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Les dynamiques religieuses dans le pacifique

Gabriele Weichart
Françoise Douaire-Marsaudon

Magical Innovation: Negotiating Religious Change in New Ireland

Richard Eves

Texte intégral

“New situations demand new magic…”1

  • 1 Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic 1937: 513 cited in Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaro (...)

1The relationship between magic and modernity has been an uncomfortable one. Like the theatrical magician who makes a member of his audience disappear, magic itself was supposed to disappear, fading away in the wake of modernity, never to reappear. Seen as an antithesis of modernity, magic was “a production of illusion and delusion that was thought to recede and disappear as rationalization and secularization spread throughout society” (Pels, 2003: 4). This view of modernity as synonymous with the inevitable development of rationalist technological and scientific knowledge was put powerfully and influentially by Weber (1930: 105, 117; 1948). Subsequently, tradition was generally opposed to modernity while theories of modernisation assumed that science would inevitably displace tradition. While this narrative of modernity usurping tradition has been met with considerable scepticism by anthropologists, it still governs thinking in some other fields. For example, public education on health in Melanesia is almost always based on the assumption that beliefs attributing illness to sorcery or witchcraft will be readily displaced when the medical facts are presented (see Pigg, 2005: 61; see Eves, n.d.a.).

  • 2 Ciekawy and Geschiere pose the questions “why is modernity in Africa – and not only there – so eas (...)

2In the event, far from seeing an end to magic, modernity has brought an efflorescence of what is often labelled as occult forces. Scholars have even suggested that far from being a vestige of tradition, occult powers are “eminently modern” (Moore and Sanders, 2001: 10), while the Comaroffs note that the “signs and practices of witchcraft are integral to the experiences of the contemporary world” (1993: xxv). For them, witches are modernity’s prototypical malcontents embodying “all the contradictions of the experience of modernity itself, of its inescapable enticements, its self-consuming passions, its discriminatory tactics, its devastating social costs” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993: xix and see also 1999). More recently, Sanders has commented that witchcraft discourses and practices “provide moralizing meta-commentaries on the meaning of modernity as experienced in different localities” (2003: 339). In a similar vein, Parish suggests that witchcraft practices “crystallize the experiences of the modern world” and signify the frictions generated in the local moral economy by the values attributed to capitalist accumulation and the possession of material goods (2000: 487, 488)2. Ciekawy singles out inequalities in wealth, arguing that witchcraft discourse “offers a critique of inequality and the human agents of exploitation where excessive desire for wealth and power, and the fulfilment of one person’s desire at another person’s expense”, are dominant themes (1998: 123). Importantly, as Sanders comments, such writings draw attention to local agency and the creative abilities displayed in people’s confrontation with the modern world (2003: 340).

  • 3 In addition to my own detailed analysis (Eves, 1998), I can cite primarily the work of Stephen (19 (...)

3Very few Melanesianists have engaged with the issues raised by these Africanist scholars; very few cite this literature or address magic’s encounter with modernity in a substantial way (see Eves, 2000; Knauft, 2002). Moreover, this seems to be part of a more general eschewal of the subject, since there have been very few recent studies of magic in Melanesia at all3. Few Melanesianists have engaged with contemporary manifestations of magic in the new contexts of urbanisation, labour migration, conflicts over resources or the AIDS epidemic. The propensity to attribute AIDS-related deaths, which are increasing rapidly, to sorcery and witchcraft suggest that more work needs to be done (see Haley, 2008).

  • 4 See, for example, Codrington Seligman (1910), Codrington (1891) and Rivers (1924).

4The current eschewal of magic is surprising given the role it has played in the history of anthropology in the region. Even before Malinowski’s finely detailed and ethnographically rich works on magic, anthropologists such as Codrington, Seligman and Rivers were writing and speculating about Melanesian magic4. I suspect that magic’s disappearance from anthropological debates has been due partly to a continuing inclination to approach magic from within Western categories of thought, which has robbed the topic of anthropological interest (Tambiah, 1990). While the focus has been on difference from, or similarity to, our own beliefs and practices, the significance of magic in the lived world of its practitioners has been lost (see Eves, 1998).

