by Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University

An extract from The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea; Australian National University, Cranberra, 1995). pp. 48 – 52.

Dr. Chris Ballard, ANU
Dr. Chris Ballard is an Associate Professor at Australian National University. He is Senior Fellow of the School of Culture, History & Language, School of Culture, History & Language.

The notion of “sacred geography” has been developed within Mayan ethnography to address the means by which Mayan cosmology is formally encoded in the landscape (Gossen 1974, Vogt 1981; see Goldman 1983:112). Mayan ritual sites, on this view, are the geographical points of access between distinct human and sacred universes; the co-ordination of ritual over larger areas links these individual sites to form a regional sacred geography. 1

Ethnographers of the Huli have adopted the concept of a sacred geography to describe the vast corpus of beliefs known to Huli as dindi pongone. 2 While there is no suggestion that Huli subscribe to a distinction between sacred and profane geographies, the notion of a sacred geography is retained here as a useful heuristic device for drawing attention to the layers of meaning implicit in the Huli landscape that are not immediately accessible to non-Hull observers. Dindi pongone, literally the root or knot of the earth, refers equally to the presence of a sacred and largely subterranean landscape and to the body of related myths and gamu spells that constitute knowledge of this landscape. The broad outlines and distribution of this sacred geography are sketched here; a more detailed account of the dindi gamu rituals associated with the dindi pongone sites is given in B5.5. The minimal components of Huli sacred geography are clan-specific myths (dindi malts) and associated gebeanda (gebe: ancestor, anda: house, place) ritual sites, which together describe the events of a clan’s origins and situate them in the landscape.

These clan myths identify ancestral gebe spirits (also referred to by the generic term, dama), who are individually associated with gebeanda usually located within the territory of that clan. 3 These ancestral dama, who are deemed to have first emerged on or migrated to the clan territory and are typically credited with having initially described its boundaries and named its salient features, were formerly the objects of propitiatory rituals, held at the appropriate gebeanda and designed to ensure their support for the fertility of clan land and the general health of the clan. Each of these gebeanda sites was owned by a particular sub-clan or family within the clan, known as gebeali, who assumed the responsibility for ritual performances. Gebeanda sites were formerly identified by the presence of thick stands of bai (Castanopsis acuminatissima) and guraya (Araucaria Qunninghamma) trees. The margins of these groves, often delineated by ditches or streams, served to mark out the extent of gebeanda areas with their strictly observed borders that separated space identified as hane, or “without”, from habane, or “within”, the gebeanda. The acts of entering and exiting gebeanda habane, permitted solely to members of the gebeali family at each site, were synonymous with ritual performance. 4 Ideally, every Huli clan was uniquely linked with a different clan gebeanda, and most sub-clans with their own distinct minor gebeanda. 5 At a regional level, there is a distinct set of myths which correspond to a more fundamental stratum of dama spirits who are jointly responsible for the constitution of the Hull universe. The most widely known of these myths are essentially amalgams of elements of origin myths owned by specific clans, which refer to specific locations.

Certain clan-specific myths, often by virtue of the significance of the individual clans or their sacred sites, have assumed a regional significance and become incorporated within a unified, almost linear, narrative form, though the identity of the mythical locations is usually preserved. Together, these myths recount the process of the stabilization, creation and division of the original, unstable landscape by ancestral figures. These regional cosmogonic myths (myths of universal origins) set out the cardinal features of Huli sacred geography and prescribe the attendant obligations of ritual. Their basic elements are widely known throughout Huli territory, in the form of narratives and pureromo or pureremo (Goldman 1983: Table 2), short formulaic chants that encapsulate knowledge (mana), often through the recitation of key sets of names (of people, places or objects).

