The Conversion of the Huli Apocalypse
by Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University
(Reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University. Ethnohistory 47:1 (winter 2000))
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, ‘‘Come and see’’ . . . . And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth. . . . And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. —Rev. 6:1, 12–14
Abstract. Christian notions of the Apocalypse, which were ﬁrst introduced to Huli speakers of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea during the 1950s, encountered an existing indigenous eschatology, or doctrine of last things. Pre-contact Huli cosmology posited a moral constitution for the fertility of the universe in which the health of people and the land reﬂected the state of moral order in Huli society. Failure in social behavior, which could be gauged from the declining condition of the ‘‘skin’’ of the land, was attributed to an inexorable process of loss of the knowledge of customary lore. Human agency, however, was accorded a signiﬁcant role in redressing this universal tendency to entropy, and ritual leaders claimed the ability to induce an apocalyptic, earth-renewing fall of fertile soil from the sky. The adoption of Christian understandings of the Apocalypse as the revelation of divine will, and the abandonment of most of the pre-contact rituals, have thus had signiﬁcant consequences for Huli conceptions of the role of human agency in history, and for the nature of their engagement with the land.
In a series of letters set out in the Book of Revelation, Saint John the Divine announces his apocalyptic vision to the seven churches of Asia. In the only work of prophecy to ﬁnd formal acceptance in the Christian canon (Bauckham 1993: 114), Christianity marks out the domains of good and evil, literally for all time, until the end of all things. Much of the power of Revelation for Christianity derives from its uncompromising statement of divine transcendence and a will made known, and the disclosure of a telos that furnishes the lives of mortals with historical meaning. Huli speakers of the Tari area in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea have also espoused a complex eschatology or doctrine of last things. Yet, where the Christian account reveals a ﬁxed destiny to essentially powerless mortals, reﬂecting the Greek origins of the word apocalypse as a revelation or un- veiling (Cross 1958), Huli eschatology prior to contact with Christian missions resembles more closely a user’s guide to apocalypse, in which Huli sought to claim for themselves the capacity to inﬂuence the nature of the eschaton or ﬁnal event. What follows is an attempt to communicate a sense of this indigenous vision of the end, as described by older Huli men and women who recall life lived under these terms. The article then explores the implications for that universe of adopting a Christian understanding of apocalypse. Because eschatology equips a conception of the universe not just with a sense of trajectory but also with particular prescriptions for moral engagement with that universe, these transformations in visions of the end have powerful consequences for the fundamental nature of historicity and sociality for Huli people. I focus on the implications for human agency and the various ways in which the landscape is enchanted under these diﬀerent eschatological regimes. 1 How does landscape both literally and ﬁguratively ground and sustain diﬀerent discourses of temporality, different forms of moral engagement with the universe? And what part might a change in the trajectory of history under the terms of a novel apocalypse play in reconﬁguring society’s moral order?
Entropy in the Huli Landscape
In an important sense there is no nature to pit against the culture of the Huli landscape; the landscape is substantially an artifact, the product of both human and nonhuman labor. The basic topography is held to have been created from a flat and featureless plain of mud by the earliest dama spirits. The rivers, the forests, and the lakes that distinguish this surface are all believed to be the work of ancestral or other spirits, some of whom are known and named while the identities of others remain to be determined through a process of ritual inquiry. As this article discusses, Huli historicity makes a significant provision for the unknown or, perhaps more accurately, the forgotten or the lost. It is possible to propose a concept of nature founded on distinctions drawn by Huli between thick forest (irabu or tayaanda) on the one hand and cleared or open areas (hama) on the other, but this would fail to capture the Huli sense of a landscape that is thoroughly imbued with a history of agency. Rather than mapping these forests as ‘‘nature,’’ it might be more accurate to ﬁgure them as a ‘‘culture’’ or ‘‘history’’ that exists to be recovered, reclaimed, and reinvigorated with the labor of humans. A crucial consequence of a landscape charged through with the labor of spirits and humans is that it is not the possibility of human or spirit ownership of each feature that is in question; instead, it is the identity of the landscape’s custodians that emerges as a matter for rediscovery and inquiry.
The Huli universe can be regarded as fundamentally structured along two crosscutting axes of distinction—those of gender and precedence. In the context of New Guinea Highland ethnography, the latter is an un- usual inclusion, though necessary here as a means of introducing a sense of the signiﬁcance of historicity in the constitution of Huli being. There is no evidence in Huli life or daily discourse for the role accorded to seasonal variation by neighbors to the east, such as the Foi (Weiner 1991), the Kakoli (Bowers 1968), or the West Mendi (Crittenden 1982). James F. Weiner (1991), for example, demonstrates how the markers of seasonality are further embellished and developed by the Foi in their distinction be- tween ‘‘wet’’ and ‘‘dry’’ modes of subsistence and sociality. There are terms that Huli employ to refer to seasonal events, such as the fruiting of diﬀerent pandanus tree species or the appearance of Castanopsis acorns or certain mushrooms, and it is possible to construct cycles based on sequences of these occurrences. Yet, despite this scope for a notion of seasonality, it is signiﬁcant that Huli temporality owes little or nothing to annual cycles. In- stead, such events as major droughts and ﬂoods impart a sense of temporal sequence to Huli narratives. The frequency of these cataclysmic events and the logic that determines their occurrence correspond not to annual climatic cycles but to a longer durée of entropic decline. This process of continuous loss furnishes the Huli cosmos with a trajectory of change that temporally enchants the landscape, much as the rivers of that landscape ﬂow inexorably, southward and into the future, toward Humbirini Andaga, the place of the dead.