  • 5 Brown suggests a moratorium on reanalysis of Trobriand and Azande material in favour of new case s (...)

5I agree with many other scholars that the traditional distinction between magic, science and religion has outlived its utility and represents an obstacle to deeper understanding (Brown, 1997: 130)5. If we study magic seriously within its own terms, paying attention to it “in specific social and historical settings rather than assum[ing] monolithic meanings”, its meaningfulness can be fully illuminated and appreciated (Moore and Sanders, 2001: 13). “[I]t is only in the detail of our investigation that we can do justice to the richness of the associative process which is at the core of the imaginative act”, as Fernandez remarks in his ethnography of the religious imagination (1982: 4 and see also Argyrou, 1993: 266). My aim in discussing magical innovation is similar: to show some of the complexities and ambiguities that have been thrown up in the collision of worlds and to show that the results have not been what might have been presumed.

  • 6 This paper is based on twenty months of fieldwork among the Lelet. This includes fifteen months do (...)
  • 7 The language of the Tolai, used as a missionary language throughout New Ireland and New Britain.

6For the ethnographic subjects of this paper, the Lelet of central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (PNG), magic has been subject to more contestation than perhaps any other form of cultural practice6. However, rather than coming from the viewpoint of rationalism and science, the opposition has come from Christianity. The Methodist missionaries who arrived on the Lelet in the early twentieth century were not averse to evoking the evolutionary language of “prelogical” to describe the New Irelanders. However, though they often invoked tropes of primitiveness and heathenness, referring disparagingly to the “darkness of superstition”, “unenlightenment” and “ancient beliefs”, they remained equivocal about magic, only outlawing that which had “anti-social intent” (Methodist Overseas Mission, 1940). During the 1950s, the Methodists prepared a pamphlet on the “evils of magic” in Tok Pisin and Kuanua7 though it is unclear whether any of the ten thousand printed were distributed in New Ireland (Methodist Overseas Mission, 1956).

  • 8 It should be noted that in speaking of “Lelet Christians”, I am referring only to members of the d (...)
  • 9 All vernacular words are italicised, while Tok Pisin and other imported words are underlined.

7More recently, opposition to magic has come from the evangelical Christianity of Pentecostalism, which is antipathetic to cultural difference and eschews local tradition in favour of forms of Christian modernity8. Traditional practices, including magic, are denigrated and their abandonment encouraged, while a Western life-style, such as living as a nuclear family in a permanent house, replete with pictures on the walls, is valorised. Practices that are overtly magical, and even herbal remedies using plant material, are deemed “satanic” (samting bilong Satan) by Pentecostalists, and their use curtailed, if not forsaken altogether9. This decline in local forms of therapy has been accompanied by an increasing recourse to the Pentecostalist framework which identifies moral failings as a significant cause of misfortunes such as illness and death, something I have explored more fully elsewhere (Eves, n.d.b.).

8From early in their contact history with Europeans, New Irelanders have shown a willingness to adopt new ways and adapt to the new situations they encounter. Many hundreds, for example, signed up for indentured labour on the plantations of Queensland at the turn of the twentieth century, and many others have migrated to other places in PNG in search of work. Such factors, together with others such as formal schooling and the promotion of literacy, have markedly widened the spatial and ideational horizons of the Lelet. As one would expect, this has had an effect on traditional magic, and it is this that I want to discuss here.

Lelet magic

  • 10 The act of uttering a magical spell is i ngsanga, though there are other terms which refer to the (...)

9The Lelet generally refer to magic as lasangsanga, but other terms include papait and, more euphemistically, lotonga which simply means speech10. Their practice of magic generally conforms to the pattern described elsewhere in Melanesia, and involves the incantation of spells or the singing of songs, while things, substances or paraphernalia are manipulated or other activities performed (see Stephen, 1995: 179). However, many examples of Lelet magic involve only spells or songs, while others employ objects for their metaphoric properties without using spells. Healing magic, for example, may involve the use of appropriate plant matter, such as a viscous sap to stop diarrhoea. More generally, a wide variety of objects, substances or paraphernalia are employed, including such things as crystals, lime-powder, plant matter, skulls and bones, and ochre, as well as substances derived from humans, animals or non-human beings. As is the case with spells, what is used depends on the properties it embodies or is associated with. A key aspect of this is the metaphoric properties of the chosen materials – the sympathetic notion alluded to by Frazer (1922: 12-14) of like producing like. Images of this nature are referred to as lampowo. To give an example, the eggs of the eagle lamalom are sometimes used in taro spells so that the taro will grow as large and as smooth as the eggs. Similarly, the non-human or bush spirit, lagas, may be invoked by a person wishing to escape detection in some illicit activity, since lagas are usually invisible to humans.

