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Papua New Guinea: Trobriand Islands Magic



The magic of beauty and the magic of love are inseparable companions in the courtship procedures of the Trobriand Islands. All a man's (or woman's) hopes of romantic success are based on their confidence of their magical powers and their understanding of the strict procedures that need to be followed in applying these powers.


In the Trobriand Islands, along with many of the islands of Oceania, magic lies at the root of innumerable beliefs and practices. Indeed, in all matters relating to love it is of fundamental importance. Magic can endow a person with charm and engender love. It can also produce or enhance personal beauty and alienate affection in a consort or lover. Magic is considered to be a force residing in a man, transmitted to him from generation to generation through the medium of tradition. This force can only become active while the performers of a ritual appropriate to the occasion, by the recital of proper incantations, and by the observance of specific taboos.

One kind of magic often referred to as beauty magic has the purpose of increasing personal attractiveness so that the performer may become erotically irresistible to a member of the opposite sex. Beauty magic is a part of the personal preparation for all big festivals and involves special charms which are recited over certain parts of the body during the care and cleansing of them, and during ornamentation. This was always done on the last and culminating day of the period of festival dancing or of competitive game.

In the Trobriand Islands, the festive period always begins at the full moon after the return of the ancestral spirits and last for twenty-eight days. It is open by a ceremonial distribution of food (sagali). A sagali accompanies most ceremonial occasions such as mortuary rites, commemorating feasts and competitive enterprises.

On the first day, magic is performed over a conch-shell and over food. The conch-shell is blown on that day and also during the dance. The food is buried wherever a road enters the village. Both rites are performed magically to enhance the splendour of the performance. The charmed conch-shell announces the coming display with the thrilling ostentation of magical power. The burial of the food expresses the desire for plenty within the village.

On a festive occasion, the ceremonial washing and decoration of the dancers is undertaken by women of a special class, namely those who stand to them in the relation of taboo. In other words, these women are approved and suitable partners for passing intrigues, or for more stable liaisons or for marriage. It is their duty to prepare the men for the dance, to deck them out with ornaments, with flowers and with paint, and to perform the magic incidental to each stage of the proceedings

Kaibola beach is the setting for this dance which is the prelude to a tug-of-war between the men and the girls which will continue late into the night. The tug-of-war, like cricket, was introduced by the missionaries but is now a feature of the yam festival, a form of fertility rite. When the tugging is over, the men and the girls pair off and disappear into the bushes: at this one time of the year, sex taboos are overlooked.

 One of the most important applications of magic is the magic of love. While the magic of beauty is always associated with ceremonial occasions, and is done openly and in public, the magic of love is a private matter which is carried out on the individual's own initiative. With love magic, it is more usual for the man to take the initiative although the magic can also be practised by girls.

If for example a young man is fascinated by a girl who shows no interest in him, he can resort to the most potent way of courting her, and that is by magic.

Attractive Trobriand Islander
preparing lunch.

As in ordinary beauty magic, he must first wash or bathe in the sea. In doing this, he makes himself attractive and handsome and in the same rite he also charms a responsive affection into the loved one's heart. He can get together in the bush some of the soft spongy leaves of the wageva, silasila, or ponatile shrubs, and also some leaves from a tree with a special smooth and clean bark such as the reyava and gatumwalila. He puts the whole bundle into a large leaf and chants the special washing formula over it. One of these chants is the kaykakaya spell that is reproduced below:

The Kaykakaya Spell

Leaves of dirt and leaves of cleansing,
Leaves of dirt and leaves of cleansing,
Smooth as the bark of the reyava tree
My face shines in beauty;
I cleanse it with leaves;
My face, I cleanse it with leaves,
My eyebrows I cleanse them with leaves.

The boy then has to name various parts of the head and of the body, adding after each the words equivalent to "I cleanse with leaves." The chants will then proceed as follows:

Beautiful will my face remain,
Flashing will my face remain,
Buoyant will my face remain!
No more it is my face,
My face is as the full moon.
No more it is my face,
My face is as the round moon.
I pierce through,
As the creamy shoot of the areca leaf,
I come out,
As a bud of the white lily.

