Afterlife: Oceanic Concepts

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The idea of the temporal continuance of some aspect of the deceased is widespread, if not universal, in Oceanic cultures. In some cases, as with the Dreaming of Australia, or the redoubled "Sky World" of the Enga people of the New Guinea highlands, the condition of the dead is coeval with the life they had lived, though on a different plane of existence. More commonly, the "place" of the dead is identified with some remote or inaccessible location, beneath the ground, under the sea, or, as with the people of the Trobriand Islands, a haunted and little-visited island (Tuma).

Because death betokens an inevitable separation, never mind the "communication" that may follow, the answer to "what happens to the human essence after the body dies?" may run away with the question. It is often coincident with a more comprehensive cosmological vision. If the best one could do to describe this present life, here on earth, would be a matter of metaphors and analogies, then what difference if the condition of the dead were described in that way also? For many Oceanic peoples the condition of dying itself is considered to be a long, protracted process, intermingled with grieving and mortuary practices, and the bodies of the deceased, as well as their possessions, become highly charged social objects. For many Austronesian-speaking Melanesian societies, death has great power, and a highly articulated mortuary feasting complex serves as the focus for all social life.

It would be fair to say that for many Oceanic peoples the terminal condition of the deceased is coincident with social dismissal, postponed long after the body ceases to function, and that the "afterlife" is really a sort of "half-life," analogous to the radioactive decay of an element. Living persons encounter the deceased in quasi-human form, or vice-versa, and there may be as much uncertainty and doubt among the indigenous folk as to what is actually going on as among those who study them. Death "takes prisoners," as it were, and may take a long time letting them go. There are a great many peoples in Oceania who would rather not believe in ghosts.

Those who meet their deaths through violent means, in warfare or accident, belong, in many Oceanic cultures, to a special category of after-death experience. They are conceived as restless, mobile, angry spirits, eager to avenge their unfortunate plight back upon the living, and so very dangerous and threatening. The concept is similar to that of the preta in the Sanskritic tradition, and to other, analogous precepts found in India and Southeast Asia. It has a widespread distribution in the Pacific, in one form or another, from the divination for "happy" as against "unhappy" ghosts on the islands of Yap, in Micronesia, to the fabled (and often surprisingly real) "Night Marchers" of Hawai'i. One New Irelander, from the Bismarck archipelago, put it this way: "Just how many American and Japanese servicemen died out there in the Pacific? Some days you can see them fishing, in gigantic waterspouts, and you can see them up in the coconut trees during a thunderstorm, with fire flashing from their eyes and armpits. When the wind scoops up moisture from the sea, bring your children into the house! "

Found occasionally among non-Austronesian speakers as well, the idea is analogous to another, described among coastal Papuan and Torres Strait peoples and encountered by Captain Bligh in the Tahiti area. This is that those who are shipwrecked at sea become automatically strangers to the land, demons, no longer human, who must be killed, for reasons of safety, by anyone encountering them.

In Beyond the Kubea (1940) explorer Jack Hides recounted the feeling of an unidentified interior Papuan people that the spirits of the deceased become visible as "cloud-shadows on the mountains," meaning perhaps that their afterlives, or at least our inability to make sense of them, are as evanescent as the darkness playing upon the distant expanses of montane rain forest. The idea at least captures something of the feeling of the Japanese notion of "the Floating World." But it is also emblematic of the problem faced by any inquiry into the particulars of an afterlife concept, for it excludes an explicit denial.

Denial, when met with in this context, has a power of its own. A classic instance of this, easily misunderstood, is the tenet of the Daribi people of interior Papua New Guinea: "When people die, they just go into the ground; their faces disappear, and there is no such thing as a spirit or soul that survives the death." When asked what they might call such a soul or spirit, the Daribi reply, "It is called the izibidi." A key to what this may mean is given by a literal translation of the term: it means "die person" and not "dead person" (which would be bidi-iziare ). More properly, then, the action of dying itself, though terminal, has a tenacious after-effect in the potentially dangerous izibidi, an anomalous and paradoxical condition that most people would rather deny than think about. Daribi are afraid of izibidi for the very fact that they ought not to exist.

Though the Daribi expression of this point (others might call it "agnostic") is somewhat unusual for the region, its practical implications are not. The expression gives a necessary deniability (as well as considerable power) to the words and actions of the spirit mediums and shamans (sogoyezibidi ), the main spiritual agencies in Daribi life. A more general evocation of the paradox was given to the French missionary Maurice Leenhardt (1979) in New Caledonia: "We have always had the spirit ; what you Westerners brought to us was the body." All the problems and paradoxes regarding afterlife in the Pacific may be said to begin from that point.