  • 11 There is no extensive corpus of myths associated with the major traditions describing the necessar (...)

10The magical corpus consists of several broad categories which are generally named11. Most of these categories are further divided into different types, which may or may not be individually named, and these may be even further subdivided. Garden magic (lasangsanga laramang), for example, has five major types, including one called lubu, of which there are several named versions. In addition to garden magic there are the following broad categories: weather (lunso [sun], lunbet [rain], lemanman [wind]), sorcery (lasak), love (lupupulu), property protection (lungkunubeng), the seduction of valuables (lavaxat), hunting with dogs (lamaskadu), escaping detection (lamaranga), for curing illness (levenpanga loklok lanmeres), for causing famine (langontoxo or loroxo), for protection from famine (lavaskabot) and for hunger suppression during famine (lotonga belo moxon). The more important and powerful forms of magic are often owned by specific clans or lineages and constitute heirlooms, but there is no accompanying mythic corpus, although there may be genealogies of transmission. This applies especially to garden, weather and sorcery magic.

11The ownership and use of magic is gendered, with most magic in the Lelet corpus being the preserve of men. Women may inherit minor forms of magic, from a parent or other relative, such as the spells for healing minor illnesses, but it is unheard of for women to own and use major heirloom forms, such as taro or weather magic. Women, however, may perform specific components of magic within some of these major forms. This is the case with the magic used to ensure bountiful taro for mortuary feasts which begins when a taro garden is cleared and planted and continues at various stages until the preparation of the mature taro for the feast (Eves, 1998). The women’s magical interventions are defined within a gendered division of labour which sets out particular tasks for women. For example, prior to the peeling of taro at the feast, a woman must utter spells on four taro to ensure that there is more than enough for those attending the feast.

12One aspect of the gendered dimension of magic is the embodied antithetical power that is attributed to women. Women’s bodies are associated with laram, a form of negative power which can dissipate the efficacy of magic and which is transmitted through sexual intercourse or other close contact (see Eves, 1998: 47-50; 2009: 189). Further, laram has the property of heaviness, which undermines activities which require a lightweight, buoyant and agile body, such as dancing or hunting wild pig. Through contact with women, men become slow and lethargic and unable to move in the best ways for such activities, and so they practice regimes of avoidance and abstinence to keep their bodies pure and their magic efficacious. Magicians also practice other forms of abstinence that are not specifically gender related. Thus, although a weather magician practising sun magic will avoid women for the reasons I have explained, he will also avoid drinking water and other fluids because this would jeopardise his need for dryness, a prerequisite for the sun.

13Magic is not a boundless form of power; it is usually about enhancing existing capacities rather than creating something from nothing. For example, while taro magic is used to ensure taro is large, plentiful and unblemished, it cannot be effective unless accompanied by the appropriate garden work. There are, however, instances where things are created, such as the weather magician causing rain on a sunny day or a man exciting passion in a woman.


14Although some forms of magic (particularly gardening magic) seem to be largely impervious to change, in general, the magical corpus of the Lelet is mutable. The Lelet’s immersion in the wider networks of association provided by the growing cash economy, Christianity and the colonial state exposed them to new ideas and practices which they could adopt. So, modernity has led to the importation of new forms of magic and to an efflorescence of innovative forms, as well as affecting local magic in many ways. Thus, rather than continuing unchanged from the mythic past in a timeless tradition, magic undergoes a great deal of change, and probably always has done so. Not only is the repertoire often being expanded and new forms created or reconstituted under the influence of changed circumstances, but magic can take on different meanings according to the new contexts in which it is situated.

