In the late 19th century, an explorer working with the Dutch colonial administration in Papua New Guinea heard a portion of a men’s initiation ceremony while he was temporarily staying with the people of a small, unnamed community. Apparently being familiar with the region and the local language, he translated and transcribed the words allegedly spoken at this event. His notes were found as loose pages in some unspecified archive by an anthropology professor of mine, who provided me with a translated, annotated copy. The explorer did not seem to have had a view of the inside of the spirit house where this initiation occurred, but he could hear them from the temporary hut situated nearby that this group had gifted him.
In some cases, terms were used that the explorer did not provide a direct translation for, which my professor seems to have substituted with his own translations in brackets. In the interest of better reconstructing the event, my professor also indicated where the explorer’s notes described additional details about the initiation, such as prolonged periods of silence, or where unheard comments were made. Unfortunately, due to the explorer’s use of short-hand, not all of his writing was legible.
Due to the paucity of details about the society, where they lived, or the specific expedition the Dutch explorer was part of, my professor stressed to me that he cannot vouch for the veracity of this account, and I want to convey the same caveat to you.
[Illegible]…of course it would be you. You, young seeker of power – you have the ambition to be a [spirit leader] but have you developed the requisite skills? What do you offer us?
[There was a prolonged period of silence here.]
You: still so young, we have noticed your accomplishments in [the hunt], but have you crafted your first dagger from the bones of the cassowary? Have you produced great works of art for the interior of the [spirit house]? You have no pigs yet, young man—how can you host a feast when your garden is as empty as our bellies? Too inexperienced to stand guard at the local watchtower; hands too shaky to sew the sacred armbands; too ignorant to decipher the entrails of swine—you leave the [omens] undeciphered! [He was shouting.] What do you offer us?
[Another period of silence.]
You must visit the sorcerers to the west for training in magic. They are [“monstrous cannibals”] but it is they who hold the [powerful shells] that grant our success in battle. You will take to them these bundles of bananas and taro and they will give you what is required. [There was some inaudible back and forth conversation here between the elders.]
You have felt the sting of our nettles, and known the fear induced by our capricious [great spirits], but until the dirt of battle has known your blood or that of your foe you are not a man. Like the women bury their blood in the taro gardens to enrich its feminine spirit, the roots of our tribe are nourished by the blood of men on the battlefield! You must learn what is required of you, boy.
[He began speaking quietly] It is [we, the elders of men, descendants of the founding lineage] that are the guardians of our great society. You wish entry into our powerful community, and we may grant it if you demonstrate your worth.
You have not violated the [sexual taboos]. You maintained your silence in the face of the questions from the women and children, demonstrating your tact, and again you maintained your silence in the face of the torture from us men, demonstrating your resolve. When you were a child you did women’s work but now you are a man! A man needs a wife: she will tend to your garden.
If you return from your travels with the goods I require, my [sister’s youngest daughter] will be your wife. This is a gift and I ask for nothing in return, though you will recompense me when you are able.
Learn from the [sorcerers to the west] their [ritual leader] is my [2nd wife’s cousin? Maybe some other relative]. He will see my [sacred armband] on your arm and the magic of him and his people will not be able to harm you. Here. Take it.
[The explorer indicates here that he began to hear the sounds of flutes playing, as well as a series of loud whirring sounds, which seemed to be coming from the forest. This appears to have created a great commotion among the women and children, who went into their residential homes, while the men stuck around lazily.]
You will leave tomorrow. Tonight we have work to do. There are lessons that must be learned.
To be part of our great society is to serve [the local deity]. The accomplishments of men please [the deity]. When you do not violate the taboos, when you kill our enemies, when you make the necessary sacrifices during our ceremonies, when you host feasts in [the deity’s] honor. As a man you please [the deity] with your deeds and achievements, but you must not come into conflict with us or be jealous of our achievements. You must respect the elders. [Illegible]
[The explorer mentions that the flutes and whirring stopped, but the women and children have not returned to the communal areas and remain in their homes.]
There are things… [Illegible]
[The explorer’s account was interrupted here as a few young men from the community entered his hut and started inspecting his lantern and cookware. The explorer tolerated their curiosities for a few minutes before trying to convey to them that he wanted to be alone. They nodded like they understood but kept playing with his things.]