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Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today

Marcellin Abong
Marc Tabani

Chapter 4. Beyond “Cargo Cult”: Interpreting Mata Kamo

Aletta Biersack

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“New Guinea equals the Stone Age in the popular imagination; for better or worse, it is in dialogue with various versions of this myth that every scholar of the region must write.”
(Rutherford 2005: 136)

1In Writing Culture and what is widely regarded as its companion text, Anthropology as Cultural Critique, Clifford, Marcus, and Fischer reoriented anthropology away from “the field” and exotic others and towards a critique of anthropology as an exoticizing, orientalizing discourse. Instead of the naïve, tacit assumption that anthropological accounts offered scientific, objective portrayals of their subjects, these authors subversively proposed that anthropological writings were akin to literature: “always caught up in the invention, not the representation, of cultures” (Clifford 1986: 2). The task that befell anthropology, then, was to critique the discursive constructions of anthropology, exposing the rhetoric and presuppositions that informed these constructions, as well as the historical circumstances and politics of anthropological inscription.

2The spirit of this postmodern initiative is alive and well in Lamont Lindstrom’s book Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, which critiques the category “cargo cult” as a “discourse” that Lindstrom dubs “cargoism” (1993: 13; see also Lindstrom Ch. 7 and Clark 1992). “Cargoism” was originally coined by Thomas Harding to characterize Melanesian perceptions: “Cargoism is nothing less than the Melanesian world view applied to the task of providing meaningful interpretation of European culture” (1967: 21, quoted in Lindstrom 1993: 62). In this usage, “cargoism” signifies an ethnographic reality: the Melanesian mentality in its struggle to understand European culture. Lindstrom’s usage of the term anchors “cargoism” not in the exotic terrain of the thought processes of anthropological others but in the domestic terrain of our own representations. “Cargo cults are Melanesian, but cargo cult accounts belong to us” (Lindstrom 2004: 17). By this he means that our narratives (including those of anthropologists) about so-called cargo cults reflect our own “insatiable wanting” (ibid.) for material goods. Lindstrom makes several powerful points. First and foremost, the birth of the “cargo cult” construction cannot be extricated from colonialism and the tendency of colonial officers, missionaries, and colonial anthropologists such as F. E. Williams to envision Melanesians as primitives (see also Lattas 1992; McDowell 2000; Dalton Ch. 2, Hermann Ch. 6). Hence the language of early writings on “cargo cult” events – “madness”, “disturbance”, “trouble”, “hysteria”, “frenzy” – and the underlying notion that cargo cult activities were “either ‘irrational’ behaviors of primitive peoples or […] signs of mental instability or cultural collapse” (Leavitt 2004: 170; see also Hermann 1992 and Ch. 6; Otto 2004: 210). Secondly, early writers simplified, reduced and then generalized certain aspects of putative cargo cults to all of Melanesia, “nativizing” them in the sense of locating them in the pre-European or pre-colonial past, so that everything about Melanesian culture – indeed, about Melanesians themselves – is really about cargo (Lindstrom 1993: 63-64). The effect of this nativization is to identify Melanesia as radically other. Ironically, though, to move to Lindstrom’s third point, the obsession with cargo is ours and not theirs, for it is we, not Melanesians, who are the materialists. Lindstrom powerfully concludes that “cargo cult does not exist per se; rather, it appears in the dirty mirror of the European self – a cultic other as a reflection of the imperial self” (ibid.: 7).

  • 1 Indeed, Marcus and Fischer, in their introduction to the second edition of Anthropology as Cultura (...)

3The value of Lindstrom’s poststructuralist or postmodernist effort – in this case, to deconstruct the notions of cargo and cargo cult in reflexive ways by discrediting the Western imperial lens – lies in the way it sensitizes us to possible distortions in the anthropological record. Yet I share Michael Harkin’s concern in Reassessing Revitalization Movements that such efforts “tend to dissolve the object of study into the ether of postmodern reflexivity” by reading “markers of difference” as part of a problematic “discourse of exoticism and essentialism” (2004: xvi), thus calling into question the persisting anthropological effort to penetrate other discourses and other discursive constructions by understanding other cultures and to do so in their own terms (cf. Lattas 2007 for a parallel point)1. How to do this without ethnocentric distortion remains the challenge for Melanesian anthropology.

4Bearing in mind the postmodernist critique, this chapter resumes the interpretive task, asking whether “cargo cult” is an apt epithet for a ritual movement that occurred in the mid-1940s in what is now called Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. In developing my hermeneutic strategy, I find Nancy McDowell’s “A Note on Cargo Cults and Cultural Constructions of Change” (1988) helpful. Like Lindstrom, McDowell questions the existence of cargo cults. The problem, according to her, is that we have extracted “a few features” from a “semantic field” (ibid.: 122) (a term McDowell borrows from Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism Today [1963: 18; see McDowell 1988: 121]) and conjured these extracts as a discrete institution – the so-called cargo cult of anthropological writings. To move beyond the reification and institutionalization of what is essentially a piece of a wider network of tropes and meanings, McDowell proposes restoring the original semantic field and reading the “few features” (ibid.) labelled “cargo cult” in the context of that field. Understanding so-called cargo cults through the prism of indigenous semantic fields could reveal undergirding sophistications that give the lie to the caricature of so-called cargo cultists as irrational, even “mad,” and, of course, “primitive” (see Dalton 2000a, 2000b; Kamma 1972). By the same token, it might expose similarities between these and Westerners (McDowell 2000), challenging the us/them binarism at play in Lindstrom’s “cargoism” and the pejorative, condescending Western constructions of Melanesia it bespeaks.

  • 2 Sharp dates what he refers to as the “Lyeimi Movement” from 1944 to 1945 (1990: 112). Wiessner and (...)
  • 3 Lyeimi was a borderland where “mostly Taro [aka Tayato] Enga or mixed communities in which Ipili-P (...)

5Ipili speakers occupy adjacent valleys: the Paiela valley to the west (“western Ipilis”) and the Porgera valley to the east (“eastern Ipilis”). In the mid-1940s2, a cult began at Lyeimi (aka Lyeime, Lyemi, Ljaima, Lyalyame, Lyalyalaim, Yeimi and Yeim), a location north of the Lagaip River where Tayato (aka Taro) Enga lived (see Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 14, map 2)3, and swiftly moved throughout Enga-and Ipili-speaking territory. Mervyn J. Meggitt, who first described the cult in a blockbuster article that remains the indispensable reference for those interested in it (1973, 1974), referred to it as the “Cult of Ain” or “Ain’s Cult”. Ipili speakers called it mata kamo (aka mara kamo) or “shaking magic” because participants who were most inspired and transported by the proceedings shook. The chapter begins with an introduction to the cult, emphasizing its manifestations among various Enga groups (Feil 1983; Golub 2001: 173-178; Jacka 2002: 202-206; Meggitt 1974; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 383 and 2001). But the ethnographic heart of the article concerns Ipili versions of the cult (see Biersack 2011a and 2011b, which also covers Enga, Somaip and Huli versions of the cult). Mata kamo varied from one location to the next. In some locations the ostensible effort was to obtain wealth; in the Paiela valley, however, wealth acquisition was not a goal. What was common to all performances of mata kamo was a ritual reorientation away from the ancestors and towards the sky and beings associated with it, a reorientation that fulfilled the explicit directives of the cult leaders. In keeping with McDowell’s article, I offer an interpretation of mata kamo in light of the “semantic field” that undergirds all Ipili variants, regardless of whether acquiring wealth is a motive: Ipili cosmology, which discursively constructed the world in anti-Copernican, anthropocentric terms. I shall argue that mata kamo constituted a concerted, often exuberant, effort to escape the human condition as Ipili speakers defined it by instantiating a millennium of “supernatural bliss” (Worsley 1968: 12), one that Ipili cosmology prefigured in its notions of the sky and skyward life. In some places, acquiring abundant and/or superior wealth, including at times artifacts of white material culture, served as a sign of that millennium and must be understood with respect to Ipili millenarian discourse and as a dimension or aspect of a millenarian cult or movement. To interpret mata kamo in cargoistic terms, as evidence of indigenous materialism, is to miss the point of mata kamo, which was to transcend the material conditions of terrestrial life by celestializing human life.

Introduction to the Cult of Ain

  • 4 The cult was also proselytized to the Karinj-speaking Somaip (Reithofer 2006: 187-212), the Huli ( (...)

6The Cult of Ain or Ain’s Cult began in the middle 1940s and moved quickly from its point of initiation in Lyeimi southward to other Tayato Enga places (Wailya [aka Waiya, Walia] [Jacka 2002: 204], Tumundan (aka Tumandan, Tumandane, Tumundane) [Meggitt 1956: 117 and 1974: 23-25; Wabag Patrol Report no. 2, 1952-1953: 12-13; Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 315]), and from there eastward, southward, and northward to other Enga locations (see ibid.: 305, map 2), attracting participation from Yandapo (aka Yandapu) (Meggitt 1974: 42), Maramuni (ibid.: 42-43), Mae (aka Mai) (ibid.: 43-45), Waka (ibid: 32-37) and Tombema (Feil 1983) Engas4.

7There are several stories of how the cult began (Biersack 2005: 146, Jacka 2002: 208-209, Meggitt 1974: 21, Sharp 1990: 114-115, and Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 311). The best known is Meggitt’s: the cult began when the ghost of Ain, a Tayato Enga member of the Kamani patriclan, visited one or more of his sons in a dream or dreams and told them that existing rituals were to be abandoned and that a new ritual was to be put in their place, one that offered sacrifices not to ancestral figures or traditional mythological beings, as existing rituals did, but to the ur-ancestors, as it were, the ancestors of all ancestors – the sun and the moon – “the father and the mother of us all” (1974: 21). In accounting for this ritual innovation, Meggitt argued that the area had suffered recently from a decade of calamities. Frosts had destroyed sweet potato crops, many had died from outbreaks of influenza and dysentery, and pig herds had been decimated by anthrax (ibid.: 18-19). During these disasters the existing ritual repertoire had proved ineffectual, making people receptive to ritual innovation.

