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Maenge gardens

Françoise Panoff

Chapter 5. Gardening rites: an example from the Longueinga

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1Rites performed in the mixed taro gardens where the corms are grown for festive occasions are quite elaborate. Here, I shall be dealing mostly with one gardening rite, about which information was collected among the Longueinga. My informant, a “Father of the village”, had seen it performed or had performed it himself many times. While this rite is no longer performed in its totality, sections of it have been integrated in the cargo cult rituals, which provide a good setting for ancient themes. I saw the last part of the rite, the harvesting and transfer of the taro corms to the village, in January 1968. Although this rite differs in several details from the gardening rites performed on the coast, its general symbolism is similar with theirs.

2This gardening rite encompasses the technological activities from the time when a block of land is selected until the first harvest is taken back to the village. While it is self-contained, it must be viewed as part of a larger cycle, since the food produced in these mixed taro gardens is used in ceremonial occasions such as the rites of passage (five for girls and seven for boys) which are still regularly held, even though their number has diminished. The formulae and the comments of my informant are parts of his heritage. Similar formulae are known to other “Fathers of the village”, while the main theme of the rite is common knowledge. When discussing the rite, I shall mostly pay attention to the categories that are central for its understanding. Since these categories can only be revealed by the way in which plants are used throughout the rite, I will need to examine their symbolism. Before presenting the rite, some details must be given with respect to Maenge mythology and their conception of the taro soul.

3On the coast, the mythology is dominated by two characters, Nutu e sina and Nutu e volau, both half gods and cultural heroes. They play a main part in a cycle of myths which extends at least as far as the Wide Bay, akin to those myths widespread in Melanesia where the protagonists are two characters, a foolish one and a clever one (see Dixon 1964: 122-129). In the mountains, the central figure is Malila, a chthonian deity who is equated with one of the Nutu but it is difficult to say whether this equation is ancient or recent. Like the Nutu, Malila is surrounded by other mythological beings, the most important of which is Samunsa, who is sometimes portrayed as the grandmother of the Nutu. For our purpose, it is sufficient to note that the soul of taro was controlled in the past by many creatures, both individuals and groups, but that the modern Maenge, under the influence of Christian teachings, tend to reduce all these figures to that of a unique God called Nutu.

4For the Longueinga, the soul of taro has various dwelling places and belongs to various Masters. The most prominent of the dwelling places of the taro soul (and of souls of the other cultivated crops) are the following: the volcano Imvulu, on the north coast; a mountain called Matapilo near the headwaters of the river Galue; the mouth of the Pandi river on the north coast. The last place is of special interest since the Longueinga describe it as swarming with different cultivars of Saccharum edule (pitpit), sugar cane and taro. These cultivars have grown from the rubbish thrown into the river by the villagers who occupy upriver sites. The volcano may have been selected for the fertility of the ashes. Some mythological beings, such as Samunsa and her companion Kavavalelea, dwell in the volcano. There, Nutu washes the dead and removes the dirt that covers them. It is also the place where the inner soul travels during rites of passage. The volcano is also a sacred site for the neighbouring Kol and Tomoive populations.

5Among the Masters of the taro soul, one can cite Samunsa, an old woman who appears in the myths as covered with nasal mucus (sa, with; munsa, nasal mucus). In the volcano, where she lives, she “sits” on taro. When the souls are too numerous, the volcano erupts and the taro soul spreads on the earth. Kavavalelea is a Master of taro, and so is Malila. In addition to these major figures, one finds minor mythological characters and peoples. Among the latter are the One-legged people who are marvellous gardeners thanks to a red page (circular shell money) that they use in their gardening magic, and the Vagakusime, who are of special interest in relation to the gardening rite I am presenting. I shall return to them later.

6The Maenge conceive the taro as having a soul, kanu (the usual word for double-self), which is distributed in the tuber, the petioles and the leaves. They often identify the liquid that appears when cutting the petioles and that irritates the hands of women peeling the corms with the blood of the plant, as with human blood where most of the inner self dwells. Among the Lakalai, the soul-spirit of taro is called kalulu-la-mavo, soul double of taro, or halulu-la-mavo, shade of taro (Valentine 1965: 187). In Dobu, the double of animals and plants is called makamakaiiau, the same word that is used for the spirit of a dead human being (Fortune 1932: 147). While among the Maenge both animals and trees possess a soul, only the souls of animals are thought to be capable of motion. Among plants, however, the souls of domesticates, and mainly those of cultigens, are a major exception in that they are free to move as they want. A Maenge tale shows clearly this property of the taro soul.

7Some taro displeased with their “mother”, who is not looking properly after them, decide to leave the garden at night and to visit their neighbours. They arrive sodden with mud (the earth which has not been removed from their tops), their hair (the weeds) falling into their eyes; with this sad countenance, they weep and moan. Moved to their hearts, the gentle neighbours invite them to share a better fate with them. Look how clean they are and with what care their “mother” looks after them! The poor gardener is castigated as her taro plants ran away; when she harvests them, she will eat only empty containers from which all nutritive substance has escaped. The attribution of a soul to taro (among other cultigens) allows it to be treated as an animate being. It is endowed with freedom of action, sensibility and feeling. Taro is satisfied or dissatisfied with the treatment it receives from its masters (whom the Maenge call “fathers” and “mothers”) and it will accordingly stay with them or run away.

8This tale shows clearly the function of the taro soul. Its existence represents a threat to the bad gardener and a promise to the good one. Taro is grateful and will not abandon his Mistress unless she becomes lazy and careless. The Maenge’s attitude towards their cultigens recalls their own attitude and that of humans in general towards domestic animals and pets. This similarity led Sauer (1952) to suggest that the domestication of plants must have occurred in areas where animals were being domesticated. It seems that the attribution of a soul is a necessary step in the process of domestication and conservation. The Maenge’s attitude towards taro and its soul is clearly shown not only in gardening rites but also in everyday life, for instance in the process of the transfer of a man’s taro from his parents’ garden to his own and his wife’s garden.

9When a man marries, he takes with him “his” taro, that is taro which have been given to him by his father and mother when he was a child aged seven or eight, or by women of his father’s clans on occasions such as the rites of passage. Depending on the number of plants, this taro is planted by his mother in one or several compartments that bear the name of the child. When a newly married man makes a garden for him and his wife for the first time, his taro is planted there but cannot be planted by his wife. It is planted by his mother, who also comes into her son’s garden regularly to perform operations such as cutting the leaves, weeding and finally harvesting the corms. It is only after two or three years that her daughter-in-law is permitted to perform these operations. After such a long period, the taro plants are accustomed to this stranger and people no longer fear that they will escape. The taro must become used to its new Mistress and this should be done without any hurry for fear that the taro be hurt.

10Malinowski was puzzled by the way the Trobrianders conceived of the digestive cycle and thought that “the natives were not aware of the needs for supplying the organism with new material” (1935: 213-228). Maenge data may throw some light on magic notions and practices that are widespread in Melanesia, for instance the belief that the body can be sustained with very little food. The Maenge view the digestive cycle as the separation of the nutritive liquid contained in food (mena) – in this case in the taro – from the refuse called either taena (faeces) or musina (the chewed fibers of sugar cane which the Maenge reject while swallowing the juice mena). Food is nutritious only because it possesses a soul. They view food deprived of its soul as an empty container. Even if one eats large quantities of this type of food, it is not nourishing. The presence of soul in edible plants makes them heavy (with nutritive liquid, mena). Consequently, the aim of magic is to make edible cultivated plants as heavy as possible; that is to attract as much soul as possible into them. In taro corms, the result of this type of magic is to make the bottom part of taro (which is most appreciated) big and heavy. When this density of soul has been obtained, eating only a very small piece is enough to satisfy one completely.

