressions of sorcery as it was practised at that time. In company with similar writings, it is from the perspective of a visitor who was not brought up in the detailed and complex magic and sorcery of the Melanesian people. As such, Lewis Lett's observations are a valuable, if imperfect historical record of a very significant component of the lives of the people of Papua New Guinea.


The sorcerer, of course, does not fail to take advantage of his opportunities. Extortion and victimization are parts of his recognized armoury. He rules by fear, and against that fear the arguments and assurances of Europeans are powerless. In his Papua of today Sir Hubert Murray gives an example of the sort of work that an established sorcerer does. There was a well-known sorcerer who used to sit outside his house in the evening when the villagers were returning from their day's work. If one of them passed with a load of particularly fine taro or fish or bananas, the old man would call to him, admire the food, and suggest that the owner would be wise to give him some. His reputation was high, and the victim would not dream of refusing. But one evening there passed his house a native who had been for many years in he Government service, and who had learned contempt for ignorant superstition.

The sorcerer called to him to cross the street:

"Lend me five pounds," he demanded.
"No," said the enlightened one, and was passing on.
"You would be wise to lend me the money," the sorcerer advised coldly.
"Well, I won't," said the other, and went on his way.
"But what happened?" he complained to his employer a few days later. "That night my child died."

There was no use at all in telling him that the child would have died in any case, or that death cannot be compassed by such means as the sorcerer employed. No. The old man had been angry, and the child died as a direct consequence; and no amount of argument would persuade the bereaved father that sorcery was not a very real and very formidable power.

A sorcerer's reputation is sometimes earned by his own qualities; much more often it is inherited, together with the paraphernalia of teeth and shells and stones, rags of fur, carved scraps of wood, and all the other accumulation of rubbish that makes the sorcerer's stock-in-trade. But for a successful career the magician must possess intelligence and a degree of self-control. He must have at least some rudimentary knowledge of psychology, and he must appreciate the value of science as a weapon.

He may paint his face with special pigments, and he may deck himself out in feathers and shells and necklaces; but his real power lies in the faculty of silence, leaving things to be inferred rather than expressing them, and in the power of his eyes to inspire fear.

How great is the fear inspired by such reticence is clearly to be seen in the courts when an alleged sorcerer is on trial. The Papuan is naturally a voluble talker, and to his view there is something uncanny in a man who preserves complete silence in face of argument or even of accusation. And it almost always happens that the accused sorcerer refuses to say anything at all in his own defence; and indeed the cold glance that he throws on any adverse witness is more telling than would be the most expert cross-examination.

W. N. Beaver, in his Unexplored New Guinea, recalls the case of a famous western sorcerer named Baii. Baii was "a little wizened, dried-up old man with a crippled leg and one side of his face horribly distorted with lupus". He lived at Baimuru, then an almost unknown village lying on the fringe of the mangrove and mud of the a Purari Delta. among Beaver's duties as a magistrate was the reduction of Baimuru to peaceful living. But such a programme did not prompt the inhabitants to enthusiastic co-operation. Instead a plan, in which Baii played an important part, was made to attack the next police patrol that visited the district.

Not only was the attack planned in detail, but the bodies of the police who would be killed were allotted to the various sections of the tribe in advance, to play an important part in the banquet that would celebrate the inevitable victory. The attack came off, but the banquet did not, for the Baimuru people were hopelessly defeated; and, as evidence was strong against him, Baii was arrested and held for trial on a charge of conspiracy. 

To secure unofficial evidence against him was an easy matter, but there was the greatest difficulty in persuading witnesses to face the sorcerer in Court and give formal testimony against him. Baii was well known; and it was an accepted belief that he had only to whisper a man's name, and, soon or late, that man would die a mysterious and thoroughly unpleasant death.

