by Ron Meshanko

The creation myth tells us that the first humans piganengi (from the beginning) were the offspring of Helahuli and an “unknown woman.” Their children became the founders of all the cultural groups known to the Huli people before the advent of the Whiteman and travel to unknown territories was made possible.

The Huli call these founders “dama agali duo” which means “half deity, half ghost”. They are rather aloof from human affairs although their memory is preserved in the creation and Helahuli myths. The title of the founders implies that they are the offspring of deities and humans; to be exact, Helahuli and an “unknown woman.” What is problematic for us is the presence of this unknown woman. From whence did she come? Is she a goddess or a human?

Who are the Unknown Women?

The title “half deity, half ghost” indicates that she is human, even though the creation myth text claims the first humans as being her offspring. The presence of this enigmatic unknown woman is also found in the Origins of Man myth which simply states that the first man after the flood was born of a woman from Lebani but how she got there is not known. However, the myth goes on to say that the mysterious woman was Tia Angibuna or “Mother Possum”. We have already seen how animals transformed themselves into humans to conceive and bear the human race in the creation myth as well.

The absence of information about the unknown bearer of the human race indicates more about the role of women in Huli society than the nature of the first humans. Only men are given proper names in the myth, even though primeval women gave men life and taught them how to live in the world by building culture: houses and bows and arrows. It appears that women only give and nurture life while men accept it and then go their own way renouncing any maternal claims and female influences. The ethnography has shown that this is quite evident in Huli society (see Chart 4).

Women are Shunned

The aforementioned menstrual beliefs and initiation practices wherein males separate themselves from female influence to ensure their growth and development attest to this fact. Married men and women do not even reside in the same house, but separate themselves on different parcels of land and seldom come together to copulate. The men who handed down the myths would hardly see the need to name the female progenitors of the human race when women in general are shunned as the cause of male fears and anxieties about health and stamina.

Angry Female Ghosts

The most convincing reason for the absence of female nomenclature is the fact that female spirits are considered malevolent. Distant female ghosts are called kepa (angry) and only exercise their great powers when their names are uttered without sacrifice. The “unknown woman” is not named to avoid the arousal of her wrath and, perhaps, avoid the unnecessary sacrifice of the valuable pig. Her name is better left forgotten, as are all female ancestors, than remembered and handed down in the creation and origin of man myths. The fact that her name is forgotten also indicates the unknown woman was human, for the Huli remember the names of female deities and seek their assistance through rituals, but forget the names of distant females in their genealogies.

These two reasons, male anxiety about menstrual pollution and fear of distant female relatives may explain why the female bearers of the human race are unknown.

Photo courtesy of Trans NiuGini Tours

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