8This was also the time when Australian adventurers and explorers first entered the area (ibid.: 15-16), exposing local people to white people for the first time – to “their very appearance, their puzzling activities in mapping the terrain, sending radio messages and the like, their multitudinous possessions, their weapons, their use of aircraft” (ibid.: 16) – and leaving a “deep impression” (ibid.). A permanent patrol post was opened up at Wabag, the capital of today’s Enga Province, in 1942 or 1943 (ibid.: 17), and interest in white material culture was sparked by the miniscule but high-impact presence of those white men who manned the post or who passed through it.

9The signature event of the cult was the massive sacrifice of pigs to the sun. A tall house and/or high platform was built, pigs were hoisted up on it, and each pig’s snout was held up towards the sun as the sun was summoned to receive the gift. The pig was then killed and baked and feasted upon by participants. Such prestations opened up an exchange with the sun that would hopefully result in a quid pro quo of improved health, the acquisition of wealth and/or an ascent to the sky. In the sky, cult participants would live with the sun and the immortal “sky beings” (yalyakali in Engan) (Brennan 1977: 16; Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 304), who had been made by the sun and moon and who had borne the ancestors (Brennan 1977: 15-17; Meggitt 1965: 107; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 181).

10There were several other core features of the cult among Enga speakers (see Meggitt 1974: 39-41).

11 1. Cult leaders stared at the sun along the shafts of spears and shook. In some places, cult leaders exposed themselves to fire to prove the power and veracity of their teachings. Participants “followed suit and became ‘shaking men’” (ibid.: 39), even holding embers in emulation of the cult leaders (ibid.: 25).

12 2. The Cult of Ain strove to supplant past ritual with its own innovations. Thus, each clan was told to abandon ancestral rituals involving stones (the kepele ritual [Gibbs 1978, Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 192-194] being the most important of these) and bachelor purification rituals called sangai or sanggai among Engas (Meggitt 1964, 1974: 39; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 216-237, 2001: 313). Ritual paraphernalia were burned or discarded, as were all weapons.

13 3. A belief that participants would enter the sky world was widespread.

14 4. Participants also expected to receive an abundance of valuables, traditional and/or white.

15 5. Male and female participants bathed in local streams, violating the strict segregation of the sexes that the prevailing conventions at the time imposed.

16 6. New food taboos were promulgated and warfare was banned.

17 7. The cult leaders were paid handsomely as the imparters of new knowledge.

  • 5 The spelling of the names of the four sons of Ain varies considerably from text to text. I have ch (...)

18Engan versions of the cult speakers contained an unmistakable cargoic aspect. A recurring inspiration in this regard was a cow’s tail that had shown up in Wabag and that signified to local people the kind of gigantic pig that everyone would soon possess. “News of this phenomenon rapidly spread through the western Enga group, together with the assurance […] that somewhere, perhaps in the sky world of Enga cosmology, people had whole herds of these desirable beasts” (Meggitt 1974: 25). Although Meggitt believed that participants in the original version of the cult at Lyeimi did not expect to receive wealth, Peter Sharp tells a different story. Sharp worked as a medical officer with the Department of Health in Papua New Guinea from 1975 to 1980, “the greater part of that time being spent in Enga Province” (1990: 112), and he had ample opportunity to collect stories about the Cult of Ain at Lyeimi in this period. In his article “The Searching Sun”, Sharp wrote that the Lyeimi cult leader5 “predicted the coming of new men, crops, new technology and new domestic animals. He took the Kamani [Ain’s patriclan] early one morning and showed them strange animal tracks in the mud” (ibid.: 114). The cult leader also “had the tail of one of these new beasts which men later recognized as a bullock’s tail” (ibid.), and he showed this tail to cult participants (ibid.).

19A common method for receiving the wealth the cult promised was to create artificial pools. Such pools made their first appearance at Lyeimi, where the cult leader or leaders told followers to dig holes that would fill miraculously with water and that could be used for unspecified ritual purposes (ibid.: 112). At Tumundan pits were again dug, this time around the dance ground, a flat plaza that was (and still is) used throughout the highlands for dancing, giving and distributing gifts, and speech making. The Tumundan pits were filled with magically prepared water, and participants were told that pearlshells would eventually materialize in them (Meggitt 1974: 25). It was also predicted that “pigs would appear in the women’s houses and new crops […] would sprout in the gardens” (ibid.). Meggitt attributes these expectations to “the garbled stories reaching the Taro [aka Tayato] of the fabulous quantities of shell valuables and exotic foodstuffs […] possessed by the Europeans at Wabag” (ibid.), directly east of Tumundan.

20The Engan cult leaders would go on to convert the Waka Enga living along the upper Wage River. There, holes were again dug around the dance ground and water poured into them, with the expectation that “new wealth from the sky” would eventually appear in the pits (ibid.: 34). A period of darkness was predicted, but once the darkness had dissipated, those who had shaken were instructed to visit the pits “to remove the pigs, pearlshells and steel axes placed there by the sky-people” (ibid.: 35).

21The emphasis upon wealth acquisition only intensified as the cult moved down the Wage River. At the southern extremity of Waka Enga territory, the cult leaders promised participants that the sun would send “new bigger pigs and other valuables” (ibid.: 36) and that these would appear in the pits the shakers dug around the dance ground and filled with water. A cult house was built and a ring of cordyline was planted opposite its door. Within this ring, a wreath of spears was erected, and followers were told to cook all meat on top of these spears “as gifts to the sun” (ibid.), until such time as the “new wealth” appeared in the pits.

22There were variations on this theme among the Yandapo, Mae (aka Mai) (Meggitt 1965: 105; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 54), and Tombema (Feil 1983) Engas. Pits were dug, water was poured in and participants waited for pearlshells, huge pigs and steel axes to appear in the pools. The strategy was to appeal to the sun to send this wealth. Among the Mae, for example, participants killed their pigs to demonstrate to the sun their fidelity to the new ritual regime. Those who sacrificed would receive “dozens of pigs” (Meggitt 1974: 43) that would materialize mysteriously in women’s houses and emerge from pools (ibid.). Also – and this seems unique to the Mae – many cowrie shells, pearlshells and steel axes would be found lying around (ibid.). The usual washing rite was part and parcel of the effort to attract abundant wealth to each participant. According to Meggitt, the cult leaders put all the pearlshells they had received in payment for their services into the water so that the essence of the pearlshells “would float down and enter the bodies of the bathers to ensure that they would receive the promised valuables from the sun” (ibid.: 45).

23In tandem with this motif of wealth acquisition was another: the theme of ascending to the sky. Meggitt believed that this promise was not made until the cult arrived in Tipinini at the eastern edge of Ipili-speaking territory. Yet a patrol report written in 1952 makes it clear that cult participants at Tumundan expected to ascend to the sky. The people of Tumundan were exhorted to slaughter pigs on a high platform to appease the sun and, if they did, “everyone who died went to live on the sun” (Wabag Patrol Report no. 2, 1952-1953: 12-13). Indeed, Meggitt’s first account of the cult at Tumundan described the same quid pro quo: those who foreswore the old rituals and who obeyed certain prohibitions would ascend into the sky to live with “sky beings” forever (1956: 117). This pledge was coupled with the companion pledge that participants would “receive great wealth in pigs and goods” (ibid.). The theme of an ascent to the sky may in fact have been present from the very beginning. In fall 1993, I had a chance to talk to a man named Kaiya, who was living at Tipinini at the eastern edge of the Porgera valley at the time. Kaiya had attended the cult at Lyeimi, and he told me that participants there were promised that they would go to the sky, the “good ground” (yu epene). “Good ground” is a common Ipili epithet for the sky in mata kamo times.

  • 6 Meggitt, too, characterizes human life in negative terms: “[…] it is the lot of the Mae to be gard (...)

24Ascending to the sky was clearly something Enga speakers could imagine at that time. In 1938, about six years before the onset of the Cult of Ain, another cult broke out at Wailya. According to Jacka, the cult was in reaction to rumors of the presence of white men in the area (2002: 200-201) and, no doubt in light of the violence that sometimes did happen in first-contact encounters, Kaiyamba’s followers prepared to ward off the white menace. Kaiyamba died at the hands of the white men, and his band of followers was routed (ibid.: 201). If Kaiyamba’s cult was clearly about resistance, it was not just about that. Kaiyamba identified himself as the son of the sun (ibid.: 200), and he also told participants to prepare to go up into the sky (ibid.: 201). While Jacka suggests that Kaiyamba was the source of the notion of an ascent to the sky, I would suggest instead that Kaiyamba and his followers were inspired by the semantic field (to use McDowell’s and Lévi-Strauss’s term) they shared with other Engas. If I may generalize from Paul Brennan’s account of Engan religion (1977): Engas acknowledged a supreme being, Aitawe, personified by the sun, who together with the moon, a female, created the sky beings (yalyakali). These in turn bore the ancestors of the various Enga phratries, which populated the earth rather than the sky. The yalyakali had access to the water of life and were thus immortal. The human descendants of the sky beings would have been immortal but for the fact that human mothers rejected the water of life in favor of the milk they breast-fed their offspring, and “thereafter all the burdenless accoutrements of the sky world were, of necessity, exchanged for the care and toil known to the earthlings” (ibid.: 16; see also Meggitt 1965: 107-109; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 181)6. In announcing himself to be the son of the sun and in promising an ascent to the sky, Kaiyamba, I would suggest, spoke the language of Engan millenarian discourse.

The Cult in the Porgera Valley

25I have just summarized the principal themes in the Enga variants of the Cult of Ain. From these materials, it would appear that a case could be made for calling the Cult of Ain a cargo cult. But did the cult seek first and foremost to acquire wealth, especially white wealth (including white manufactured items), satisfying local appetites for material possessions? Is the category “cargo cult” an apt representation of the cult’s core project?

  • 7 Jacka and Meggitt differ as to how the cult came to the Porgera valley and to Tipinini at its east (...)
  • 8 Tipinini is at the easternmost edge of the Porgera valley. Many living there are functionally bili (...)