Entropy might appear somewhat glib as a label for the wide range of attitudes, perceptions, and dicta that are articulated by the Huli on the general topic of decline. Mischa Penn and David Lipset (1991) have delivered a telling critique of the use by Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz (1986) of a notion of entropy in the latter’s analysis of Chambri power. Not unlike the Huli (Ballard 1994), the Chambri of the Middle Sepik locate themselves at the center of a regional system of power; this power, encapsulated in the knowledge of names and transmitted through their bestowal, is subject to entropic decline as names and the ﬁnite pool of power that they represent are lost over time. Penn and Lipset (1991: 64) argue that, in the absence of suﬃcient evidence about the ways in which the Chambri them- selves discursively represent concepts of decline, this importation of ‘‘conceptual sacra from the physical sciences’’ obscures more than it reveals. Entropy assumes a determining status in Errington and Gewertz’s analysis, which is neither supported by Chambri exegeses nor exposed to challenge by Chambri other than those senior agnates most favored by the concept. I have a further objection to the Errington and Gewertz (1986: 109) argument, which concludes with the observation that ‘‘entropic systems… are likely to discount the human capacity to innovate,’’ in contrast to ‘‘non- entropic systems based on progress.’’ The Chambri, according to Errington and Gewertz (ibid.), regard ‘‘signiﬁcant innovation—the creation of a truly novel way to gain access to power… as impossible,’’ a position that apparently dooms the Chambri to life as a series of habitual, repetitive activities (Penn and Lipset 1991: 62). The account of Huli temporality and ritual his- tory oﬀered here is intended, in part, as a challenge to this equation of a perception of decline with a reluctance or incapacity to innovate. A general belief in decline and dissipation, rather than increase and accumulation, as the fundamental direction of history is clearly articulated not just by the Huli but also by a number of neighboring communities to the west: the Duna (Haley 1996), the Bimin-Kuskusmin (Poole 1986), and the Telefol, for whom Dan Jorgensen (1981) has written the most comprehensive account in the region of the cosmological role of entropy. Jorgensen employs entropy as a generalized gloss for the Telefol verb biniman, meaning ‘‘to ﬁnish, to run out, to dissipate, to become nothing.’’ He identiﬁes biniman as ‘‘the chief preoccupation of Telefol cosmological thought’’ (ibid.: 304), discernible to Telefol as both a leakage or attrition from the center and a diminution over time in the size of people, of taro plants, and of pigs, ‘‘a gradient of progressive decline and decay in both spatial and temporal dimensions’’ (ibid.: 303).
Notions of decline are central to Huli historicity, and their symptoms and consequences formally codiﬁed and enunciated, to the extent that it is possible to speak of a Huli ‘‘doctrine’’ of entropy. 2 No single term captures the range of forms of expression that contribute to this doctrine, but the more common summary statements assert that the land is going ‘‘bad’’ (dindi moko hayada) or is ‘‘drying up’’ (dindi gabu hayada), or that, like old fruit-bearing trees, it is ‘‘exhausted’’ (dindi le hayada). Observations are made frequently on the loss of ground moisture, the decline in soil quality, and the invasive spread of grass and tree species associated with poor soils. In its fullest form, this discourse of entropy extends to encompass all aspects of Huli society and landscape: ‘‘Before, bananas, pigs, taro, oenanthe, everything grew better. The swamps were all brimming with water. Now they are dry and the saplings die for
want of water. . . . Before, everything was large, but now it is all small. For this reason we think that the land is going to ﬁnish. The long memories of yesteryear have grown short (manda luni timbuni ore winigo tubagi hara). Distances have grown smaller. Now young men refuse to look after pigs, people marry too quickly and women bear children too early. Our custom (mana) is ﬁnished and another has emerged in its place’’ (Walahuli 1992).
I have previously argued the case that drought features more prominently than ﬂood as a threat in Huli narratives, despite the fact that the staple crop, sweet potato, is more susceptible to waterlogging than desiccation (Ballard 1995). In part, this reﬂects the enduring symbolic importance to the Huli of an earlier staple, taro, which has much more stringent moisture requirements, but it also draws on some fundamental Huli statements about the nature of ﬂuid substances. In turn, these statements about ﬂuids introduce a role for moral agency that is critical to the structure and nature of Huli cosmology.