  • 12 Letter writing and written texts have held a privileged place in the adoption of Christianity as w (...)

15New instruments for magic have also appeared on the Lelet, including substances, such as new plant materials, or introduced animals, such as black cats and chickens, and new means, such as letter writing as a new medium for enacting love magic. Importantly, the latter innovation enables men to seduce women in distant places and does not rely on personal leavings as love magic has done traditionally12. Perhaps most importantly, new forms of power have been introduced, including some drawn from Christianity, such as the omnipotent Christian God, whose assimilation into local frameworks allows appeals to even greater powers than existed previously. Modernity is now, however, bringing changes that are causing the overt use of magic to diminish, something I will return to later.

  • 13 Buai the magic is capitalised to distinguish it from the areca or betel nut which gives it its nam (...)

16With minor exceptions, such as the use of black cats or ouija boards for divination, most of the new magic has come to the Lelet from elsewhere in New Ireland or from the neighbouring province of East New Britain. For example, a love magic spell may have been acquired from the Lihir Islands or some magic to avoid court cases from the Gazelle Peninsula. While minor forms of magic are acquired easily, from a friend or purchased for a little money, others require considerable resolution and effort. These more substantial bodies of magic come under the umbrella of Buai, which includes powerful forms of sorcery, magic for creating dances and numerous other forms13. Like its eponym, the areca-nut palm, which has many branches on its fruiting hand, so too does Buai magic. This magic is associated with the Duke of York Islands and the Gazelle Peninsula and also with places within New Ireland, such as the Lihir Islands and southern New Ireland. Buai has been adopted by Lelet working in other parts of New Ireland and New Britain, mostly in the period after the Second World War, and appears to have spread widely in the region (see Eves, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2009; cf. Nachman, 1981: 42, 46; Albert, 1987; Wagner, 1986).

  • 14 As has been reported elsewhere in Melanesia, dreams are a significant source of innovation in the (...)

17Considerable dangers are involved in the acquisition and use of the powers of Buai. The main practitioners are the ritual experts, Tena Buai, and a prospective Tena Buai is not conventionally schooled by the ritually adept and knowledgeable, as occurs with other forms of magic, but acquires his power through a form of revelatory experience, achieved by ritual fasting and trial by ordeal during his initiation. This usually involves the consumption of potent magical substances, either derived from the initiating Tena Buai’s body or prepared by him and transferred by a familiar to the initiate, who in this way incorporates the power (see Eves, 1995). Once a Tena Buai has been initiated into a branch of Buai, he is able to create new forms of the type of power he has attained through revelatory dreams14. If, for example, a Tena Buai has acquired the power to choreograph dance performances, he can experience dreams in which he learns new dances and songs from the bush spirits, lagas, as well as other forms of magic employed to enhance the dance and protect the dancers from sorcery attack (Eves, 2004, 2009).

18For the Lelet the practice of Buai is restricted to men, though this is not always so in other places, and constitutes an assertion of masculine power. The Lelet say that if a woman were to acquire Buai it would affect her ability to reproduce and if she gave birth, she would produce an anatomically deformed or monstrous being, such as a head (without a body) or a torso (without a head) or even a snake. Furthermore, unlike men, women are said to be incapable of exercising the self-control required to maintain the stringent regimen of fasting and sexual abstinence (ailal) the potential magician must undergo. Not only do such regimes strengthen and empower the body by closing off the body to substances which are debilitating, antithetical and dangerous, such as laram, but they are necessary for the magical powers to become bonded or consubstantial with the magician’s body.

19While the Lelet’s existing magical framework has to some extent imposed its own local stamp on the imported magical practices of Buai, there has also been an expansion and opening up of new possibilities under its ambit. Not only are there now forms of magic and sorcery with no precedents locally, but Buai provides an expanded context for the realisation and assertion of power. With Buai, magicians can compete for fame in a regional context that goes far beyond any that existed prior to the colonial period (see Eves, 2004, 2009).

Christian contestations

20For people who are relatively new to Christianity, who recognise it as exogenous in origin and whose experience of modernity has been through missions, Christianity is an essential aspect of the modern Western world. For New Irelanders, like the Lelet, Christian missions were integrally bound up with the social and cultural transformation that came with colonisation and they see the coming of Europeans as a defining moment which marks off the present of modernity from a pre-modern and unenlightened past, characterised by cannibalism, warfare and ignorance.

