Huli Courtship, Betrothal & Marriage

by Ron Meshanko

Wedding Bilas by Damien Arabagali
Wedding-Bilas-Arabagali-Kikipa-village ladies in wedding bilas – Photo courtesy Damien Arabagali.

Approximately five percent of all males, initiated into the bachelor cult or not, remain permanently single, while the majority of men marry once they have grown a full beard. 1 A man remains satisfied with one wife until he has acquired enough wealth in the form of pigs to marry more wives, usually no more than five or six. His social and economic status increases with each new wife since she enables him to tend more pigs, father more children, and establish friendly relations with her clan. Twenty-four percent of all males are polygamists with an average of 2.56 wives per man. Most polygamists are thirty-five to fifty years old since only men of this age bracket usually can afford to acquire more wives.

Men prefer to marry young, modest, strong and hard working women from unrelated, friendly clans. Women who are close cognates or agnates are forbidden as mates, as are members of a father’s sister’s husbands or father’s father’s sister’s husband’s clan units. Girls prefer to marry young single men while older married women urge their spouses to marry a young woman who can help tend pigs and care for the gardens.


Huli marriage is easily initiated through betrothal (45%), parental arrangement (45%), widow inheritance (7%) or gift (3%). The betrothal process usually differs for young unmarried men and married men, A young man begins the betrothal process by befriending a girl whom he meets at the community market, church services, school or along the road. After a number of distant, brief meetings, and increased attraction to the girl, he presents her with a small gift of pork, red paint or beads. The man knows the girl is interested if she accepts the gift(s). He then investigates her acceptability as a marriage partner through intermediaries who research the girls’ genealogical position and social status. If the girl is acceptable in the eyes of his parents, he gives her a substantial gift of kina shell, expensive beads, or other comparable items. Upon her acceptance of this gift(s), the couple are known as lawini or lovers.

Married men usually betroth women at courtship parties called dawanda 2 These parties are the last part of a ritual sequence that includes the pelagua dance, a pig sacrifice and ritual feast which are held to honor and placate ancestral spirits. The feast takes place inside a specially constructed house which is enclosed by high, wooden fences. The men and women sit back to back singing special mourning songs which slowly give way to romantic courtship songs. Men and women hope to meet eligible partners as they sing and converse throughout the night until the break of dawn. Following the party, the men proceed to research the girl’s acceptability as well as present her with gifts just as the young unmarried men do. The dawanda are no longer specifically ritual events, but still function as courtship parties that include a pig kill and feast. Often prostitutes are brought in from neighboring areas to fulfill the sexual desires of the men, both young and old, married and single.

Betrothal is the romantic way of finding a wife. The less romantic ways include the arranging of the wedding by the girl’s parents; sister exchange; or through the inheritance of a widow by a close kinsman of her late husband who contributed to the original bride-wealth. The last two methods of initiating marriage are rarely used, and only with the consent of the woman.

Marriage and Bride-Wealth

The marital union is accomplished and socially recognized through the exchange of bride-wealth. The bride-wealth ranges from fifteen to twenty-one pigs depending on the place, economic conditions and the status of the bride. Often kina shells, steel axes, money and other valuables are acceptable substitutes for pigs, especially when there is a scarcity of pigs. Men of high status and wealth are commonly asked to pay a higher bride-wealth. Promiscuous, lazy or previously married women are often forced to accept a lower bride-wealth payment.

The groom supplies forty percent of the bride-wealth items while his extended family contributes the rest. His immediate family, other agnates and non-agnatic cognates each contribute approximately equal amounts as groups to the remaining sixty percent of the bride-wealth. Affinal relations only contribute ten percent.

The bride-wealth is presented to the bride and her extended family by the groom and his cognatic and affinal relations early in the morning in an open field. The bride and groom appear in their wedding day attire: coated with black paint and red highlights on their faces. (The color black signifies celebration.) The black paint, which is rubbed all over their bodies, is made from black pitch, ashes and pig grease. The girl wears an assortment of red and green leaves on her arm braids and skirt while the man is adorned with leaves on his belt, arm bands, and manda tene or everyday wig.

The groom need not present the entire bride-wealth in one payment on his wedding day. The minimum presentation is three sows and one gilt, which are called the “four pigs for the posts” since they are the foundation for the marriage that establishes a legitimate union. The remaining portion may be paid in installments over a period of years, although most men are sure to pay the entire bride-wealth on their wedding day.

After the exchange of pigs and other items, the girl’s parents or brothers distribute the bride-wealth to their cognatic and affinal relations. The bride’s elementary family receives one-third of the bride-wealth while her other agnates and non-agnatic cognates receive as groups almost equal amounts of the remainder. Affinal relations are given a mere two percent of the bride-wealth.

Marriage Rites

A legitimate union is ritually finalized after the groom’s kinsmen escort the bride to her new residence, usually the house of her moth-in-law. The married couple, living in separate houses, stay awake for four days and nights and remain outdoors whenever a bird sings, lest the wife be barren. On the fifth day, the couple ritually clear and prepare a garden in the manner very similar to the fertility ritual performed at gebeanda or ritual grounds. The bride uses a new digging stick, a gift from her husband, to perform this ritual task designed to ensure the fruitfulness of their union.

The wedding is not consummated until eight months after the wedding or longer if a young girl has not begun her menses. Ideally, a couple should at least wait until they have harvested their gardens twice. Before consummating the union, a man sacrifices a pig to the deities to ensure his protection from menstrual contamination. As an additional means of protection, he pours tree oil into his wife’s vulva before copulating with her in the garden or in the bush during daylight hours.

The Huli believe that a man must copulate with his wife at least four times before she can conceive. Once she has conceived, there is no further contact until after the child has been weaned, up to two and one half years after the initial union. The couple’s children are claimed as property of the father, since his semen creates their bones while the mother’s menstrual blood creates their flesh and internal organs. The child is mbiyaorre kuni or “one bone with the father,” which is a term to express agnatic descent. 3 The father cannot look at his new-born child for three months, and males cannot touch it, since is it covered with its mother’s blood and is a product of menstrual blood.

The unstable years of marriage are the early ones when the young couple are learning how to relate to each other and fulfill their individual obligations. Some of these obligations and subsequent rights are listed in Chart III. Any union is considered a real marriage until these obligations are fulfilled. Neglect of these duties often leads to divorce, initiated by either the husband or wife. The divorce rate among the Huli, thirty-three percent, is exceptionally higher than that of other Highland cultures. 4 Huli marriage is easily terminated by the return of the bride-wealth to the groom’s extended family, especially the “four pigs of the posts.” A reduction of five to six pigs, including the pigs of the posts, is made for each child that will remain with his mother since they are “one bone” with the father, and therefore his possession.

  1. See: R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, pp. 47-76; S. Frankel and D. Smith, “Conjugal Bereavement Amongst the Huli of Papua New Guinea:, British Journal of Psychiatry, 14:1, pp. 302-305; Paulita Schurmanm “Family Planning”, Catalyst, 9:4, (1979), pp. 256-263. []
  2. See: Papuan Letters, (Herman: PA, St. Lawrence of Brindisi Mission Unit, 1958), Volume 2, appendix I for the only known description of a traditional dawanda feast. []
  3. L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”. p. 217. []
  4. M.R. Allen, Male Cults, p. 56. []