11When cultivated plants are deprived of their soul, they are but empty containers (samuengana). This word originally refers to a snake slough and is used to describe the relationship between the human double-self and his body container. When a Maenge man dies, it is customary to lay his corpse on a wooden structure outside the village with parts of his taro, banana, sugar cane and other plants. The spirit of the dead man is supposed to take with him the soul of his plants, which he needs to replant in his new village. What is left for his relatives to see, lying on the wooden structure, is only the external appearance of the plants, their samuengana. This is just what happened in the tale narrated above; when the bad gardener picks up the corms, she may think that their soul, that is their nutritive substance, is within them, when in fact the souls have run away and only the containers have remained in the garden. The soul of taro may escape by itself but it is also controlled by human beings, spirits of the dead and mythological beings such as the Masters of taro quoted above.

12The Longueinga sometimes find new taro cultivars in the forest, near ponds (the same is true of banana and pitpit, which they sometimes come across in the forest). These varieties differ from others, which are not to be domesticated, by the presence of coloured stripes on their stems. While in the forest, they have no corm; it is only through the process of domestication that they will a) develop a corm; b) get rid of their irritating properties which are stronger than in cultigens. To obtain these results, people plant the wild taro in a garden, usually near the edges, and replant it until its taste proves satisfactory. For the Maenge, while it was in the forest, this plant was devoid of soul. The best proof of this, for informants, is that it is inedible. It is only in the garden that the plant gradually acquires some soul, which its neighbours, the edible varieties, communicate to it until finally its dose of soul has reached a satisfactory degree and it is ready for consumption.

13When a “Father of the village” is displeased with his fellow-villagers, he may use his power to damage their crops. For this, he sends back the soul of taro to the places from where it came, reducing progressively the villagers to famine. To this aim he takes some ginger, spits it over a taro corm saying the following formula:

Karusi vura mao vura
Flying fox fly off, taro fly off

14He then throws away the taro in the direction of Imvulu, and then repeats the same operation over a second taro, which he throws in the direction of Matapilo. The villagers do not perceive at once the consequences of this act. For some time, they believe that they are still eating complete taro. It is not long, however, until they realise that whatever the quantity of taro they eat, they are still hungry. They will soon know that the “Father of the village” has deprived the taro of its soul. When the anger of the “Father of the village” is appeased, he can call back the soul of the taro as well as that of the other cultigens. The people then build a new men’s house, make a large garden and when he has cut the first taro leaves, the “Father of the village” climbs on the roof of the men’s house at night. He spits some ginger on a triton trumpet (Charona tritonis L.) and speaks thus:

Nutu vanruru mao vanruru
Nutu come back, taro come back

15He then blows the trumpet in the direction of Imvulu and in the direction of Matapilo. He should see lightning in both directions: the soul of taro is leaving its abode and coming back to its place inside the slowly maturing plants. The Lakalai attribute the same power to Sumua: unless Sumua sends soul-like spirits to inhabit the vegetables at each planting, the crop will not grow. Sumua may withhold the soul of taro or allow the ghosts to use the plants in the gardens whenever he is displeased with human beings (Valentine 1965: 186-187). From the gardening rite presented below, it will be clear that the main task of the “Father of the village” is to secure the soul of taro and those of the other cultigens for the village people.

Figure 21. Pestle used by the Longueinga in a gardening rite

Figure 21. Pestle used by the Longueinga in a gardening rite

Summary of the rite

  • 24 (Publisher’s note). From here to the end of the chapter, we have added subtitles or clarified the (...)

16For convenience in summarizing the rite24, it can be divided into three sections, corresponding to the main sequences of the swidden cycle minus the fallow period. These three sections are: 1. From selecting to planting; 2. From planting to harvesting; 3. Harvesting. The second section is divided into two sub-sections: 2.1, from planting until the taro reaches its maximum height and 2.2, from the time the taro has reached its maximum height until the crop is mature.

1. From selecting to planting

171.a. The “Father of the village” inspects carefully the site where he intends to make a ceremonial garden, with the aim of finding on the ground the traces of the boundaries left by previous gardeners. As may be recalled, these traces are called “the spine of the snake” and the Maenge attribute them to Malila. When the Father has found where the centre of the garden is located, where the big and small boundaries and the edges of the block are, he proceeds to the first cleansing operation. He spits some ginger on the surface of the block and recites the following formula:

Kae lelelu gua lelelu
Sun come inside ginger come inside

18Just as the sun, when rising, enters everywhere and sees everything, so ginger should go into the ground and discover all the evil actions that sorcerers may have done. Ginger must remain on the surface of the ground for a few days so that its heat can penetrate the soil and remove unpleasant smells it may contain.

191.b. In the centre of the garden, the Father erects a conical structure or fence around a cut tuber of the taro cultivar mue. This cut taro corm has been previously stuffed with the substance called “excrements of the snake” (muetanena), and the bark of Cinnamomum sp. On one side of this structure, the Father plants two sticks of Intsia bijuga; one, the “female”, has a fork while the other one, the “male”, reclines in this fork. The small fence that surrounds the mue taro is made with 10 sticks belonging to the following species: Eugenia cf. tierneyana, Piper sp., Pisonia longirostris, Premna sp., Palmeria sp., Calophyllum soulattri, Castanopsis acuminatissima, Archidendron sp., Laportea sp., Styrax agreste. The mue variety of taro was, together with the cultivar called geletamana, the first given by Malila to humankind. He brought it from the sky with the first cordyline called muesoke (from mue, snake; so, came down; ke, with it). More will be said later about this taro as well as about the substances called “excrements of the snake” and the symbolism of the species involved at this stage (see p. 159 to 163).

201.c. The first technological operations, cleaning the undergrowth and felling the trees, may now start. The “Father of the village” goes to the garden site together with the village population. He cuts the first vines and herbaceous plants himself and attacks the first tree. Each time, he implores Malila, who is supposed to come into the axe of the “Father of the village” and “bite” the first tree himself.

211.d. After several weeks, when the wood has dried, the village people come back to the garden. The men start to erect the pyres and lay down the trunks which mark off each compartment. The “Father of the village” buries a small stick of Intsia bijuga underneath the first pyre which is erected near the centre of the garden. He then proceeds to kindle the fire. Malila is supposed to send lightning to kindle it. The Father throws the mixture of Cinnamomum sp. and “excrements of the snake” into the fire. He then pokes the other pyres with an offshoot of a Premna sp. The village people eat in the garden; the meal includes flesh.

