Huli Ritual Behavior

by Ron Meshanko

Gamu power is controlled and manipulated through three basic, different forms of ritual behavior: verbal expression, gestures and oblations. Any one or a combination of these forms are used in the various gamu rites. The major category or ritual behavioral forms is verbal expressions which are usually an element of other sets of ritual forms (oblations, gestures) Ritual verbal expressions are sets of words that communicate information to deities, ghosts, and/or ritual specialists. The Huli have four man types of ritual verbal expression: dance chants, confessions, myths, and spells.

Confessions are words spoken to a deity, ghost or ritual specialist that indicate a person’s or the community’s guilt in moral or ritual transgressions. Confessions are a necessary element for most healing rites (such as agali gamu) in that the healer must know the cause for the sickness and prescribing a cure. Confessions that announce the moral transgressions of the community are spoken at the fertility rituals like the Dindi Gamu rite before the pigs are sacrificed to appease the wrath of the deities.

Dance chants are only sung during the pelagua dance described earlier. These chants implore the dama to avert their anger over the dealings of men, Myths are an important type of verbal expression associated with many initiation and fertility rites. They will be discussed in our study of Huli myths since they describe the origins of the deities and gamu rites and are very important in understanding Huli society outside the category of ritual verbal expression.

Spells (dawe habe) are the most common type of verbal expression used in gamu rites. They are learned verbal formulae replete with symbolic words that often have a predictable word order, structure, content and alternate vocabulary sets which are mostly sung, but sometimes spoken, only during the ritual performances. The words of the spell are often blown breathily onto the person or ritual matter that is the subject of the rite. The word order or content of the spell cannot be altered lest it looses its power to produce the desire effect.

The following spell is part chanted, part blown breathily onto the damaged body of a man suffering from menstrual contamination or vaginal secretion poisoning. It calls upon trees, earthworms, and snakes to lend their regenerative powers to the diseased organs of the sick man.

Mugu (tree) hununu,

walu (tree) hununu

mugu (tree) hununu

Ngue hawela (earthworm) hununu

pugua hugula (menstrual blood and vaginal secretion) hununu, hununu, hununu

tombene (stomach) hununu

endolabane (colon) hununu

tibani (peritoneum) hununu

dugutabane (small interstine) hununu

yabuni (rectum) hununu

wi (penis) hununu

dalaga (snake) hununu

dalapari (snake) hununu

wapuya (snake) hununu, hununu, hununu


The content of the spell reveals a structure, alternate vocabulary set and symbolic words which are typical of Huli spells. The first word is each line is part of the alternate vocabulary set which changes with each line, while the last term, hununu, remains the same. The changing words are listed in a structured order of sets of three : healing properties (one set of trees and one set of earthworms), causes (menstrual blood and vaginal secretions) followed by three hununu terms, diseased organs, (two sets of three organs), and healing properties (three species of snakes).

Hununu in each line connotes regrowth and regeneration. The mugu ad walu trees symbolize regeneration in that the trees produce an abundance of scar tissue and sap when they are stripped of their bark. The sick man hopes that these trees will transfer their regenerative powers to his organs so they will produce scar tissue and bring him healing. Slimy earthworms symbolize a healthy intestine as well as the power of regrowth and immortality in that an earthworm cut in half regenerates itself. The three snakes symbolize the property of renewal for when a snake sheds its dry and scaly skin, the snake reveals a new, glossy firm skin.

Most Huli spells use symbolic flora and fauna imagery which connotes their manifest strengths and desired properties. A man recites the following spell that invokes the animal spirits to share their strengths with his newborn child.

O, go like the wild cassowary,

go like the wild pig,

go like the wild dog.

If a boy, there will be hunting bows.

If a girl, there will be plenty of wedding pigs.


The spells also reveal an alternate vocabulary set (wild animals), as well as the father’s future desires for his children: hinting bows for his son and a large bride-wealth for this daughters.

Men recite spells as they decorate themselves for the Mali dance. The following spell is sung over the heads of the dancers before they decorate their wigs with the brilliant plumes of the bird of paradise, cock-a-toos and parrots.

May the men be splendid and beautiful as birds of paradise. May many people come to the dancing ground just as birds flock to a tree in fruit.


This spell not only transfers the beautiful splendor of the birds of paradise to the dancers but also attempts to attract many people to the dance as birds of paradise are attracted to trees bearing fruit.