21Christianity has often been typified as antithetical to modernity, embracing a credence in the supernatural that belongs to an earlier stage of development. Against this, however, it is possible to build a strong argument that Christianity has taken on a modern form which makes it for practical purposes an aspect of modernity, being bound up, for example, with capitalism, individualism and self-consciousness. Although the Lelet have not wholly adopted these features of modernity, they categorise Christianity as modern. Indeed, they have embraced the stark pitting of modernity against tradition, at least in rhetoric if not in practice. Although the Lelet occasionally compare the modernity of development favourably to tradition or kastam, more commonly it is the modernity of Christianity that they compare to tradition. The enlightenment from “heathen superstition” they see offered by modernity is through the omnipotent Christian God, not through rationalist technological and scientific knowledge. They sometimes refer to the time before the advent of missionaries and colonial governance as a “time of darkness” (taim bilong tudak or gano at lamain), echoing both the evangelical rhetoric of darkness and light and the earlier European primitivist view that dark forces of savagery existed in places like PNG.

22For many years, particularly during the colonial period, an uneasy coexistence transpired between Christianity and many Lelet cultural practices. Although, as I noted above, a good deal of the missionary rhetoric was disparaging of local magical practice and belief, the relationship between Christianity and tradition was exceedingly complex. While the more subtle anthropological understandings of the differences between magic, sorcery and witchcraft are generally absent from missionary writings, the banning only of magic with “anti-social intent” perhaps shows a tacit recognition that a great deal of the magic practiced was actually of a benign nature and suggests some concession towards magic, perhaps for pragmatic reasons. The focus on “antisocial intent” also suggests the imposition of a far narrower and more dichotomous frame of morality than had existed among the Lelet. Missionaries tended to see morality through the either-or framework of good versus evil, which fails to see that magic is rarely so clear-cut. Depending on the circumstances, magicians could turn their beneficial magic into harmful magic. Thus, a magician who knows sun or rain magic can use these beneficially for the successful growth of taro gardens or maliciously to cause famine. Even in the case of sorcery, which seems to fall unequivocally within the ambit of “anti-social intent”, there is some ambiguity since those who know sorcery invariably know how to cure it.

23This meant that the actual practice of magic was much more negotiated than the missionary rhetoric would imply and, despite the missionaries’desire to see magic replaced by Christian enlightenment, it continued to be practiced regardless of their admonishments for many years. This is evident not only in relation to indigenous Lelet magic, but also in relation to the more recent imported magic of Buai. Indeed, some of these new forms of magic have been added to the Lelet cultural repertoire by Lelet men trained by the church. Two of the small number of Lelet men who have acquired Buai were trained as ministers in the United Church and were initiated into the secrets of Buai when ministering in other parts of New Ireland and New Britain. Not only were both men Tena Buai, but they were also considered to be Tena Iniet, experts in the powerful form of sorcery, iniet, which is considered a branch of Buai. Both were eventually suspended from membership of the church for their involvement, but the fact of their involvement still suggests that the relationship between magic and modernity is far from simple and that the role of Christianity in that relationship is quite complex and apparently contradictory.

24In the past, many Lelet held that magic was, after all, something that God had created, like other aspects of Lelet culture, and it was therefore a legitimate practice. Some people still hold this belief – for example, one man commented while showing me a plant used for curing, which he said had been condemned by some Christians, that it was actually something God had created, or as he said, “God had put on this earth” (God i putim olgeta samting – God put all these things) (see also Scott, 2007: 186, 307, 313-24).

25Some of the Lelet’s ambivalence towards magic was a consequence of the missionaries translating the word for God as Moroa, who is a figure from myth who created many aspects of Lelet culture and subsistence items. His name is called upon in many Lelet spells, especially those more positive forms associated with ending famine, the production of taro or the abundance of food required for feasts. One spell, for example, invokes Moroa to walk with the famine and send it back: “Moroa walk, taking this famine with you. I walk sending this famine back. Moroa walk, taking this undesirable thing with you” (Eves, 1998). Another spell for planting taro asks Moroa to plant taro here, just as the magician is doing: “I plant taro here, Moroa plant taro here”. In short, giving the Christian God the name Moroa accorded a degree of legitimacy to local cultural conceptions.