2. From planting to harvesting

2.1. From planting until the taro reaches its maximum height

222.1.a. The Father goes back to the garden with the village population. He purifies the soil for the last time by throwing water containing bits of the vine Pipturus repandus on hot stones placed in holes. This operation is known as “to make the soil vomit”, pamuta magalo. The python is thought to masticate (tamupelke) this mucilaginous vine to soften its throat before swallowing its victim. The vine is called muetamupelke (the snake masticates), and the soil should vomit all the bad influences it contains just as the python rejects the fibres of the vine once he has swallowed its juice. The Father then plants some ginger, Erythrina indica and cordylines in the various compartments. All these plants should favour the growth of taro, either because they themselves grow quickly (as E. indica and ginger) or because of their scent. While he is busy performing this operation, the women plant their own cordyline and Coleus plants in their own compartments and sweep them with basil (Ocimum basilicum). The Father goes around each compartment with his helpers, carrying sticks of Ficus pungens. The helpers beat the soil with the sticks, each of them holding a stick at one end, while the Father recites:

Lata kurupuli mao kurupuli
Porpoise bounce taro bounce

23When the father has gone through all the compartments, he goes back to the centre of the garden where he has planted a namvu cordyline. He invokes Malila and the other Masters of taro. He asks them to send the soul of taro and of the other cultigens to the garden. He plants the first taro top, whereupon the women start planting. The village people eat in the garden. Their meal includes flesh.

242.1.b. When the first leaves have appeared, but are not yet opened, the “Father of the village” goes around the garden, holding a feather of cassowary fixed on a bamboo stick. He seizes the petioles and waves his stick. The taro leaves should develop and surround the plant so that it should look as big as does the cassowary when, frightened, it blows up its feathers.

252.1.c. The Father “washes” the taro. The leaves are now opening. He sprays them with a leaf of the wild Cordyline var. “kerakera”, dipped in a mixture of water and the juice of Gynostemma pentaphyllum, that is green (kera) like the wild cordyline. This should encourage the young taro leaves and incite them to become as green as both plants are.

262.1.d. The taro is about two feet high. The women are then going to start weeding and to cut the leaves to be eaten as greens. Before they can do so, the Father plants some Erythrina indica again in the garden. The village people eat in the garden. Their meal must include some flesh.

272.1.e. The taro has almost reached its maximum height. The Father goes to the garden and cuts the petiole of a taro of the first firing place. This is the sign that the taro must now reduce its aerial part and develop its corm.

2.2. From the time the taro has reached its maximum height until the crop is mature

28When the corms are almost mature, the “Father of the village” buries another cut corm of a mue cultivar taro at the centre of the garden. Like the first one, it is also stuffed with cinnamon bark and “excrements of the snake”. He builds a small fence around it with the following species: Lasianthus chlorocarpus, Styrax agreste, Castanopsis acuminatissima, Alstonia scholaris and Prosopis insularum.

3. Harvesting

293.a. The Father goes to the garden with the women. He digs out the first corm and puts it on a buried stick of Ficus adenosperma. The women bring the first harvested corms on the same spot, where they remain for about a week.

303.b. The Father cleanses the village. The population cannot bathe or go into the forest for two days. The Father goes into all the marital houses. He pours water on hot stones that have been put in holes dug in the hearth of each house. He buries a stick of Intsia bijuga in the centre of the dancing ground.

313.c. The Father comes back from the garden with the women carrying the corms dug out during the previous days. The men follow, each carrying a taro corm with its petioles and leaves. The people walk in a line close to one another so that the taro soul will not escape. The women leave part of the corms on the stick of Intsia bijuga. They wait at the entrance of their houses until the “Father of the village” invites both the taro and Malila to enter their homes.

323.d. The taro left on the dancing ground are taken into the men’s house. Some are cooked there with their petioles so that they will not be planted again. Others are left to crumble into dust and are not eaten. The first taro cooked by the women in the marital houses are cooked on an open fire and not in the earth oven.

33To sum up the rite briefly, one could say that it aims to attract the taro soul that is in the possession of various supernatural beings, so that it will come and dwell first in the garden and then, once the crop has been harvested, in the village. From this point of view, the most dramatic moments in the rite are:

341. The moment when the “Father of the village”, at the foot of the namvu cordyline dedicated to Malila, implores this deity and the other Masters of taro, asking them to send the soul of taro to the garden. The Father of the village chants:

Nutu soso ka mao, soso, soso ka tao
Nutu come down with taro, come down, come down with sugar cane, etc.

35The “Father of the village” must pronounce the names of all the cultigens grown in the garden as well as the names of all the cultivars of these cultigens. The phrase is thus repeated, again and again. When the Father has finished imploring Malila (Nutu refers to him here), he then turns to the other Masters of taro such as Pangani, the One-legged people and the Vagakusime, and he addresses them in the same way.

362. The moment when the “Father of the village” brings back the taro soul into the village, leading the whole population, and he invites Malila and the newly harvested corms to enter each marital house. When the Father walks at the head of the long line that follows him, he carries in his right hand a mue taro and a piece of ginger, and in his left hand a muesoke cordyline, the first cultivars that Malila gave to humankind at the beginning of time. While walking, the Father recites the following formula:

Tamei toto mao toto
Sardine proceed, taro proceed

37Sardines move in large schools and the Father hopes that the souls of the corms will not escape on the way but progress together until he reaches the village. On the threshold of the village, he recites the following formula:

Mao teliu Nutu teliu
Taro enter Nutu (for Malila) enter

38To attract the taro soul, the “Father of the village” and the village people with him must operate a series of transformations concerning their surroundings and the taro plant, as well as their relationship with the other world.

A series of transformations

Transformation of the soil

39It can be recalled that, by contrast with the village, the Maenge consider the soil of the forest as cold. While it is being enriched by decayed leaves, the soil of a piece of land is improper for successful gardening because of its low temperature. Moreover, sorcerers may have spoilt it and transformed its pleasant smell and the fertile liquid circulating in it into bad ones. During the first phase of the rite, then, from the time the block is selected until the planting starts, the task of the “Father of the village” is to transform the soil, to clean it from all the bad influences it may contain, change its smell and liquid into good ones and at the same time, heat it. For this the “Father of the village” uses mostly “hot” plants such as ginger in 1.a., and Laportea sp. (serega) and the Piper sp. in 1.b. While planting the small stick of Laportea sp., which forms part of the fence erected around the stuffed mue taro, the Father says:

Serega tote, serega tote, tote Valia soalingana, tote Gale soalingana etc.
Serega cut, serega cut the bad actions of Valia, cut the bad actions of Gale etc.

40He lists all the names of the people who might, out of jealousy or ill-will, have damaged the site of the garden. The heat of Laportea sp. is supposed to go into the soil and remove all their evil actions.

41In this first phase, magic and technology pursue the same aim, since firing is also seen as a way of warming the soil. If the soil remained unclean and cold, the soul of taro could never stay in the garden. Because of its general similarities to human beings, the taro soul dislikes cold places. When the first corms are taken to the village, the soil of the village is cleaned and heated exactly in the same way as the garden soil was treated. The operation performed in the hearth of each of the marital houses is similar with that called pamuta magalo in 2.1.a. For cleansing the houses, the Father uses “hot” plants such as Derris elliptica (matangu); Alocasia macrorrhiza (vongau); or Ternstroemia merrilliana (ilele). Bits of these plants are put in the water before it is thrown on the hot stones. When the Father throws the water on the hot stones, he recites the formula:

Vongau tote vagau tote
or: Matangu tote matangu tote
or: Ilele tote ilele tote

42The plants are supposed to “cut” (tote) or remove the famine (pitolo).