Another spell which demonstrates the transferal of desired qualities from an object to the subject, is recited as a mother rubs the bodies of her children with a mixture of clay, spittle and water.

I call upon the Raggianna birds for their speech.

Give the child the gift of fluent speech.

I call upon the Raggianna birds for flight.

Give the child the strength to run strong.


The loud and eloquent qualities of the Raggiannaa bird of paradise as well as the fertility of the earth symbolized in the clay are transferred to the child through the chanting of the spell and clay anointing. This spell is combined with another form of ritual behavior, ritual gestures, in that the woman ritually anoints the child as she chants the spell.

Ritual gestures are symbolic or sympathetic actions designed to affect a change on an object directly or through the mediating power of a ghost or deity. As the preceding example has shown, anointing is one such ritual gesture. Sacred stones are often anointed with pig fat or red ochre to appease the dama whose presence impregnates the stone. The sister of a warrior slain in battle anoints her forehead with his blood. The man who slew her brother will become deathly sick if he happens to glance at the spot of blood on the victim’s sister’s forehead.

Bathing is another common form of ritual gesture. Bachelors bathe themselves daily with dew as they chant spells to ensure their physical development. They also bathe their eyes monthly under a waterfall to cleanse their eyes of the stigma of women. A man who has been poisoned ritually bathes himself near a stream with medicinal herbs and the blood of a pig to cleanse himself from the effects of the poison. The poisoned man had previously sacrificed a pig to the deities and consumed its meat along with taro shavings and bog iris leaves which were touched to his body.

Ritual dancing (dawepeda) is the third comon ritual gesture. Dances attempt to imitate the deity (Tiri Yagua), rejuvenate ancestral ghosts (ega Kaliapa), propitiate deities or ghosts (mali and pelagua) and/or ward off the attacks of malevolent dama (gumia).

Drinking and eating are dominant ritual gestures which are usually associated with pig sacrifices. The slaughtered pig is cooked and eaten by the ritual participants after the spells have been chanted and other ritual actions performed. The section on compensation has already shown the medicinal and healing nature of pig sacrifices. The ritual eating of sacrificial pork also brings about the symbolic healing of conflicts among ritual participants themselves and between the participants the dama or ghosts to whom the pig was offered. The Kelote fertility sacrifices are a pure example of the sacrificial offerings to pigs to deities who have been offended by men and the resultant reconciliation between the dama and the men as symbolized in the ritual pork meal. Healing is also experienced by men who suffer from menstrual contamination through the ritual gesture of eating bespelled, sacrificial pork or ginger and through the drinking of the bespelled water.

Other common ritual gestures include the breaking and holding of sticks (hambu and dindi gamu), digging gardens so as to re-enact the digging of the primordial garden by deities (Ndintingi and dini gamu), placing oblations at sacred places (tiri yagua), burying stones in gardens and ritual forests (kimbu gamu), and many more.

Oblations are the third form of ritual behavior which are usually made using spells and ritual gestures. Oblations are material objects which are given to deities or ancestral ghosts as a sign of thanksgiving and respect and/or as a means to invoke the power of the dama in human activity. They are either offerings or sacrifices. Offerings usually consist of specific plants leaves, pig fat, tree oil, red paint, and kina or cowrie shells. These are given to the dama by presenting them on sticks (in dindi gamu), throwing them into the water (leaves), pouring (red paint, pig fat, tree oil) over sacred stones or by simply placing them in a cave or ritual house (shells, leaves, containers of tree oil, or red paint).

Sacrifices are slaughtered animals, usually pigs, or burnt crops. The burnt crops are turned into the ground of a garden to ensure its productivity (mabu gamu). Pigs are slaughtered and consumed for many different reasons and at various occasions. See the page labeled sacrifices which contains a chart showing occasions when sacrifices are made, for what purpose and to which dama or ghost.

Pigs are sacrificed to propitiate dama and to see their power in healing the sick, increasing the fertility of women and the land, diving the causes of recent and future events, and protecting men from evil forces be they other men, ghosts or dama. The ghosts and deities are attracted by the aroma of the cooked pork and draw close to men whenever pigs are slaughtered and cooked. They consume the blood and aroma of the pork, while participants in the rites eat the cooked pork.

  1. S. Frankel, “I am a Dying Man”, p. 102.[]
  2. Australian National Film-makers, Voices in the Forest. []
  3.  Ibid. [][]