But eventually a few witnesses were secured and the trial opened. Opened, but was never completed. For not one of the witnesses had the courage to repeat in Baii's presence the statements that he had made readily outside the Court. Baii was conducting his own defence; and he did it by saying nothing at all. As each witness was brought in, Baii, leaning carelessly on his stick, gave him one look, cold and threatening from under his drooping lids. And that one glance was enough. The witness, nervous already, collapsed under this new threat, and fell to the floor in a fit. Witness after witness was led in, caught the famous sorcerer's eye, and dropped to the floor to be carried out by the attendant police. As the strange proceedings went on the interpreter began to show signs of collapse, and even the police were affected, and in the end the case had to dismissed for want of any shred of evidence against the prisoner.

That, of course, was an extreme case; but even today the most courageous of witnesses will hesitate and stammer, contradict himself, and lose all coherence, and will often turn his back on the prisoner and on the Bench in his anxiety to avoid meeting the sorcerer's eye.

Sorcery has many aspects and many roots, and it varies very greatly both in its form and in its effects. White, or beneficent, magic, though it is not common in Papua, does exist; and because it is harmless it is not seriously discouraged by the Administration. The "Man of Song" in the Trobriand Islands, who walks daily through the gardens, a magic wand in his hand, and sings to encourage the growing crops, may be wasting time, but he cannot do much harm, and he is at least a picturesque figure. It is even probable that in his anxiety to prove the strength of his magic he sees to it that the greatest care is taken to select a favourable spot for the garden, and that the physical needs of the growing plants are promptly met.

And there is the legend of Gomara-Goasa, a woman of Kilakila, near Port Moresby, who was carried away by the spirits from her father's house when she was quite a small girl, and taken to the top of a Vari tree, where they instructed her in curative medicine and many other arts. They also taught her the trick of languages, so that she could speak the tongues of tribes that she had never seen; and she was able to see distant people and distant countries in her sleep, and foretold the coming of white men with their strange clothing, their rice and four, cattle and ships, long before the existence of a white race was even suspected. 

A class of magic that is beneficent in intention if not in fact, is practised by the Koiari and Koita sorcerers in the treatment of illness. The patient, whether he suffers from a fever or any other disorder, is laid out on his back, and the practitioner squats beside him chewing the leaves of roots of some selected plant. When he has chewed them sufficiently for his purpose, he sprays the body of his patient - or victim - with saliva, mutters a few charms, and takes his fee; quite satisfied in his own mind that if the patient is not cured, he ought to be.

Massage, inexpert and often very violent, is used by many such healers; and if the victim shows the execrable taste to die under the rough treatment, the fault lies, obviously, with some other sorcerer whose malignant work is too well established, or with the sufferer himself in that he delayed too long in seeking relief.

That such men do score successes is due to the strong faith that their followers have in their skill; and evidence suggests that their success is in direct proportion to the amount of mystery that they introduce into their technique. The Koiari sorcerer, for instance, persuades his patient that he has removed one or more stones from his body by sleight-of-hand so clumsy as to be ridiculous to the white observer.

The rain-maker has a very soft job in districts where more than a hundred inches of rain fall every year; but, as his specialty is weather, he has often to face the active resentment of men whose hunting trip has been ruined by too much rain, or whose house or garden has been damaged; and it is not always that he can avert punishment by throwing the blame onto the rainmaker of a neighbouring tribe, or spur his people to a punitive raid that would serve to distract attention from his failure.

Belief in the power of rain-makers has faded perhaps more noticeably than that in sorcery generally. But in 1905 it was prevalent and very strong. A magistrate in the Northern Division had sent two of his police on a journey down the coast. They were close friends of long standing; but on their return to the station it was very clear that relations between them were strained, and the magistrate asked why.

It then appeared that on their return journey by canoe they were held up at a certain village by bad weather. For several days rain continued to fall heavily, and the sea was too rough for them to proceed. These conditions were unseasonable; and it became clear to the two police that the local rain-maker, who was responsible also for storms, was plotting against them. One of the constables therefore arrested him on a charge of resisting the police in the execution of their duty.

His companion promptly released the man. This, of course, was a serious step, and the magistrate asked him his reason for it. the constable replied with some heat that it was the obvious thing to do; that, if kept under arrest, the storm-maker would naturally be angry, and would almost certainly keep the storm going, so that the police would never get back to their station.