Transformation of the taro plant

43The Maenge believe that the taro plant cannot grow well if no magic is performed. From the time when the taro tops are planted until the time when the first corms are harvested, the “Father of the village” must assist the plant in its development. The growth cycle of taro is divided into two sections, 2.1 and 2.2. During the first phase, the aerial part of the plant develops until it reaches its maximum height, while in the second phase, the aerial part withers and the corm matures.

First phase

44From the time the tops are planted until the time when the taro reaches its maximum height, the “Father of the village” manipulates plants that are supposed to help the taro grow. Prominent among them are “cold” plants, since their fresh and abundant latex or juice is supposed to be beneficial to taro. Ficus pungens used in 2.1.a. and Gynostemma pentaphyllum used in 2.1. c are such “cold” plants. At this stage, the Father and the women also use plants with a pleasant smell, which are favourable to growth, and other plants that will stimulate the growth of taro thanks to their abundant foliage or strong growing habits. For instance, Erythrina indica is used in this phase as it regrows very quickly from a cutting. While planting it in 2.1.a., the “Father of the village” recites the following formulae:

Maianga tutukolo mao tutukolo
Maianga break taro break
Vovo tomarekare mao tomarekare
Butterfly start off taro start off

45Maianga is a waterfall known for the strength with which water and foam surge. Tutukolo is the verb commonly used to refer to the breaking of waves. Taro should shoot upwards as do the waters at the foot of the waterfall. The upward movement of the butterfly should also encourage the taro to grow.

46While planting cordylines and Coleus, the women also recite some formulae. When planting the cordyline of the variety learamana, Kelatape from the coastal village of Malakuru said:

Ela kau ke learamana va mao valiala va pelau valiala go
My learamana cordyline, taro swells as the sea swells

47During this phase, Kaeliuna, the “Father of the village” of Pomio, used other “cold” plants such as a Laportea sp., Trema orientalis and a non-identified vine called sigoli. On the coast, trees with an abundant foliage like Caryota rumphiana are given as examples to the taro plants.

Second phase

48While the aerial part of the plant is withering and the corm maturing, the “Father of the village” performs operations, which aim at “killing” (vali) the plant. The word is used metaphorically and the operations it refers to should not be confused with that during which the taro is really “killed” (kinroge) so that the tops cannot be planted again. Here, to “kill” simply means to weaken the aerial part of the plant to help the corm develop. In this context, the Father uses “hot” plants such as a Cinnamomum sp., Alstonia scholaris; plants with an unpleasant smell such as Lasianthus chlorocarpus; or plants which can “kill” the taro thanks to their peculiar habits. Other species that are called upon have numerous fruits (for an abundant harvest), like Castanopsis acuminatissima, or a hard wood, like Eugenia cf. tierneyana, Premna sp. and Intsia bijuga, so that the corms should be hard like them.

Transformation of the relationship between the other world and this one

49During the rite, many exchanges take place between this world and the other. In order to get some taro soul, human beings send the souls of pigs (or pig substitutes such as eels, opossum and wallabies) to the inhabitants of the other world, whether spirits of dead human beings or mythological characters such as Malila. At the end of the rite, when taro plants are cooked with their leaves, the “Father of the village” sends some taro soul back to the beings of the other world as an expression of gratitude. Supernatural beings manifest themselves throughout the rite. Two of the Masters of taro, Samumsa and Kavavalelea, are supposed to arrive in the garden when the Father erects the small conical structure around the stuffed mue taro (see p. 158). Ancestors of the “Father of the village” are asked to come to the garden and keep watch there to prevent thieves and sorcerers from entering it. These spirits perch on the magic plants found at the centre of the garden. Malila himself is believed to “attack” the first tree and kindle the first pyre. When “attacking” the first tree, the Father says:

Nutu tele iau ka tele
Nutu (for Malila) cuts I cut

50In the past, the first pyre was lit not by bringing embers from the village but with fire produced by rubbing. Malila himself was supposed to kindle it. Nobody could come near it. It was feared that hair would fall or become grey if one did so. When kindling the fire, or looking after it, the Father recited the following formulae:

Malila valigolu mao valigolu
Malila fall and break the ground, taro fall and break the ground
or: Malila marale mao marale
Malila fall down, taro fall down

51Valigolu usually means “to break open” but here it refers to the lightning falling on the earth and opening it. Malila often appears accompanied by lightning as when he came from the sky to give the first taro and cordyline cultivars to humankind. Marale also indicates a quick motion from top to bottom, such as that of a stone falling into water.

52The formulae used on the coast is quite similar:

Malila rurukale mao rurukale
Malila break (the ground) taro break (the ground)

53The verb rurukale is only employed where referring to lightning as it falls on the earth and breaks it. The soul of taro should follow the lightning and enter the soil with it.

  • 25 (Editor’s note). A bark container used for carrying.
  • 26 (Editor’s note). A boat made with sawn planks that was still found among the Sulka at the time of (...)

54These three moments when Malila himself appears and cuts the herbaceous plants, “attacks” the first tree and kindles the first fire recall parts of the myth in which Nutu (Malila) teaches an orphan garden magic. In this myth, when Nutu comes back with the cultivated plants, all the village people arrive on the beach to fetch them. On their way home, they jostle an orphan, spitting on him as he is sadly sitting on the beach. When they have gone, the orphan starts collecting those taro plants which have dropped from the luvo.25 Nutu, who is still in his mono26 sees him and gives him a bundle of the best varieties of taro. He then follows the orphan to the old and rotten house where the child lives with his grandmother. Nutu first transforms the house into a beautiful one. During the night, he teaches the orphan precious formulae. The grandmother thanks him with some shell money. Nutu leaves. That very day, the child goes to a piece of land in the forest. He has his Lucinidae shell in his hand and after spitting some ginger on it, he implores Nutu. He then starts working. But as soon as he cuts a vine, all the garden is cleared. The same happens with all the trees: he “attacks” one and the others fall. On the day when he erects the first pyre, he implores Nutu again. As soon as the name is pronounced, lightning falls on the pyre, pushing the child aside. The crop matures and is abundant. The orphan prepares a feast for the village people. After the feast, they are so envious that they kill the child. In this way, humankind lost the efficient magic.

55To attract supernatural beings nearer to the human world, there is no better way than enacting part of the myths. This enactment abolishes the distance between the distant past and the humble present. This rite can be understood as a dramatisation of mythological events, or, to put it another way, as the transformation of a metaphorical reality, that of the myth, into a metonymic one. In this perspective, a few plants play a special part: those used to attract supernatural beings, such as ginger and cordylines of group 2.2, or those which, as Malila’s gifts, perpetuate the mythological past in the present, such as the muesoke cordyline and the mue taro.

56The function of ginger in Maenge culture is similar with that of tobacco in Amerindian ones. Whenever a prayer is made, it is used as the intermediary between the supplicant and the divinity. Other plants, such as the namvu cordyline, are also good intermediaries between this world and the other, since they are associated with specific supernatural beings.

