by Dr. Ossie Fountain

(Reprint used with the permission of Dr. Ossie Fountain for an extract from “The Religious Experience of the Koroba Huli” in the Melanesian Journal of Theology, Volume 2:2).

The Koroba Huli

The Koroba Huli are located in the north-western portion of the roughly triangular-shaped Huli language area, and comprise about 10,000 people. Centered in the Nagia valley, it also includes the south-eastern headwaters of the Paru River, and intervening limestone country, both north and south. The Tagari River forms a significant boundary on the east, and, to the west, the mission stations of Tanggi and Pori lie just beyond the boundary in the Duna (Yuna) language area, where there is considerable bilingualism. Since our study focuses largely on the Christian Brethren denomination, we will disregard the Fugwa and Levani valleys to the west and south-west of Koroba, since a comity agreement between the Brethren and the
Wesleyan missions is still happily observed today. The Koroba Huli are subsistence agriculturalist, based on sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and living in a dispersed settlement pattern between altitudes of 1,500 and 2,300 meters. They have a clan-structured society, with a cognatic descent system. 1

The Tari valley, east of Koroba, is the center of the Huli language area. The Tari Huli, in the early years of contact, called any people, living west of the Tagari River, “Duna”, despite the fact that the Koroba peoples speak Huli with only very minor vocabulary and dialectal differences from the Tari Huli. 2

As a result of this confusion of terminology, the Koroba District was originally called the Duna Sub-district, and Glasse 3 frequently refers to the Duna in his description to the religious beliefs of the Tari Huli, when it would be more accurate refer to the Koroba Huli (or even the Burani Huli, since Burani was an important source of magical stones and gamu objects for the Tari Huli, and others).

Pre-1961: Huli Primal Religion

For information on the pre-1961 period, besides personal conversations of the writer with the Koroba Huli themselves, we rely on the descriptions of Robert M. Glasse, 4 an anthropologist, who researched the Huli in the Hoiebia area of the central Tari Basin, and James Sinclair, 5 the first resident government officer in the Koroba area. Glasse was not only the first, but, in many respects, the most
important of the anthropologists who have studied in the Huli area. His description is accurate for the Koroba Huli in its broad outlines. However, certain variations, some quite significant, will lead us to modify his analysis.

The variations can be accounted for, partly by the distinctive local features of the religious life of the Koroba Huli, partly by the fact that the Huli orthography had not been standardized at the time of Glasse’s study, and partly, it would seem, by inaccuracies in the recording and interpreting of detail. 6

Glasse describes 7 four main concepts underlying Huli religious behavior – dinini, dama, gamu, and Datagaliwabe. Only three of these, however, are “spiritual beings”, that is dinini, dama, and Datagaliwabe. Gamu refers broadly to the aspects of magic, sorcery, and ritual. It is, therefore, the means by which power can be obtained, whether that power is from personal or impersonal resources. Gamu can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including divination, retaliation, placation, protection, and oblation. This distinction between the spiritual beings, and the means, is important for our discussion later.

Dinini is the “immaterial essence of human personality, which survives bodily death, and persists indefinitely thereafter as a ghost”. 8

The alternative commonly-believed place of the departed is Humbirinanda (Glasse: Humbinianda). At death, informants have told me they have seen a light, like a small flame, and moving from the grave site to the south-east. This is the departing dinini on its journey to Humbirinanda. Glasse reports this place as being down a black hole, a “hot, waterless place”. 4 In description to the writer, informants have described it as a place of shadows, of half-life, and drowsiness (rather more like the Hebrew concept of Sheol than the more furnace-like Hades).

Until such time as the dinini of the deceased departs, it remains near the grave of the departed, and may wreak vengeance on the person who has caused death or broken taboos, as the following incident reveals.

My wife and I, with Professor Charles Kraft, were attending the burial of a young Gunu village man in 1983. The man had been subject to epileptic fits, and had died while eating, presumably by choking (i.e., an unusual death). Another young man came up to us while we were watching, and explaining the process of burial to Professor Kraft, he said, “We are all being very careful not to criticize the grave-house maker, or say anything bad about what he is doing. If anyone does so, someone else will die.”

