Notes on Nggwal

Astonished upon first hearing this, I asked my informant, What, then, was the truth about Nggwal? to which he replied, “Nggwal is what men do.” – Donald Tuzin, Rituals of Manhood, 1982.

During an undetermined time period preceding European contact, a gargantuan, humanoid spirit-God conquered parts of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. With a voracious appetite for pork and yams—and occasional demands of ritual murder—Nggwal was the tutelary spirit for a number of Sepik horticulturalist societies, where males of various patriclans were united in elaborate cult systems including initiation grades and ritual secrecy, devoted to following the whims of this commanding entity. Anthropologist Donald Tuzin describes the great power and capriciousness of Nggwal,

[cult members] know the secret myths, they know that Nggwal depends on them for food and shelter. Metaphors conjure forth an infantile image; a vast baby crying piteously to be fed, its tears the untimely rains that spoil hunting and gardening activities. on the other hand, this is no ordinary toddler. His monumental power and monumental dependency evoke worrisome prospects of what he may do if his needs are not smartly and amply met. And even if they are, this is no guarantee that a moment's whimsy will not move Nggwal to deliver death or discomfiture on those who support and care for him.

Gilbert Herdt also describes the sinister demands of Nggwal, and particularly his disdain for women,

Nggwal constantly introduced conflict within the village. And his intense misogyny, registered in the hatred of menstrual blood and the willingness to do bad things to women while the men were possessed by the spirit, signified a profound gulf of internal differentiation within the village, especially regarding ideas about gender and the meaning of women.

Margaret Mead herself noted the effect Nggwal had on many New Guinea societies, as she described some of the behaviors of the cults that worshipped him, and gave particular focus to Nggwal’s demand for male dominance of women and children:

In many parts of New Guinea, the tamberan [another word the supreme spirit/Nggwal] cult is a way of maintaining the authority of the older men over the women and children; it is a system directed against the women and children, designed to keep them in their ignominious places and punish them if they try to emerge. In some tribes, a woman who accidentally sees the tamberan [costumed spirit or the sacred paraphernalia] is killed. The young boys are threatened with the dire things that will happen to them at their initiation, and initiation becomes a sort of vicious ragging in which the older men revenge themselves upon recalcitrant boys and for the indignities that they themselves once suffered. Such are the primary emphases of the wide-spread tamberan cult. Secrecy, age and sex-hostility, fear and ragging, have shaped its formal pattern.

So, what specific demands does Nggwal make? The first is for food. Nggwal must be fed, and while it is the men who are his most devoted servants and the keepers of his great secrets, it is often the responsibility of the women to provide for his subsistence, “Women are well aware of Nggwal's hunger, for to them falls much of the gardening, hauling and cooking needed to feed him,” Tuzin writes. But how does Nggwal consume the food offered to him? “Needless to say, it is not the Tambaran [Nggwal himself] which eats the pork but the men themselves, in secret conclaves,” and Tuzin continues describing the “feasts among Tambaran Cult members in secret seclusion, during which non-members are under the impression that the food is being given directly to the spirits.” During the cult’s feasts, it is the senior members who claim the mantle of Nggwal while consuming the pork for themselves:

When the men hold their secret pig feasts, the story given to noninitiates is that the gigantic, devouring Nggwal is present in the flesh—hence the impossibility of outsiders joining the banquet. Initiates understand, of course, that this is a metaphor signifying real but spiritual attributes of the deity. Women are judged incapable of comprehending the metaphysical Nggwal; if told that Nggwal is invisibly present at the feast, they would not believe it and would insist on participating, thereby provoking wrath on a cosmic scale.

At the same time, some men risk the wrath of Nggwal by “secreting a piece of meat from a ritual feast and giving it discreetly to their wives. The wives are told that the Tambaran had eaten its fill and kicked aside this morsel, growling that it could be given to the women.”

Nggwal did not restrict his demands just to food, however.

During the proper ritual seasons, Ilahita Arapesh men would wear hangamu'w [ritual masks/costumes], and personify various spirits;

These benign creatures, when they are at large in the village, move about begging small gifts of food, salt, tobacco or betelnut. They cannot speak, but indicate their wishes with various conventional gestures, such as holding a small coconut-shell cup on the end of their spear point as a sign that they would like to have some soup. The man who is approached (or the husband of a woman who is approached) cheerfully carries the desired item to the Falanga spirit house in the ward where it is deposited along with other booty, to be enjoyed by the wearer and by certain others of appropriate ritual standing.