57After describing the various transformations brought about by the rite, I now wish to turn to the sequence 1.b. The analysis of some of its details will allow a better understanding of the rite. I shall first discuss the symbolism of the two sticks of Intsia bijuga, then the symbolism of the substances called “excrements of the snake”, and I shall finally turn to the hard wood species represented in that part of the rite by Eugenia cf. tierneyana and Intsia bijuga.

Analysis of details in sequence 1.b27

The two sticks of Intsia bijuga

58As can be recalled, after having buried the stuffed taro in the centre of the garden (toamatana), the Father then proceeds to erect in the ground two small sticks of Intsia Bijuga, one of which is called “male” (apanung), and the other “female” (avale). The female one has a fork, in which one of the extremities of the male one rests. When planting the female stick, the Father recites the following formula:

Samumsa afalele mao agalele

59Samunsa is the old woman who lives in the Imvulu volcano; she is one of the Masters of taro. Agalele refers to the gliding motion of an old person who can no longer walk.

60When planting the male stick, the Father says:

Kavala tarala Kavala tarala

61Kavala is probably a shortened form of Kavavalelea, the companion of Samunsa. Tarala means to sit down and rest before arriving at one’s aim. As per my informant, when hearing the spells, the two supernatural beings should leave the volcano and proceed to the garden, followed by the soul of taro. Though my informant declared that the two supernatural beings are not supposed to copulate in the garden, it seems that the taro itself copulates. This can be inferred from a formula recited by the Father just before, from my informant’s comments and from the shapes and names of the two sticks on which the soul of taro is supposed to alight.

62Among the 10 sticks of wood planted around the buried mue taro, one is made of Calophyllum cf. soulattri (called gugule in secular life and ile in rites). When he plants this stick, the Father says:

Ile tanagi mao e tanagi

63Tanagi (or sanagi on the coast) originally means “to rub” and by extension refers to sexual intercourse. Just as two branches of ile, pushed by the wind, rub against each other, said my informant, so should the taro. According to my informant, the two sticks of Intsia bijuga would represent the two first human beings, born from a cucumber, from which all humankind has originated. Taro has reproduced in the same way. Malila gave the first human beings two taro cultivars, mue, a “female” taro, that is in Maenge terminology a taro which produces cormlets, and geletamana, a taro without cormlets, a “male” taro. From these two come all the taro grown today.

64This sexual theme is found in other parts of the gardening rites. At some point, when the taro is already quite big (2.1.d.), the “Father of the village” plants in each of the main firing places of the garden a small stick of Erythrina indica with the help of a pestle which represents the testicles of Malila. This theme has been developed by the Kol. Their gardening rite revolves around two characters, Manila and Ragira, equivalents of the Maenge Malila and Samunsa. Manila and Ragira are represented by two stones. These are put apart in the centre of the garden at the beginning of the rite. When the plants begin to mature, one of the stones, the female one, is placed on the male one. It is from the copulation of Manila and Ragira materialized by the two stones that all the crop is supposed to be born.

65This symbolism is also found among the coastal Maenge. In the sacred enclosure of their villages, a stone was buried which represented the penis of a supernatural being, presumably Malila. When making the first fire in a ceremonial garden, they used to pour on it a mixture called paerang, the name of one of the two substances called “excrements of the snake” (see below). This mixture was composed of animal and vegetable fat, including pig fat, coconut meat and nuts of Aleurites moluccana. It was supposed to go inside the ground and clean it of evil influences and it was referred to as Malila Kilina, the “strength” of Malila. Maybe this mixture represented sexual secretions. While sexual symbolism is related to the appearance and abundance of crops, the symbolism related to the stuffed mue taro evokes ideas of repletion and satiety.

The mue taro stuffed with “excrements of the snake”

66According to my informant, the mue taro is named by reference to Malila as he often appears to humankind in the guise of a snake, generally the python. For the Longueinga, the story of Malila begins somewhere in the direction of Hoskins on the north coast of New Britain. A myth tells how he was carried in the guise of a snake from there to the Longueinga country by his mother or grandmother. She carried him in one of the large coiled baskets (tia) made by the people from that area. Many events took place during their journey and many sites are known by what Malila did or said there. During his journey, he sat at a place nowadays called Taramanuna (from tara, to sit down and nunu, trace), where one can still see on the earth the traces of his body as he rested there, coiled upon himself. The site, near Talive, a village near the Kol border, is conspicuous for remains of the coastal flora like Areca palms; it is said that the sea retired from this inland spot when Malila left it. When burying the mue taro into the ground, the “Father of the village” says:

Malila taramanunu mao taramanunu

67This can be translated as:

Malila sit down and leave a print, taro sit down and leave a print

68My informant offered the following comments; the taro, when sitting in the ground, should have a large bottom (mana) and leave a trace as big as that left by Malila in Raramanunu. It seems that the gardening rites have exploited the fact that the bottom part of taro is called mana, a word usually meaning bottom but that can sometimes refer to the anus otherwise called manamasina (mana, bottom and masina, orifice.) He added that the python has a very large and conspicuous anus, open like a wound. There is little doubt that in this context the word mana refers to the anus of the python. A few days later, my informant specified that the part of the corm that is hollowed out represents the python’s mana. This becomes more intelligible if we turn to the substances with which the “Father of the village” stuffs the bottom part of the mue taro. Before leaving this point, it should be noted that throughout the gardening rite, much of the magic aims at making the mana of the taro as big as possible (see the magic devoted to the bottom part of the taytu in Malinowski 1935: 221).

69One of the mineral substances put into the taro corm and called “excrement of the snake” is named paerang. It is grey in colour and represents the excrements of the python in their normal condition. The word itself derives from the verb paere, to clean, and it is indicative of the part played by this substance in medicine and in other parts of the gardening rite (1. d). The other mineral substance is a coloured red soil called raravunga, a word referring to menstruation. The Longueinga claim not to be able to make the difference between a male and a female python, so that it appears both as male and female. The soil called raravunga represents the python’s excrements as coloured by menstrual blood. I could not get any precise information on the symbolism of the bark of Cinnamomum sp. in this context. It may also be used for its red colour. Both raravunga and paerang are classified as “hot” substances, like Cinnamomum sp.

70The Longueinga report that these two kinds of “excrements of the snake” come from the north coast and are traded to the Longueinga country. While working among the Kol, the Maenge’s eastern neighbours, during a visit of several weeks, I was quickly told that the Maenge were well known to them for using the excrements of the python in garden magic. In their opinion, however, these excrements came from Gopugopu, the place where Malila finally settled down, and not from outside the Maenge country. My Longueinga informants however claimed that these substances were bartered for a very high price: two handfuls for a page (the large circular shell money), while in death payments one page was worth one man. The Longueinga knew that the people near the coast used ashes, lava and stones from the volcano Imvulu as an equivalent of their muetaena. For these people, the soul of taro was present in the volcanic substances.