The most common of cosmogonic myths amongst Hull opens with an original couple consisting of a woman, Tia Nangume, and an unnamed iba tiri spirit (Narrative B1). After the iba tiri tricks Tia Nangume into falling into the Tagali river below Hewai falls, thus quenching the fire or heat (pobo) within her, she gives birth to a boy and a girl. Following the girl on her daily walk to Luya Talete, near Bebenite, the boy observes his sister masturbating on a tree trunk and places a sharp flint there which cuts open her vagina (Narrative B2). After an incestuous intercourse, brother and sister return to their parents to find a horde of new siblings present, in effect the entire upper echelon of the Huli pantheon. Each of the siblings is then named in turn by the parents: the boy is told that he is Hona Ni, the sun; the girl that she is Hona Hana, the moon. Together, they leave their parents and walk east to Ambua, where they build Da .
Togo, a bridge across the sky, which they cross to Mt Mbiduba in the west The original ancestress, Tia Nangume, known as Dindi Ainya, Dangi Tene or Memeleme in other narratives, is also credited with bearing fire, the major gebeanda and the constituent elements of dindi pongone: She bore [the ritual sites of] Mbibi Bai, Terewale Muni, Hewari Gambeyani, [the mountains] Auyane Aungulu, Giginawi, Guale, Kaga, Ambua, Bari Aulua. She took the sun, Ni, from her netbag and placed him here on the ground for him to bear children… She bore fire, then she bore the big men [agali timbu] who established dindi gamu [the earth ritual]… Then she bore the ancestors [gebealij, performed dindi gamu, made the python [puya] and the cane [gewa]. Yaliduma-Dai, 11.4.91, 91/5A:200-220

Dindi pongone is described as a root or vine which runs beneath the earth, composed of an intertwined python (puya) and cane (gewa), bound around a fluid core, referred to as water (iba), and capped by a layer of stone (tak). The python, usually but not exclusively identified as male, is said in more elaborate accounts to have ten heads, each head corresponding to one of the major gebeanda sites associated with dindi pongone, and a tail with two forks. 6 The first of these forks is tied to a cordyline plant of a particular variety (payabu piru), which extends from beneath the earth up into the sky, the second to the rear leg of a pig, nogo tambugua, which features in much of Huli myth. The action of nogo tambugua in scratching itself and thus tugging upon the tail of puya is held to provoke the earthquakes common in the Tari region.

Huli sacred geography map
Huli Sacred Geography

At a number of points, dindi pongone rises close to the surface of the earth, where the stone cap becomes visible, often as limestone outcrops within which caves are identified as the open mouths of the snake’s heads. The gebeanda sites at each of these locations have assumed a global significance for Huh that exceeds their (presumably prior) clan functions, and they constitute the major focal centres for ritual within Huh sacred geography. These major gebeanda, which are identified in widely known pureromo chants, are listed, together with their locations and owning clans, in Table B4a. A measure of the former significance of these major gebeanda sites is suggested by the frequent use of their names as toponyms for the entire area surrounding each site: the Pureni area, for example, is often referred to as “Gelote”. Because dindi pongone was held by Huh to extend over the known universe, several of the major sites lie beyond Huh territory. Those non-Huh sites known and named by Huh are listed in Table B4b.

The regional network created from what were initially clan-specific gebeanda was by no means total in its incorporation of existing gebeanda nor was it uniformly conceived. There is a sense, expressed by Huh, in which dindi pongone was an uncompleted project. Different regional versions of the dindi pongone network are given, according to the narrator’s geographical perspective, and the account given here must be seen as only one of a wide number of possible forms. It does, however, accord more fully than most with the versions articulated by the few major gebeali and their relatives whom I interviewed. 7 This version, illustrated in Figure g 10, envisages two distinct routes for dindi pongone, running parallel with one another from sites controlled by Northern Bedamini and Etoro or Onabasulu communities to the south and west of Huli territory up to terminal sites amongst Enga and Ipili communities to the north and east; further details of dindi pongone are given in Appendix B5. For both of these routes, the lowest site is regarded as the tail of puya and the highest, or northernmost site as the head. A further set of beliefs developed on this distinction have endowed dindi pongone with a conceptual unity. While each of the dindi pongone gebeanda was employed for clan fertility rituals, their incorporation within the dindi pongone network also involved them and their respective gebeali in a ritual scheme that projected these fertility rituals on a massive scale. The expanded concern of rituals concerned with dindi pongone, known collectively as dindi gamu, was the fertility of the known universe. The specific goal of dindi gamu was the provocation of an event designed to regenerate the earth. Dindi gamu is further described in B5.5 and in Chapter Dl; here my intention is simply to stress the significance of the cardinality of dindi pongone, in which the conventional symbolism of life-force flowing from headwaters to lower reaches was reversed. Instead, the dindi pongone network took its cue from the southern sites, the tails of the snake, from which power flowed upstream to the northern headwater sites.