The Moral Constitution of Fertility
As in other New Guinea Highland communities, the meanings of ﬂuid sub- stances are not immutably ﬁxed for Huli. 3 Substances in general are instead imbued with contingent meaning through the moral agency of actors. This is most clearly evident for those ﬂuid substances that provide the media of growth and decline. Thus semen is usually but not invariably coded fertile, and menstrual blood is most often but not always deemed inimical to male growth; however, the Huli consider an uncontrolled, excessive ﬂow of semen to threaten both a pregnant woman and the development of the fetus (Frankel 1986: 100), while, under the direction of male ritual leaders, menstrual blood could be contained and inserted into swamps as a means of restoring fertility to the land. 4 Fluids that are controlled, contained, and directed according to established moral precepts are potentially fertile, while those ﬂuids that ﬂow in an unmediated manner have the capacity to destroy or impede the growth of individual, corporate, and even universal bodies. These moral precepts derive from the collective lore or customary practice that Huli refer to as mana. 5 The process of controlling and rendering fertile the ﬂow of ﬂuid sub- stance centers on the observance of the structures of customary knowledge (mana) and the strictures of behavioral codes (ilili). Failure to correctly observe mana custom and ilili codes, to act in a morally appropriate manner, transforms these substances from fertile to infertile. A common example of an ilili code is the conventional timing of intercourse within a restricted period of four days during the menstrual cycle, protecting the man from ‘‘bad’’ menstrual blood while ensuring the presence in the woman’s womb of the ‘‘good’’ reproductive blood required to form a fetus (ibid.: 109).
These and other ilili conventions, encoded as mana, ideally govern the behavior of men and women in such a way as to limit the mutually deleterious eﬀects of contact between them. Breaches in the observation of ilili under- mine the success of any project conducted under the guidance of mana, and the Huli identify this moral failure as the cause of the world’s decline. Much as the Melpa people of the Western Highlands discern ‘‘shame’’ on the skin of an individual (Strathern 1975), the Urapmin Mountain Ok community holds that moral status can be read from the skin (Robbins 1997: 41–8). In Huli conception this logic is extended still further, in that the moral order of society is held to register on the ‘‘skin’’ of the land. Moral transgressions on the part of humans are thus directly linked to the desiccation or failing productivity of the land. As the leader at the major ritual center of Gelote clearly states, ‘‘The land will go bad, it is said, because laws have been broken.’’ 6 Failure to observe mana thus underlies the continual decline of the cosmos and has the potential to undermine attempts at the restoration of its fertility. The scope for breach of ilili codes is exacerbated by the belief that the complete and perfect knowledge of mana, introduced in the act of creation by the spirits and handed down through successive generations, has experienced depletion, most obviously through the untimely deaths of key individual holders of customary knowledge (manayi). The transmission of mana—as a limited and ﬁnite resource—is a diﬃcult process fraught with anxiety. Giving out one’s mana too widely or too soon is detrimental to the owner’s well-being, but the consequences of delaying transmission are equally as dangerous for one’s surviving kin. 7
Huli ritual, and Huli social practice in general, sought to staunch this ﬂow of mana from the center. Both in ritual and in wider social practice, however, Huli engagement with the unknown has always extended beyond simple reaction to circumstance in assuming a strong element of inquiry and experiment. Much of Huli ritual consisted of an interrogation of diﬀerent possibilities, often without satisfactory closure. Divination sacriﬁces, for example, would be repeated at multiple locations, invoking a host of possible spirits and ancestors in the search for a response. Ritual represented an inquisitive form of engagement with the world in an attempt to recover lost mana through experiment with the depleted pool of transmitted knowledge.
In his reconsideration of the anthropologist Kenelm Burridge’s classic study Mambu, Jorgensen (1994) addresses the Tangu category of imbatekas, which connotes the odd, the unfamiliar, the uncontrollable—those things that ‘‘lie outside the ordered orbit of Tangu culture . . . and yet impinge upon it in some way’’ (144). What this ‘‘cultural premise of incomplete- ness’’ introduces is a notion of unﬁnished or provisional human order that invites the living to engage their universe in a continuous process of exploration and rediscovery. An intimation of the contingent and partial nature of knowledge can thus act as a spur to inquiry and improvisation, and Bur- ridge’s equation of imbatekas with the divine furnishes the link between improvisation in ritual and the observation of convention in custom (ibid.: 133). The history of Huli ritual exhibits this same tendency toward experiment and cultural creativity, albeit in the context of a theory of incomplete- ness through loss—precisely the sort of entropic ‘‘system’’ that Errington and Gewertz (1986) equate with a stiﬂing of innovation. This predilection for innovation is particularly evident at the level of regional ritual, in which the roles previously outlined for mana and ilili, and the relationships between ﬂuids and fertility, were played out on a grand, cosmic scale. The remainder of this article considers the transformations in historicity and in narratives about the landscape that have accompanied the transition from the regional rituals of dindi gamu (the ‘‘earth rituals’’) to the adoption of Christianity and a novel form of moral engagement with history.
