by Ron Meshanko

Table of Contents

  1. The Giant God Datagaliwabe
  2. Celestial Gods Ni and Hana
  3. The Trickster God Iba Tiri

The Giant God Datagaliwabe 1

Datagaliwabe 2 is a unique Huli deity who, unlike Iba Tiri and Ni and Hana, is not referred to as Dama but only by name. He is a giant high-god, one of only two known high-gods in Melanesia (82), who with legs astride, looks down upon all humans and punishes lying, stealing, adultery, incest, murder of related kin, failure to avenge the murders of kin, breaches of exogamy and ritual taboos.

He looks favorably upon those who obey kinship rules and helps them in their daily affairs. Proper moral behavior is the only way to please him. He does not accept prayers, sacrifices, dances, or other rituals that are performed to propitiate or placate his all-seeing power. 3

Early Methodist missionaries regarded Datagaliwabe as the guardian of the Huli code of ethics and therefore adopted his name for Yahweh. 4 Even though all Christian churches have now adopted the word “Ngode “for God, Datagaliwabe is still equated with Yahweh, the Old Testament God of the Jews and Christians, by many Huli Christians. You will find Ngode referred to as Datagaliwabe in some translations of the Bible.

Here is a Huli translation of Genesis 1: 1 – Bamba piganengiore Ngode Datagaliwabehanda dindi haribi wabialu uruni karu ngarubi bibahendeore wabiai hene. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Celestial Gods Ni and Hana

The Ni and Hana myth, which is a sequel to the Huli creation myth. The creation myth relates the origins of Ni and Hana while the Ni and Hana myth tells the story of their incestuous union and their fleeing the earth in shame to ascend to the heavens and become the sun and moon.

Ni, the son of the goddess Honabe, is a very powerful Huli god. The Huli refer to themselves as Ni Honowini, literally, children of the sun, Ni, This title is based on the variant of the creation myth 5 wherein Ni seduces the wife of his brother Helahuli, which results in the birth of the Huli people. One missionary reports that the Huli people were created from the union of Ni and Hana 6 This missionary and others 7 refer to Ni as the creator, perhaps referring to his siring of the Huli people. This confusion over the identity and function of Ni can be clarified by analyzing the many contexts which refer to him.

The sacrifice of a pig to Ni during marriage instructions and upon the conception of a child alludes to the “children of Ni” theme. The sacrifices compel Ni to bless the marriage so that the union will be fruitful and produce more children of Ni. The sacrifice of pigs to Ni during the Tege and Haroli initiation rites strengthen the young children of Ni by increasing their fertility and establishing them as functional males in the community. The initiates are recreated as “new men” when the sun (Ni) rises only after entering into the darkness of the womb and and death an hour or two before dawn through fire-walking rites (Tege) and baptismal immersions (Haroli). “This makes man, in a sense the son of the Supreme Being; more precisely, he becomes so anew as a result of his ritual death from which he rises identified with the sun” 8 as a child of Ni.

The importance of Ni is also seen in the round black stones mentioned in the myth. These stones, which are sacred to the Huli, are called Ni habane (the seed of Ni). They are imbued with supernatural power and are used in fertility rites. They are also planted in gardens to make them fertile with the help of the fecundating power of Ni.

The role of Ni as Father of the Huli people and fecundator of the earth reveals the solarization of the supreme being, Datagaliwabe – a process which we will discuss later. Datagaliwabe’s attributes (creator) were transformed to the sun god, Ni, resulting in an amalgamation of the Supreme Being with the Sun God. 9 A similar process occurred with the Demiurge Honabe and her offspring, notably Hana, which eventually ended in the gradual replacement of Datagaliwabe. Each of these creator deities (Honabe = Earth, Hana = Moon, Ni = Sun) claim some function related to man’s creation for the natural spheres they symbolize are primordial sources from which humans get their life and being. Thus, Ni is a creator deity who rejuvenates the fertility of the earth and increases the abundance of life for his children (Ni honowini).

Hana is also a powerful deity amongst the Huli. The Huli invoke her name and power in their fertility rites, notably the Kelote Dindi Gamu rites wherein pigs are sacrificed in her name in the gelageanda house. It is interesting to note that the Huli meaning of Hana is “to place in a carrying bag”. Hana also refers to the birth of a child wherein the mother of the child places it into her carrying bag. Hence, Hana’s name itself alludes to her fertility powers, her power to give birth.

Hana’s connection with gamu-impregnated menstrual blood, a powerful supernatural force in Huli life which will be discussed later, further illustrates her fertility powers. The Ni and Hana myth reveals the creation of her vulva, the shedding of her blood, and the implied beginning of the menstrual cycle. Her becoming the moon also speaks of menstrual blood imagery since the moon is symbolic of the monthly menstrual cycle. We will see later the life-giving properties of menstrual blood in the Haroli bachelor cult and its predominant position in Huli society. The fact that Pelagua dances and Dindi Gamu rites, which are performed to ensure the fertility of the earth and people, are held in the moonlight further demonstrates the connection between moon/menstrual blood/fertility.