For many Melanesian peoples, at least, "afterlife" may be an aberrant approximation, based on the continuing resonance, in memory and in habitus, among the survivors, of a striking or powerful personality removed from their midst. Thomas Maschio (1994) translates this as "memory" among the Rauto of south New Britain, and the work of Steven Feld (1982) among the Kaluli, of Mount Bosavi in Papua, reveals their Gisaro rite as an awesome synchronicity, uniting the worlds of the living and dead through the reverberation of sound. The Gizra folk, of the Papuan south coast, trace the mythic beginnings of our world to "the Woman Kumaz, Originator of Death and Musical Instruments."

Music may or may not be the voice of the soul, but it is surely our most eloquent evocation of resonance. At all events, it would seem to be the closeness or near proximity of death that predominates in many of the Papuan conceptions of afterlife, whereas other Oceanic peoples emphasize the separation. It begins as a journey for many Polynesian peoples. For the New Zealand Maori, one of the most significant shades of the deceased embarks on a long journey after dying and finally comes to reside in a world beneath the sea, very much like our own. On Tahiti the ultimate destination of the deceased depends on choices made, or trials encountered, en route. A kind of paradise, identified as "Fragrant Rohutu," represents the best of these, whereas the others, according to Christian analogies developed by the missionaries who first described them, correspond to a kind of limbo and a purgatory.

Death implies a journey, as well, for the Afek religion of the Mountain Ok peoples in the Star Mountains, the geographic center of New Guinea. One of the edifices of their Telefolip ritual complex covers the entrance to the bad road into death, called "the Road of Dogs Tearing Flesh." Another, presided over by the woman Bitsanip, a near reincarnation of the creatress, guards the entrance to the good road into death, and Bitsanip advises those who die to take it.

There is, however, the danger of a false dichotomy in some of these examples, for the journey of the deceased resonates the life values left behind in death, whereas the verses of the Kaluli Gisaro, a most piquant instance of death-related resonance, trace the progression of an imaginary traveler across a real landscape. Kaluli call this "singing the garden-names."

What is missed most in accounts of Oceanic afterlife concepts is neither the fault of those who tell them nor of those who write them down, but most often a glitch in the art of explanation itself, which has a certain afterlife quality of its own. We tend to favor linear, cause-and-effect strategies and vivid depictions of a scenario that is hardly more than guesswork. The best we might hope for would be the kind of pragmatic understanding that combines the afterlife concepts of the peoples in question with those of our own explanatory overtures.

What happens to the sense of things after the senses have ceased to function? Is the concept of an afterlife something reserved for the living alone, or does it correspond to something that is asymbolic, existing independently of the analogies used for its recognizance? Even our commonplace words and phrases have their resonances, and a sentence is, of course, a journey. But for a number of Melanesian peoples, and perhaps others in Oceania, the question of analogy's correspondence to reality is a moot one. For those gifted with what some scholars have called a "holographic worldview,"* the differences between symbolic analogy and reality, and, perforce between life and death, are summed together automatically and canceled, in the very thinking of them. This means that what might be considered as "afterlife" is fully coterminous with life as it is lived, that what might be called "the symbolic debt" of the living is revoked, that every person becomes a completed being when the holography is engaged on their behalf.

In formal terms, holography amounts to the complete mutual occlusion of part and whole (any part and any whole) in any contingency. When properly applied, holography obviates the stepwise patterning of logical explanation, or reasoning by analogy, by the simple virtue of being its own analogy for itself. In more familiar terms, a hologram depicts a three-dimensional imagery in a two-dimensional format and obviates the sense that would guess at its depth or spatial placement. In the terms of the mortuary feasting complex of the Barok people of New Ireland, death's hologram is life, and life's hologram is death. "The child in the womb and the corpse in the ground are one and the same thing and the same conception, the ultimate containment called Kolume. In everything we know and do and touch, Kolume is intersected by Gala, the ultimate severance, or the cutting-that-nurtures." What would appear to be a mortuary feasting complex is simply a highly formalized and participatory confirmation, performed on behalf of every person who dies, of the elemental oneness of Gala and Kolume. Death takes no prisoners, here, and afterlife would be anticlimactic.