Despite the playful, Halloween-like aspects of this practice, the hangahiwa wandafunei [violent spirits] were a much more serious matter. Ten percent of the male masks portrayed hangahiwa wandafunei, and they were associated with the commission of ritually sanctioned murder. These murders committed by the violent spirits were always attributed to Nggwal.

“Hangamu'w  with crimped-leaf homicide badges.” from  The Voice of the Tambaran  (1980) by Donald Tuzin

“Hangamu'w with crimped-leaf homicide badges.” from The Voice of the Tambaran (1980) by Donald Tuzin

The costumes of the violent spirits would gain specific insignia after committing each killing, including homicide badges of crimped leaves (Cordyline terminalis) and the addition of bone ornaments. After the slaying of the first victim, the skull would be hung from the neck of the hangamu'w mask. After the second, a radius bone would be mounted in the left earlobe. For the third, a radius bone in the right earlobe, and a humerus bone would be mounted in the septum for the fourth. For the fifth, and all subsequent victims, a knotted rope would be draped around the neck to keep a record of each killing. “Word goes out that Nggwal has “swallowed” another victim; the killer remains technically anonymous, even though most Nggwal members know, or have a strong inkling of, his identity.” Tuzin writes that,

These hangahiwa wandafunei (the latter term being an adjective meaning "violent" or "hot-blooded" in a ritually powerful sense) are universally feared, and nothing can vacate a hamlet so quickly as one of these spooks materializing out of the gloom of the surrounding jungle. The reason why even men flee before it is that the spirits of its victims have putatively impregnated the mask. Thus, when an ordinary man dons one of these costumes he feels the "heaviness" of the mask, and the indwelling spirit(s) transform him into a compulsive killer; his own child or brother would not be spared if he came upon them. To this extent, the men are not entirely deceiving the women when they tell them that the hangahiwa are spirits incarnate. Traditionally, hangahiwa wandafunei sought out victims who were alone in their garden or on the forest paths at dusk. Pigs, dogs and chickens were also fair game. After spearing the victim, the offending hangamu'w would escape back to its spirit house. The wearer would replace it with the other costumes and emerge without fear of detection - in time to join the general alarm aroused by the discovery of the body.

Sometimes the wearer would not put the mask away, however, and instead he would take it to a nearby enemy village, where a relative or other acquaintance of his would take the mask and keep it in their own community’s spirit house, until it was time to be used and transferred once more. Through these ritual killings and the passage of costumes between communities, Nggwal impels cooperation between men of even hostile villages, and unites them in cult secrecy.

Nggwal, who travels in structures of fiber and bone atop rivers of blood.

"The spirit house of Nggwal Walipeine [the top initiation rank], Ilahita village." from  The Voice of the Tambaran  (1980) by Donald Tuzin

"The spirit house of Nggwal Walipeine [the top initiation rank], Ilahita village." from The Voice of the Tambaran (1980) by Donald Tuzin

Now we may ask, what service does Nggwal provide, considering his great demands? Nggwal was viewed as the collective aggregation of each unique spirit from every individual patriclan, and this united them into one powerful entity. In this way Nggwal helped stave off treachery between patriclans, “Premeditated betrayal, on the contrary, was out of the question: the offenders' own Tambaran [cult spirits devoted to Nggwal] would have wrought terrible vengeance on them for having thus abused his name. Even in the case of spontaneous outbreak, the combatants were inviting supernatural reprisal, and the knowledge of this went far in keeping tempers under control.”

Tuzin adds that, “It was sometimes expedient for enemies to call a temporary truce, especially in order to cooperative in a major cult undertaking.” Nggwal’s role in uniting diverse clans for purposes of ceremony and war points to some possible group-level benefits conferred by his presence, in aiding defense and territorial expansion;

When great occasions bring Nggwal (in "his" collective aspect) to the village, the unitary spiritual presence is achieved by congregating all its separate manifestations inside the tall spirit house, a supreme symbol of, among other things, the village's descent composition. By killing and warring under the aegis of Nggwal, emphasis is laid on the collective, village achievement, rather than on the exploits of particular individuals. When the deed is unambiguously singular, as in laf murder [murders committed by the hangahiwa wandafunei], the putative involvement of Nggwal is maintained by the anonymity of the killer. Uninitiated persons are led to believe that such deaths are caused directly by the spirits.

