by Ron Meshanko
The Huli believe that the goddess Honabe’s menstrual blood produced the primeval fire. We have already seen one association of fire with female genitalia and menstrual blood. Both of these elements are dangerously hot and destructive. That fire is destructive is evidenced in the Origins of Man myth wherein a great fire ravaged the earth before the flood quenched its flames and destroyed all life. The primordial fire may symbolize the effects of draught – the drying up of the river beds, the earth turning into dry powder, the withering of plant life and the unquenchable thirst of humans and animals. Fire is also creative in that it is used to hollow out drums and etch bamboo pipes. It is also used to prepare food, heat one’s house and provide the only source of light. A strikingly unusual use of fire is found in the tege pulu initiation rites. Initiates must run over the hot coals of a long fire pit while they are being beaten with switches before they are considered full members of Huli society. The Huli say that this is a test of courage and perseverance which every male must complete before one can be called a man. The context of the rite suggests other possible meanings. The rite is only part of a sequence of fertility rites performed to ensure the health of boys as well as the fertility of the earth.
The entire ritual sequence not only has many similarities with the creation myth, but also symbolizes the rebirth of initiates who re-enter the womb to be born again as full men. Six months before the fire-walking ceremony, pigs are sacrificed to Ni, Korimogo and other deities mentioned in the Creation myth. Approximately five months later, the initiates enter into a sacred forest where they fast and consume specially prepared foods while the men construct or repair the tege pulu house.
The sacred forest may represent the primordial world created by Honabe. The specially prepared food is most likely taro, the ancient traditional food mentioned in the myth that imbues strength. The tege pulu house consists of two rooms, a large room with a long fire-pit and a small ante-room wherein sit the ritual leaders (uriali). Once the house is readied, the boys enter into the house and sit around the fire. The men dressed as women dance around the fire ten times carrying two wooden phallic symbols. The boys are abused and beaten as they bear the taunts of the masquerading men. Upon completion of the dance, the boys receive their bows and arrows. The boys then rub tree oil onto the soles of their feet as men pour the oil into the flames to create a bitter, pungent smoke that darkens the room. Finally, the boys run across the long fire-pit one by one and enter the ante-room to seat themselves next to the two ritual leaders. There they consume pig meat which was previously sacrificed to the sun god, Ni.
The fire-pit may symbolize the hot genitalia and birth canal of primordial women who are represented by the masquerading men that encircle the fire. The phallic symbols represent the boy’s genitals and skin which will be burnt when they run across the hot coals, symbolizing the effects of female contact. The oil represents the tree oil that is poured into a woman’s vagina before copulation to ensure the man’s penis will not be burnt. The ante-room represents the womb wherein the boys are nourished and safe with the two ritual leaders.
The last rite of the sequence, ritual violence between clan members, re-enacts the primordial sibling fight which resulted in the formation of the known cultural groups. The initiates are now men. They have re-entered the womb and have been ceremonially welcomed into the violent world of Huli men wherein warfare is the major preoccupation. These new men are now forbidden to return to their mother’s house or to associate with women.
The tege pulu rite emphasizes the coincidence of opposites in menstrual blood and hot genital imagery. The rite not only exposes the initiates to the dangers of these female elements, but also strengthens and purifies them, for the fire burns away any contamination by contact with their mothers, sisters, relatives or any other female acquaintances, thus enabling the young men to grow in strength and beauty. The symbolic fire is the rite of passage into Huli manhood and the fullness of life: strong bodies, fertility, and the possibility of many wives which enables them to acquire many pigs and affinal ground rights. 1
Fire, then, is an ambiguous symbol that both destroys and nurtures life. We have seen that a primeval fire ravaged the earth; that fiery hot genitals and menstrual blood cause sickness and death, and that the tege pulu fire destroys menstrual contamination. We have also seen fire’s creative or life-giving potencies. Honabe’s hot genitals cooked her food and produced deities. Her hot menstrual blood gave issue to many life forms. Fire is also creatively used to produce drums and decorative pipes. It is used to cook food, give light and warm the body – all essential ways of nurturing human life. Finally fire also symbolically functions as a rite of passage into Huli manhood and the fullness of life. We have also seen that the Creation myth is the model for tege pulu rites and a model of Huli beliefs and convictions concerning fire, menstruation and fertility.
- Mircea Eliade explores the primitive notion of “mastery of fire” and “magical heat” in Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960), pp. 93, 147-48.