26In searching for the answers to these questions, I turn to the cult among Ipili speakers. Moving southward out of Lyeimi, the cult arrived at Tipinini, on the eastern edge of the Porgera valley7. Then it moved westward, arriving at Anawe and Mungalep, both of which are near the present Porgera mine on the western side of the Porgera valley. From there, it moved further northward, to Pitika and Politika, and then westward into the northeastern side of the Paiela valley. I begin this section with a generic account of the cult in the Porgera valley, as described by Meggitt (1974: 27-31) and Gibbs (1977: 12-18). I then describe the cult at Tipinini, the easternmost point where Ipili is spoken within the Porgera valley8. With respect to the cult at Tipinini, I draw upon Jacka’s (2002: 206-207), Gibbs’(1977: 18-21), and Meggitt’s (1974: 31-32) accounts, supplementing these with my own research in the fall of 1993.

27Many of the details of the cult in the Porgera valley are already familiar. The brothers urged the abandonment of traditional ritual practices and a turning to the sun (“our father”) for help (ibid.: 27). Pigs were clubbed to death with a “small steel tomahawk” (ibid.: 28) on a high platform and offered to the sun, the cult leaders stared at the sun along the shafts of spears and “shook violently” (ibid.), and they held embers to demonstrate the validity of their teachings (ibid.: 27). Participants were commanded to bathe under a waterfall that the cult leaders created using a sluice-like arrangement “to cleanse and prepare their bodies for the ascent into the sky-world” (ibid.: 29). The wives of the cult leaders used a stone to scrape a pearlshell, the dust thus generated falling into the water and entering the vaginas of the bathing women so that they would not contaminate their husbands during intercourse (ibid.: 30). For greater purity, copulation was suspended for a month (ibid.: 29).

  • 9 Terms meaning “time of darkness” have been reported throughout the region with which this chapter (...)

28In addition to feasting upon the carcasses of the slaughtered pigs, the pigs’ kidneys were magically prepared and eaten with particular leaves. As had happened in the upper Wage River (ibid.: 36), a sow’s innards were buried in the middle of a circle of stones that had been placed on the dance ground and a cordyline shrub was planted on this partial grave. This then marked the site of a large house built for the occasion, the main post of which was driven within the circle of stones ringing the partial grave. The house would shelter people when, within a few months, “massive discharges of lightning would signal the coming of a great darkness that would cover the land for days or weeks” (ibid.: 28)9. Those inside the house would say magic to “invoke the help of the sun to disperse the cloud of darkness” (ibid.). “Then enormous moropae pythons would hang suspended from the sky, and all the people and their pigs would make their way into the sky world along the ‘paths’ formed by the bodies of the snakes” (ibid.). “[…] once they were established in the sky-world, the progeny of their pigs would attain great size, becoming as large as that much discussed beast whose tail had been displayed at Wabag” (ibid.: 27). If participants abandoned fighting, observed the newly promulgated food taboos and maximized their purity by bathing and by abstaining from intercourse, there would “be no more sickness or death among you and hence no more ghosts or any need for rituals to propitiate them” (ibid.: 30).

29Gibbs’ account corroborates this intermixing of themes: wealth acquisition but also attaining immortality. A spirit that dwelled at the boundary of sky and earth predicted the end of the world, indicating that cult participants, as long as they observed certain prohibitions and performed certain rituals, “would not die but be received into the sky” (1977: 12). Offerings to ancestral spirits were abandoned, pigs were ritually sacrificed to the sun, sweet potatoes were specially prepared and consumed and several food taboos were put in place. The day following the massive slaughter of pigs, the kidneys were barbecued, holes were poked in them using the wing bones of a fruit bat, and then they were eaten. Gibbs claims that the procedure of poking the kidneys with bat wing bones echoed existing magic to promote health (ibid.). Participants bathed, singing the songs the cult leader taught them. The sample song Gibbs supplies urged participants to “[f]orget your beliefs and take on good ways” (ibid.). Everyone went inside the large house that had been built for the occasion and that was called ongi (“time ends, or darkness” [ ibid.]) and “waited for the imminent end of the world which was to be heralded by a time of darkness” (ibid.: 12). Presumably (and as at other locations) the end of the time of darkness also heralded the promised ascent to the sky, where participants were to find wealth (ibid.: 14). “The visitors […] showed the Ipili a piece of woven material, a steel axe and wood cut with the axe. In tawetoko [literally the “sky bridge,” but which may also be translated as sky] the Ipili would have axes like this, along with pearl shells and other valuable things. There was also reference to a horse’s tail, […] an indication of the size of the pigs in tawetoko” (ibid.: 13). As proof of the validity of his teachings, the cult leader “handled hot coals and touched people with a short spear he was carrying. This made many people go into fits of shaking (men today describe them as being ‘drunk’)” (ibid.).

30Meggitt alludes to (but fails to name) six or seven locations within the Porgera valley where Cult of Ain rituals were performed (1974: 27). Tipinini, where the theme of wealth acquisition was pronounced, was no doubt among these. According to Jacka, the cult leaders created small pools of water there, and, when Tipininians gazed into these, they saw metal houses, goats, cars, sheep and planes (2002: 205). As participants washed, cult leaders sat above the bathers and scraped pearlshells so that pearlshell dust would powder the bathers’ bodies, making them shiny, healthy and likely to attract wealth (ibid.). A large round house was built to accommodate Tipininians as they waited for a “time of darkness” to pass (ibid.), after which they would ascend to the sky (ibid.).

31Those with whom I discussed the cult emphasized the promised ascent to the sky. As I shall show, the notion of ground’s end was fundamental to the Ipili worldview, and a cult leader claimed that the sun had warned him about the imminence of ground’s end. In that context: pigs were sacrificed to the sun in Cult of Ain/ mata kamo fashion and people feasted upon their carcasses. The shaking state was induced both by looking at the sun along the shaft of a spear and by consuming the pigs’ kidneys. Shakers were ke, I was told. To be ke is to “be confused; not know; not be in one’s right mind, be crazy; be in a trance” (Ingemann n. d.: n. p.). Ipili speakers translate ke into longlong (“crazy” or “mad”) as well as spak or “drunk” in Tok Pisin (aka Neo-Melanesian). Hence, Gibbs’ informants claimed that Porgeran shakers were “drunk”.

32Once the Enga cult leaders were gone, a young, unmarried woman named Ipiyama (aka Ipayeme, Ipiama) enticed her followers with promises that they would receive white manufactured goods. A man named Wambe chanced upon her one morning and she showed him a piece of black wood. “Wambe looked at the wood and then had a vision of […] axes, knives, houses with iron roofs and cars” (Gibbs 1977: 19). Ipiyama showed this same piece of wood to her followers the night before she led them to a pool on Mount Tongapipi (aka Tongopipi) (ibid.). According to Meggitt, Ipiyama told her followers they would find “a great number of new pigs and pearlshells” (1974: 31) at the bottom of the pool. As people looked into the water, they saw “houses, cars, airplanes, cattle, all the things of the white man” (Jacka 2002: 206). Despite the fact that Ipili speakers fear water and do not swim, they entered the water and ultimately drowned (Gibbs 1977: 19-20; Jacka 2002: 207; Meggitt 1974: 31-32).

33The motive of wealth acquisition was prominent in the accounts of Ipiyama’s spinoff cult I collected in the fall of 1993, when Pimbisu and Kainu, two old women, Muyu, an old man, and Yakop, a middle-aged man, shared their stories with me. Pimbisu told me that Ipiyama had invited everyone to a pool high up in the forests of Mount Tongapipi. En route, everyone had indiscriminate sex (see also Gibbs 1977: 19), even intercourse with siblings in violation of the incest taboo, the cornerstone of Ipili society. The next morning everyone got up early and assembled around the water. Timbapu, Ipiyama’s hand-picked assistant, either held a mirror in his hand or put one on the surface of the lake. (Bush mirrors [ ipa lema lema] were made by filling a small gourd with water and blackening the water with charcoal to create a reflecting surface for what was in essence a mini-pool.) Kainu, who claimed to be Timbapu’s sister-in-law, described the water as being like a mirror (ipa lema lema). In this mirror, everyone saw stores and cars, cows and sheep, tin-roofed houses – it was like Australia, Pimbisu said. Why did participants want to enter the pond? “Thinking that in that good land [the sky] they would eat while resting [that is, without labouring, eating freely], they went into the water” (Yu epene okona oto no pitimakale nembo talu ipa okona peainipia), Pimbisu responded.

34Meggitt’s account of the cult in the Porgera valley stresses what he takes to be a “doctrinal shift towards an emphasis on a kind of bodily assumption [into the sky]”, a shift he attributes to “the belief prevailing throughout the area [here he includes Enga-speaking territory] in the existence of a celestial world inhabited by the immortal offspring of the sun and the moon, a realm from which came […], in the opinion of many, also the powerful, wealthy and seemingly indestructible Europeans” (1974: 27). Bill Gammage’s wonderful book The Sky Travellers, concerning the patrol by Jim Taylor and John Black between March 1938 and June 1939, which brought the explorers into the Porgera and Paiela valleys, makes it clear that Engas and also Ipili speakers classified these white explorers as “sky people”. “[…] most commonly the travellers’ wealth, planes, wireless, guns and sometimes white or red skin [sky beings were said to be red-skinned] suggested that they were sky people, perhaps refugees from a sky battle, wandering the earth below, landless and womanless, seeking a place to settle” (1998: 1). Gammage describes two encounters between the patrol and Paielas in which white men were classified as sky men (ibid.: 132, 188), and Meggitt indicates that “many Enga regarded the Europeans […] as being sky-people sojourning on earth, or at any rate as being in some way connected with the sky” (1974: 51). If nothing else, the white man’s planes associated him with the sky (ibid.). But planes also associated the white man with the abundant and superior wealth they flew into the area in their effort to provision expatriate patrols (ibid.).