Clearly, however, there are areas where Nggwal benefits some people at the expense of others. Individuals of the highest initiation level within the Tambaran cult have increased status for themselves and their respective clans, and they have exclusive access to the pork of the secret feasts that is ostensibly consumed by Nggwal. The women and children are dominated severely by Nggwal and the other Tambaran cult spirits, and the young male initiates must endure severe dysphoric rituals to rise within the cult.

In a previous post on all male secret societies, I pointed out some of the common functional benefits they seem to provide, to individuals or larger groups: 1) the men’s house/secret rituals increase male cohesion, allow for larger cross-cutting alliances between clans through participation in the cult, increase community sizes, and thus promote more success in defense/war, 2) the men’s house lets men plan warfare excursions away from the women, who often have relatives in the enemy communities and might be at risk of running away and trying to warn them [the cults often seem to develop in societies with exogamous marriage exchanges with rival communities], 3) the men’s house and the dysphoric rituals imposed on the young men keep them away from the women, and this may benefit the older males in reducing reproductive competition, 4) the older men use the cult secrecy to their advantage to monopolize access to resources/knowledge/women when possible. The social control by the older males over the women, children, and younger male competitors may help sustain the cult, as once the younger males are old enough to gain status, learn the secrets and have influence, they start to benefit from the cult practices. All of these factors often seemed to be at play in the Tambaran cult and their devotion to Nggwal.

Note that the explanations above reflect both within-group and between-group dynamics. My understanding of entities like Nggwal and the other men’s cults I’ve written about fit nicely with the ‘self-interested enforcement hypothesis’ (SIE) of culture laid out by Singh et al. (2017), who write that,

Cultural group selection clearly occurs: practices and institutions diffuse across groups as societies subdue each other or observant rule-makers adopt them from their successful neighbors (Diamond 2005; see the Pama-Nyungan expansion for an example among Australian hunter-gatherers: Evans and McConvell 1997). The global pervasiveness of nation-states where tribes, bands, and chiefdoms once stood suggests that at least some cultural practices spread because of their effects on group-level properties (Flannery and Marcus 2012; Fukuyama 2011). But in emphasizing between-group selection, researchers have underappreciated the scope and extent of within-group processes based in self-interest, limited reason, and power. In fact, CGS is sometimes considered to be the primary or even only explanation for the development of group-functional norms and institutions (Boyd and Richerson 2002; Chudek and Henrich 2011). Richerson et al. (2016:16), for example, could not recognize how“ any of the alternatives to [cultural group selection] can easily account for the institutionalized cooperation that characterizes human societies.” Here we respond to Richerson et al.’s challenge by elaborating on how within-group processes—specified here as self-interested enforcement—can account for various aspects of rule design, including the creation of group-level benefits. The self-interested enforcement hypothesis (SIE) proposes that the design of rules reflects the relative capacity of cooperating or competing parties to enforce their preferences and the degree to which the interests of those parties overlap. Rules that promote cooperation, control conflict, and encourage success in intergroup warfare can thus emerge from the interactions of self-interested agents.

Social norms and practices can have group-functional properties, but they are also tools that can be manipulated and controlled strategically by self-interested parties.

Nggwal is no longer active these days. Decades of missionary and colonial activity have reduced the power of this once mighty entity. In 1984 several Ilahita Arapesh men rose during a church service and revealed the secrets of the Tambaran cult to the women. I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Moloch, as I understand the concept, primarily represents all the many ways people are disincentivized from cooperating—the “multipolar traps” and coordination failures, the general collective action problem to be found at the heart of many attempts at pro-social group endeavors. Nggwal instead is a truly impressively example of coordination—he is metaphorically and literally a collective that unites even enemy communities in displays of dominance and power. Nggwal as an entity symbolizes something of significant interest to me and a key focus of this blog: namely all the ways in which men cooperate to do extreme and destructive things to themselves and others.