My concern in this article is principally to juxtapose contrasting elements of the Huli and the Christian eschatological traditions, but it is important to qualify the impression of a broadly unitary Huli tradition by describing some of the limits and challenges to this mana within wider Huli society. As a precipitate of both public and private speech acts, Huli mana is strongly gendered and wielded to considerable eﬀect by men, both individually and collectively. Huli men commonly insist that women cannot possess mana, by virtue of the diﬀerence between male and female minds and as a consequence of the agnatic channels though which mana is conventionally transmitted from one generation to the next (Goldman 1983: 99). The public presentation of corporate mana, whether on behalf of a kin group or for the Huli universe at large, is strictly a male prerogative. Certain forms of mana are also reserved for particular clans or family lineages, and ritual knowledge is particularly prone to this form of ‘‘compartmentalization’’ in which ritual performance is predicated on the presence and contribution of multiple elements of the community. Mana knowledge relating to rituals of cosmic signiﬁcance was thus traditionally the preserve of a handful of families. Much of the account of Huli cosmology and eschatology that follows derives from interviews with members of these families and visits to the sites of the former ritual centers for which they were the custodians. To what extent, following Penn and Lipset’s (1991) critique of the assumption of a universal conception of entropy among the Chambri, is it then possible to suggest that the larger Huli community either sub- scribed to a common understanding of the entropic dimensions of mana, or were conversant with the cosmological and eschatological details that follow?
Three points, brieﬂy reviewed here, suggest that these seemingly narrow limits to the diﬀusion of knowledge within Huli society were no barrier to the development of a broad community understanding of the essential elements of a doctrine of entropy. First, the actual transmission of mana seldom matched the ideal sequence from one eldest son to the next, and both nonagnatic male kin and daughters were often selected as holders of mana on the basis of personal ability. Many more individuals than those strictly entitled to recite mana in public settings were thus conversant with the details of a range of forms of mana. Second, mana was made known through the medium of a wide spectrum of narrative genres, ranging from stories for children to formal clan origin accounts and the intricate and arcane details of cosmological knowledge that are the preserve of ritual specialists. Though these narratives obviously diﬀer considerably in their detail, they are all imbued with the essential elements of the more specialized concept of cosmology. Third, the most mundane activities of daily life were and continue to be suﬀused with the implications of a doctrine of entropy, such that crop losses or pig diseases, for example, were commonly perceived to be the consequence of failings in the moral conduct of individuals and communities. Almost all adult Huli are thus cognizant of the general tenets of this doctrine of entropy and appreciate the broad basis for this moral constitution of fertility.
Regional Ritual and World Renewal
The former regional earth rituals, the dindi gamu, sought to establish hu- man purchase on the fertility of the universe at large (Frankel 1986: 18– 26). Performances of the earth rituals were led by a small elite of hereditary ritual specialists, custodians of the principal site in each of the major valleys. Ritual performances were coordinated among perhaps ﬁve such sites in Huli territory, and the cooperative involvement of at least ﬁve other ritual centers in the neighboring territories of the Duna, the Bedamini, the Onabasulu, the Wage Enga, and the Ipili-Paiela was considered by the Huli leaders to be necessary for the success of these rituals (Frankel 1986; Ballard 1994; Biersack 1995). Ritual performances among each of these communities also operated independently of these regional links, but the extra local links to the Huli sites were strongly promoted by Huli ritual leaders. 8
The critical components of this root of the earth are a ﬂuid core, described as a python, bound around with the cane with which Huli men weave their belts and capped by a layer of stone. This cap of stone is ex- posed and visible where the root draws close to the surface, marking the presence of a major ritual center. Essentially, the ﬂuid core is composed of mineral oil, latent ﬂame. Natural seeps of mineral oil, the most potent of fertile substances, were well-known and closely guarded locations and were tapped for the performance of the earth rituals. 9
This oil was held to travel upstream along the root of the earth, against the general southward ﬂow of the rivers, north and east toward the point where the sun rises above the horizon. Balancing the association of the downstream ﬂow of rivers with progression toward the place of the dead, the ﬂow of the root of the earth represents a countercurrent of life force. At the horizon the oil bursts into ﬂame, rising into the sky as the sun and crossing westward to a point near the major oil seeps in the Lebani Valley before returning to the earth. The python in the root of the earth is thus the sun by night, the central feature of Huli sacred cartography and historicity (Ballard 1998). The concern and anxiety that inform Huli eschatology ﬁnd due cause in a universe founded on a substance as unstable as latent ﬂame.
Regionwide performances of the earth rituals addressed symptoms of entropic decline on an expanded scale. Earthquake and famine, drought and ﬂood, large-scale wars, and pig and human epidemics were all regarded as expressions of the decline of the cosmos for which the appropriate response was the performance of earth rituals. As far as it is possible to reconstruct the chronology of these events, the last major performances of earth rituals on a regional scale appear to have occurred during the massive famines of 1935 and 1942 (Allen, Brookﬁeld, and Byron 1989). The last performance of an earth spell ritual probably took place at the Tuandaga ritual site during the 1972 frosts that devastated crops in high-altitude settlements across the New Guinea Highlands.