35Whereas Meggitt saw events as taking a millenarian turn (ibid.: 27) among the Ipili speakers of the Porgera valley, the connections drawn in the local imagination among cargo, the sky and immortality were apparent in an earlier version of the cult among Enga speakers. At Tumundan, magically prepared water was put in pits dug around the perimeter of a dance ground with the expectation that pearlshells would eventually be found in them; “pigs would appear in the women’s houses and new crops would sprout in the gardens” (ibid.: 25). But this was not all. Those who sacrificed pigs to appease the sun were assured that “everyone who died went to live on the sun and […] then the dead would be brought back to earth to live on their former land” (Wabag Patrol Report 2, 1952-1953: 12). What characterized this cult, it seems, was a perceived concatenation of desiderata: cargo, an ascent to the sky and the achievement of immortality. Meggitt, in his 1956 description of the cult at Tumundan, certainly makes it sound that way. In “The Valleys of the Upper Wage and Lai Rivers...”, he wrote, “all those who killed their pigs in a certain manner, eschewed the old rituals and obeyed certain prohibitions would supernaturally receive great wealth in pigs and goods. They would take these with them when they ascended into the sky to live forever with Jaljakali [Yalyakali or “sky man”], the sky being” (ibid.: 117). I return to this point below, but first I explore narratives of cult participation from the Paiela valley, which differ from those already examined in not emphasizing wealth acquisition.

The Cult in the Paiela Valley

36From Pitika and Politika in the northwestern corner of the Porgera valley, the Engan cult leaders moved westward into the Paiela valley: to Piawe and Bealo in the northeastern corner of the Paiela valley and then onto Takopa and Asiaputenga in the central eastern side of that valley. In the Paiela valley, cargo acquisition ceases to be a goal and ascent to the sky for the purpose of achieving a better life and ideally immortality becomes the primary motivation for cult participation. In this section I substantiate this claim with an analysis of two stories of cult participation in the Paiela valley. Lewambo (with whom I discussed the cult in February 1995 and October 2000) participated in the cult at Asiaputenga. His account gives us a sense of how festive and licentious the cult was. After Asiaputenga, cult leaders moved to Tombena, a location just outside Kolombi, the site of the only airstrip in the Paiela valley, then crossed the Pakupale River and moved to Taninga in the northwestern corner of the Paiela valley. Kau (aka Kauwambo), with whom I discussed the cult in the fall of 1993, November 1995 and October 2000, participated in the cult at Taninga.

Lewambo’s Story

37Lewambo was a young boy living at Kolombi and just beginning to attend the omatisia ritual, a sangai- or sanggai-like ritual designed to grow bachelors and ready them for marriage, when three of the original Engan cult leaders, together with a sister named Lauwe, entered the Paiela valley. Three others came as well: Taiyako, Kome and Aleka. Kome and Aleka would bring the cult to the western shores of the Pakupale River. Lewambo (like other Paielas) referred to all the cult leaders as “spell owners” (kamo anduane).

38At Asiaputenga, the cult leaders built a tall building and hoisted the pigs up onto the roof using a ladder and rope. The pigs’ noses were pointed upward towards the sky as the cult leaders summoned the sun and moon to receive the gift – “Alu Nai o, o yia peyo geyo” (“Alu sun o, o I am killing and giving you pig”) and “Alu nai maiyawana gula, alu nai yia geyo” (“Alu sun and moon, I am giving you pig”). The name of the owner of each sacrificed pig was uttered as the pig was offered up. “We killed and dropped the pigs repeatedly so that we would go to the sky.” So many pigs were killed that they could not all be eaten, and the surplus was left on the ground to rot.

39The pigs’ kidneys were barbecued and placed on a bed of certain leaves, and a bone from the wing of a bat was used to jab the kidneys as a spell was said to promote the desired ascent to the sky. Similarly, sweet potatoes were scraped with pearlshell and bespelled and then (like the kidneys) cooked in the fire to promote an ascent to the sky. The consumption of the kidneys in particular made participants “crazy” or ke. In Paiela versions of mata kamo, sugar cane was also eaten. The accounts of this aspect of the ritual are sketchy. Participants brought in sugar cane and fought over it; then the stalks were broken up so that everyone could get a piece. As participants ate the sugar cane and sweet potatoes, they walked around “crazily” looking up at the sky and saying, “Let’s go to the sky” (Tawe pimakale [literally, “Let’s make sky”]). Then the pigs were taken out of the oven and feasted upon.

40The day after the feast, everyone went to the Ipa Pukuma, a stream in the vicinity of Asiaputenga, which Lauwe, the sister of some of the cult leaders, straddled and defiled. Even so, the purpose of washing in the stream was to cleanse participants’ bodies in preparation for ascending to the sky. Pearlshells were placed across the river (a detail, like the details about Lauwe, that is unique to Lewambo’s narrative), and the spellmen stood upstream saying magic as bathers stood downstream. At the time cross-gender contact was strictly regulated, intercourse being the only context in which males and females were proximate. But in mata kamo, men and women bathed together and in ways that were maximally transgressive, establishing intimacy in a setting where ceteris paribus it should have been prohibited. Exposing the genitals in public was (and is) not done, but participants were so “crazy” that they allowed their aprons and grass skirts to be in disarray, revealing what these items of clothing were meant to conceal. Male and female bathers looked at each other’s private parts, an act that was normally reserved for intercourse because of its erotic impact. Some garbed themselves in tree leaves when their clothing became totally dysfunctional. Menstruators and women who had just given birth ordinarily sequestered themselves to insulate pure people from their impurities (Biersack 1987), but Lewambo indicated that women who were menstruating or who had just given birth bathed with men and that men looked at these defiled women, contaminating themselves as they did so.

41After participants washed, they danced, to the same effect. The spellmen wore wigs festooned with the feathers of the paitauwa bird (the Raggiana bird of paradise [Ingerman n.d.: n.p.]), carried spears on their shoulders and danced. Lauwe held a bow and jumped around with it. “We danced virtually naked, with our genitals exposed, and we did not worry about that. We were delighted because we would go to the sky, so we danced,” Lewambo said. One woman was so “crazy” that she hurled stones at the men; a woman who was nursing her child was also ke and dropped the child and ran away.

42The cult leaders encouraged everyone to abandon their weapons and their ancestors and ancestral rituals and to sacrifice only to the sun. In the pre-colonial period Paielas fed pork to the skulls of deceased parents to promote their own health. To take better care of these skulls, offspring built small shelters at the base of trees, creating a canopy over the structure to shield it from the rain. In mata kamo, the skulls of parents were taken out of their houses and “discarded” in the river to rid the world of what, from the mata kamo perspective, was the wrong kind of spirit: a dead terrestrial, rather than an immortal celestial, spirit. The kepele cult – as described by Gibbs, a “clan ritual” (1978: 436) designed to change the luck of a line that had experienced serious misfortunes (ibid.; see Gibbs 1978 on the Ipili version of kepele and Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 107-109, 192-194, 198-212 on the Enga version of kepele) – was a particular target of the cult (Meggitt 1974: 24, Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 311). Lewambo told me that the paraphernalia for the kepele ritual – especially the kepele nu (“kepele netbag” or “kepele womb”), a wicker figurine in the shape of a man with a large penis (Gibbs 1978: n. p., photograph b [see also Raich 1967]), as well as the kepele kulini (“ kepele bones”), the special stones that were deployed in the kepele ritual – were burned.

Kau’s Story

43Kau was a boy living with his widowed mother and maternal uncle at Tatonga on the western bank of the Pakupale River when word came that people had already gone to the sky at Taninga in the northwestern corner of the Paiela valley. All three travelled northward to participate in mata kamo under the leadership of Taiyako, along with Kome and Aleka, all of whom seem to have been disciples of the original Engan cult leaders.

44The cult leaders promised that participants would ascend to the sky if they performed the rituals they were taught. A house was built, and pigs were carried up to the roof using a huge ladder, an operation Kau likened to carrying the pigs up to the sky. On the roof, the snout of each pig was held up to the sun as the sun and the moon – the sun’s wife, some say – were summoned to receive the gift. Then the pig was killed and dropped to the ground. People came from other locations on the western bank of the Pakupale River to kill pigs at Taninga. The slaughter of pigs was massive.

45As the pork was being cooked, participants washed in the Bolo River. Paiela participants tend to dwell on this aspect of the ritual, as the violations of customary male-female relations were truly egregious. Kau’s account paralleled Lewambo’s: men and women removed their clothes and bathed naked in the water as the cult leaders said magic. At this point, Kau, a small boy, became frightened and ran off, but others followed and brought him back, and one of his kinsmen hoisted him onto his shoulders and walked into the water with him, committing him to ritual participation.

46After the washing, the baked pigs were taken out of the oven and eaten. Participants also ate the pigs’ kidneys, which were roasted over the fire, cut into pieces, laid on a bed of certain shredded leaves, poked with the bone of a bat as a spell was said, and then eaten.

47In the morning sweet potatoes were scraped with a pearlshell and cooked in the fire. Participants also imbibed “sky water” (tawe ipa). This was poured down the shaft of a spear by one of the cult leaders as participants stationed themselves at the tip end and drank it. Some participants became ke or “crazy” from drinking this water and sang the songs the cult leaders had taught them in the way that intoxicated people sing today.

48Kau was adamant that the purpose of the ritual was not to acquire wealth. Participants wanted to ascend to the sky, a goal all aspects of the ritual were designed to advance. The expectation was that the earth would be “lost” (latako) and that a rope would drop from the sky so that participants could climb above the clouds. “We were told that those who had participated in mata kamo would soon be going to the sky, and that we newcomers would follow them once we had performed the ritual,” Kau said. Participants were thrilled to leave the ground and “go above,” he said.

49The cult leaders referred to the participants as “sky men” (tawe akali) or “sky people” (tawe wanda akali). As sky people, participants possessed a degree of ritual purity that nonparticipants lacked, and participants were told to avoid contact with (“to keep a distance from” [wa tika pi]) nonparticipants. Mata kamo created a caste-like difference between the pure and the impure, the enlightened and the ignorant, something Kau’s story makes crystal clear. Kau’s maternal grandmother and one other woman were too old to travel to Taninga and they were left at Taninga with a supply of firewood, water and sweet potatoes sufficient to last until Kau, his mother and his uncle returned. The two old women were still there, entertaining each other with tindi or folktales/myths and very much in need of assistance from more able-bodied people, when Kau’s party came back. Fresh from cult participation, they bragged that they were now “sky people” and that the old women should “keep a distance”, the time-honoured Paiela strategy for safeguarding purity in the presence of contaminants. Kau’s uncle took pity on the two women and killed a pig for them, but they were still prohibited from touching their purer “sky” kin.

