Huli Haroli Bachelor Cult

Four Huli wigmen performing a hair-growing water rite.
Huli wigmen spraying bespelled water onto their wigs to ensure their healthy growth. Picture courtesy of Remote Lands

by Ron Meshanko

The Haroli Bachelor Cult 1 (ibagiya) epitomizes male anxiety about health, physical development and sexual pollution. Initiated young men enter the cult for a period of two to three years under the guidance of a permanent bachelor leader (daloali) whom each member pays with pigs and cowrie shells. The men are taught the spells, lore and techniques necessary to care for one’s body and wig, ensure health and beauty and protect them from premature ageing. They are trained to be self-reliant and observe marital chastity.

Robert Glasse, the first anthropologist to write about the Huli, only prepared this one paragraph on the Haroli: 2

“The area labelled ‘cult ground’…is a secluded area, taboo to women and married men, where young bachelors undergo ritual training. At any given time four or five bachelors in their early twenties belong to the cult. They may be members of any parish-section, and they remain in the cult for two to three years. They spend a few days every month in the cult area, performing purificatory rites and cultivating a type of bog-iris, said to have magical properties. A permanent bachelor leads the cult and imbues the young men with ideals of self-reliance and pre-marital chastity. The aim of the cult is to promote the health and growth of its members.”

Haroli Chants and Spells

The Haroli 3 sing various prayers to ensure their good appearance as well as hymns in praise of nature throughout the night until daylight as they burn special woods. These are sung in a secret language called Tua ili which is only spoken on Haroli cult grounds and is taught by the daloali to the initiates. The prayers and hymns include: 1) leg bands chant; 2) face chant; 3) water chant; 4) waist band chant (so one’s waist band or belt will fit securely around the waist); 5) apron chant (so the man does not expose himself by ensuring the apron will lay flat against the pubic area; 6) Tanket chant (so one’s leaf tanket will cover one’s back side; 7) four prayers to ensure a strong, healthy looking and full wig. These four prayers are chanted as the bachelors sprinkle bespelled water over their hair.

Life in the Haroli Cult Forest

The novices remain in the cult forest (ibagiyanda) for four months at the beginning of their training in order to avoid the sun, care for their hair and grow the manda hare (everyday wig). They fast from sweet potatoes and drink large amounts of water to develop a tight skin and muscular definition. Once a month they perform an eye-washing rite under a waterfall to remove the stigma of the female image from their eyes. This purification rite is continued each month for the duration of the novitiate.

Sacred Bog Iris and Bamboo Tubes

After the four months of initial separation, the novices are given a bog iris plant (padume) and are shown the magical bamboo tubes (tugu nagira). The ibagiya myth states that the plant grew out of the blood saturated ground and decomposed body of an ancestral woman, Pepeko Wane Padume, who was murdered by a Huli man. Its magical properties include curative powers, a sensitivity to the presence of spirits, poisons, and female blood, as well as a power to ensure male health and fertility.

Each novice cultivates a padume plant to ensure their individual health as well as that of the entire group. It is believed that if one of the novices breaks the taboos on association with women, his plant will wither and die causing him or another member to fall ill and suffer misfortune. The stringent taboos warn against the help of women in their gardens, talk of coitus or female genitalia, and especially, any breach of chastity. The penalty for offensive talk about coitus or female organs is one or two pigs. A member who breaks the rule of chastity is usually expelled and fined four or five pigs payable to the group.

The bamboo tubes are related to the bog iris plant in that they contain a portion of the female blood shed long ago that generated the plant. It is believed to protect men from the evil emanations of menstruating women. The neighboring Enga people have strikingly similar beliefs about the bog iris and bamboo tubes which they use in their Sangai fertility and initiation rites. 4 However, their myths state that the murdering boy was turned into the bog iris plant while the female victim was transformed into the bamboo tube. The bog iris plant has the same properties for the Enga and the Huli. The Enga bamboo tubes are believed to bring about dreams for the bachelors as well as indicate the ritual and sexual purity of the head bachelor. The bachelor leader is accused of breaking the separation taboos if water is not found in the tubes upon their ritual exhumation from their permanent burial site. The exact ritual usage of the Huli bamboo tubes is not known. However, they are an essential element of the bachelor cult ritual.

After the novices receive their bog iris plants they are free to return to their individual men’s houses. They must observe the female separation taboos and return to the bachelor cult forest once a month for a few days of instruction and ritual observances.

Haroli back view - notice the Haroli puluyabe hanging from the bilum.
The backside of a Haroli Bachelor showing the Puluyabe or bachelor’s braid hanging from the bilum. Photo courtesy Damien Arabagali.

Haroli Initiation Rite

On the last day of the two to three year novitiate, the novices are admitted to the central bachelor’s house which is surrounded by a great fence. There they are tricked and bullied by elder bachelors and shown once again the magical bog iris plants and bamboo tubes. They sing bachelor spells and songs throughout the night until dawn breaks when they are ordered out of the house and subjected to a peculiar type of painful ritual. The novices are forced to jump into a pool of water that is full of stinging nettles, briars and leaves of the nigi plant which enflames their skin and causes them to appear as “big-men.” They are beaten with birch switches by senior bachelors who stand alongside the edge of the pool to ensure that none of the novices attempts to escape this painful bath. The novices then leave the water to dress and paint themselves as if for a Mali dance, although they use a specific paint design reserved for bachelors. They are permitted to wear the puluyaba or bachelor’s braid in their string bags, as well as the red crescent shaped wig (manda hare) that symbolizes manhood and correspondent sexual taboos. (48) The newly created bachelors then parade in single file throughout their own and adjacent territories carrying a strung bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. The new bachelors appear very fierce and do not show any signs of emotion nor do they talk among themselves or with others. Men who observe the parade praise them in exalted tones, while women, who try to catch a glimpse of a possible future husband, remain far from sight so that the bachelors do not run away in fear of menstrual contamination.

The Demise of the Bachelor Cult

The Haroli bachelor cult, which was the main educational structure of Huli male society, has virtually disappeared. Many men, both young and old, have expressed a keen interest in re-establishing the cult in order to preserve the Huli way of life which is rapidly changing due to outside influences. In light of this desire, an old permanent bachelor cult leader (daloali) formed a bachelor group of four young men near the Pi-Nagia clan territory on the outskirts of Tari in 1983. This bachelor group as well as any other surviving groups face the stiff competition of education and employment opportunities that attract young men to other goals and areas foreign to the Huli. Even though the bachelor cult is facing near extinction, the predominant fear of menstrual pollution as well as anxious concern for physical health and prowess is still an orientation of Huli society.

  1. Stephen Frankel gives detailed descriptions of the bachelor cult in The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., p. 55. []
  2. Robert Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 42 []
  3. “The name Haroli, incidentally, derives from ignity haroli, literally, “boy who hides” (i.e., in the forest), a member of the now defunct bachelor’s seclusion cult.” Robert Glasse. “Huli Names and Naming”. Ethnology, Jul., 1987, Vol. 26, No. 3 University of Pittsburgh (Jul., 1987), p. 203. []
  4. R. Glasse, “Masks of Venery: Symbols and Sex Antagonism in the Papua New Guinea Highlands”, Homme, 14:2 (1974), pp. 79-86. []