by Dr. Laurence R. Goldman

What then do I mean by the statement that Huli imaginal economies are often read as history? The Huli certainly terminologically mark a distinction between historical talk, bi tene/tene te (talk (bi)/account (te) + source/origin (tene)), and fictional talk, bi te (talk + account) that superficially appears to parallel similar distinctions drawn among the Kewa (ramani: lidi: LeRoy 1985), Duna (pikono: hapiapo tse: Stürzenhofecker 1993; Haley 1993), Daribi (namu: po: Wagner 1978) and many other Highlands societies. However, such emic categories have the capacity to confound ready classification as ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ for both indigenes, where unanimity on genre rubric may be unimportant, and indeed analysts alike. In the context of Huli oral tradition, this appears related to the profound understanding that ‘from historical speech fictional speech will later emerge’ (tene te mani mo bi te holebira) – that perceived history is subject to processes of poetic fictionalisation. Importantly then, an historically true tale can in Huli have its ‘facts’ embellished by inclusion of non-factual referents and events from a stock fantasy landscape. Huli narratives are constantly transforming artefacts moving between truth as what endures (henene) and pretence (tingi) as what is transient.

What this implies is that the two domains of the real and irreal are not relatively autonomous but are mutually referential, mutually implicative, and mutually incorporative in any single narrative. The same events and even personae can occur across the two categories with an oscillation between what we ordinarily gloss as fiction and non-fiction. This lack of genre discreteness implies then that the bifurcated categories are better thought of as indications of how information in any narrative should be understood. The terms denote not a property of some text but rather an attitudinal or propositional stance of pretence or non-pretence to be taken towards a set of discourses.

Bi te can be told by men or women, usually at night, and to an audience that invariably includes children. Aesthetically valued performances are those where the story is chanted, and which rely on several poetic synonym systems (see Table 1). This genre is always a co-production because the audience is enjoined during specific phases of the narration to indicate their acknowledgment of information through interjection of segment-terminal ‘yes’ refrains. I have shown elsewhere (Goldman 1998) how children are able to participate in this folk genre from an extremely early age (3-4 years) through interanimation in their fantasy play. In this culture, story telling plays a developmentally critical role in how children come to understand or envision reality as genre inflected.

Ubiquitous inhabitants of the Huli Weltmärchen world include cyclopic ogres, shape-shifting tricksters, omen birds, and importantly for the present paper the human-like hero and heroine Iba Mulu Lunguya [IML] and Bebogo Wane Pandime[BWP] respectively. These two figures represent the acme of ‘decorated being’ in Huli culture. All of these narratively recurrent figures can occur in both aetiological and fictional passages. Significantly, for both narrator and audience, there are conventional textual cues – ie bracketing devices – which signal how information about their appearance is to be processed. These devices include:

[1] Explicit solicitations to suspend disbelief – eg ogo(bi)alebe toba hea (like you can’t imagine)

[Goldman 1998:vii-viii] 1
Narrator: Giame – Yaluba 1993
Description of Bebogo Wane Pandime

Huli agali mbira layago laro
There was one man there, I am saying
agali igini ibu one mende laya laro
This man’s son had a wife, I am saying
ibu waneore mabura mabuage tebone laya laro
His young daughter was a third person there, I am saying
mabuage ogodege agali wane la tago tago o nabi laya laro
This young girl was not like any man’s daughter, I am saying

—–> kewa tangi urume ogoalebe toba hea laya laro
With string hats like you can’t imagine, I am saying
—–> hale kuni payada urume ogoalebe toba hea laya laro
With arm-bone bracelets like you can’t imagine, I am saying
limale mabu urume pugu lalu togo lea laro
With feathered cassowary claws as nose plugs, I am saying
kewa tangi pugu pugu lea laya laro
Wearing these string hats, I am saying
baya wane purugu laya laro
This wonderful girl who was so good as to dazzle and confuse, I am saying

Text 1 reveals the quintessential attributes of female beauty in Huli represented by Bebogo Wane Pandime. It is an image clearly drawn around the material culture of adornment (—–>). The diacritics of decorated female being in Huli are thus contained in a stock repertoire of accoutrements the efficacy of which is to confuse and blind onlookers – this articulates the aspirations of the undecorated. The items of adornment are not in type or range removed from the demotic realm, but are at a level of excellence normal humans can only aspire to. Paradoxically they are both ‘beyond imagination’, but easily appreciated as also historically veridical representations.