The one fact that emerges clearly from a mass of confusing evidence is that sorcery as known in Papua, is almost entirely a matter of suggestion. Naturally, the sorcerer has to do something to secure results and maintain his reputation. And what he does is to study the simple psychology of his fellows, to impress them by elaborate ritual, and to watch keenly for events that he may turn to his own advantage.

And the matter of suggestion is not by any means lightly to be set aside. It has happened more than once that a white settler, living alone among natives in a remote district, has, on account of his growing influence, become the object of a sorcerer's professional attention. And such a man has need of all his mental balance, and of all his patience and self-control, if he is to come quite unscathed through the prolonged ordeal. Proscription by a sorcerer carries with it a certain degree of ostracism. Natives will avoid the settler on the tracks; villages will fall silent when he passes thr9ough them, the inhabitants starting curiously and with some aw for signs of the magician's work. Native children are called to their parents' side on his approach, and even dogs are chased from his path lest the evil spirit affect them too. Day after day his labourers look at him askance. Every movement is noted and discussed. The sorcerer plants his signs of feather and dried grass and herb outside the white man's compound, on his fence, even on his veranda.

Him house-boy, if a local native, will dessert him; if from a distant tribe, and dependent for his safety upon that of his master, he will carefully destroy every particle of food refuse or hair clippings, and will take extreme precautions that no garment is left where it can be stolen by the sorcerer's friends. He will urge the fastening of all doors and shutters at night, and will noisily barricade his own hut to keep out the evil spirits that are working for the magician.

If the victim happens to contract a slight attack of malaria it will be reported immediately; and it will almost certainly bring the sorcerer himself, to show his elaborately painted face over the fence while he explains to his friends exactly how his spells are working.

The opportunity for effective action in such a case is largely a matter of chance. Talk is useless in a strange language to natives already settled in their conviction. Physical action, with public feeling set firmly against him, invites retaliation by an overwhelming force, places him in opposition to the law, and constitutes a confession of failure. To complain to the Government would be to admit that he was incapable of dealing with the situation, and would be useless in view of the fact that there is no specific action by the sorcerer on which a charge could be based.

Such an atmosphere, maintained for many weeks, is bound to have its effect on the lonely settler. At the best he cannot escape the knowledge that he is a marked man, and he is strong indeed if, as the weeks pass, exasperation does not in some degree affect his normal manner; and any such abnormal indications will be claimed by the sorcerer as evidence of his growing success. And if there is in the white man a trace of weakness, irritation must in time be replaced by a sense, though unacknowledged, of impending calamity. He will become nervous, and unless some decisive action is taken the sorcerer will win, not by sorcery, but by persistent suggestion.

It is largely because the sorcerer lives on his reputation and commits no specific offence that sorcery has presented so tough a problem to the Administration. Sorcerers certainly do what they can to retain their reputation, but it remains true that, once credited with magic powers, they could not kill the general belief in them, even if they would.

Two instances were given by the Resident Magistrate of the Central Division in 1912 of a form of sorcery that is, if not quite peculiar to Papua, at least much less widely known than others. This refers to the quaint procedure of a school of magicians known as Vada, who are unorthodox not only in their use of physical violence, but also in that, having hammered their victim to death, broken his bones, and reduced him practically to a pulp, they restore life to him and complete health for two or three days, after which he dies for the second and last time.

The Vada enjoy the privilege of invisibility; but in order to attain it they must undergo a course of preparation. for some weeks before the exercise of their powers they must leave their village home and live in the bush. They must abjure all sexual intercourse and all communication with their fellow men; and they must abstain from ordinary food and subsist on certain specified roots and leaves that they obtain in the jungle. And they must on no account cross salt water.

Invisibility, although it may be of great advantage in some instances, is not essential; and in the Annual Report for 1911 - 1912, thee Resident Magistrate of the Central Division describes a case which came before him for hearing.

In this case there were many eye-witnesses, and a number of them gave evidence which did not vary in any detail.