26Conversely, this translation was also a major factor contributing to the abandonment of much magic, since a form of garden magic which invokes God’s name was considered extremely disrespectful by Christians. In this magic, as the magician is thrusting his sharpened digging stick into the ground prior to planting, the spells recited invoke the magician to smash the head of Moroa, which was of course shocking to Christians. This led to a more general deprecation of gardening magic, which saw its use decline considerably.

From ambivalence to incompatibility

  • 15 Baptism by the Holy Spirit, or indwelling as it is sometimes called, is extremely important for Pe (...)

27More recently, under the growing influence of charismatic and fundamentalist forms of Christianity, the abandonment of magic has become more common (Eves, 2007). Exposure to these forms of Christianity dates to the 1970s, when some Lelet attended a “Crusade” in Rabaul where an evangelist associated with Billy Graham spoke. However, more recently Lelet belief has become far more intensely Pentecostal, with magic being labelled “satanic” (samting bilong Satan) and converts being pressed to abandon it, along with other cultural practices. Much as reported elsewhere, Lelet Pentecostals call for a break with local tradition (Meyer, 1998: 183). The radical change in lifestyle demanded of them is idiomatically expressed as “changing one’s life” (i lok pukus lororo or senisim laip) or “turning one’s stomach” (i lok pukus lebelen or tanim bel), and is equivalent to the common Christian expression of being “born again”, a term also occasionally used. Changing one’s life means that converts must characterise their previous life as evil, and renounce it, before making a commitment to a new life, fully dedicated to Christ (see Threlfall, 1975: 226 and also Scott, 1994: 234 and Cucchiari, 1988: 422). Sometimes this is expressed in terms of a taking on a “new life” (lororo maxat or nupela laip) and leaving behind the “old life” (olpela bel). If the convert is a magician, this may involve the dramatic destruction of his magical paraphernalia, which is either burnt or buried in the church grounds. It is only after undergoing this radical change and becoming morally pure that people can be possessed by the Holy Spirit, a process that may bring the conferment of certain gifts, such as speaking in tongues, the ability to heal or the ability to foretell the future15.

28Pentecostalism is far from aiming to create forms of syncretic Christianity in which local tradition sits comfortably with the imported religion, or to assimilate cultural practices into its repertoire, rather stressing rupture with the past. However, at least from the point of view of the Lelet, Pentecostalism appears to reiterate local conceptions and so has the effect of sustaining them. In other words, Pentecostalism’s emphasis on other-worldly and extraordinary powers and its demonology of “evil spirits” gives credence to local conceptions of supernatural powers and the efficacy of magic. Though I do not argue that this is a simple continuity – that because these two belief systems look similar they are the same–Pentecostalism does seem to have displaced one form of magical belief for another, albeit different, form (see Robbins, 2003: 223-224).

  • 16 Sorcery continues to be commonly cited as the cause of death when people die earlier than the expe (...)

29Indeed, Pentecostalism has not displaced people’s belief in the efficacy of magic and sorcery, although there has been a decline in its use (see Eves, 2003). For example, most Lelet express the view that because taro magic is no longer performed, taro is now not nearly as big as it used to be. Similarly, despite their official rejection of all forms of magic, most Lelet continue to explain much illness and death as caused by sorcery16. If, regardless of their personal degree of piety, the existence of God is a fundamental truth for all Lelet, the same can be said of sorcery. Rather than their long colonial and Christian history displacing or diminishing their belief in this form of power, Christianity and the more recent Pentecostalism have reinscribed and perhaps reinforced it.

