by Ron Meshanko
John Himugu presents “Huli Customary Beliefs and Tribal Laws about Witches and Witch Spirits” in a fascinating compendium on the subject entitled Talking it Through: Responses to Sorcery and Witchcraft Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia. 1 In his very interesting article, he posits that the Huli have “built a comprehensive knowledge base on witches and witch spirits.” The Huli used that knowledge to form their belief-based rules and trial procedures and prosecuted and punished witches whose witch spirits hurt or kill people.
From the start you must understand that Mr. Himugu believes in witchcraft and states that he personally saw a witch when he was about nine years old. One of his tribesman returned home with his two wives from another area. The first wife was a witch or had a witch spirit. Sometime later, the tribesman chased her out for threatening his second wife and her child. The witch came and lived with his mother for a time while he lived in another house nearby with his father.
He is not alone in his belief as there were seven media events concerning sorcery between 2006-2011. One such story is about two Milne Bay men condemned to death in 2007 for killing a woman they believed was a witch. 2 The National Court sentenced the two men even though their actions were sanctioned by their local village court leaders.
The Huli believe that there are three types of witchcraft or sorcery: poisons (tomia), spells (gamugamu) or spirits (dama), all of which invoke spiritual powers and forces. Tomia sorcery uses poisionous substances, be they herbal, biological or chemical to kill. Gamugamu sorcery uses spells, rituals and chants to invoke a named invisible physical, spiritual or cosmic force to do good or evil. Dama sorcery uses any spirit to conduct certain rituals to also do good or evil. The most dangerous sorcery uses dama to attack humans, be they ancestral (homa dinini), bush (tagira dama) or domestic (andaga dama) forms of dama. He notes that the Huli supreme god Datagaliwabe is not involved in sorcery but only punishes “arrogant wrong-doers”.
There are many types of domestic spirits or andaga dama: guardian bystanders (haga); friends of individuals or clans (nenege); and the body- possessing spirits (gamubiaga), which travel with or live inside human beings. The gamubiaga include toro, yaboro, kebali and heyolabe sorcery, all of which use human hosts to carry out the sorcery for a fee. When a “witch spirit” possesses someone’s body, that person is called a witch or “he”. Unlike other Papua New Guinean cultures where men and women can both be witches, only women are witches among the Huli. Himugu believes that the first witches came to live among the Huli in the 1950’s when the major Tari road to Mendi opened up the possibility for witches, who were forced to leave their own territories, to come into Huli lands.
The Huli identify four types of witch spirits: 1) Witches who do not harm people or animals; 2) witches who only dig up graves; 3) witches who kill babies, the sick and aged; and 4) witches who kill healthy people as an individual or in a coven. The Huli believe that there is no special skill in being a witch, it is “just plain evil.” The witches’ husbands, children, relatives and neighbors live in constant fear of them and remain at their mercy. A witch is made when the witch spirit removes the spirit of the human victim and holds it captive for some time – usually high up in a tree. There she uses any natural means possible to kill the physical body of the victim, the most common method being the staging of an “accident.”
Himugu asserts that the main reason why witches kill is to satisfy their lust for good-looking bodies or good food. She will satisfy her lust for a beautiful boy or man by killing them and taking possession of their body. If she wants your good food, watch out or she will strangle you with that food. Witches can also kill someones to avenge any wrong-doing against the host, like killing the an ex-boyfriend or his new girlfriend or both.
Some Huli people believe that if the husband of a witch mixes his urine with tea or water and tricks the witch into drinking it, the witch spirit will leave her and she will become normal again. The most effective method of casting out a witch spirit is the use of bones of giant humans or ogres found in caves. There the bones are crushed into powder and mixed with drinking water to make a powerful concoction that frees a woman of her witch spirit after many nights of fighting the fierce ogres who finally detach from her spirit and body.
Himugu makes it clear that “there are some of us who associate with external forces to do good or bad against other people. These invisible forces include sorcery and witchcraft.” He is not alone in that belief as the Papua New Guinea Parliament passed the Sorcery Act of 1971 that made sorcery an illegal and criminalized act. It also made sorcery a legal defense when it came to murder trials. The act affirmed that magic is a real, plausible belief in their culture, which can be punishable by death. 3