by Ron Meshanko

After the Sacred Myths you will find the following articles:

Huli Oral Tradition, Sacred Creation Myths, Purveyors of Huli Tradition, and The Effects of Change on Huli Mythology.

The Sacred Myths:

Creation Myth

The Great Flood

Huli Haroli Myth

Helahuli Myth

Ida Tongua Myth

Mbingi Myth

Ni and Hana Myth

Origins of Man Myth

Tiame Myth

Huli Oral Tradition – Eight Different Types of Speech

The Huli oral tradition is very old as it has been handed down from one generation to the next 1 Huli myths (bi mana) are only one of eight differed indigenous classifications of speech types which make up the body of Huli oral tradition. 2 The ethnography has presented actual texts of three speech types: dawe or songs, sacred myths and gamu spells. One type of dawe are courting songs which are frequently sung by men at dawanda houses, along the road and during parties at night. The consistent melody of these songs has been applied to Christian hymns which are sung during Catholic services. They are an important example of the emotive power of words in Huli culture, for the alternate vocabulary set of each of the three sets of five verses contains emotionally charged words that refer to symbolic objects used in other contexts which evoke the desired emotion during the performance of the song. This study will show that Huli myths contain similar emotive words which inform and trigger elements of the Huli ethos.

Other classifications of Huli speech include wali o (women’s wailing), bi te (stories, legends and oral history), malu (clan mythology and genealogy), tamba bi (compensation talk), and pureremo (political, religious and kinship norms.) Bi te, 3 malu and bi mana are narratives that contain mythological motifs based on varying degrees of historicity. 4 The mythological content of all three types makes it difficult to distinguish from legend, folk story, and genealogy. Examples of the difficulty in classification are the legends of Baya Baya and bingi. Both of these stories are about ritual events that were performed to increase the fertility of Huli land and people through the direct or indirect intervention of the deities. They contain important eschatological and salvation themes which cannot be overlooked by the student of Huli religion, especially since the same themes permeate Huli myths. 

Sacred Creation Myths

The mythological content of bi mana, however, is of a slightly different nature in that Huli myths focus on the creation of deities, humans, possums, and fire, etc. right from the very beginning. Bi te and malu do explain the origins and innovations found in aspects of Huli life (birds of paradise, clan territories, etc.), but fail to account for the world ab origine or as the Huli express it: piganengi. This is the domain of sacred myths, bi mana or bi tene: the sacred talk about the origins of life.

Myths and legends are further differentiated by their rules of narration. Bi te are performed by persons of both sexes and all ages, regardless of time and place, while malus and bi mana are only recited by specific men at particular times and events. Malu is recited by big-men during land disputes only. Bi mana are chanted only in the presence of  men in their houses and sacred spaces by mythic specialists. ‘The importance and sacred significance of these myths about the origin of the Huli world is impressed upon young men who are told that their mothers will die if they fall asleep during the solemn recitation. 5 

The Purveyors of Huli Tradition

The mythic specialists who recounted specific myths during their respective functions include the liduali, uriali, daorali, gebeali and mambo. The liduali and uriali recited myths during the tege fertility and initiation rites. The daorali recounted bachelor cult myths inside the sacred forest and bachelor houses during the initiation of young men into the fullness of Huli manhood. The mambo or marriage instructor revealed the fertility and marriage myths during the instructions of a young groom. The gebeali used to chant the creation myths during the solemn fertility rites performed in the gebeanda (ritual houses) throughout the Huli territory. All of these men also chanted certain myths during the night in the men’s houses. 

As you can see, Huli myths are a significant part of the body of the ancient Huli oral tradition. Most Huli myths, unlike the seven other indigenous classifications of Huli speech, are creation narratives about the primeval origins and activities of the deities, humans, and the total human environment. They are only recited by mythic specialists in the presence of men either in the men’s houses at night or during ritual celebrations at sacred spaces like Kelote. They are so important that those present at their solemn recitation must remain attentive lest punishment strike them and their families.

The Effects of Change on Huli Mythology

The slow evolution of Huli mythology which is indicated by the process of “handing down” myths from one generation to the next, suggests cultural fluidity and historical change, as well as cultural stability and historical continuity. Elements of the myths were altered to speak to the experiences of changing culture, while the body of the myth remained intact to ensure the preservation of tradition and continuity with origins. Roderick Lacey suggests four major causes of pre-colonial change which have been incorporated into or influenced Melanesian myths 6 and, as our study will indicate, Huli myths.

The first major change was the dramatic shift from hunting and gathering to cultivation. Archeologists have concluded that most Highlanders were hunters and gatherers 24,000 years ago. 7 15,000 years later they shifted to the cultivation of taro only to change to sweet potato cultivation . Huli mythology gives credence to these facts, for the creation myth implies the change from taro, the traditional ancient food, to sweet potato, their current major staple, after a primordial flood which destroyed the entire Huli population. 