Although successful performances of the earth rituals served to mitigate the eﬀects of particular entropic events such as famine or drought, the longer tide of cosmic decline, fueled by the inexorable loss of mana be- tween one generation and the next, could not be resisted. The Huli eschaton, the ‘‘ﬁnal’’ moment in an apparently cyclical process, was an apocalyptic cataclysm referred to by the generic term mbingi, or the ‘‘time of darkness’’ (Glasse 1995). Knowledge of this mbingi event constitutes a distinct genre of knowledge, mbingi mana. Certain ritual leaders are still identiﬁed as holders of this specialist knowledge, which consists of accounts of previous mbingi events and the details of ilili proscriptions on behavior both before and during a mbingi event; most clans contain at least one individual who retains this knowledge. 10
In conventional narratives, mbingi involves the inversion of sky and land, an event of terrifying chaos in which ‘‘ground and sky are thrown together.’’ 11
On the advice of ritual leaders forewarned by the appearance of speciﬁc portents, people prepare mbingi houses on low stilts and gather kin and food. The sky then darkens and falls to the ground as a soil or ash, blanketing the houses and the landscape. After several days spent living in darkness in their houses, people emerge in a strict sequence, prescribed by ilili codes. If the ilili codes are correctly observed during the mbingi event, a time of great plenty follows in which crops and animals are both plentiful and of an exaggerated size. The health of the land and the people is re- stored to an original Edenic condition, described in terms usually reserved for an earlier epoch in which cannibal giants walked the land (Goldman 1998: 219–20).
These narratives describing the last major historical mbingi event refer explicitly to a fall of earth from the sky, which has since been linked to the fall of volcanic ash from an eighteenth-century eruption of Long Island (Allen and Wood 1980; Blong 1982). Mbingi has always held the status of a historical event for Hulis: ancestors who were alive during the last event are identiﬁed in genealogies; the giant stumps of trees present during the ashfall are indicated; and garden ditches unearth small remnants of the ash, lumps of gritty green soil that are referred to as mbi dindi, or the ‘‘earth of dark- ness.’’ However, in Huli traditions mbingi potentially takes a number of other forms, variously as a ﬂood, an earthquake, or a mudﬂow. Following a solar eclipse in 1962, and again in 1991 for fear that alluvial goldmining had interfered with the course of the root of the earth, the distinctive mbingi houses were constructed, perched on stilts (as no other Huli houses are) and with strengthened roofs, catering as it were for several possible forms of mbingi at once. What these diﬀerent forms of cataclysm have in common is the notion of a radical reconﬁguration of the land—a sweeping regenerative event that restores full fertility to the land and a complete mana to humans.
The role of ilili codes in the mana for mbingi is similar to that described for the codes of behavior that determine the moral valence of ﬂuid substances. Appropriate action in anticipation and during the course of a mbingi event determines whether mbingi will destroy the existing universe, or be harnessed to restore prosperity to the existing world. The most recent mbingi event, the ashfall, is widely held to have been successfully controlled through earth rituals and to have restored fertility to the soil and to people. Earlier events, however, were truly epochal in that they annihilated both the people and their landscape, such as the lush and fecund environment of the cannibal giants. Drowned forests, encountered while digging deep drains within the swamps of the central Huli basins, are regarded as remnants of these former landscapes.
The Huli apocalypse was thus the terminal point in a long, linear process of moral and ecological decline. At the same time, however, it was cyclical in its conception of serial epochs, each initiated from a position of perfect fertility but each quite diﬀerent from the others in terms of the identity of the people, the form of their sociality, and the nature of their relationship with the land. The duration of these cycles, the quality of existence during each cycle, and the nature of the transformative mbingi event hinged upon the moral action of humans. Much as Nancy M. Farriss (1987: 574– 75) describes for the Maya of Yucatán, Huli temporality remains grounded on a notion of cosmic moral order; but although the concept of a cyclical basis for cosmology supplies a predictable and thus essentially stable trajectory to history, the Huli share with the Maya ‘‘the less comforting caveat that its execution depends largely on human agency.’’
As moral managers on a cosmic scale, leaders at the two key Huli ritual sites of Gelote and Bebenite asserted not only the ability to determine the nature of mbingi but also the power to provoke or summon it: ‘‘When we wanted mbingi to come, we performed the ritual at [the ritual centers of] Bebenite, Gelote and Bebeali Puni’’ (Hiluwa-Irugua 1991b). Doubts had emerged, however, over the capacity of the ritual leaders to remain in control of this considerable responsibility. An unprecedented spate of wars, droughts, and famines, exacerbated by a rapidly expanding population, had led to a series of attempts by the major ritual leaders to coordinate the earth rituals and provoke a beneﬁcent apocalypse. As the attempts failed, so too did the conﬁdence of these leaders in their ability to control the consequences of mbingi. One surviving leader of this period described his diﬃcult decision not to summon mbingi during a famine in 1942 and his fears for the potency of this force in the future: ‘‘Before, mbingi came often. Now there is little mbingi left, perhaps enough for one more time, but after that there will be no more mbingi’’ (Hubi-Morali 1992). Here mbingi itself seems to be subject to entropic decline. This growing uncertainty over the fundamental postulates of Huli cosmology was then the immediate setting for the encounter between Huli and Christian cosmologies.