30There is in effect a contest for legitimacy between the two. On the one hand, this has seen Lelet practices labelled as “satanic” and illegitimate, but nevertheless considered very effective, while on the other hand, Christian concepts of supernatural power are seen as legitimate. The most righteous Pentecostals are increasingly saying that Christianity and magic are incompatible and this is being taken particularly seriously with some of the new forms of Christian healing (see Eves, 2008; n.d.b.). One such healing is referred to as the “water of life” and involves praying over water which is either drunk or rubbed on afflicted parts of the body. This form of healing was introduced in 1997 by a married couple, who had obtained it while the husband was working as a motor-mechanic in Rabaul. The couple had been taught this by a woman, who had reputedly “died” and been shown the healing by God as a “gift” for her righteousness in the face of the suffering she had endured at the hands of her drunken and violent husband.

31The “water of life” is said to be able to heal all afflictions, local or Western. Among the local afflictions that can be healed, this includes illnesses caused by the forms of sorcery unique to the Lelet and by other imported forms, such as iniet. The water can also cure illnesses that arise when people are attacked by the place spirits, larada, or the bush spirits, lagas. The healing is said to be able to cure illnesses that are believed to have their origins in the West, such as sikAIDS. It is claimed to be particularly effective with longstanding and intractable illnesses which neither biomedicine nor local methods are able to cure. Centrally important to the efficacy of the water is the requirement to become a born again Christian who has truly renounced sin. Prior to drinking the water, those who wish to be healed have to make a confession disclosing any sins remaining in their lives. Indeed, it is not effective to drink the water without having undergone such a confessional process. As the healer remarked to me, “a person cannot drink the water for no reason, he or she must share their life with the others, and they must speak out about everything”. This includes not only those “earthly things” (samting bilong graun) such as magic and sorcery, but other immoral acts that characterise the ill person’s life.

32This healing could be efficacious either on its own or in combination with biomedicine. However, to begin using it but then to give it up in favour of biomedicine, indicates a lack of faith on the part of the ill person, and people tell an apocryphal story about a man who did this and died as a consequence. Rather than having complete faith in the efficacy of the power of God, this man began with the healing and then put faith in biomedicine by going to the local hospital for treatment. He was “fifty-fifty” as people say. Had he not undertaken the Christian healing in the first place, there would have been no problem, but since he questioned the power of God by abandoning the Christian healing, he paid the ultimate price. Belief is a central criterion in efficaciousness.


33Though the use of magic has diminished in the face of modernity, it has not disappeared as expected by some theorists; it has not been displaced by the secular rationality of modernity as Weber among others predicted. The ethnography I have presented shows that there is a great deal of fluidity in the negotiation of the relationship between modernity, in the form of Christianity, and magic. This is unsurprising for, in much the same way as Christianity, magic holds itself out as a powerful force for changing situations in which people find themselves. Pentecostal Christians lay great stress on the need for rupture with the past, but the actual way that relationship unfolds is far from the radical transformation they desire. Although the most righteous Pentecostals frequently emphasise that Christianity and magic are incompatible and that to be born again one must abandon magic, a more creative reworking is actually occurring and a more complex and fluid relationship of co-existence and coalescence is evolving. Convincing evidence for the argument that magic and Christianity have much in common is the persistence of the old cultural beliefs over some eighty years and their continued occasional practice in the face of the condemnation from the church. Indeed, I have often been surprised by the Lelet’s great propensity to revive things that I thought they had forsaken. During one period of fieldwork in 2004-2005, a form of taro magic that had not been practiced for twenty or thirty years was resurrected as part of the preparations for a large mortuary feast. Although such occurrences depend partly on the degree of enthusiasm people are feeling for the revivalist Christianity of Pentecostalism, which is subject to considerable ebb and flow, they show that the magical beliefs have maintained their credibility.



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1 Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic 1937: 513 cited in Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, American Ethnologist, 26(2) 1999: 279.

2 Ciekawy and Geschiere pose the questions “why is modernity in Africa – and not only there – so easily linked to witchcraft? Why does witchcraft appear to be the obvious discourse for people to interpret modern changes and to try to deal with them?” (1998: 4). Sanders cautions against overstating the argument, remarking that “African witchcraft may well be part of modernity, but by no means needs to be about modernity” (2003: 338 his emphasis). See also Moore’s commentary on the Comaroffs’paper, “Occult economies and the violence of abstraction”, when she asks: “when did this ‘new’ reaction start? Is the intensification the major new feature? How many of these practices were there before? What was there before? Were there substantially different ‘social and moral anchors’ in the 1980s, the 1970s, earlier?” (1999: 305).