[2] Working in tandem with such explicit disbelief markers are statements, invariably couched in the negative, which further portray the abnormality of decorated figures by rendering impossible certain behaviours which in the normal course of things are unproblematic – negated normality.

Ordinary people cannot talk to, sleep with, or be included (tago) or mentioned (la tago) in the same company as decorated beings like Iba Mulu Lunguya :

—–> agali iginiale tago tago nabi ibiniya laya
man son + like mix mix NEG + do-STSTM come-RP say-3-PST
[Like this man’s son one can’t mix and he came it is said]
this wasn’t like any ordinary man’s son and he came it is said

honogagaru mani gudi layagola
cassowary feathers flow down the back of his (Iba Mulu Lunguya) neck
—–> agali igini la tago howa nabi
he cannot be referred to as like any ordinary man’s son
—–> igiri labone agali iginila paliaba loa nabi
Two boys, two men person couldn’t say to him ‘Let’s sleep together’

These storied ‘others’ are set apart as interactionally unequal with non-storied Huli; they cannot be conversed with, and are not genealogically derived from mortal origins:

Gongodale lame Togome lame walime gime bini ndo

his (IML) mothers Gongodale and Togome were not from a woman’s hands
[they appeared born of another kind of woman]
ilu hali yule bini nu dambale Gabialu ilu hali yule bini mbira biarume
they used to make bags and aprons from the flying fox bones from Gabialu
walirume bi labenaheya
—–> it was impossible for women to talk to him
Iba Mulu Lunguya iba gurubuni dibarago biya
Iba Mulu Lunguya was shining like the reflection on the water
Wali igini bi di biabe naheago
—–> Women’s sons couldn’t talk with him

These bracketing devices project the decorated being not simply as unimaginable, but which presages an attenuation of conventional social behaviour by the undecorated. Whilst the cumulative effect is to quarantine the decorated from the ordinary and mundane, the diacritics of this adorned status reflect real-world decoration by real-world counterparts.

[3] In apposition to what I have called ‘negated normality’ – in which conventionality is explicitly denied – the narrator may, conversely, positively indicate the ‘extraordinary’ either by means of the content contained in the characterisations, or by incorporation of hyperbolic terms like hiriribi (‘frighteningly/amazing’), kulu mege (‘intimidating’), gibi (‘enormous/incredible’), or labona (‘extraordinary’) – as a form of positive abnormality

[Goldman 1998:204-5]
Narrator: Giame – Yaluba 1993
Description of Iba Mulu Lunguya

Uyuguria handa tagi halu heria
While they were looking outside
gulu babu gulu barabu gulu pilipe pili logobe o lama igiri mbira ibiya
One boy came blowing these pan pipes
igiri ibiyaria ai ibiyabe toba hayagola
As the boy came she didn’t know who was coming
wali biago ibu gi howa handalu heria igiri ale la tago tago howa nabi layago
When she saw him she was frightened because this boy was not like other boys

+++! unduni hundu mandaru ogobialebe toba hea layago
With a wig coiffure like you can’t imagine
ulu babu gulu barabu gulu ogoalebe toba hea layago
With cordyline leaves like you can’t imagine
***honagaga lagoli uru ogoalebe toba hea laya
With brown cassowary feathers fixed on his wig like a kneecap on a knee, such as you can’t imagine
+++pulu yabe kindiru ogoalebe toba hea laya
With a flapping bag decoration like you can’t imagine
geni ge haleru ogoalebe toba hea laya
With leg bands on the legs like you can’t imagine
***pagabua mano gu gau learu ogoalebe toba hea laya
With the apron ends making sounds like that made by pigs when moving, like you can’t imagine
***gelabo mandibu gugu ndibu learu ogoalebe toba hea laya
With the apron sitting tightly on each thigh like you can’t imagine
###amu daramabi biagoria dugu yalu tagira ibiyagola igiri labona agali iginila
paliaba loa nabi nahea
When he came out of the red lake he was an utterly amazing man such that you couldn’t tell another person to go and sleep with him