A New Heaven and a New Earth
The structure of Huli cosmology previously sketched is that described by older men and women for the period immediately before contact with the colonial administration and missions. As a reconstruction, it cannot, of course, be free of the inﬂuence of all that has followed, but the speed and the recency of the engagement with Christian theology is such that details of pre-contact beliefs and impressions of their subsequent transformation are well within the recall of older Huli. Following the establishment of the ﬁrst permanent patrol post in Huli territory at Tari in 1951, four diﬀerent Christian missions moved into the area (Catholic, Asia Paciﬁc Christian Mission/Unevangelized Fields Mission, Seventh-Day Adventist, and United/Methodist), to be followed later by three further denominations (Christian Mission in Many Lands, Sovereign Grace Baptist, and Wesleyan) (Robin 1982; Meshanko 1986). Conversion of the Huli to one (or more) of these mission churches during the 1950s and 1960s is widely regarded to have been a speedy and largely wholesale occurrence (Fountain 1986; Frankel 1986; Glasse 1995). Most rituals, including the regional earth rituals, ceased to be publicly or openly performed during the 1960s.
The mutual recognition of apparently common themes in the respective cosmologies of the missionaries and the Huli deserves more attention than it has received to date. 12 The ﬂood, the tower of Babel, the sacriﬁce of Christ, and many other central features of the Judeo-Christian tradition have found ready analogues in Huli myth and willing bricoleurs among the converted Huli. This syncretistic process cuts both ways: if the more liberal missions such as the Catholics were willing to enlist members of the Huli pantheon, ﬁnding Huli spirits who could serve as God and the devil (Meshanko 1986), Huli for their part have embraced the hope apparently oﬀered by the Christian apocalypse of a lasting time of plenty, a time of light to end all history.
My focus is on the slippage, the representational violence, that has occurred in the process of translation from the eschatology of Huli cosmology to that of the broad Christian tradition. I concede that my own analysis does considerable violence to the distinctions between the diﬀerent Christian denominations and the diﬀerences in their interpretation and promulgation of texts like the Book of Revelation. 13
I suspect, though, that the increasing success among Huli of the revivalist and Pentecostal missions reﬂects, in part, their emphasis on preparation for the forthcoming apocalypse. A number of authors have drawn attention to the role played in the evangelization of the Southern Highlands by revival movements in the 1970s that took Revelation as their central text and judgment day as their lesson (Robin 1982; Fountain 1986). Edward L. Schieﬀelin (1981) has described the success of an evangelical mission among the Kaluli, Huli neigbors to the south, in representing the second coming of Jesus in terms of the dominant motif in Kaluli society of reciprocity, as revenge for an un- compensated death. He demonstrates neatly the requirement of perpetual imminence in an apocalyptic message: ‘‘Without fear of Judgement Day, the tension it produces, and the consequent urgency for church activity, Christianity would lose much of its appeal to the Kaluli. For, while they are frightened by the message, it is precisely for that reason that they ﬁnd it exciting’’ (ibid.: 156). In his account of the success of the Seventh-Day Adventist mission among Pairundu Kewa (to the east of the Huli), Holger Jebens (1997) doubts whether the pressure of an imminent apocalypse can be sustained and proposes that adherence to the mission will be a short- lived experiment on the part of the Pairundu villagers. Many Huli are also openly experimental in their approach to diﬀerent Christian denominations, but a pre-Christian history of apocalypticism among the Huli may have furnished them with unusual powers of premillennial endurance.