Then the charmed leaves are carefully wrapped up lest the magic virtue should evaporate and the boy washes himself in water. When he is thoroughly cleansed, the wrapping is opened, and the skin rubbed all over and dried with the charmed leaves. The leaves are then thrown in the water with specific words being spoken including the name of the girl.

This rite has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it makes the man more beautiful, as does all washing magic, and it carries sweet dreams about him into the mind of the girl. The tossing of the herbs into the sea are said to create the effect that as the leaves are tossed by the waves so the inside of the girl will heave.

If the washing magic fails completely, another attack is made on the beleaguered heart by means of a stronger magic called the kasina. This magic has to be administered through the mouth and to achieve this a piece of food is charmed and given to the girl. It is assumed that the washing magic may have made the girl a little interested in the young man although she is not yet prepared to yield to his attention. The kasina spell is as follows:

The Kasina Spell

My flashing decoration, my white skin!
I shall take the faces of my companions and rivals
I shall make them be cast off.
I shall take my face, the face of me (personal name),
And I shall get a flattery-bond for it
For my beautiful full-moon face.

When the girl has eaten the charmed food, the magic enters into her inside and into her mind. Should she not yield at this time, then a more potent magic remains. This magic centres around the youth of a special herb that is not readily available on the island. This herb is placed in a receptacle with coconut oil and the following spell is chanted over it:

The Kwyoyawaga Spell

Spread out, fold up,
Spread out, fold up,
I cut off, I cut, I cut.
A bait for a bird, for a small fish-hawk,
Uve, uvegu-guyo, o!
My kayro'iwa love charm remains,
My kayro'iwa love charm weeps,
My kayro'iwa love charm pulls,
My kayro'iwa love charm spills over.
Press down, press upon thy bed;
Smooth out, smooth your pillow-mat;
Enter my house and tread upon my floor.
Tease out and tear out my hair;
Drink my blood and take hold of my penis;
Apicem penis suge, for my guts are moved.

The charmed and aromatic substance of the above spell can only be used at close quarters. An even more intimate approach to the desired girl has to be effected than is possible with the piece of food of the previous ritual. Some of the aromatic oil must be smeared upon her body, or poured onto her face, or, best of all, applied to her breasts. This means that close physical contact is needed which can often happen during games, dances or tribal festivities.

There remains still one rite - that of the all powerful sulumwoya spell. This ritual would still be performed even if the magic had been successful at an earlier stage as it gives a full and undivided sway over the loved one's heart. The sulumwoya spell is as follows:

Sulumwoya Spell
O, her sensual excitement!
O, her erotic swoon!
O, desire, O feminine swoon!
My clasping, thy clasping kindle our erotic swooning!
My embraces, thy embraces kindle our erotic swooning!
My copulation, thy copulation kindle our erotic swooning!

The same complicated phrasing is repeated with a number of words inserted instead of clasping, embracing and so forth. These words are horizontal motion, horizontal response, erotic scratching, erotic biting, nose rubbing and rubbing each other's lips. Then come the following sentences:

My going first, thy following, kindle our erotic swooning,
My waiting, thy waiting, kindle our erotic swooning.

And finally:

Thou goest my way, crying for me,
Thou enterest my house, smiling at me.
The house is shaken with joy, as thou treadest my floor.
Tease and tear out my hair,
Drink my blood,
So that my feelings are glad.

The above chant is done over a mint plant boiled in coconut oil. The middle part of the chant, the litany, is always repeated over and over again, and not necessarily in the same order. If the woman is not subdued at this time, the man will enter her hut at night and spill some of the liquid below her nostrils, so that she may dream of the magic maker. If this is done, then the spell is considered to be irresistible.

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You are listening to a Midi of 'When A Man Loves A Woman' by Percy Sledge!