50Kau’s story can be augmented with the information that Mata, Kau’s mother, gave me in an interview in December 1976. Mata elaborated on the abandonment of intersexual taboos. Ordinarily fathers and their small children and males and females “kept a distance,” she said, but the rule in mata kamo was “not to keep a distance” (wa tika pulene). Fathers played with their young children and they danced touching the elbows of their daughters; husbands and wives sat looking straight at each other; and, the greatest transgression of all, siblings married. Mata said that the cult leaders encouraged sibling liaisons. Mata also explained that, during the washing ritual, women lay down under the cascading water and spread their legs so that the water could enter and purify their vaginas, their intention being to protect their husbands from coital contamination.

The Case for Millenarianism

51Among Ipili speakers, mata kamo cuts a broad swathe, from Tipinini in the Ipili far east to the western bank of the Pakupale River in the Ipili far west, and covering two valleys from their northern to their southern extremities. Across this terrain, the emphasis of mata kamo shifted. The most obvious goal of Ipiyama’s spin-off cult at Tipinini – the Ipili location nearest to Wabag, the regional portal on the white world at that time – was wealth acquisition. Paielas had relatively little exposure to white material culture, and wealth acquisition was not a goal of Paiela versions of mata kamo. Instead Paielas zealously, “crazily”, sought entrance into the sky world, there to achieve immortality. Thus, Lapu, a man who probably went to Taninga with Kau and his mother, and who in any case would have participated in mata kamo on the western side of the Paiela valley, told me in December 1976 that the cult leaders had promised that all who consumed the pigs’ kidneys and who washed themselves in ritually prescribed ways would go to the sky and not die. Lewambo, speaking to me in October 2000, said that his father and mother had lived and died on earth and that he wanted to go to the sky to escape their fate. The sky was a “good ground”; it was where immortal tawe akali or “sky men” lived, he said. Similarly for Kau, who told me, also in October 2000, that participants thought they would go to the sky (the “good ground”) and not die.

52If acquiring wealth was not a goal in all versions of mata kamo, then the mata kamo project could not have been fundamentally “cargoistic”; it must have been something else. The constant across all versions of mata kamo was not a craving for riches but the desire to enter the sky. This section elaborates upon that point, concluding that mata kamo was at base a millenarian cult or movement and must be understood as such.

Wealth and the Sky Motif

53While the cargoic aspects of mata kamo are striking, the sky motif was not only present but featured through the stylistics of the sacrifice in all versions of mata kamo. Pigs were hoisted up on high platforms or roofs, their noses were held upward in prestation to the sun as the sun was summoned to receive the gift, and then they were killed. Before mata kamo demonic spirits called yama (who attacked living human beings, sickening or killing them) were placated by slaughtering a pig and shoving its snout into a hole in the ground, the hole serving as the “road” along which the attacking yama could “come” and receive its gift and then withdraw, effecting a cure. This was called kolo (Jacka 2001) (also ingape). In the mata kamo sacrifice, the sky rather than the earth was used as a medium of communication with spirits, and these spirits were sky rather than earth beings. That mata kamo sacrifice was an inversion of kolo was an obvious aspect of the proceedings to all those whose mata kamo stories I collected. They also understood why this was so: the old rituals were to be replaced by new rituals oriented to the sky, for the principal message of the cult leaders was that ancestral rituals – all of which concerned terrestrial life and its travails – should be abandoned as participants turned to the sun for assistance (Meggitt 1974: 21).

54To say as much is to suggest that those versions of mata kamo that appear to have been exclusively focused on wealth acquisition were as invested in engagement with the sky as those versions (Paiela versions, most notably) that focused on an ascent to the sky alone. Even in Ipiyama’s spin-off cult, the Ipili version of mata kamo that seems the most blatantly cargo-oriented in its quest for material gains, ascending to the sky was the indispensable step, for it was in the sky that participants would receive the desired goods.

  • 10 The term tawe toko is typically translated as “skybridge”. The word toko refers to a “level raised (...)

“Ipayema began to talk about going up the sky bridge [the sky] so that [her followers] could go live in the sky world and receive all of the goods that Wambilipa and his brothers said would come. One day she climbed on the roof of the house while people were gathered inside and started urinating on them. She told them that she was giving them ‘sky water’ (tawe ipa) which would allow them to travel up the sky bridge if they drank it.” (Jacka 2002: 206)10

55Ipiyama’s cult was not unique in this regard. If we cast our eyes back over the various cult accounts reported here, it is clear that the sky and its inhabitants were key to receiving the hoped-for wealth. A few examples from stories already told will suffice to make the point. Among the Waka Enga, pits were dug around the dance ground to receive “new wealth from the sky” (Meggitt 1974: 34), and pigs, pearlshells and steel axes were expected to be gifted by the sky people (ibid.). The Mae Enga hoped to receive “valuables from the sun” (ibid.: 45). In the Porgera valley, it was predicted that there would be a time of darkness that the sun would disperse. Then people would ascend to the sky along the “‘path’ formed by the bodies of the snakes” (ibid.: 28). The offspring of the pigs that those who ascended to the sky brought with them would be as big as the animal whose tail had found its way to Wabag and made such a sensation (ibid.: 27).

56 Mata kamo sacrifice opened up an exchange with the sun, an exchange that, in some locations, was expected to culminate in a countergift of wealth. The wealth would be gifted by the sun, or by his “sky being” offspring; and/or it would be received in the sky; and/or it would be received in what I have come to think of as sky spaces: those pools or pits of water that reflected (like the mini-pool indigenous mirror) the sky and its wealth – or so participants fantasized.

The Meaning of the Sky

57But acquiring wealth was not the sole benefit. Participants would also become immortal, a promise that can be documented for all versions of the cult narrated here, including Tumundan (through Dwyer’s account [Wabag Patrol Report no. 2, 1952-1953: 12-13] and Meggitt’s initial reporting of the cult at Tumundan [1956: 117]) and Lyeimi (through Kaiya’s account, according to which participants were told they would ascend to the sky, implying their eventual immortalization). What, then, were the connections between wealth and the sky, the sky and immortalization, and wealth and immortalization? To explore these connections, I return to Mc-Dowell’s article “A Note on Cargo Cults and Cultural Constructions of Change”, which urges us to approach cargoic activity through the “semantic field” (1988: 122) informing this activity. Given the ritual specifics of mata kamo, this semantic field is necessarily cosmological: a matter of sky and earth. Long before missionaries entered the area, and long before mata kamo, Ipili cosmology turned on a sky/earth axis, a dichotomy that bore on the nature of the human condition as Ipilis understood it to be. I begin making this argument with a discussion of yu, the Ipili construction of the earth, a construction I have distilled from diverse materials: magical spells, rituals and, most importantly, the very language Ipili speakers use to speak of the earth and human life on it.

58In the precontact cosmos, the earth was the locus of all material, biological life. Terrestrial life (plants, animals and humans) was corporeal life: a matter of skin and bone (metaphorically the bark and pith of a tree, respectively, for example). All terrestrial life had a life cycle: entities were born, grew (their “skin” became “big”), declined (their “skin” became small and wizened), and ultimately died. Somewhere in the middle of this cycle reproduction occurred. Earth itself, the host of all life forms, had a body: a surface or “outer” skin (“ground skin” or yu umbuaini) and a subsurface, “inner” bone (“ground bone” or yu kulini), the living residing on the “skin”, the visible surface of the earth, and the dead residing in the invisible interior of the earth or “earth bone” (yu kulini). Like all life forms, earth had a life cycle. Each earth came into existence, lasted 14 generations, and “ended”, but only to begin again (Biersack 1991: 290-291, n. 15; 1995a: 20-23, 1996: 95-97; 1999: 75-76; 2001: 40; 2005: 139).

59Examining a plethora of beliefs and practices in light of conversations I have had with Ipili speakers, Porgerans and Paielas alike, I have concluded that the fundamental principle of corporeal, terrestrial existence was what I call a “sacrificial principle”: that life must be spent (or sacrificed) in the course of sustaining and reproducing itself, that life and death were thus two sides of the same zero-sum coin (Biersack 1995a: 22; 1995b: 257-261; 1996: 92-95; 1998: 52-55; 1999: 75; 2004: 111-112; 2005: 140-141; see also Biersack 2001: 85-89; Buchbinder and Rappaport 1976; Golub 2006: 271-272; Reithofer 2006: 180-182; Stewart and A. Strathern 2004: 184; cf. Bloch and Parry, eds. 1982). This principle applied to “work” (peape), a wide category that encompassed all purposeful activity, from gardening to sexual reproduction to marriage. Horticulture – clearing the forest, fencing and mounding the garden, weeding and harvesting it – was necessary for the maintenance of human life, but physical labor wore the body down (cf. Otto 2004: 215), contributing to its decline and hastening its death. Similarly, all purposeful activities related to reproduction – from coitus to parturition to nursing – were thought to promote aging and death, for both male and female reproductive partners. The exotic practices and related fears (pertaining to menstruation, coitus and other intersexual contact) reported for the area affected by the Cult of Ain (Biersack 1987 and 2004: 109-111; Kyakas and Wiessner 1992: chapters 5 and 6; Meggitt 1964; Wiessner and Tumu 1998: 217-218) are only intelligible when placed within a wider cluster of beliefs and practices envisioning regeneration as a source or cause of aging and death.

60The importance of the body and its materiality in this worldview cannot be overstated. In the Ipili understanding, the body made human beings creatures of need; it was the primal instrument used to meet these needs; it anchored human existence in a spatiotemporal order, the earth, the resources of which enabled the body to meet its material needs; and it was to the body specifically, to the physical side of human life, that the sacrificial principle pertained.