The landscape visible to Huli (and the sense of visible here refers equally to surfaces and to the public eye) was thus underpinned by a complex ritual landscape, a sacred geography that both embodied Huli cosmology and conceptually structured access between humans and dama. The instability of this sacred geography, evidenced by the occurrence of “natural” disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic ashfalls, droughts and floods, required the constant attention of humans working through the agency of lama. No Huli action that impinged upon the land was conducted beyond the bounds of this understanding and much of that action was directed, through this cosmological framework, towards the maintenance of the earth.

(Reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard.)

  1. The subterranean location of much of this Mayan sacred geography is also a feature of what might be identified as Huli sacred geography, presumably reflecting the limestone setting common to both areas. More immediate and probably historically related parallels to Maya sacred geography are found throughout Mesoamerica and the American Southwest (Saile 1985, Taube 1986). []
  2. Though the various ethnographic accounts of dindi pongone recognizably refer to the same phenomenon, they differ considerably in detail, reflecting not only the specific interests of the different authors but also the difficulty of grasping this quite extraordinarily complex and geographically diffuse labyrinth of myths and associated beliefs and practices (Goldman 1983:113). The development of an understanding of dindi pongone can be traced through these different accounts from Glasse’s (1965) territorially restricted comprehension, through Goldman’s textually based description (1981a: Fig.4, 1983:112ff.), to the more comprehensive study by Frankel (1986:16ff.), who visited most of the associated ritual centres and interviewed the site custodians. []
  3. The generic term dama, literally “big” or “everything” (Goldman 1983:72), refers to a broad range of spirit “types”, including cosmogonic dama such as the sun (Ni) and moon (Hana), dama generally unrelated to humans, such as most of the iba till (water fool) spirits, and deceased ancestors, referred to as gebe or gebeali. []
  4. Thus the gebeali at Gelote gebeanda, Yaliduma-Dai, identifies two ritual dances, mali and gulu wambia, with the inside and outside of Gelote, respectively: ‘Gulls wambia ba anda tagi bialu, mali udu biago o li anda halo.’ [We danced the gulu wambia outside (ba anda) and the mali once we had come inside (li anda)]. []
  5. Given the presence of more than 240 Hull clan names, and a very rough average of four named subclans within each clan (Appendix B6), this suggests that there may be more than 900 gebeanda
    locations in the Tari region; of these, I have so far been able to visit and identify only about 60 sites. []
  6. Where the gender of the python (puya) is specified, it is usually male. Some narratives, however, suggest that puya is either female, a manifestation of the mother of the earth (Dindi Ainya), or both male and female together. []
  7. There is possibly only one gebeali still alive who has actually orchestrated ritual performances at a major gebeanda: Togola of Yamabu clan at the Tundaga site, whom I was unable to interview. Those gebeali whom I interviewed, including Hiluwa-Irugua (Duguba Bebe clan), Wara-Biagola (Duguba Yaliduma-Dai (Dagabua) (see Plate 1), are all sons of the last performing gebeali at their respective major gebeanda.

    My understanding of the variation in practices at minor gebeanda draws on interviews with a number of former “practising” gebeali, including Yogona (Gigira) at Garaleanda, Ngoari- Mandiga (for Tani clan) and Dali-Andago (Baru) at Gunu. Frankel and Goldman also interviewed some of the same gebeali; both list the individuals with whom tney worked (Goldman 1983:69, Frankel 1986:19). []