In many respects the Huli doctrine of entropy ﬁnds itself very much at home in the ﬁnal book of the Christian Bible and indeed charged to do so by the mana of the ancestors themselves. The strength of Huli conviction in the all-encompassing scope of the original, perfect mana introduces the scope for the continuing rediscovery of missing elements of that mana, and the success of Christianity among Huli lies perhaps in its revelation of a substantial portion of that lost legacy. Pre-Christian narrative traditions in which the portents of epochal decline were elaborated are woven, seamlessly, into the fabric of Christian mana:
We were told that ferns and weeds would grow across the swamps. If we saw this, we would know that the world would soon end. They said that the roar of the rapids would die to a whisper and that, when it ceased entirely, we would all die. Now we are the thirteenth generation. Children do not listen, small girls grow breasts and marry, and small boys grow beards. Old age comes more swiftly, with white hair, with broken knees and broken teeth. They said we would rape our own mothers and sisters, murder our own fathers and brothers. Rape, kill and eat them. Now this killing has begun. The eating and the ﬁghting, the children with beards, the married girls—these things have all come to pass. Count swiftly, for everything is coming to a close. Truly it is now the time of deafness and we shall all die. This was my father’s mana, and it has come together as one with the mana of the church. (Meria 1991)
Biblical passages, such as the quotation from Revelation that opens this article, are readily appreciated within the context of a Huli understanding of mbingi. The former ritual leader at the sacred site of Gelote, a recent Seventh-Day Adventist convert, now describes mbingi in terms of an exclusively ﬁery apocalypse: ‘‘Down there, where the root of the earth is placed, there is a man. When he says he will die, we will all die. Now we hold the mana of the whites and we know that ﬁre will consume us all’’ (Yaliduma- Dai 1991b). 14
In the expanded search for signs of this new apocalypse, intensive Bible reading is supplemented by equally fervent scanning of the radio waves for news of impending disasters or wars. A recent Seventh-Day Adventist grave in the Tari Valley nicely illustrates this broadening of the horizon for entropic and apocalyptic portents. Flat river pebbles set into the earth wall of a grave mound have been painted with a variety of references to historical and largely European disasters such as the 7 November 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the Dark Ages, a meteorite in 1833, and the Second World War. There are also references to biblical passages on plague, famine, and war. In early 1992 the Gulf War featured prominently in Huli anxieties about the future, as had the Falklands War before it. 15
Appropriately, however, the major concern voiced then was the forthcoming uniﬁcation of Europe and its languages, corresponding as it did with rumors of the possible re- uniﬁcation of the Anglican and Catholic churches: one language, one currency, one church, all signs that surely signaled the imminent arrival of the one leader. The ensuing result of the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty (which rejected political uniﬁcation) and the Anglican decision to ordain women (which alienated the Catholic Church) had wider consequences than their architects could have foreseen.
Agency and Autonomy under a Christian Apocalypse
That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the Lord have created it. —Isaiah 45:6–8
For the Huli a more profound revolution than the uniﬁcation of distant Europe is already under way. This has to do with the subtle shift from an eschatology that asserts the ability of human agents to inﬂuence the form and consequences of an apocalypse, to a new doctrine that insists on a transcendental ﬁxity to the form and signiﬁcance of the eschaton, an event whose meaning is made known, not through human discovery and inquiry but by divine disclosure and revelation (Collins 1979: 10–11). In place of the negotiable form of the Huli apocalypse, with its emphasis on the immanence of agency and the eternal hope of recurrence, the Christian event is both terminal and fundamentally non-negotiable. Crucially, the Christian apocalypse transfers its focus from the eschaton, as an event in which human agency is engaged, to the eschatos, the returning person of Christ (Strelan 1977: 204). Under these conditions Huli history—that careful composition of interleaved genealogical sediment laid across a landscape of human and spirit labor—is rendered ‘‘plastic to the will of God’’ (Dodd 1944: 96). Transformations in the history of Christian traditions of eschatological expectation potentially illuminate the Huli experience of this conver- sion of their apocalypse. Christopher Rowland (1995:45) shows how the foundation documents of the early church, and much of the preceding Jewish tradition, disclose a concern for knowledge and the role of prophets who ‘‘foretold the future that should arise out of the present, while the apocalyptists [of the later church] foretold the future that should break into the present.’’ The later Christian tradition embraced by the Huli intro- duces a subtle but profound shift from ‘‘a cosmology in which the cultural order exists in creative tension with the divine’’ (Jorgensen 1994: 135), to one in which the divine encompasses the cultural order and moral agency of humans. Kenelm Burridge’s equation of the divine with the unknowable (as discussed in Jorgensen) allows us to appreciate the sense in which a cultural order encompassed by, rather than engaged in an exploration of, the divine places limits on the scope for human agency and inquiry. Likewise, the shift from a fundamentally cyclical (though never repetitive) historicity to the strongly linear and teleological temporality of the later Christian tradition, in which history unfolds directly toward the unique event and person of Christ’s return (Dodd 1944:91), requires a denial of the epochal constitution of the Huli landscape and the parallel history of moral engagement between humans and their landscape. Across Huli territory the ritual sites have been abandoned, the sacred groves of Araucaria hoop pines have been logged and milled to build government and mission stations, and the pools that formerly housed dama spirits have been ﬁlled and gardened. But what has rendered this disenchantment of the landscape nearly complete is the collapse of the formal avenues of moral engagement with the landscape, the abandonment of the ilili codes and the mana that bound the health of people and land together. Joel Robbins (1995: 218–19) describes neatly the process whereby the perception of ‘‘God’s injunction to fully exploit His resources’’ has rendered ‘‘the environment something which the Urapmin can dominate with indifference rather than relate to in morally weighted terms.’’ 16
This reframing of moral relationships, both between humans and the land and among people, holds obvious implications for the structure of Huli society. 17 The central role of women in the Huli churches, and in the revivalist churches in particular, owes more than a little to the perceived break that Christianity offers with the restrictions of customary forms of knowledge and moral prescriptions that have been dominated by male interpretation. It is no accident that women also played a key role in pre-Christian cults that sought to challenge the dominance of the earth rituals in the Huli and neighboring regions (Wiessner and Tumu 1998). The attraction of the church, for Huli women in particular, can be linked to the increased scope that it provides for direct access to religious knowledge and meaning, in strong contrast to the control of the earth rituals by a closed, male elite. For many Huli men, to whom the Christian apocalypse appears both overwhelming and inevitable, the surrender of their own ability to influence the form of apocalypse entails a severe loss of autonomy and a corresponding confusion about the destiny of the cosmos. The son of the last leader to have performed at the major ritual site of Bebealia Puni expresses this fear: ‘‘Jesus has said that, when he returns, the earth will end: When Jesus comes back, will we be consumed by fire or drowned in the flood as in Noah’s time? We no longer know’’ (Hiluwa-Irugua 1991a).