61In all particulars, terrestrial life contrasted with sky life. At the close of some myths, sky men and women (tawe wanda akali) ascend to tawe toko or “the sky bridge” (Gibbs 1977: 9), where they live forever in workless bliss, free of horticulture and reproduction, fertility and regeneration, and thus death. But it was the sun (nai, aluni, ni, nitawe, ewa, onewa) rather than sky people who dominated the sky, and it is through the solar symbol that the significance of the sky is revealed. Whereas humans had mortal bodies that both required and enabled the manipulation of things – peape or work – and that suffered and died as a result, the sun had no body, performed no manipulations and existed forever as a transcendent being. Ascending to the sky was tantamount, then, to escaping the human condition of earth-boundedness and, with it, work and mortality, rendering human life “blissful” (Worsley 1968: 11).

62This, the millenarian goal of mata kamo, was most evident in those aspects of mata kamo that embraced an ascent to the sky, with immortality as the attendant benefit. But this millenarian goal was also subtly encapsulated in the economics of those versions of the ritual that were wealth-seeking. The sacrificial principle is reciprocity or equivalence in its cruellest guise: a life for a life, the bekim (“to give in return”, “to reciprocate”) principle that explicitly informs eye-for-an-eye revenge killings and that implicitly defined the human condition as a mortal condition. The ritual instantiated, at least in participants’ fantasies, a far more benign transactional regime. Participants would receive more and better or bigger than they gave – more and better or bigger pigs (the cow’s tail again!) and superior white manufactured items (the steel axe, for example, houses with tin roofs, cars, etc.) – and they would do so without damaging or forfeiting their life. The wealth participants sought had two defining characteristics: the one already mentioned, that it was more and/or better and/or bigger, but also that little or no “work” was required to obtain it (cf. Bashkow 2006: 107-110). This shift – from balanced to generalized reciprocity (Sahlins 1972), as it were, humans becoming the beneficiaries of the sun’s largesse – itself constituted a release from the harshness of the terrestrial condition to which human beings had been consigned. The requirement that human beings had to “work” and suffer the consequences of a dilapidated, increasingly immobile and ultimately dead body had in effect been rescinded. Whether receiving windfall wealth or achieving immortality, the project was essentially the same: to liberate human beings from their abject terrestrial condition, governed as it was by the sacrificial principle.

  • 11 There are two Politikas of which I am aware. One lies in the southwestern corner of the Paiela val (...)

63Those with whom I discussed the cult were aware of the transformational implications of its economics. Pimbisu, for example, put the prospects of participating in a new workless order this way in explaining why Tipininians were willing to enter a forest pool despite their fear of drowning: “Thinking that in that good land [the common epithet for the sky in the mata kamo context] they would eat while resting [that is, without labouring, eating freely] they went into the water” (Yu epene okona oto no pitimakale nembo talu ipa okona peainipia). Nane Pasia, an articulate Paiela who participated in mata kamo at Masiapulika and Politika11 in the southwestern corner of the Paiela valley, added the further benefit of life everlasting in explaining to me in our October 2000 conversation why participants wanted to go to the sky. The ground was “bad”, he said. It was where people worked very hard, suffered and died. But life was not harsh in the sky. There, “we would not work, garden, and build houses; we would only be happy. We would not be buried in the ground; we would live forever”.

64Whether through wealth acquisition and/or an ascent to the sky, cult participants sought a total transformation. The human condition as Ipili speakers defined it would give way to the cosmically privileged, “blissful” condition beyond work, suffering and death of the sun and the sky beings. Indeed, participants acted as if (in the words of Kau) they had already gone to the sky. The notion that there was no life without death, no renewal of life without the loss of life, was implicit in Ipili fears of intimacy with one’s spouse (cf. Meggitt 1964 on parallel Enga fears). But in Paiela versions of the cult in particular, spouses fearlessly bathed naked together as if there were now no penalty for such intimacy. Here and there (at Taninga, on the western shore of the Pakupale River, for example), relatives coupled in violation of the local incest taboo, which precluded marriage between all kinspeople. While considerations of space prevent me from developing this point at length, suffice it to say that the organization of social networks through marriage (“the exchange of women” [ wanda lawa lawa pi]) and sexual reproduction, all of which depended upon the incest taboo, was the most important and pervasive category of “work” that Ipili speakers undertook (Biersack 1995b: 233-247). To overthrow the incest taboo was to relinquish the most important tool Ipili speakers wielded, effectively voiding a vast domain of effort, from precontact rituals to prepare male youth for marriage, to fattening, assembling and distributing bridewealth, to maintaining and repairing networks through further exchange, to bearing and rearing children.

Madness’s Reason

65This interpretation has explained some aspects and dimensions of the ritual – why pigs were sacrificed to the sun, the association of the sky with wealth and immortality, and how wealth acquisition and the achievement of immortality were at root millenarian in their implications – but it has not accounted for the shaking (cf. Schwartz 1962: passim on guria in the Paliau Movement) and the ke (“crazy” or “mad”) state with which mata kamo or “shaking magic” was associated. Lattas (1992) has convincingly argued that the emphasis upon “madness” in the early ethnographies or ethnohistories of “cargo cults” – most notably in F. E. Williams’ “The Vailala Madness” – must be understood in terms of colonialism, which, inherently racist and Orientalist, required an inferior, possibly wild and uncivilized, subjugated other (see Kaplan 1995, who makes a similar point for “cargo cult” per se). Were mata kamo participants “crazy” (and thus irrational and inferior), or is there some other way of understanding the state Ipili speakers call ke?

66To understand the state of ke and its significance, it is necessary to consider Ipili constructions of the immaterial side of human existence. Porgeras and Paielas recognize a single faculty, nembo, which may then be translated as will, soul, spirit and heart and which I choose to translate as “mind” to reflect the nembo’s association with thinking, knowledge, wisdom and decision-making. The nembo is located in the yamapane, a complex of heart and lungs (linking nembo or mind with action and speech), and it “carries” mana, in this case a Papuan rather than an Austronesian word meaning knowledge (cf. Goldman 1983: 44-45). The root of all purposeful action or “work” (peape) is said to be the nembo and its mana. The expression “First the mind, then the body” or “First we think, then we act” (nembo ini, angini matili) encapsulates in singsong fashion the two-sidedness of action: mind, which bears knowledge and which makes decisions, but also bodily movement or effort, which implements that knowledge (cf. Otto 2004: 216). The sun, as the source of light, was also viewed as the source of mana. He was the source of ancestral knowledge (yumbanena mana), and he was the source of the new knowledge that governed mata kamo and directed participants away from ancestral knowledge and towards a new dispensation. To break with ancestral custom – the specific charge given to all cult participants – required adhering to a new mana, of which the sun – through his intermediaries, the cult leaders – was the only possible source.

67As already indicated, ke means to “be confused; not know; not be in one’s right mind, be crazy; be in trance” (Ingemann n.d.: n.p.). It translates into Neo-Melanesian longlong or “crazy” and spak or “drunk”. In my understanding of the term, the state of ke is symptomatic of a voiding of mind. A person who is ke is expected to act wildly or randomly (ambe pua), as if there were no mind governing the act. A “crazy” person is a person who “has no nembo” (nembo na yene). A new material world had been glimpsed (that of white people and their material culture), and/or a blissful state – free of hard work, suffering and death – was now sought. Ke could be interpreted as that liminal state in which the old learning was negated, making way for new knowledge, knowledge that would reform or revolutionize human existence.

68Or ke could be interpreted as a state of trance in which participants communicated with the sun. Sharp’s observations of the cult at Lyeimi, where the Cult of Ain started, are suggestive in this regard. He writes of the cult leader (“L.”) there: “when offering cooked meat of sacrificed pigs while standing on a high platform L. stared at the sun and his body shook violently […]. Observers felt at this time that he was communicating directly with the sun deity, because cultural expectation is that shaking means communication with spirits” (1990: 114). A patrol officer named Graham Hardy talked to the last surviving Enga cult leader in April 1957 and reported that he had claimed “to have had inspirations from God, personified by the Sun, who appointed him a headman” (Laiagam Patrol Report 3, 1956/57: 11; see also Jacka 2002: 204).

69Those with whom I have discussed mata kamo corroborated this understanding of the shaking and the “crazy” state associated with it. Ipili speakers imagined the sun as a single eye (nai lene), and to look at the sun along the shaft of a spear (which many did) was to “exchange glances” (anda lawa lawa) with the sun, the sine qua non of all actual communication, which Ipili speakers define in interactional, intercorporeal terms. And so, in “looking up” (anda iyu pi), Lapu told me in our conversation of December 1976, participants entered into communication (nembo lawa lawa pi, “to exchange minds”) with the sun. Only a few did this, he said, all of them mata akali or “shaking men,” as he called them. These shakers (Meggitt 1974: 25; Reithofer 2006: 195-196; Sharp 1990: 113) spoke strange words (pi waka waka [lit. “language other other”; “gibberish”]) which were understood to be the words of the sun, words that conveyed the sun’s mana or knowledge. Mata, Lapu’s relative and Kau’s mother, also claimed in December 1976 that the cult leaders were transmitting the sun’s thoughts directly to participants. Similarly, during my Tipinini research in fall 1993, Muyu told me that one of the Enga cult leaders had told him that what he divulged to participants originated with the sun.

70In mata kamo, Ipili speakers established contact with the sun – either directly, by shaking and becoming ke, or indirectly through cult leaders serving as intermediaries – for the purpose of learning new mana or knowledge: how to sacrifice and to whom, what foods to avoid, what spells to say, what songs to sing, how to purify the body, whether to “keep a distance” and with respect to whom, and whom to marry. Armed with this new mana or knowledge, they hoped to revolutionize their existence, in ways that the sky and its beings symbolized. The millenarian project of mata kamo, to perfect human existence, was thus utterly dependent upon “madness”: that state in which the old mind or knowledge was voided and communication with the source of the new, true knowledge was established.