71When asked what the stuffing of the taro meant, my informant gave the following explanation: he considered that the two kinds of soil represented the soul of taro. The aim of the rite is to make the bottom part of the taro big and heavy, attracting as much soul as possible into it so that even a small morsel will suffice to stop a man’s hunger. The spell recited when stuffing the taro throws some light on the meaning of this operation as it says:

Pagani pangani Pagani pangani
Pagani give food, Pagani give food

72Pagani is a mythological character, one of the Masters of taro. His name is derived from the verb pagania (here with a nasal infix) meaning to give food. Decayed leaves are sometimes called paganingana. This part of the rite is then like many others where the idea is to stop hunger easily and arrest famine. Hence the stuffed mue taro is used in 2.2 and again in 3.d. or in other rites when the “Father of the village” recalls the soul of taro, which in his anger he has sent back to Imvulu or Matapilo. For the Longueinga, the soul of taro is present in the muetaena just as the soul of the snake itself is present in them. There is still a need to explain how a people like the Maenge, who are so concerned with the avoidance of dirty matter in everyday life, have chosen as the embodiment of the taro soul a substance considered as the “excrement of the snake”. To understand this embodiment, one must look for the association of faeces with food, first in daily life and second in mythology.

73In daily life, the association is found in two series of facts: the dispersal of plants by birds and the part played by rotten matter in the swidden cycle. The Maenge are aware of the part played by birds and other animals in the dispersal of plants. Individual observation as well as oral literature testify to this fact. They know that fruit of trees of the secondary growth can be dispersed by birds into the primary forest or in fallow gardens. Especially for trees with edible fruits, they can say which species is responsible for their dispersion. With respect to cultigens, it has already been mentioned in Chapter 3 that for the Maenge, some taro and sweet potato cultivars are dispersed by a parrot, Eclectus roratus. It seems that the parrot defecates parts of the corm or tuber, and that the plant regrows from these bits. The name of these cultivars recalls the association between food and faeces, as they are called manutaena or manupilia (from manu, bird; taena, faeces and pilia, defecate). Bulmer (1965) reports that for the Kyaka, the seeds of sweet potato can be propagated by the Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys): he defecates the seeds, which subsequently germinate. Interestingly, the Kyaka also believe that the Willie Wagtail is an “unclean” bird, which feeds on excrements.

74When discussing the fertility of soils as described by the Maenge in Chapter 2, I listed their opinions regarding major and minor sources of soil fertility. Apart from firing, these were: the decayed leaves of the secondary forest; the liquid of certain trees; domestic rubbish, bird, pig and human faeces and corpses. From this list, it appeared that for the Longueinga at least, human faeces were valuable resources used in the gardening cycle in the same way as other rotten matter. From this data, one may conclude that there is objectively an association between food and faeces in ordinary life. If one turns to mythology, one finds that the Vagakusime people, among the Masters of taro, are still as the first humans were. They do not have a digestive system but merely throw whole taro corms or coconuts into a hole opened at the summit of their skull. They reject this food undigested so that their excrements consist of large taro corms, coconuts etc. In addition to this, they live seated and cannot move so that they are surrounded by their own excrements. At the beginning of time, when Nutu and Malila competed to make humans, a fragment of a Longueinga myth tells how Nutu, in his foolish way, made man just as the Vagakusime are: he made an opening in man’s skull and threw stones into it, which he rejected until Malila covered the hole, opened a mouth in man’s face, endowed him with a proper digestive system and gave him real food. When the “Father of the village” implores all the Masters of taro, he also turns to the Vagakusime. He specifically asks that his taro corms be as big as the excrements of the Vagakusime. Thus, at the level of myth also there is no incompatibility between food and faeces.

75In the preceding pages, we have seen that 1. The Maenge express a continual concern with body cleanliness and avoid contact with impure matter and 2. Faeces appear as a valuable in their technological practices, in rites and in mythology. If food is a valuable, then it can be expressed in terms of faeces, exactly as other valuables are. If adze blades and shell-money are thought of as the excrements of a snake, why should not food be that too? The Maenge believe that the stones used as tools or in magic, adze blades, mortars and pestles have fallen from Malila while he was provoking thunder and lightning. Although it is not clear that all adze blades are identified with his faeces, one type of adze blade, light grey in colour, is called “excrement of the snake” and is attributed to Malila. Among the Tomoive, one finds the idea that shell-money is the excrement of a snake. This correlates with countless stories from other parts of the world as well as with the material in dreams (Freud 1908, 1909a, 1909b, 1917, 1918). The Tomoive also connect directly “excrement of the snake” and food. A myth tells how twins killed a large snake, Puro, who was devastating the country. They threw its tail into the sky, and the inflorescence of Saccharum edule (the part of the plant that is eaten) is said to be the excrement of Puro. Saccharum edule happens to flower at the beginning of the dry season, when the first lightning and thunder, which come from the tail of the snake, are seen and heard.

76There is no objection to food, as any other valuable, being thought of as the excrement of a supernatural being. This representation, as well as the observations concerning the dispersal of plants may have given rise, for instance, to the Hagen myth explaining how two women found the first sweet potato growing from the excrements of a man (M. Strathern 1969). There may be more in the gardening rite, however, than the demonstration that food, as a valuable, can be symbolized by faeces.

77One may argue that food, inasmuch as it contributes to the welfare of the body, can be described as the opposite of rotten matter. Indeed, as shall be seen in the next paragraphs, many of the species used in the gardening rite are characterized by a hard and heavy wood that does not rot easily, and it is hoped that the taro corms will partake of these qualities. Nevertheless, the crop is born from rotten matter, decayed leaves, rubbish, faeces and corpses. Part of it, during the digestive process, is transformed again into rotten matter while the nutritive substance, in liquid form, is absorbed by the body. One might say that the rite transcends these oppositions by affirming that food itself is part of the rotten category inasmuch as it can be called “excrement of the snake”. Then instead of having the cycle where food is born from the opposite (rotten matter), we can have a cycle where food is the same (excrement of the snake), born from the same (rotten matter) to produce the same (rotten matter).

Rotten matter


Rotten matter

Decayed leaves


Species with a hard, heavy and lasting wood

78During the rite, the “Father of the village” manipulates three species which belong to this category of wood: Intsia bijuga, Eugenia cf. tierneyana and Premna sp. These species are widely used in magic, so that it worth considering in some details the information available about them.

  • 28 (Editor’s note). In this context, tabooing trees that produce tree crops for owners refers to rest (...)

79When “tabooing”28 trees such as Areca or coconut palms, the owner can use both Intsia bijuga and Premna sp. to castigate possible thieves. These species will provoke constipation and make the bellies of the thieves as hard and heavy as they are. Since it is a desirable quality for the taro corm to be hard and heavy, one can then understand the part played by these species in the rite (in 1.b and 3.b). Yet is this their only symbolism? One should note that to cure constipation, one should resort to the mucilaginous juice of a tree, Pipturus argenteus, which is a close relative of the vine used in 2.1. On the other hand, owners can use Pipturus argenteus to cause diarrhoea in thieves. Pipturus argenteus thus appears in opposition to Instia bijuga (and of the trees belonging to the same category), for two reasons: it cures the sickness that they produce and brings about one that has an opposite effect to theirs.

80One can then begin to guess the connotations of Intsia bijuga and Pipturus argenteus. While ideas of stagnation and immobility are associated with Intsia bijuga, ideas of fluidity and circulation are associated with Pipturus argenteus. The validity of this hypothesis is confirmed by the utilisation of both species in gardening magic and sorcery. On the coast, when the Father is about to take the women to the garden where they will harvest the first corms, he is careful to bury at the entrance a stick of Intsia bijuga. This should make the hands of the women “heavy” and prevent them from harvesting the corms too quickly. If they were to do so, the taro soul, frightened, might run away. Conversely, when a sorcerer wants to spoil a garden, the only thing he must do is to bury at the entrance of the garden a stick of Pipturus argenteus. The women will harvest the corms too quickly and the taro soul will escape. Thus, while in the first instance Intsia bijuga is associated with the idea of permanence, Pipturus argenteus is associated with the idea of disappearance or flight.

