by Dr. Laurence R. Goldman

While the ethnography of Huli hair is semiologically complex, and has been treated elsewhere (Goldman 1983), I want here to briefly review some previous findings which bear on the present discussion.

Pre-colonial Huli males from about 15 years of age entered an initiation cult in the bush known as Haroli. The object was to promote inner and outer beauty through various cleansing rituals, and by growth of hair shaped first into a black (mànda tene – Plates 1,2), down-turned coiffure, and then later shaped into an up-turned style and coloured red (mànda hare – Plate 3). Following graduation to this second stage of the cult, initiates would leave the cult, cut their hair and make two replica wigs worn respectively on everyday and special celebratory occasions. The coiffures were bedecked with a variety of bird of paradise feathers each with their own special symbolism for wearers. The anthropological/sociological understanding of ‘hair’ is of course anything but a terra incognita (Leach 1958, O’Hanlon 1992, Sillitoe 1988, McCracken 1997, Barthes 1973). The capillary meanings of Haroli are – like those of most other Melanesian initiation cults – inextricably gender inflected: women’s blood gave the power and name 1 to this male cult signalled by colouring the wig ‘red’.

Almost all the important semantic fields associated with decorated being can be subsumed under three critical lexically contrasted pairs:

YÁRI [ cassowary] : [decoration] YÀRI
{The sense in which ‘I am decorated’ is related to ‘I am a cassowary’}

MÀNDA [coiffure/wig] : [knowledge] MÁNDA
{The sense in which wearing one’s hair/wig is related to wearing one’s knowledge}

MÀLI [celebratory dance] : [death platform] MÀLI
{The sense in which this dance relates to the death platform for skeletal remains}

Tone contrasts in Huli language here mark the sense in which the etymologically related lexemes are also semantically connected:

• Yari – The cassowary is a symbol of strength and aggression in Huli culture and thus the decorated being implicitly assumes attributes of this other. There is nothing artificial about the relation of sign to the signified in Huli language.
• Manda – The maturation of a male through the attainment of capillary status is also an achievement and display of ‘knowledge’, truth, and customary lore. The state of one’s hair is a gauge of the state of one’s health. Narrative conversations between genders are revealing of the manner in which females look to hair-states for moral or emotion dispositions often also ensuring males do not exert themselves in work which will affect their hair

Igiri mbalu mbalupa giliwango biridaru agi biribe laya lama hendene
Boy your hair is knotted and crooked so what have you done?
[I can tell from your hair that you are sad and depressed]

Igiri mbalu nolebirago 2
Boy your hair will go bad
Mbalupa nolebirago, Gogoro nolebirago, ngaluma nolebirago Ebere habe
You stay there (and I’ll do the work)

As a sacred site on the cartography of body symbolism, male ‘hair’ is also the first resource used by women when they want to insult men. Hair is an index of the pathology of the body. In this vein the oral traditions of the Huli are replete with narrative motifs that chart Cinderella-like transformation from corporeal images of the undecorated to decorated. Females are metaphorically likened to rotten log mushrooms (nano ombe; nano homai) with loose fitting apparel –

Wali ainyeli biago mende godamberu hira dalidali biyagola
The mother’s loose grass skirts continued to slide down her body

Men are described as having festering sores and scales (duru, dere, wayu, togayu, kindu, kembera), and whose decoration are both unconventional and unaesthetic

[Goldman 1998:198-201]
Narrator: Giame – Yaluba 1993

Emene biagome
This little one (with the sores)
Gibi ege hagibi ega tugume ega yabe ega helabe ega
Wore feathers from Gibi, Hagibi, Tugume, Yabe and Helabe birds
(ie feathers from birds considered unaesthetic)
Ni biaruni mani yini yalu ibu dai biyagola
He carried them back and tied them together on the back of his neck
Daba pu gimbu o
Tied them together on a string
Tege gaiyaru li mayagi mende yagi lene o
Pigs teeth were tied around the front of his neck
Gabale biaru mayagi o weno yagi lene o
Feathers were put everywhere in random scattered fashion
Gurai tangi biaru li mayagi o weno yagi lene o
The head-dress feathers were just placed everywhere in random scattered fashion

The transition from these states-of-being to ‘decorated’ is effected in narrative texts by a symbolic passing through from ‘black’ to ‘red’ lakes (see Text 1: ) – just as in the Haroli cult initiates graduated from black to red wigs.

[Goldman 1998:198-201]
Narrator: Giame – Yaluba 1993

Over there where the black lake was she grabbed him (the little one with the sores) and pushed him in
Mini miyagola unu biagoria gudau la ha hene amu daramabi biagoria dugu yalu tagira ibiyagola
She got him and pushed him so he splashed and came up the other side out of the red lake

Iba amiguria daramabi mbira mindibi mende lowa bereneyagoria
There were two lakes over there, one black and one red
O biagoria yu pea howa amugureni udu mindibi biagoria minu ba pea hene

Gi payele kuniru
His armbands were fantastic
Manda biago gini dege bialu amuguria aube toba howa
His wig was fixed beautifully like you can’t imagine
O gulu mamu baru liguria puni dawene lama agini
He wore pearlshell necklace close to his chest and it was sunburnt
O pagabua ere dambele biaru liguria haiya lo pea hene
The pig tails on his apron were laying flat
O mini aibe lama laya agini
What is you name, boy?
Ibu Mulu Lunguya lene o
He said, “Iba Mulu Lunguya”

In all the bi te texts collected where such transitions occur, women invariably appear as the prime agents of change (mo beregeda – to turn around) by preparing male decorations or cajoling them to enter into the ‘red’ lakes while uttering the refrain ‘abai hangabo yule angida (‘it is time to hold the hair comb’) – an oblique reference to the need for the male to enter the Haroli cult.

Irrespective of the presentational context in which the decorated being operates, it clearly instantiates a series of rhizomatic connections to these storied counterparts. The above is a window onto this intersubjective knowledge about decoratedness, and onto how narrative organises the structure of such experiences. The decorated being is inflected by these storied representations, can be understood only in terms of such script theories of decoration, but only ever partially embodies meanings from this cultural realm.

(An extract from Decorated Being – Parleying with Paint by Laurence R. Goldman. Anthropology. University of Queensland. pp. 8-11. Used with permission of Dr. Goldman.)

(Photo courtesy of PNG Tourism Promotion Authority)

  1. In some aetiological versions of the Haroli myth the founding female instructs the male to take her blood, ‘stay in the bush’ and call the cult Haroli – which means “I customarily stay” (Goldman 1983:326). This tendency of Huli to provide narrative etymologies for proper names based on their synonymy with everyday verbs is also illustrated below in relation to the political movement of Hela. []
  2. Young boys who were sick would have their hair shaved leaving just a tuft known as mbalupa covering the fontanelle to prevent spirit loss (see Plate 14). []