71Taking my cue from McDowell, I have approached mata kamo through the semantic field to which it so patently belonged: Ipili cosmology, centred as it was on the radical difference between immortal sky beings and mortal earth beings. I have argued that the cargoic features of mata kamo are to be understood with respect to mata kamo’s millenarian goal: the effort to achieve immortality by ascending to the sky. To obtain superior and abundant wealth without having to work for it signified the same amelioration of the human condition that an ascent to the sky signified: a shift from a life blighted by labor, suffering and death to a life emancipated from those travails. That participants cavorted in the water with their spouses suggests that they believed themselves to have already been liberated. They were, after all, no longer earthlings but “sky people”.

72I conclude that mata kamo is best understood as a millenarian cult or movement. The goal of mata kamo was to transform the human condition by rendering human beings (in the poetics of the ritual) sky beings: free from hard work and other suffering, free ultimately from death. Acquiring abundant, superior wealth in return for paltry, inferior wealth (the exchange of pig-scale pigs for cow-scale pigs, for example) advanced but did not attain this goal. In most (possibly all) cases, such acquisition was mediated by the sky and its beings, symbolically associating wealth acquisition with the ritual’s true purpose: to set human life on another footing by celestializing it (cf. Biersack 1996: 104-109, 2005: 141-146; Golub 2001: 178).

73 Mata kamo is not the only case where wealth acquisition is associated with the restoration or achievement of a state of perfection sans suffering, labor and mortality. The well-known John Frum movement of Vanuatu, for example, rested on certain predictions that sickness and work would end (Sillitoe 2000: 186). Similarly, so-called cargo movements among the Western Dani of what is now West Papua were concerned less with inducing a windfall of cargo (although they were interested in that as well) than in recovering the state of immortality they believed themselves to have lost (Giay and Godschalk 1993). Schwartz’s fascinating account of the Paliau Movement (1962) contains many instances in which the ambitions of a leader or follower far outstripped the mere acquisition of cargo, in ways that paralleled the aspirations of mata kamo leaders and followers. How “cargoistic” would so-called cargo cults look if they were examined from the perspective of those ritual goals that had nothing to do with acquiring wealth?

74Following McDowell, I have here approached mata kamo semantically rather than intellectually, through the criterion of rationality, as Orientalist inscriptions of cargo cult have done. My concern throughout has been to understand mata kamo as a millenarian movement devoted to perfecting or idealizing the world and, along with it, human existence. There is no doubt that some versions of Meggitt’s Cult of Ain focused to a degree on obtaining white wealth (see discussion in Biersack 2011b), as did the Tipinini variant of the Cult of Ain. In all cases, though, obtaining wealth was inextricable from the goal of ascending to the sky, where the conditions of human life would be ameliorated. As among Ipili speakers, so too among Enga speakers: the constant across all known variants of the Cult of Ain, whether or not cargo was sought, was the celestialization of human existence (ibid.).

75I am not alone, of course, in associating cargo cults with millenarianism. In his powerful introduction to “Alienating Mirrors: Christianity, Cargo Cults and Colonialism in Melanesia”, Lattas reminds us that “millenarian movements express the power of the human imagination to idealise and posit a better world which is without pain, suffering and work” (1992: 2), and he goes on to describe the idealizations inherent in Melanesian cargo cults (ibid.: 2-3). Robbins leaves no doubt that he sees “cargo cultism” as millenarian insofar as it rests upon a critique of the present and strives to achieve a utopian, or at least, superior future (2004). Worsley, too, wrote of cargo cults as millenarian movements. “I use the term ‘millenarian’ to describe those movements in which there is an expectation of, and preparation for, the coming of a period of supernatural bliss” (1968: 12). The return of the ancestors, or “God, or some other liberating power” (ibid.: 11) would usher in the “reign of eternal bliss” (ibid.) that Worsley associated with millenarian movements. Similarly, Kenelm Burridge said of “cargo activities” that they envisaged “both new spiritual values (a new heaven) and a renewed sociomoral, economic, and political order (a new earth)” (1993: 276) and that they could therefore “be called millenarian type” (ibid.; see also Burridge 1969; Kamma 1972).

76Worsley points out that millenarian movements are not restricted to Melanesia but “have occurred throughout the world” (ibid.; see also Stewart and Strathern 2002: 71), and it is in exploring so-called cargo cults as millenarian movements that the possibility of de-exoticizing them and of rendering them not only intelligible but familiar lies. This account of mata kamo has opened a window on the similarities as opposed to the differences between Melanesians and Westerners (see McDowell 2000). Any culturally competent Westerner would understand the thematics of mata kamo. They are even expressed in what to Westerners would be quite familiar tropes of sky and earth, life and death, mortality and immortality, a point that Burridge was careful to make as well (1969, 1993: 276). Since mata kamo and other variants of the Cult of Ain occurred in the mid-1940s, before the arrival of the missionaries in the area, and since many who have described the Cult of Ain have commented on the relevance of indigenous cosmology to its principal features, we can be certain that these tropes are indigenous. There are, then, substantial discursive similarities between Ipili speakers and Westerners, similarities that give the lie to the us/them binarism underlying Orientalist representations in general and Lindstrom’s (1993) “cargoism” in particular. Aspects of mata kamo and the broader cult environment in which it arose do concern wealth acquisition, but these aspects must be understood with respect to the “semantic field” (McDowell 1988: 122) that gave them their meaning. This meaning, moreover, was millenarian: a matter of achieving a radical transformation in the human condition. The implication is clear: the way beyond Lindstrom’s “cargoism” (1993) – which reads “a few features” (McDowell 1988: 121) as irrational, materialist and primitive – lies in interpreting so-called cargo cults as aspects of millenarian movements (cf. Otto 2009). Only then will it be possible to come to know their informing philosophies and their true aspirations – and to understand those caught up in them in their own terms. This, in turn, will return us to the ethnographic enterprise of opening “ourselves to the understanding of other cultures” (Robbins 2004: 257) and those who live and operate with respect to their parameters.


77Sharp’s article on the Cult of Ain provides us with further details on Wambilipi, the longest-living of the four brothers who inaugurated the cult. Wambilipi (“W.” in Sharp’s account) refused baptism in the late 1960s, when others of his clan had converted, because he considered himself to be a prophet of the same stature as John the Baptist and, in any case, he considered himself to have

“introduced the ritual [baptism] […]. There were none equal to him who could baptise him. When the others were baptised by the Lutheran pastor W. baptised himself. In the 1960s W. went to Laiagama [aka Laiagam] patrol post and approved of the Apostolic church there. He did not join the church there but said it was they who were joining him. The parishioners of this church opposed many traditions of this area. They smashed painted skulls […]. They threw kepele stones [special ritual stones] into the river. Their services included speaking in tongues and they also conducted mass baptisms in rivers.” (1990: 116)

78Sharp goes on to note that Wambilipi “was reported as saying he was responsible for bringing the church and health services to the people. Because he was not being given his due he would take them away again” (ibid.). As a medical officer working with the Department of Health in Papua New Guinea, Sharp displayed in his article a tendency (uncomfortable to me) to medicalize the persons and phenomena he came across. To him, Wambilipi “had grandiose ideas, a nihilistic view of the world” (ibid.: 117), and clearly suffered from delusions of grandeur.

79But was he delusional – or “mad”, for that matter? Those who knew Wambilipi did not think so. Sharp asked them whether Wambilipi was longlong or “crazy”, and he could find only one person who said yes. This person, moreover, was an aid post orderly with basic medical training (ibid.: 116), whose outlook could have been corrupted by his training. Some others said that Wambilipi “was possessed by a supernatural force, the implication being that it was little wonder his acts were sometimes difficult to understand or that occasionally he […] behaved strangely” (ibid.). My guess is that Wambilipi’s people continued to see him as a visionary, as indeed “possessed by a supernatural force” (ibid.), long after the cult had ended.

80Most ethnohistorians of the Cult of Ain have observed that participants and their descendants consider the cult to have been successful in the long (if not the short) run (Biersack 1991; 1996: 100-101; 2005: 148-152; Gibbs 1977: 22-25; Golub 2006: 276-277; Jacka 2002: 207-210; Reithofer 2006: 2008-210; Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 317-318) because the transformations it promised have come true, at least to a degree. Although people are not immortal, with the introduction of Western medicine, they are healthier and live longer. Cows and sheep have been introduced, every man owns a steel axe, there is wage labor and other sources of cash income, and the possibility of “eating, resting”, as it were, by buying rather than producing food for a perceived net saving of labor, exists today. Roads, vehicles and planes “make the far near”, reducing the effort required to travel distances. When viewed through an Ipili lens, development is a millenarian project. As Lapu told me in December 1976, “The white man came and we are good now […]. Now that the white man has come, our cargo [he used the word pinju, one of two categories of traditional wealth; pinju was the non-pig category] is big, our pigs are big, we eat the good food of the white man, we receive the white man’s medicine [and, by implication, are less sick], and [hyperbole!] we don’t die.”

81Ipili speakers divide purposive activity into two stages: the first stage, a planning or otherwise preliminary stage of laying the groundwork, and a second stage of completion and consummation. The first stage is considered necessary for the second stage to occur. The first stage – referred to as “merely trying” (me makande pi): to merely “get ready; try” (Ingemann n.d.: n.p) – is a stage of conceptualization involving the use of symbols and language. The second stage actualizes or realizes what was prepared for or attempted in the first stage, the word angini or “body” referring to this actualization or realization. In assembling bridewealth, for example, the first stage is preoccupied with collecting pledges. These are verbal, and they will be symbolized by small sticks (sia kai) that bridewealth accumulators count as they prepare for the prestation. The second stage involves assembling the pledged pigs, tying them to stakes on the dance ground and giving and distributing them. Pledged pigs tied to stakes in a context of prestation (the dance ground) are the “body”: the project’s coming to fruition as an imagined event, depicted in the language of the pledge, gives way to the actual event (the “body”) in all its tangibility. A more exotic example of these two stages lies in the realm of magic and ritual. These set the stage for a desired outcome but cannot themselves, as linguistic, symbolic performances, realize that outcome. Only the events that magical spells and ritual anticipate can do that – can “become body” (angini gu la).