The dinini of the departed also continue to take an interest in the affairs of their immediate family and clan. The traditional antagonism between male and female in the community is reflected in beliefs about the dinini, for male dinini are benevolent and protective about the affairs of their descendants. However, with the exception of the dinini of one’s mother, female dinini are covetous and malicious, and liable to attack their relatives. For this reason, suicide by women, still not uncommon, is the ultimate form of retribution against a husband in an estranged marriage; men hardly ever commit suicide.

The more distant an ancestor is, especially a male ancestor, the more powerful he becomes. Long-dead ancestors, however, are no longer thought of as dinini, but as damagali (Glasse: dama agali duo). It is perhaps significant for our later discussion that the first Europeans that came to Koroba were known as damagali. Dama are referred to by Glasse as deities. At a recent seminar on Christianity and Southern Highland cultures, Huli representatives considered dama to include both “divinities” and “spirits”, and referred to them collectively as “clan spirits”. 9 However, it seems fair to distinguish between localized dama (Pidgin masalai) and non-localized beings, who are associated with creation myths, such as the myth of the female deity, Honabe, who was seduced by Timbu, and subsequently gave birth to Korimogo, Heyolabe (Glasse: Helabe), Piandela, Ni (= the sun), and Hela (Glasse: Helahuli). 10

Many Huli regard all of these as very powerful beings, but Heyolabe as being the most-dangerously evil of them all. The Huli generally agree that Hela bore four sons, Huli, Duna, Duguba, and Obena, and descendants of these latter three are the main tribal groups with whom the Huli established trading links (i.e., between the Huli and the Duna, the Porgera Enga (Obena) to the north, and the Bosavi people to the south (Duguba). Datagaliwabe must be regarded as a distinctive “high god”. He is the guardian of community mores, and, according to Glasse, is solely concerned with breaches of kinship rules, 11 although many Huli nowadays seem to interpret his guardianship more widely than this. He tends to be thought of as a great person, living astride the mountains, and almost omniscient in his knowledge. He was never placated with pigs, as sacrificed to lesser dama, nor is the term dama applied to him.

These then, are beings, to whom the Huli give allegiance and loyalty. The beings we have described are the objects of Huli “faith”. They are the spiritual realities, to whom they relate. However, all forms of gamu must be placed in the category of cumulative tradition, since they are the expressions of that faith, and the ritual acts and objects, which can be transmitted from one person to another. 12

(photo courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours)

  1. Robert M. Glasse, The Huli of Papua, Canberra ACT: ANU Press, 1962 []
  2. James Sinclair, Wigmen of Papua, Milton Qld: Jacaranda Press, 1973, pp. 51-52 []
  3. Robert M. Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands”, in Peter Lawrence, and M. J. Meggitt, eds, Gods, Ghosts, and Men in Melanesia, Melbourne Vic: Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 27-49 []
  4. Ibid. [][]
  5. Sinclair, Wigmen of Papua; James Sinclair, Behind the Ranges, Melbourne Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1966 []
  6. The writer was able to verify and compare much religious material during the eight years he was a member of the Huli New Testament Checking Committee, which met regularly, and included Huli checkers and informants from the whole Huli area. []
  7. Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands”, pp. 29-37. []
  8. Ibid., p. 31.) It is also a person’s dinini that leaves the body during sleep, and causes one to dream. On the death of the body, the Huli seem somewhat vague about
    what happens to a person’s dinini. Certainly, warriors killed in battle, and perhaps other good people, departed to a place Glasse calls Dalugeli. The more common term is Dahulianda (the residents of it
    being called Dahuliali). (( Perhaps Glasse has confused this term, and slightly amended Dahulial to read Dalugeli; alternatively it is a local Hoiebia variation. []
  9. Bernie Collins, ed., Not to Destroy, but to Fulfil: Report on the Workshop on Southern Highlands’ Cultures and Christian Faith, Held in Mendi, Papua New Guinea, July 23-August 3, 1980, Mendi PNG: United Church Highlands Region, 1983. []
  10. Glasse, “The Huli of the Southern Highlands”, p. 33. []
  11. Ibid., p. 37 []
  12. I disagree with Glasse in his use of the term mana in reference to myths: Mana are mores, teachings, and obligations; myths should be called mamali te in Huli. []

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