81Indeed, the species with a hard, heavy and lasting wood are often used in rites to symbolize permanence of even triumph over death. Since their heartwood lasts long on the ground once the trees are felled, the Maenge contrast these species with the quick-rotting trees. These species are easily associated with old people, since both are “heavy” and long-lived. Young people should not use them as firewood for fear that their limbs would prematurely become heavy. When they appear in rites or myths, as in this rite (1.b), it is often in the company of an old woman, Samunsa, or her human counterpart. A myth shows clearly the association of these species with a lasting life. It tells how Samumsa called back to life one of the Nutu by striking him with a branch of Eugenia cf. tierneyana. This sequence is enacted at the end of a rite of passage to celebrate the rebirth of adolescents.

82These associations qualify the hard wood species well to play the part of “anchor” in the rites connected with village prosperity, to use Malinowski’s term (1935: 213-218). For instance, when the “Father of the village” erects one of the stones which symbolize prosperity on the village site, he first buries a stick of Intsia bijuga (luga) into the hole where the stone will stand and later he plants four other sticks of the same species around the stone. While planting them, he says:

Luga sigesige maga sigesige
Luga hold village hold

83This formula echoes another one recited by a coastal “Father of the village” in the second phase of the maturation process of taro. While planting a stick of Eugenia cf. tierneyana (ega) he says:

Ega sigesige mao sigesige
Ega hold taro hold

84From these formulae and their associations with the plant species, one can account for their presence in the rite. While stimulating the corm to be hard and heavy, their function is also to anchor the soul of taro either in the garden or in the village. We can then understand why these species are planted in the fence which surrounds the mue taro since the taro’s soul is present in it, or why the women must leave some of their corms on a stick of Instia bijuga when bringing back the first harvest to the village (3.b.). This last sequence is very similar with the vilamalia magic of the Trobrianders (Malinowski 1935: 213-228), especially if one considers that a heavy tree is used in both cases. Similarly, the Malays put a little ebony wood in the hole where the central post of a house is to be placed (Burkill 1935: 840). Together with the species already mentioned, among trees with a hard, heavy and lasting wood, the Maenge classify the following species: Diospyros ferrea, Diospyros insularis and Zizyphus angustifolius.

85Yet this is not the only function of these species in the rite. Instia bijuga and the other hard wood species can also be the abode of the taro soul. This can first be deduced from the peculiar position that these trees occupy in the Maenge universe. When discussing the meaning of the word kanu, informants pointed out that felled and dead trees would regain their soul when made heavy by the rain (M. Panoff 1968: 276). The soul of trees depends on the presence of moisture in their wood, either as sap or latex, which is held responsible for their heaviness. A dead tree is light and this proves that its soul has disappeared. There is however a class of trees that remain heavy even after being felled and left a long time on the ground: these are the trees with a hard, heavy and lasting wood. Their heaviness is proof that their soul has not escaped. Hence, they can easily become the abode of the taro soul, as happens in 1.b. when the taro soul led by Samunsa and Kavavalelea comes into the garden and alights on the two sticks of Intsia bijuga. These tree species are used as the abode of the taro soul only when dry or “hot” plants can be used, that is in section 1.b. and section 3 of the rite, but not in section 2.1, when the “Father of the village” uses “cold” plants. In this phase, we find a tree which is heavy with liquid and thus “cold”, Ficus pungens, used as an abode of the taro soul. The “Father of the village” resorts to this species in 2.1.a. just before the planting starts. One may recall that he is accompanied by two helpers who carry sticks of this species; they stop in each compartment. The two helpers beat the soil with the sticks while the Father recites:

Lata kurupuli mao kurupuli
Porpoise bounce taro bounce

86When they have repeated their movements several times, they carry the sticks close to one of the edges of the compartment and lay one of them down. The woman to whom this compartment belongs brings her taro tops and lays them on the ground so that they rest on the stick of Ficus pungens. The tops are then covered with leaves.

87What does this sequence mean? The formula does not throw much light on its content. The movement of the sticks corresponds to that of the porpoise bouncing in the waves; the taro should imitate it. This remains obscure. Several weeks after I recorded the sequence, the “Father of the village” suddenly remembered that the whole sequence alludes to a mythical event that can be summed up as follows. One day, an old woman, Inrova, was walking by a garden near a village. As she was tired, she decided to rest and lie down. A woman of the village, passing by, saw her and came running to the village saying that she had seen a bloodthirsty spirit. The men took their spears and arrived at the garden. They threw their spears at Inrova, but each time she collapsed and they thought she was dead, she came back to life saying: “I am Inrova, I fasten the taro” (Inrova ikia, iau ka ligue mao). Inrova thus appears as one of the Masters of taro. The movement of the sticks recalls her behaviour as she falls on the ground and gets up again. This throws some light on the reference to the porpoise since it seems to disappear into the sea to come back out a few seconds later. Her death and rebirth also parallel those of the taro plants, which, though dead, will regrow from their tops. Indeed, the lying taro tops enact the part played by Inrova; when planted a few minutes later, they will no longer by dead plants but live ones.

88What is the part played by Ficus pungens in this context? When the taro tops rest on it, it is compared to their headrests. As it is full of latex which makes it heavy, it is thought to be full of soul. While sleeping on it, the taro tops should reappropriate part of their soul so that later the corms produced from them can also be heavy and full of liquid, that is of soul, just as Ficus pungens. In this context, the species serves both as a metaphor of the taro soul and a means to attract it. While discussing the main characteristics of this rite, I have needed to refer to certain plant species and to the symbolism attached to them. I now wish to underline further aspects of this symbolism.

Plant symbolism

89It is a remarkable feature of this rite (and of the coastal ones) that the number of plants manipulated by the “Father of the village” is high (Table XIX) while the number of animals or animal parts is relatively low. The Father can use at least 29 different plant species, while he and the village people only use five animal species. These figures reflect the facts that the fauna is not as rich as the flora and that the Maenge are less concerned with animals. As Lévi-Strauss remarks, the symbolism that a culture attributes to a plant or an animal can never be postulated (1962: 73-83). Each culture can select different features of a given species and attribute different meanings to these features. Thus, he notes that Corvus sp. occupies dissimilar and even opposite positions in two North American indigenous cultures (1962: 76). For the agriculturalists of the southwest, the raven is primarily a ravager of gardens. As such, it is associated with vegetal food and is man’s rival. For the Indians of the northwest coast who live from fishing and gathering, the raven is an eater of dead flesh and excrement, who behaves in a way opposite to that of man. From such variations, Lévi-Strauss concludes that “the principle underlying a classification can never be postulated in advance. It can only be discovered a posteriori by ethnographic investigation, that is, by experience” (1966: 58). How can one foretell, for instance, that the Osage, who divide the universe in three domains, sky, land and water, classify the eagle as a land animal? Or, to return to the Maenge, that Endospermum formicarum is considered as a “hot” plant, although, based on its peculiar habits, one could predict that is would be a focus of symbolism? Whitmore notes that this species is called “chief tree” in the Solomons (1966: 70).