"I saw the sorcerer go to Arua and talk to him" was the gist of each man's evidence. Then he lifted his club and struck Arua a heavy blow on the head. Arua fell down, and the sorcerer struck him again and again on the head. Arua's head was broken open, and he was covered with blood and quite dead. The ground where he fell was also covered with blood. Then the sorcerer called two other sorcerers and they worked charms over Arua and he came to life again and stood up. His head was no longer broken and there was no sign of any blood left on him or on the ground. Arua went home to his house and was quite well, and that night he went with us to another village and danced all night. In the morning he went home again to his house and died.

This evidence, advanced by half a dozen independent witnesses, could not be shaken; and it coincides almost exactly with the description of the Vada procedure that almost any member of the Motu tribe will give today. This form of sorcery since it includes violent assault, can be dealt with directly by law; and it is many years since a case has occurred. But the belief in the power of the Vada, and in their ability to restore the life that they have destroyed, is as strong as ever.

The same magistrate describes an interview with a native in a village in the hills behind Port Moresby. The man was a Village Constable, and had renounced necromancy and all forms of evil-doing, or so he professed. But he had, in his unregenerate days, enjoyed some reputation as a Vada man; and the magistrate asked him for a demonstration of his art.

The man demurred. He had not done anything of the sort for a long time, he said, and was out of practice. But, pressed, he caught a large lizard, killed it with a stick, and then got to work with massage and incantations and herbs in the effort to revise it. For half an hour he tried without success, then gave it up with the explanation that he had not properly prepared himself, and that, being in the government service, his power was weakened.

To those at all inclined to believe in such things, the plea may seem to carry some weight. But an opportunity to prove their powers was given again to Koita sorcerers in 1935.  

In that year a meeting was held of the Hanuabada Native Council, which functions under the general superintendence of the Resident Magistrate to preserve civilized law in the village in conformity, so far as is possible, with native custom. After the general business of the meeting had been disposed of, the senior councillor made a speech in which he pointed out that the year had been a bad one. Gardens had failed. There had been a great deal of sickness and some deaths; and several large trading canoes had been wrecked on the coast. And he gave it as his opinion that, with deference to the scepticism of white people, these evil things must be a result of sorcery.

He was followed by a younger man, who pointed out that the gardens would have given better crops if more attention had been devoted to them; that sickness and death might at least have been reduced if full obedience had been accorded to the hygienic advice of the Government; and that carelessness in construction and in navigation had been responsible for the loss of the canoes. But the general feeling of the meeting was against him. Other councillors spoke; and at least one of them suggested that, in order to convince the white Government of the sublime truths of sorcery, two Vada men from the Koita tribe should be invited to exhibit their powers at a time and place to be fixed.

This was agreed to; and after a delay made necessary by the dignity of their profession, by the need for full preparation, and for the considerable overland journey to Port Moresby, two sorcerers duly appeared at the appointed place.

The proper subject of the Vada man's activity is man. But in deference to the white Government's eccentric disap0roval of the slaying of men, the sorcerers substituted a dog; one of those half starved and disease-ridden dogs that haunt native villages, and to which death can bring nothing but relief; and while one of them held it, the other hammered it with a heavy stick until it lay still. It was examined by the Government Medical Officer, who declared that there was still a spark of life in the unhappy brute. So the spark was extinguished, and the work of restoration began.

It was not successful. After an hour or so of strenuous incantation, massage, and spraying with masticated herbs, the dog remained as dead as a dog could well be; and the Vada men were obliged to admit defeat.

But of course there was a reason. Interviewed afterwards, they explained that the performance had been spoiled first by the intervention of the white doctor, and secondly by the fact that the dog had been "killed too much"; that the last scrap of vitality had been taken from it, and nothing left for them to work on.

Inevitably, among a superstitious people, the explanation given by the sorcerers carried more weight than the mere fact of their failure; and the reputation of the Koita sorcerers remained very much where it had been before.