We have ample evidence that something of this sort, the holographic death, was the real object of ancient Egyptian mortuary practice, belief, and ritual, though we have not escaped its purely secular afterlife. But we have better evidence, historical contingencies aside, that the Barok version of it is by no means unique in the Oceanic world. Barok themselves point out that something very similar takes place on the offshore islands of Tangga, as perhaps elsewhere in the island arcs of Austronesian-speaking Melanesia. Fine examples have been found on the islands of Sabarl and Vanatinai, in the Massim area, and on the large island of New Guinea. Effective holographic imageries, or in other words asymbolic mental models, have been discovered, usually inadvertantly, by ethnographers in a number of places in Oceania.

Closely allied to these is the conception of afterlife that might be called "reflectional," often based on a radical and highly articulated form of duality. Among the Enga and a number of other interior New Guinea peoples, each person has a "double," a mirror duplicate that pursues a parallel existence in the sky or in a land beneath the rivers and lakes. A South Angan speaker put it this way: "The one you see in a mirror, or in a pool of water, is not you, and it is not human." For many of these peoples the idea of an afterlife is merely contingent to what amounts to a much stronger principle, that of the self-separate identity as a manifest aspect of a bifurcate cosmos. Thus, the Kaluli, mentioned above, experience afterlife in the form of an animal double living in the forest, the water, or the air. When that creature, in its turn, dies, its spiritual essence reenters the human world.

Duality and holography are neatly combined in the afterlife concepts of many Australian Aboriginal peoples, particularly those of the central desert regions. On the one hand, the everyday world of landscape or "country" is organized according to intricate permutations and combinations of the powers of twothe marriage sections and ritual moieties. On the ether hand, the dreaming ("dreamtime"), an eternally creative epoch, is purely holographic and permeates the world of the living on a separate spiritual plane. One enters the dreaming in sleep, in ritual, and necessarily in death. But, because a part of one's existence is always fixed in dreaming, "afterlife" describes only one aspect of something with a vast potential scope, and that would have to include such things as "forelife" as well.

Concepts such as that of "reincarnation"reported more frequently among Australian Aboriginal cultures than elsewhere in the Oceanic regionparticipate in this potential as well. If the psychology of the dreaming operates in the way that the Aboriginal peoples have described it, then the daily journey of the human soulwaking and sleeping, as well as the ritual cycles of the collective multitudeamount to a complete social encompassment of the reincarnation principle that has no peer anywhere else in the world of human cultures. Asking whether such a thing as reincarnation exists, or why or how it may operate, would be completely beside the point of what these peoples know of it.


Battaglia, Debbora. On the Bones of the Serpent. Chicago, 1990. A brilliant synopsis of memory as afterlife in the context of Austronesian peoples' elaborate funerary feasting.

Feld, Steven. Sound and Sentiment. Philadelphia, 1982. The landmark study of Oceanic music, an evocation of soundscape among the Kaluli of interior New Guinea as understood by a talented jazz musician. Human afterlife as an intrinsic function of resonance, as expressed in metaphor, dance, birdsong, and the overtoning of musical instruments.

Hides, J. G. Beyond the Kubea. London, 1940. A rare book, difficult to obtain, but a treasure, with insights into the afterlife concepts of previously uncontacted peoples.

Laba, Billai. "The Woman Kumaz, Originator of Death and Musical Instruments." In Plumes from Paradise, edited by Pamela Swadling. Boroke, New Guinea, 1996. Laba tells of his own people, the Gizra, and their legendary origin of human afterlife. Compare with the discussion in Feld, listed above.

Leenhardt, Maurice. Do Kamo. Chicago, 1979. A highly original account, by an early missionary, of peoples in New Caledonia with a unique conception of language and the constraints it imposes on human life and afterlife. An exception that "proves the rule."

Lepowski, Maria. Fruit of the Motherland. New York, 1993. Compare with Battaglia (listed above); a rich though nontheoretical account of an Austronesian island people and their pivotal, life-and-death-defining mortuary feasting complex.

Maschio, Thomas. To Remember the Faces of the Dead. Madison, Wis., 1994. The magnificent study of a people of New Britain, the Rauto, whose whole conception of the meaning of things (makai ) eschews metaphor and extols memory as the sole significant factor in afterlife. (Compare with Feld and Battaglia, listed above.)

Oliver, Douglas. Ancient Tahitian Society. 3 vols. Honolulu, 1974. An encyclopedic survey of the concepts, beliefs, and practices of Polynesia's most abundant civilization, with considerable attention to afterlife.

Wagner, Roy. Habu. Chicago, 1972. The second part of this synoptic monograph on Daribi religion, titled "The Invention of Immortality," concerns the death-related shamanic and ritual concepts and practices of a people who do not believe that ghosts exist but nonetheless fear them.

Roy Wagner (2005)

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Afterlife: Oceanic Concepts

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