90The symbolism of the various species involved in this rite can only be deciphered by recording all the utilisations they can have, in technology, in medicine and magic, and in the myths, tales or magical formulae attached to them. While the symbolism of some species is quite straightforward, other cases are much more complex. There is no difficulty in knowing the meaning attached to Erythrina indica in most sequences of gardening rites: it is usually there as a fast-growing species which should stimulate the growth of taro. Although there may be other connotations, they do not conflict with this major one. Premna sp. offers a very different case. Here we are faced with conflicting connotations of the kind described by Sebag (1964: 183) when he discusses the contradictory qualities attributed to grasshoppers in Keresan mythology. In Premna sp., the Maenge have selected five attributes: the quality of the wood, the capacity to produce fire, its growing habit, the smell of the leaves and the habit of the leaves. Because the leaves have a pleasant smell and it grows quickly, this tree can be associated with growth; yet because its leaves fall quickly, once a branch is cut, it can be associated with sickness and decay. To sort out this conflicting information one must turn to the rite and see in which context this plant is utilised.

91The Longueinga used Premna sp. together with a few other species when they made fire by rubbing. Whitmore reports that Premna corymbosa has the best wood to produce fire by rubbing (1966: 115). A coastal myth related to another Premna sp. but with the same name and utilisation helps to discover Maenge representations concerning this tree. In the past, the myth goes, women were in possession of fire but they kept it in their gardens where they cooked their food and ate it, while they gave the men, who lived in the village, only raw food. One day, dissatisfied by this behaviour, fire escaped and hid in Premna sp. Since then it is men’s task to extract it from there with their hard work. For the Maenge then, if Premna sp. produces fire, this is because it contains fire.

Table XIX. Cultigens used in the rite

Cultigens used in the rite

Latin Name

Maenge Name

Alocasia macrorrhiza



Colocasia esculenta



Cordyline terminalis



Musa sapientum



Zingiber zerumbet


Wild species used in the rite

Alstonia scholaris

R. Br.





Calophyllum cf. soulattri



Castanopsis acuminatissima

(Bl.) Rehd.





Cordyline terminalis






Eythrina indica



Eugenia cf. tierneyana

F. v. M.


Ficus adenosperma



Ficus pungens



Ficus subcongesta



Gynostemma pentaphylla

(Thunb.) Mak.


Intsia bijuga






Lasianthus chlorocarpus

K. Schum.








Pipturus repandus

(Bl.) Wedd.


Pisonia longirostris

T. and B.





Prosopis insularum

(Guill.) Bret


Styrax agreste

(Lour.) G. Don.


Ternstroemia merilliana



92This myth and the utilisation of Premna sp., which it explains, throws immediate light on the part of the rite (1.d) when the “Father of the village” goes from one main firing place to the other, poking the pyres with an offshoot of Premna sp. If Malila is supposed to kindle the first main firing place, would it not be that the Father transfers Malila’s power from the first main firing place to the others? In this perspective, the selection of Premna sp. becomes perfectly intelligible. As a fire-containing tree, it can play the part of an intermediary between the first pyre and the others. Moreover, as a tree containing and producing fire, this species can easily be assimilated to the volcano Imvulu that is also a container and producer of fire. This offers new possibilities for interpreting the rite, which will be explored in the next paragraphs.

Photograph 15. Cordylines and crotons mark the place where some of the sacred stones used to stand in Matong.

93One should note that one of the formulae recited during the rite (1.b) suggests that the name of Premna sp., kipa, derives from the same root as kinipa, to throw sparks. In this case, both the linguistic and technological evidence may point out to the same characteristics of the plant, namely its capacity to produce fire. The formula is as follows:

Kipa kinipa mao kinipa
Kipa throw spark taro throw spark

94Then when poking the pyres, the Father recites the following formula:

Imvulu paruru mao paruru
Imvulu strip off taro strip off

95The word paruru refers to the sloughing of a snake. It is used to indicate the removal of the dirty outer self, an operation performed at the end of the rites of passage that is done to allow the child’s inner self, which has flown to the volcano Imvulu, to come back to its abode. When applied to the volcano, the word paruru indicates the moment when the volcano, which can be seen from the Longueinga country, emerges from the cloud and becomes visible again. The formula itself is like one used by the ritual expert when removing the dirty outer self of the child (M. Panoff 1969d: 290-291):

Imvulu paruru samue paruru
Imvulu strip off slough strip off

96When reciting the formula, the expert rubs the body of the child either with cordyline leaves or with the leaves of wild species among which one finds Premna sp. The utilisation of this species in cleansing rituals is well attested. When menstruating or after childbirth, women wear it to dissimulate the smell of blood with its odoriferous leaves. Women can also purify themselves with Premna sp. after menstruation in an operation resembling that in the rites of passage. Both the utilisation of the plant in cleansing rituals and the formula thus point to the same direction. But why refer to a cleansing ritual here?

97The planting starts soon after the fires are extinct. The planting itself, as shown above, is seen to be a rebirth of taro. Thus, it appears that just as the child is purified before his inner self comes back to him, so taro must be cleansed before its soul comes back to it. The utilisation of an offshoot of Premna sp. rather than of any other part of this plant can be explained by the desire to emphasise the symbolism of this sequence as a rebirth: the taro plant should regrow from the top as easily as the offshoot of Premna sp. does from a stump. The formula

Imvulu paruru mao paruru

98is repeated when the Father plants the first taro top (2.1.a) and later during the 2.1 phase. Not only is the soul of taro like that of humans in that it can feel and has will, but the life cycle of taro can be understood as serial death and rebirth on the model offered by the rites of passage.

99To return to Premna sp., one can say that in the first part of the growth cycle of taro, it is used in association with scented plants and fast-growing plants, which help the taro grow. In the second part of the growth cycle (2.2), on the contrary, it is used to “kill” the aerial part of the plant. In both cases, it is the context that allows the perception of the relevant connotations. When a coastal Father of the village resorts to Premna sp. in section 2.2, he uses it together with “hot” plants (Alstonia scholaris or Amoora cucullata), “strangling” figs or plants with unpleasant smells, all of which will succeed in reducing the aerial part of taro and stimulating the growth of the corm.


24 (Publisher’s note). From here to the end of the chapter, we have added subtitles or clarified the already-existing ones in order to bring out the structure of the text and make it easier to follow.

25 (Editor’s note). A bark container used for carrying.

26 (Editor’s note). A boat made with sawn planks that was still found among the Sulka at the time of the author’s fieldwork. Nutu e sina piled the edible plants in his boat and took them with him to sea (See Chapter 2, Section 1 p. 48).

27 (Editor’s note). See p. 150.

28 (Editor’s note). In this context, tabooing trees that produce tree crops for owners refers to restrictions placed by these owners to forbid others’ access to their trees.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 21. Pestle used by the Longueinga in a gardening rite
Fichier image/jpeg, 66k
Légende Photograph 15. Cordylines and crotons mark the place where some of the sacred stones used to stand in Matong.
Fichier image/jpeg, 269k

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