82Those with whom I discussed mata kamo spontaneously drew parallels between mata kamo and the discourses, ideologies and practices of colonialism and Christianity. In regard to Christianity: the “sky water” (tawe ipa) that was drunk in some places constituted the first communion, some say; the ritual bathing was the first baptism; the missionaries advocated, as had the “spellmen” of mata kamo, the abandonment of traditional ritual in favour of new rituals; Christianity, with its notion of a meritbased heavenly afterlife, has confirmed, at least for observant people of faith, the ascent to the sky that mata kamo participants believed possible; and Christian themes and imagery – from the notion of a “garden of Eden” paradise to the resurrection story to the theme of purity to the symbolism of water and light – strongly resonate with those of indigenous cosmology and the philosophical anthropology that underlay it. On the secular side: Ipili speakers see a connection between the Pax Australianis of the colonial period and the prohibition of warfare in mata kamo; the mana taught by the Engan cult leaders is now widely regarded as having been “the white person’s mana” (onena mana); and, overall, there is a sense in which development broadly construed – the creation of roads, the introduction of money and wage labor, the building and staffing of Western-style schools – is thought to have a millenarian impact. In short, the agenda of mata kamo, from acquiring wealth – most notably these days through gold mining, with its promise of windfall wealth (see Golub 2006: 277-279; Macintyre Ch. 5; see also Biersack 1999: 79) – to improving one’s health to achieving immortality – persists to this day, infusing the everyday with a millenarian significance (Biersack 1991: 276-283, 1996: 101-111, 2005: 146-152; cf. Robbins 2001, 2004: 251). Mata kamo, in short, is viewed as the prequel to the present-day sequel, as the first stage of a two-stage process, the second stage, the “body” stage, being the world the Ipili inhabit today.

83I interviewed Lapu in 1976, the year that Sharp talked to Wambilipi. Their perspectives, I suspect, were the same. History had vindicated the sons of Ain, who had prepared the way for the cult’s sequel: the transformations that have accompanied colonialism and missionization but viewed within this optic as the culmination of the mata kamo project. From this perspective there was nothing delusional about Wambilipi. He did indeed introduce baptism, the destruction of kepele paraphernalia and ancestral skulls, the practice of speaking in tongues. If the Baptists were now indulging in these practices, they were indeed joining Wambilipi, not the other way around! They were his “body”, the actualization of what had only been conceptualized and symbolized in the ritual he had done so much to promote some thirty years before in making preparations for the triumphant final stage of the Cult of Ain: the contemporary Ipili and Enga world.


84I am heavily indebted to several generous funding agencies: to the National Science Foundation, which funded my first and longest stay in the Paiela valley; Wenner-Gren, which funded research from July 1993 to winter 1995; to a Fulbright Scholar Research Award, for funding from July 1995-February 1996; to Wenner-Gren and the American Philosophical Society, for funding in fall 1999 and 2000; and to a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad progam award, for research in 2003-2004. I have received excellent logistical support from the Society of the Divine Word, Enga diocese, and in particular from Father Edward Osiecki, Father Andrew Sobon, Father Anton Somhorst, Father Henry Adler, Father Peter Weo and Father Casimir Niezgoda. Graham Taylor, Stephen Hepworth and Sam Adam have also helped me logistically. Hans Reithofer’s critique of another of my papers on mata kamo has proved most useful in the writing of this paper. Meggitt’s “The Sun and the Shakers” has, of course, been crucial to this effort to interpret the Cult of Ain. While doing my research, I was affiliated, initially, with the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work of the University of Papua New Guinea. More recently I have been affiliated with the National Research Institute, receiving assistance from Michael Laki, James Robins and Colin Filer. Terry Borchard and Frances Ingemann, who have studied the Ipili language, have graciously fielded questions I put to them. During summer 2010, I benefited from conversations I had about the Cult of Ain with Chris Ballard, Father Philip Gibbs and Hans Reithofer, although any mistakes of fact or interpretation here are necessarily my own. I am most grateful to the people of the Porgera and Paiela valleys, who have tolerated my many questions and my presence over many field seasons, and who have done so always with warmth and humour. For the purpose of this writing, Lapu, Mata, Pilato, Kauwambo, Luke Pakena, Muyu, Peter Muyu, Pimbisu, Kainu, Kaiya, Yakob, Nane Pasia, and Lewambo and his wife Tendi should be singled out.



Primary sources

Wabag Patrol Report 2, 1952-1953. Available at the Papua New Guinea National Archive.

Wabag Patrol Report 8, 1952-1953. Available at the Papua New Guinea National Archive.

Laiagam Patrol Report 3, 1956-1957.

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1 Indeed, Marcus and Fischer, in their introduction to the second edition of Anthropology as Cultural Critique, distance themselves from Writing Culture. “For us, the decline of a certain construction of ethnographic authority never augured the end of anthropology but rather the opportunity to reorient its core practices” (1999: xxviii). Such reorientation requires acknowledgment that anthropological writing always exists within “a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers and of course the subjects of study themselves. And, therefore, a primary framing task of any ethnography is to juxtapose these pre-existing representations, attempting to understand their diverse conditions of production, and to incorporate the resulting analysis fully into the strategies which define any contemporary field project” (ibid.: xx).

2 Sharp dates what he refers to as the “Lyeimi Movement” from 1944 to 1945 (1990: 112). Wiessner and Tumu say the cult lasted from 1943 to 1945 (2001: 301). Reithofer states that the cult originated “around 1944” (2006: 190). Patrol Officer Dwyer indicates that the cult swept “through the Wabag sub district in 1945” (Wabag Patrol Report 8, 1952-1953; T. Dwyer, PO, January 31 to February 29, 1953), and Patrol Officer Graham Hardy writes that the cult “swept through parts of the WABAG Sub-District soon after the last WAR”, that is, World War II (Laiagam Patrol Report 3, 1956-1957).

3 Lyeimi was a borderland where “mostly Taro [aka Tayato] Enga or mixed communities in which Ipili-Pogera or Tokowaeme Nete have intermarried with Taro Enga clans and live in the manner of the Taro Enga” (Sharp 1990: 112). Patrol Officer Graham Hardy indicates that the influence of Hewa (aka Ewa, Kewa) was “noticeable” (Laiagam Patrol Report 3, 1956-1957: 7).

4 The cult was also proselytized to the Karinj-speaking Somaip (Reithofer 2006: 187-212), the Huli (Frankel 1986: 28-29; Glasse 1995: 73; Meggitt 1974: 32), Konema (west of the Paiela valley), and the Porgera (Biersack 1998: 55-60; Gibbs 1977: 12-21; Jacka 2002: 205-207; Meggitt 1974: 27-32) and Paiela (Biersack 1991: 268-272; 2005: 141-152) valleys.

5 The spelling of the names of the four sons of Ain varies considerably from text to text. I have chosen to avoid using specific names, simply referring to “the cult leaders” or the “Enga cult leaders”. I do mention one of these by name, Wambilipi, using Meggitt’s (1974) spelling. As the cult moved out from its point of origin, the original leaders picked up disciples, who joined them as cult leaders or who took over the leadership of the cult, especially at points furthest from Lyeimi.

6 Meggitt, too, characterizes human life in negative terms: “[…] it is the lot of the Mae to be gardeners and warriors. Men must toil to wrest a meagre livelihood from a harsh environment in which violent death is […] an everyday occurrence” (1965: 108). He attributes this state to “the behaviour of the sky beings in the past” (ibid.), a behaviour he does not describe.

7 Jacka and Meggitt differ as to how the cult came to the Porgera valley and to Tipinini at its eastern edge. Meggitt indicates that the cult moved from Tumundan and to the Porgera valley/Tipinini (1974: 26). Jacka argues that the cult went to Wailya, a Tayato Enga location southwest of Lyeimi. Then it branched out, some of the brothers going to Tipinini while others went to Tumundan (2002: 200, figure 2).

8 Tipinini is at the easternmost edge of the Porgera valley. Many living there are functionally bilingual in Ipili and Engan. Jacka claims that Huli is also spoken there (2003: 10), albeit to a lesser extent than Engan or Ipili. Wiessner and Tumu place Tipinini within the Tayato Engan ethnic area (1998: 15, map 2).

9 Terms meaning “time of darkness” have been reported throughout the region with which this chapter is concerned. Scholars link the “time of darkness” to a volcanic eruption on Long Island in the Bismark Sea off the north coast of New Guinea in the 1600s that darkened the sky with tephra ashfall. In several locations, preparing for a time of darkness, which the sun would then disperse as a preliminary to participants ascending to the sky, was a striking dimension of mata kamo activities. See, for example, Jacka 2002: 205, Reithofer 2006: 204, and Wiessner and Tumu 2001: 316.

10 The term tawe toko is typically translated as “skybridge”. The word toko refers to a “level raised surface; floor, chair, table; on top of; bridge, fallen log on which people walk” (Ingemann n.d.: n.p.). The image of levelness is odd because tawe toko suggests some apparatus facilitating an ascent to the sky. I tend to translate it simply as “sky”, to avoid the image.

11 There are two Politikas of which I am aware. One lies in the southwestern corner of the Paiela valley. The other lies in the northwestern corner of the Porgera valley. Mata kamo ritual was performed at Politika in the Porgera valley. Cult leaders then moved westward into the northeastern corner of the Paiela valley. The ritual was also either performed at Politika in the Paiela valley or it drew participants from that location.


Conducted research on the Ipili speakers of Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, over several decades. Her publications have concentrated on indigenous ritual, its relation to gender ideologies (her several studies of omatisia, a ritual designed to grow boys in puberty), cosmology (her writings on mata kamo), Christianity (her mata kamo studies again as well as her writings on Paiela Christianity), and gold and its mining; gold mining in its impacts and politics; and gender, marriage, and the organization of reproduction and thus networks through marriage. Her special areas of interest are gender, social organization (but understood entirely through the organizational projects and strategies articulated by Ipili speakers themselves), and theorizing the history of Ipili speakers as involving forces for both the preservation and the alteration of culture in an era of globalization. She is the editor of four anthologies: Clio in Oceania (on historical anthropology), Papuan Borderlands (on Ipili, Huli, and Enga cultures), Ecologies for Tomorrow (on political ecology), and (with James Greenberg) Reimagining Political Ecology.

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