The significance of the name of Hana and her association with life-giving menstrual blood, the fertility stones created from the union of Ni and Hana, and the association of the two siblings with fertility rites all indicate that they are powerful and prominent Huli deities who function to enhance the fertility of the earth and its people.

The Trickster God Iba Tiri

Iba Tiri is a major Huli deity that has dualistic trickster-like qualities. 10 He inhabits the water banks of all major rivers and is responsible for cleaning all rivers that pass through the Huli area. He dwells in a special way near a large tree called Ira Hari at the Kelote ritual grounds near Burani. All the rivers of the Huli area are believed to converge at this tree and pass up to the sky where they return as rain. Thus Iba Tiri is the source of all water 11 which he brings to the river beds but also carries to a man’s gut to cause dysentery. 12 His waters bring life to gardens and men but also death through floods and drownings. He is particularly important for the Huli since water is their sole beverage.

Iba Tiri’s name, which means “fool of the water”, is the only name of a god used in general conversation. Men who talk nonsense are asked “Iba Tiri bi larabe?” which means “Are you making the talk of Iba Tiri?” He is also the subject of Bi Te stories told during the night in boy’s houses. One such story, which is given below, describes the trickster like qualities of this important deity.

Iba Tiri is along the banks of the Benabe river,

Along the banks of the Baralu,

Along the banks of the Tuya,

Along the banks of the Ayele.

The ends of his string apron are uneven.

The points of his three-pronged arrow are uneven,

His ribbon-tail feathers are uneven.

He makes a noise like a fish and we used to think it was a pig.

He makes a nose like the Duguba rattle and we used to think it was a pig.

He makes a noise like a cricket and we used to think it was a pig.


Two dancers dress like Iba Tiri and imitate the trickster-like qualities described above in a ritual dance called Tiri Yagua. The dancers wear lopsided string aprons and two tails of the ribbontail bird of paradise on one side of their heads only as described above, as well as yellow painted gourd masks 14 with red and white highlights and a covering of forest moss. They dance in a peculiar jumping fashion around a man dressed as a woman whom they threaten with dummy bows and arrows. The two dancers and two lopsided feathers symbolize the double-dealing characteristics of Iba Tiri who gives life and takes it away through water. The uneven dress, dummy arrows and trickster-like qualities of Iba Tiri are applied to jokes about poor dress and meaningless speech. Men and women with severe mental disabilities are called Iba Tiri.

The Huli also make oblations of pig meat to Iba Tiri as the two men dance to ensure the abundance and cleanliness of water. Men recite the spell: “Iba Tiri take this meat and cleanse the waters” as they throw a piece of pig meat into the river. 15 A man who goes possum hunting with his dog also calls upon the trickster god. He blows a spell onto the water: “Iba Tiri cleanses the water to open the dogs nostrils to catch possum, to smell possum” before he rubs the water over his dog’s nose. 16

(Photo courtesy of Michael Main)

  1. See: “Datagaliwabe, the Great God-progenitor of The Hela Nation”, Betty Gabriel Wabia, Hela Wane website., December, 2018. []
  2. See: G. Lomas and P. Kavanaugh, Amongst the Huli and R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 37, 48-49. []
  3. See: Stephen Frankel. The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., Chapter 9. p. 154. []
  4. J. Barr, “Spirit Movements in the Highlands”, United Church, in Religious Movements in Melanesia Today, ed. by Wendy Flannery, (Goraka: Melanesian Institute, (1983) []
  5. See: R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 33-34. []
  6. Papuan Letters, Volume 6, p. 22. []
  7. C. Simpson, Plumes, pp. 392-393. []
  8. M. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religions (New York,: New American Library, 1958), p. 135. []
  9. Ibid., p. 128. []
  10. See L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”, p. 222 and “Kelote: An Important Huli Ritual Ground”, Oral History, 7:4 (1969), p. 16; Voices in the Forest, Australian National Film-makers, 1983. (film). []
  11. Water (iba) is closely associated with broader concepts of fertility, and forms the root of the term ibane, for semen, grease, sap or juice. Loss of water and the consequent drying of the landscape are the critical signs of a general decline in the earth’s condition. In Huli eschatology, the final demise of the world will be signalled by the conversion of swamps, pugua, to dry land, dindi kui (“land-real”) and a diminution in the roar of waterfalls such as the Hewai falls as the rivers slow to a trickles. The permanently moist swamps, which appear to resist even the harshest droughts, are thus both centres of fertility and the focus of regenerative rituals. Ballard, Chris. “The Death of a Great Land: Ritual, History and Subsistence Revolution in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea” A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, Canberra, January 1995., p. 37. []
  12. Iba Tiri “characteristically inhabited pools of water in the forest, and anyone going near a forest pool ran the risk of being shot with one of Ibatiri’s arrows (tawa timu). The resulting illness was usually discomforting rather than fatal. Cure entailed the removal of the arrow (tawa timu duguaga).” Stephen Frankel. The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., p. 147 []
  13. L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”, p. 222. []
  14. The yellow painted gourd mask is the only known mask used by the Huli people in rituals. []
  15. Australian National Film-makers, Voices in the Forest. []
  16. Ibid []