Changes in Settlement

Changes in settlement, another common Melanesian mytheme, is also illustrated in Huli mythology. That the Huli people have moved from one settlement to another is seen in almost all Huli genealogies and myths, especially the creation and Helahuli myth. These two myths state that all of the cultural groups known to the Huli originally belonged to one cultural group with one language. This one family split into five different cultural groups with five different languages; each of which moved into the areas they now occupy. Myths also relate how the deities and ancestral spirits moved from one place to another, thereby sacralizing these areas and establishing ritual centers. This mytheme of movement and changing settlements is socially expressed in the Huli cognatic descent system wherein a person claims residency in many clan territories, based on his genealogical knowledge, and continually moves from one clan settlement to another (see Chart 2).

Trade Networks

The third general area of cultural change is the effects of networks of trade and exchange. The ethnography has shown that the Huli have trade routes to almost all of the neighboring groups through which they exchange not only material necessities but also rituals, spells and ritual matter. These rituals have greatly influenced Huli mythology and even found their way into the body of Huli myths, as in the case of the Haroli myth, Ipa Kya Bi Mana. This myth explains the origins of the Haroli bachelor cult, bachelor rites, and ritual matter which were either purchased from the Enga people or vice-versa.

Natural Disasters and Misfortune

Another significant element of cultural change whose effects have been absorbed into Huli mythology is the response to natural disasters and misfortunes. Like most Papua New Guinea cultures, the Huli have myths about a flood and a time of darkness wherein volcanic silt filled the skies and covered the earth (bingi).The actual occurrence of these natural disasters has been proven by archeological studies 8 , thereby attesting to the Huli practice of incorporating historical events into the body of their mythology. 

This brief exposition of the effects of cultural change on Huli oral tradition is important in that it not only indicates a resiliency in the cultural ethos, but also points to possible assimilation of Christian motifs into Huli mythology resulting in good or bad syncretism. The effects of Christianity on Huli oral tradition is especially seen in the Origin of Man myth and legends about Baya/Baya and Ira Hari. However, it is often difficult to ascertain which came first, the Huli narrative or Christian influence, in that many myths and stories contain elements which are common to both traditions; elements which are historically substantiated in Huli myths, as in the case of the primordial flood. Thus, the conviction that “such tales with great similarities to Old Testament myths are really, more often than not, mere playbacks (adopted of course and distorted) of the biblical account heard from the missionaries ” 9 is far to simplistic. Beyond being simplistic, such an approach to the people’s oral tradition does not answer the basic question of why people felt the need to incorporate such Christian or other foreign motifs nor the even more fundamental question of why one symbol or motif was selected over another. 

  1. – beyond the fifteen generations some Huli wigmen can recall in their extensive geneaologies. []
  2. L. Goldman, “Speech Categories, p. 224. []
  3. “Bards have a wealth of traditional tales to draw upon, with generally two or more human characters in each tale. Sometimes a tale may carry a romantic interest, and there is nearly always some sort of supernatural element involved, such as a non-human spirit or a paranormal event. Very often, members of the hāroli ‘bachelor cult’ figure in the tales, although their status as hāroli is usually implied rather than stated. Frequently, one of the human characters goes off on a journey, often into a high mountainous rain-forest where dāma ‘spirits’ dwell. These spirits may be ogre-type beings that eat human flesh, cannibals that devour each other, or slippery tricksters likened to the íba tīri ‘eels’ that inhabit the waterways.” Gabe Lomas. “Sung Tales in Héla Húli”, Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands, ANU Press. 2011. p. 76 []
  4. Bì té (bì = words, talk, talking; té = story) are long fireside stories, told in the houses of both men and women to entertain children and other relatives during the night hours. The Huli distinguish between bì té and bì hēnene (‘true words’ or ‘true stories’), which are the myths and oral history of the people. Glasse (1965:33) uses the term mana for myths, but this is not correct. The Huli describe mána as ‘rules’ or ‘instructions’, referring to customary and ritual norms based on supernatural sanction, correctly translated by Lomas as ‘lore’. Mána ranges from traditional moral values taught to children, to solemn instructions on appropriate behaviour given to hāroli novices by their instructors, as well as ritual specifications for certain ceremonies conducted by other kinds of ritual specialists. Both bì hēnene and bì té may contain simple elements of mána. Thus, bì té can sometimes be used to convey important cultural values to children while entertaining them. Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan. “An Ethnomusicological Discussion of Bì Té, the Chanted Tales of the Huli”, Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands, ANU Press., p. 111. []
  5. Gabriel Lomas and P. Kavanaugh, Amongst the Huli (film).  R.M. Glasses in “The Huli”, p. 34 states that the mother of the firekeeper will die if any of the boys fall asleep during the recitation of sacred myths. []
  6. Roderick Lacey, “Religious Change in a Pre-colonial Era,” Point 2 (1978), pp. 159-205. []
  7. See: H.C. Brookfield and Peter White, “Revolution or Evolution in the Prehistory of PNG Highlands,” Ethnology 7 (1968), pp. 43-52.; and J.S. Watson, “Prehistory of Papua New Guinea Highlands,” American Anthropologist, 66 (1964). []
  8. R.J. Blong, “Huli Legends and Volcanic Eruptions, Papua New Guinea,” Search 10 (1979), pp. 93-94. []
  9. T. Gaster, Myth, Legends and Customs in the Old Testament, (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 22. []