This article was initially presented in December 1992 as ‘‘The Fire Next Time: British Petroleum, the Book of Revelations, and Huli Ritual’’ at the First European Colloquium on Pacific Studies at Nijmegen, The Netherlands. It was then revised for a conference on large-scale development projects in Papua New Guinea and transformations in local cosmologies, held at the Cairns campus of James Cook
University in North Queensland in October 1996. On both occasions the audience contributed substantially to the final form of the article. For their further comments, additional readings, and help in the long process of bringing this essay to judgment, I would like to thank John Ballard, Christine Dureau, Mike Hamilton, Ton Otto, and Dan Jorgensen.
(Reprinted with permission of Dr. Chris Ballard, Australian National University. Ethnohistory 47:1 (winter 2000))
(photo courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours)
- “I owe the inspiration for my use of the term enchantment here to Dan Jorgensen’s (1993: 3) observation on the ‘‘almost Weberian disenchantment of the landscape,’’ following on the intervention of commodity production in the relationship between the Telefol people and their environment. ”
- Other ethnographers have been similarly impressed by the force and coherence of Huli appeals to notions of entropic decline; see Goldman 1983, Wood 1984 1: 173–75, Frankel 1986: 18, 26–27, and Glasse 1995.
- “See Meigs 1984, Biersack 1987, and Ballard 1998 for further discussion of the variable quality of specific fluids. Ethnohistory 47:1 (winter 2000)p. 220.
- “This unstable quality of meaning for fluids is neatly captured in the slight tonal shift that distinguishes the Huli terms for menstrual blood (pugua) and for the swampy wetlands (pugua) that operated as the focal surface repositories of fertile substance in the Huli landscape.
- See Biersack 1991 for a compelling analysis of the cognate term (also mana) in neighboring Ipili-Paiela society.
- ‘‘O dindi ko mebia holino lowa . . . ,’’ (Yaliduma-Dai 1991a).
- This closely parallels Chambri anxieties over the transmission of names (Errington and Gewertz 1986: 102).
- The strong correlation between Huli ritual tracks and trading routes suggests that the proselytization among neighboring communities by Huli ritual leaders of their Huli-centric conception of universal order also served more material interests (Ballard 1995: 142–44). (( Linking each of the major ritual sites together, in Huli conception, is a subterranean channel, the ‘‘knot’’ or ‘‘root of the earth’’ (dindi pongone). A more thorough account of the architecture of the root of the earth is offered in Ballard 1998.
- Poole 1986 describes a similar role for oil seeps among the Bimin-Kuskusmin to the west of Huli.
- See Ballard 1998 for the full transcript of a mbingi narrative from one such individual.
- ‘‘Ibu hari uyugula dindila gimbubu pu hene,’’ (Dali-Mangobe 1990).
- Some of the attempts at an analysis of Huli-Christian syncretism include Kamiali 1984, Arabagali 1985, Fountain 1986, and Glasse 1995.
- See Barr 1983 for an overview of spiritistic tendencies in the Pentecostal, revivalist or evangelical, and mainstream churches of Papua New Guinea.
- The man of this speech refers to Wai Puya, the python in the root of the earth, who is considered male in formal accounts such as this (which almost always are delivered bymen). Pythons in other cosmological or mythological narratives are identified variously as female or male.
- Robbins (1997: 38) provides a similar account of interest in the Gulf War and other ‘‘world news’’ in relation to Urapmin apocalypticism.
- The most recent twist in this alternating history of enchantment and disenchantment of the Huli landscape derives from the discovery of a novel value to the land, in the form of mineral rights to oil, gas, and gold, but limits on space here do not permit elaboration of this topic. The cosmological narratives detailing the relationships between ancestors, spirits, and the landscape have enjoyed an extensive revival as Hulis and their neighbors seek to secure their claims to land and to compensation. See Biersack 1995 for a review of this recent history of mineral exploration and exploitation in the region.
- Schieffelin (1981: 151) argues similarly that Papuan pastors among the Kaluli ‘‘unwittingly reoriented the deployment of reciprocity in the presentation of the evangelical message,’’ challenging one of the foundational structures of Kaluli sociality in the process.