To those unacquainted with the native lines of argument, the above incident may seem trivial, even frivolous. But its effect was, in fact, very considerable. For, whatever excuses might be offered, they could not explain away the fact that the sorcerers had failed, as they invariably do when brought face to face with unprejudiced observation. Excuses might be made for them, and were so made by their Papuan supporters, and the old argument brought forward that sorcery is a Papuan phenomenon and has nothing to do with men of lighter colour. But the failure remains; and the reputation fo the magicians and of magic generally is tarnished though ever so slightly, by each similar failure that occurs.

Superstition, as we have seen, dies hard, and a guess may be hazarded that, were ordered government removed from civilized peoples, and educative establishments abandoned, superstition would resume in reign, and science itself would in time be persecuted as a black art, even as it was in the Middle Ages.

Superstition cannot be fought, and its strength can be applied only by education and by the growing understanding of the interplay of cause and effect. But the practices that fertilize the ignorance in which superstition flourishes can be, and in Papua are, firmly discouraged. Experience in various African colonies has shown that rigorous punishment of magicians does little to check the evil. It may lop the branches, but it strengthens rather than devitalizes the roots. Black magic is the religion of primitive peoples. Sorcerers, witch-doctors, necromancers, and diviners, are its priests. And the persistent imposition of heavy penalties presents itself to the savage mind both as recognition of the existence of magic and as a form of religious persecution, which history shows to be the surest way of perpetuating that which the persecutors seek to destroy.

The one simple principle that underlies the whole policy of the Papua Administration recognizes this fact. Peaceful penetration instead of force and crushing penalties uses the ultimately irresistible weapon of inducement, which is compounded of persuasion and example. Sorcery is a myth, and therefore it cannot logically be punished as a crime. But the professing practitioners can be, and are, penalized when their activities bring them into conflict with the law from other angles.

There is a Native Regulation under which a penalty of six months' imprisonment may be imposed for practising or pretending to practise sorcery. Directly, this regulation has been very effective, although in cases in which a man is accused of sorcery the accusers often fail to establish that h3e has done anything illegal. But the indirect effect is even greater. For the pretence of practising sorcery inevitably involves the practitioner in an attempt to obtain money (or property, or services) under false pretences, the use of threats or intimidation, plotting to disturb the peace, or incitement either to violence or to some other unlawful action.

And if these and all other paths to material profit or to psychological dominance are closed to him, there remains no advantage that the professional sorcerer can hope to gain. In advertising himself as an agent of the evil spirits he is pretending to powers which the Administration steadily maintains do not exist; and such pretension becomes criminal in the eyes of the law when it involves a breach of laws which are common, at least in essence, to all civilized countries of the world.

"We say that there is no such thing as magic," the Administration says in effect. "You say that there is. If you continue to believe in it, it will continue to hurt you, and in this we cannot help you. But if your belief in it leads you to steal, to blackmail, to spread fear, or to cause loss or death or suffering, then for these things you will be punished."

Until recent years it was commonly objected by natives that the penalties inflicted on the sorcerers were too light. Native custom sanctions the killing of a sorcerer by the relatives of those whose death he has caused or is believed to have caused, a sanction which has been very often applied. The substitution by European law of a penalty of six months' imprisonment, or even less, seemed to inadequate as to amount to encouragement. "When he comes out of gaol," they have frequently argued, "he will be angry; and he will put bad magic on all of us who have talked against him in the Court." In fact this often happened. But the result was invariably a further term of imprisonment for the sorcerer, and a slowly growing understanding that, since sorcerers were subject to white men's law and white men's penalties just as laymen were, their power was not so limitless and the gruesome glory of a death sentence, and the Court coldly, almost contemptuously, gave him a few months in gaol, where his reputation counted for nothing, and where he had to perform tasks as menial and as commonplace as any other native offender.

Superstition remains. The belief in, and fear of, malignant spirits most survive, though steadily weakened by the slowly rising standard of general education, through many generations. But that the belief in human agency is dying fast is simply proved by the ever decreasing number of cases that come before the courts. And that the Administration's method is responsible for the decrease is proved by the fact that the black fear of sorcery survives with much of its former influence for evil only in districts in which are settled Europeans, educated, but surely mistaken in their views, who openly express their belief in black magic as a living force.


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