by Ron Meshanko

The existence of separate male and female houses is one of many expressions of the great social separation amongst the Huli. Like most Highlanders 1, Huli men fear menstrual contamination and avoid women as much as possible to ensure their fertility and physical development. They believe that menstrual blood (pugua) weakens a man’s skin causing it to be flabby and dull; inhibits the growth of a large and shiny wig; and accelerates the aging process. These beliefs affect their social behavior so much that men and women eat their food separately and are seldom seen mingling accept at Christian church services. A traditional Huli male would never eat food touched by a woman. Indeed, many old men never purchase food at the market for fear that a woman may have handled it. Truly conscientious men even dispose of their dried skin, air and other body products as well as food and other objects they have handled in a place where women will not be able to touch them. Secondary association with menstrual blood, vaginal secretions, and women is just as dangerous as coming into contact with the blood or with women themselves.

Sexual behavior is greatly affected by the fear of menstrual pollution. Men protect themselves from contamination by refraining from intercourse for at least nine months after marriage. The longer a man refrains from marital relations the greater is he considered to be. Before the groom consummates the marriage he must sacrifice pigs to deities to ensure his protection from female pollution. He pours tree oil into his his wives vulva before intercourse to so that her virginal genitals, which are considered to be very hot, do not damage his penis. 2

The Huli believe that the first four days of the month is the time of menstruation and therefore sexual intercourse during that time is prohibited. 3 A menstruating woman, who is considered to be especially dangerous, must retire to a small hut until her menses have ended. The day after seclusion the woman speaks to he husband from a distance, but she cannot look at him. These separation restrictions are loosened as each day passes. However, the couple can only have intercourse on the four days that are considered safe for copulation, the twelfth through fifteenth days of each month. The following standard moral injunction cites the effects of menstrual contamination on a male who breaches the norms regarding the stipulated times for intercourse. 4

DaySanctions Phrase
Dauningi (5)du lole (he will be burnt)
Waraganingi (6)warago hole (malaria will follow)
Kaningi (7)ka lole (his skin will peel)
Haliningi (8)haiya lole (he will be scattered)
Diningi (9)di lole (he will be flying around)
Piningi (10)pi lole (he will fall down)
Beaningi (11)pela hole (he will be lost)

The four days preceding the first day of the month are also considered to be a dangerous period. Hence, there are sixteen days each month when a man must refrain from copulation and contact with his wife lest he be lost.

Huli concerns about menstrual pollution are also expressed in myth, ritual and sorcery. Menstrual blood, particularly a virginal discharge, is used as poison by both men and women. Women will entice men to have intercourse with them during the eight days of menstruation and the following eight, equally dangerous days. The menstrual discharge is believed to enter the man’s penis and penetrate his internal organs, causing him to sicken and die within three months in the manner the moral injunction quoted above suggests. Men also use menstrual blood in a poisonous concoction of menstrual discharge, the sap of the legabe tree, the navel of a recently deceased child and the talon of a hawk, which is secretly smeared on the victim’s food after a few hours cooking. 5

The Huli have three different types of pollution rituals (agali gamu) 6 which are used by males to heal themselves from menstrual contamination: palena gamu in which bespelled ginger is consumed; iba gamu during which bespelled water is drunk; and nogo tini gamu where a big is sacrificed to a diety and the bespelled intestines eaten. 7

Huli fertility rituals frequently use the numbers four and eight which symbolize the four days for intercourse and the eight dangerous days of menstruation. These symbolic numbers are grounded in the myths that describe the origins of menstruation and fertility. 8

As indicated, Huli attitudes and beliefs concerning menstruation have deeply affected social, sexual and ritual behavior. The fear of menstrual pollution and male anxiety about health, sexuality and physical development, which is probably nowhere as pronounced in the Highlands as among the Huli 9, is a significant orientation of Huli society. 10

  1. See: P. Hage and F. Harary, “Pollution Beliefs in Highland New Guinea”, Man, 16 (1981), pp. 367-375.[]
  2. See: R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 59. It should be noted that many Huli men substitute (Catholic blessed) holy water for tree oil in this rite.[]
  3. Ibid, pp. 59-60, and L.R. Goldman, “Speech Categories and the Study of Disputres, Oceania, 50:3 (1979), p. 225.[]
  4. L. Goldman, “Speech Categories”, p. 225.[]
  5. See: R. Glasse, “Revenge and Redress”, p. 284 and Huli of Papua, p. 105.[]
  6. The Huli word agali can mean simply ‘man’. But in the context of illness, agali refers to those illnesses in men deemed to be caused by contact with women. In such cases, when asked what is wrong with him (agime homarebe, literally ‘of what are you dying?’, thus, ‘what caused your illness?’) a man might reply, ‘agalime homaro’ (literally, ‘I am dying of man’), or simply ‘agali’. The other main idiom here is walime bara (literally ‘by woman it strikes’, thus, ‘my illness is caused by woman’); Stephen Frankel. The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., p. 98. []
  7. S. Frankel, “I am a Dying Man”, pp. 101-103, 107 and []
  8. Ibid, pp. 97-98.[]
  9. M.R. Allen, Male Cults and Secret Societies in Melanesia, (London: Melbourne University Press, 1967), p. 49.[]
  10. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, p. 29.[]