Precisely as was the case for Text 1, the above provides a finely graded curriculum in the art of becoming a male decorated being that is both timeless and standardised within the culture. Moreover, these indexical features ride above any textual cues about how such information is to be processed in respect to modalities of appreciation – ie as real or irreal. The text also betrays the intermeshing of form and substance. For example, there are layers of meaning associated with the poetics of expression –

ItemEveryday TermPraise Analogue
Tail FlapPuluyabeKindu
Pearl NecklaceHalepangeGulu mama/pa yaba
OilMbaguaTola amuname
Wrist BandsGi ndoleIbabi
Arm BandsGi payidaGi poro
Leg BandsGe haleDabu/lagu
Table 1

use of praise (kai +++) analogues (see Table 1) for everyday lexicon, and invoked natural imagery (***). These in turn are compounded with reproduction of Huli aesthetic ideals about how decoration should ‘sit’. There is here an aesthetics without any superarching theory of art per se. The attributes of decorated being are worn on the text. 2

Succinctly stated, male decorative apparel includes pearl-shell necklaces (halepange), arm bands (gi payida), leg bands (ge hale), woven string aprons to which are attached pigs tails (nogo ere dambale), a bark tail flap suspended from string bags (pulu yabe), and not least of all the coiffured wigs (mànda) for which the Huli are rightly famous. All of these items should be worn close to the body, feathers should be iridescent standing proud of the coiffure, and body paint should glisten – migi mege (reflective), kiau (bright), limi limi deda (radiant), domdo domone (gleams), loai leda (glowing), da/wa (shining).

[Goldman 1998:204-5]
Narrator: Kadia – Yaluba 1977
Description of Iba Mulu Lunguya

***! Kiliaba ketene uru pelo biange lo heria
These feathers were standing upright and planted on the wig like split pieces of wood
*** Uru tugubili liru lemo lemo
The leg bands were tightly laced around his limbs like the tugubili vines around trees
Bara pagabua mabi diwabi diwanre ma dambale urume tambi tugule hearia
The pigs tails on the aprons in these places were folded in four over the thighs (like Obena)
***! Ega yagama uru anda andobe lo heria
Feathers were glistening like the hanging soot from inside house roofs which often reflect light from the fireplace
*** Pau yabarume daga hana ngo ho heria
The kina shell necklace was shining like a half-moon
Iba Mulu Lunguya larogo nde
I am talking about Iba Mulu Lunguya
Mbuli ambua Mbaguale ambua Hogale ambuarume de minu heria
The yellow clay from Mbuli, Mbaguale and Hogale was used as eye-shadow
! Ega Yagama uru biange lo heria
The feathers on his wigs were fanned out
*** Giliaba gedeneru anga dabu bu heria
The Giliaba feathers on his wigs were in rows like the stepped platforms on trees used to stop
Iba Mulu Lunguya pagabua nai Mobi Dibawi Tibini Tiwabe mara mbalue urume tambi tugulo ka
IML was wearing white pigs’ tails that were flat across his thighs like the old adzes from Mobi, Dibawi, Tibini and Tiwabe
*** Gulu beberayaru andigi bu hearia lama hendene
Wearing beberaya leaves in his arms as if they sprouted naturally from that place on his body

Significantly, these decorated beings are explicitly drawn in terms of outward appearance rather than inner mental states or dispositions. Furthermore, they are not articulated with stereotypical behaviour patterns or enumerative lists of deeds, causes or ideologies. So in what precise sense then can they be considered loquacious conduits of culturally etched aspirations? This inflection is embedded in the texts in two ways:

(1) by allusion to the motility of decoration which can literally ‘knock-out’ onlookers – they are rendered dumbstruck, confused (purugu), and unconscious (oda buwa)

[Goldman 1998]
Narrator: Giame – Yaluba 1993
Description of Bebogo Wane Pandime

danda irane bada keba mbira unu andaga winiyago
she (BWP) got the digging stick that was inside the house
giri layagola ede unu pango pango yu pea hene lama agini
she held it and went about the valley
pari dabale biya yagi
***she was going very fast in a blur of colour like snakes (pari) when they extend their necks causing the skin colours to blur into each other
igiri emene biago oda bowa ede
and the small boy was made unconscious (from the colour)

(2) by the nuanced manner in which speakers juxtapose decorated and undecorated representations. The colloquialism which opens this paper illustrates quite transparently how states-of-the-body are used to read off states-of-the-mind – that deportment betrays disposition. In part, these interpretations repose on the knowledge that Huli decorate for specific reasons (listed in the text below) and more often than not have to ‘borrow’ items from others –

Hiri màlibe laya 3
Are they having a Màli?
Tawa tege barabe laya
Are they holding Tege?
Mbirali homo horo harabe
Are they burying someone?
Ai hambiya Hela obenali Hiri màli larago poliya
Brother they are having Màli in Obena so I’ll go
Gibi ega, hagibi ega, hayabe ega mbira wagalo pu lene
Go and ask to borrow these feathers for the occasion

Equally, it is implicitly understood that the decorated being is impregnated with ‘attitude’ – self-belief, confidence, strength, machismo. In the following previously published passage from a dispute transcript an older litigant uses sarcasm when referring to his younger ‘painted protagonist’. The individual is portrayed as cocksure, and as someone holding the view that his elder antagonist is weak, of no consequence, and poorly adorned. The speaker reiterates that despite appearances compensation will be paid.

(Goldman 1983:272; 1987:63, 82)

Gulu pobe ge laga yi dege degeru
With pan-pipes and leg bands
Dumbi yalu da dege degeru With shining foreheads
! Manda parebi dege dege ru
With decorated wigs
Bolangua harugula denge payabu handale hayeni howa
You passed me and saw I wore a bad leaf-dress
“I won’t kill pig” did you say that?
The day after tomorrow you’ll kill pig

o hula pungua hiru ebere kegonigo
With decorated charcoal you are coming and there
o agali I nogo bo ngulebere
O man you’ll kill a pig for me
o ko dambale uru galawangabi burayu bi o bedagome
(you said to yourself) ‘that man there has an uneven apron dress and bronchitis’
nevertheless we’ll cook

The decorated bespeaks a ‘what goes without saying’ message about power, physical well-being, and individual identity and status. The undecorated is not simply unadorned, or representing a body in some neutral state, but presents as negatively valued. What the above passages reveal then is the baseline of intersubjectivity about decorated and undecorated being. At this juncture suffice to indicate that the second skin is but a translucent veil on the mind, and in this array of indexical items the coiffure assumes a somewhat privileged place.

(An extract from Decorated Being – Parleying with Paint by Laurence R. Goldman. Anthropology. University of Queensland. pp. 2-8. Used with permission of Dr. Goldman.)

(Photos courtesy of Ursula Wall and Trans NiuGini Tours)

  1. All the textual passages used in this paper are drawn from the twenty transcripts briefly described in Goldman 1998:187-88,198-201. []
  2. This speaks in part to the perennial problems encountered by analysts concerning the verbal exegesis of decorative iconicity (cf O’Hanlon 1989, Gell 1993). What this kind of narrative scanning offers is a unique window on decorative behaviour that analysts have found notoriously difficult to access because indigenes rarely self-reflect on such behaviour. []
  3. This list of occasions forms a standard narrative refrain of the omen bird Ega Mbe Hiwi. It provides an exhaustive traditional enumeration of exactly when Huli would decorate. []