3 In addition to my own detailed analysis (Eves, 1998), I can cite primarily the work of Stephen (1995) and Young (1983).

4 See, for example, Codrington Seligman (1910), Codrington (1891) and Rivers (1924).

5 Brown suggests a moratorium on reanalysis of Trobriand and Azande material in favour of new case studies that explore the myriad lacunae in our understanding of the significance of magic from the actor’s point of view (1997: 131).

6 This paper is based on twenty months of fieldwork among the Lelet. This includes fifteen months doctoral research in 1990-1991 and a further month in each of the years 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004/2005 and 2008.

7 The language of the Tolai, used as a missionary language throughout New Ireland and New Britain.

8 It should be noted that in speaking of “Lelet Christians”, I am referring only to members of the dominant United Church and not to the very small groups of Charismatic Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and the even smaller group called the Lelet Christian Fellowship.

9 All vernacular words are italicised, while Tok Pisin and other imported words are underlined.

10 The act of uttering a magical spell is i ngsanga, though there are other terms which refer to the methods employed. For example, the performance of certain components of sun magic that require the fanning of a fire while incanting spells is referred to as i tmas laxao (he blows the fire with a spell). Some magic is sung rather than uttered, and then the verb used is singing, i kpixan, a term that applies to singing generally (for example in church). The processes employed in some of the more elaborate forms of magic, such as the collective garden magic, lemeravas, that requires the recitation of lengthy lists of ancestral names, is referred to as lenga or sometimes lalavang.

11 There is no extensive corpus of myths associated with the major traditions describing the necessary ritual and paraphernalia as is the case with the Mekeo (Stephen, 1995: 179). While some forms, such as garden magic, invoke the names of mythic figures, this is less extensive than the case discussed by Stephen where myth effectively comprises the vehicle for the transmission of secret knowledge (1995: 179).

12 Letter writing and written texts have held a privileged place in the adoption of Christianity as well as cargo cults in Melanesia (see Kulick and Stroud, 1990; Lattas, 1998; Lawrence, 1964).

13 Buai the magic is capitalised to distinguish it from the areca or betel nut which gives it its name.

14 As has been reported elsewhere in Melanesia, dreams are a significant source of innovation in the realm of magic (Stephen, 1979: 8; Burridge, 1969: 246-7). Such creativity does not arise sui generis, but originates following an encounter with a spirit being. These may be spirits of deceased humans or nonhuman bush or place spirits. The bush spirit, lagas, are a major source of this kind of innovation. While encounters with bush spirits are often by chance, such as bumping into one while out walking at night near where they reside, certain bush spirits that live close to human habitation can also be intentionally befriended (see Eves, n.d.c).

15 Baptism by the Holy Spirit, or indwelling as it is sometimes called, is extremely important for Pentecostals. See, for example, Cucchiari (1988: 419, and 1990: 688); Gill (1990: 713); Saunders (1995: 326); Scott (1994: 234) and Van Dijk (1995: 179).

16 Sorcery continues to be commonly cited as the cause of death when people die earlier than the expected old age and a number of the deaths that occurred while I was in the field were interpreted in this way (see Koczberski and Curry, 1999: 236; Romanucci-Ross, 1969: 207; Bercovitch, 1989: 452; Stephen, 1987).


Directeur de recherche à l’Université Nationale d’Australie (ANU) et membre du programme État, Société et Gouvernance en Mélanésie. Ses recherches sur la religion vont de l’histoire de la mission méthodiste dans le Pacifique aux formes contemporaines du christianisme en Papouasie Nouvelle-Guinée. Ses travaux les plus récents portent sur les interprétations chrétiennes de l’épidémie de Sida et sur les reconfigurations chrétiennes de la masculinité. Ses dernières publications comprennent l’ouvrage collectif (with Leslie Butt), Making Sense of AIDS : Culture, Sexuality and Power in Melanesia (2008) ainsi que l’article « ‘In God’s Hands’ : Pentecostal Christianity, Morality and Illness in a Melanesian Society », Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2010).

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