The Afterlife and Ghosts

by Ron Meshanko

Grave box photo courtesy of Michael Main.
Huli burial box showing death by poisoning at an early age.

The Huli believe that the spirit (dinini) of a dead person leaves the body through an opening in the skull (dinini homoliaga) at the moment of death. 1 The spirit is an immaterial and animative part of the personality likened to an invisible vapor or shadow (munini) that lurks around the corpse for four days after death. The spirit then becomes a ghost which travels southward to the country of the Duguba where it sinks into a pool of quiet water at a river bank. The ghost finds a circle of red clay, stops to collect some and suddenly falls into a black, hot, waterless hole called Humbirinanda 2 where it remains forever. 3 The ghosts of warriors and neutral persons killed in battle go to dalugeli, a celestial abode, only to temporarily return to the world to haunt the place where the death occurred. Dalugeli is considered more desirable that Humbirinanda , for in moments of pique people say: Oh, to quit this world and go to dalugeli. 4

Ghosts age like living men. 5 Their hair turns white, their limbs stiffen, and their eyes develop cataracts resulting in blindness. The Huli perform the ega kiliapa dance to loosen the limbs of male ancestral ghosts. Two young male dancers perform this leaping dance around a piece of pork sacrificed in honor of the ghosts. The Teba rite, which is also performed during the Tege fertility rites, petitions the male ancestral ghosts to remove the cataracts from their eyes so they can see human activity land help in human affairs. Both of these rites are only performed for male ghosts since female ghosts are basically malevolent and are better left blind and incapacitated. Distant female ghosts are called Keba (angry) and only exercise their great powers when their names are uttered without sacrifice.

Male and female ghosts of the recent dead up to the fourth generation are the most likely ghosts to be malevolently involved in human affairs. They are the major concern of the Huli and the focus of most propitiatory offerings. The most powerful and active ghosts in human affairs are those of ancient ancestors, especially uriali (Tege Pulu specialists). The Teba and Ega Kiliapa dance is performed to keep them young, happy, and benevolently involved in human affairs.

Huli men remember their genealogies back to the fifteenth generation in order to call upon older and more benevolent ghosts for assistance in human endeavors. Men communicate with the male ghosts by sleeping near their graves in the teba paliaga rite (dream + sleeper). They first drip pig fat over sacred stones and then fall asleep awaiting a dream or vision of their ancient male ancestors whose bones they lie beside. Female ghosts are only remembered back to the firth or sixth generation since they are less likely to malevolently interfere in their old age.

The younger female ghosts implore deities to inflict their descendants, especially their children and unfaithful husbands, with boils, sores and internal disorders. The father of a sick child consults a diviner who discovers the identity of the angry, attacking female ghost by watching for conventional signs as he nominates each ancestress, A black insect appears when the name of the attacking ancestress is uttered. The father then sacrifices a pig to placate the angry ghost who in turn beseeches the deity to end the sickness. 6

Founding ancestors, both male and female, are rather aloof from human affairs. They are referred to as dama agali duo which means “half ghost, half deity” and are considered more deity than ghost. According to genealogy and myth, these first ancestors lived from twelve to eighteen generations ago. The founding ancestors function as intermediaries between the deities who created them and men who invoke their mediating powers through rituals.

  1. See: R. Glasse, “The Huli”, pp. 30-31; Michelle Stephens, “Dreams of Change: The Innovative Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Traditional Melanesian Religions, Oceania, 50:1 (1979), pp 3-22. []
  2. “Humbirinanda is a place of shadows, of half-life, and drowsiness (rather more like the Hebrew concept of Sheol than the more furnace-like Hades).” Fountain, Ossie. “The Religious Experience of the Koroba Huli”. The Melanesian Journal of Theology, 2:2, 1986. []
  3. See: Stephen Frankel. The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., p. 151. []
  4. R. Glasse, “The Huli”, p. 30 []
  5. See: Ibid., p. 31-32. []
  6. R. Glasse, Huli of Papua, p. 79. []