Melanesian Religions: Mythic Themes
MELANESIAN RELIGIONS: MYTHIC THEMES
The myths of all known Melanesian peoples are subtly, intricately, and often tacitly bound to fundamental matters of worldview, ethos, and personhood in religious systems of meaning. Yet the study of myth in Melanesia has a long, largely unvaried tradition of being descriptively rich but analytically impoverished. Indeed, this fascinating field of study remains a vast terra incognita in important respects and lags significantly behind the study of Melanesian ritual, in which significant theoretical and comparative advances have been made. Relatively few ethnographies of Melanesian cultures and societies have focused exclusively or even primarily on making theoretical or comparative sense of the marked diversity and remarkable intricacy of the mythology of this area. Most ethnographic studies contain some references to myth, but in general, myth tends to be merely a secondary feature of the central analytic endeavor and is explored—if at all—largely to enhance the primary interests of analysis. Only recently has Melanesian mythology begun to attract focal analytic attention on its own.
Studies of Melanesian Myth
The legacy of earlier studies of Melanesian myth still burdens present endeavors to summarize and to synthesize what is archivally available. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars working among the myriad indigenous peoples of the Dutch, French, English, and German Melanesian colonies compiled extensive collections of mythic narratives in many forms. These often simplistic assemblages of myths, however, were ethnographically sterile and left ample room for varied academic fancies and fantasies to supplant Melanesian mythic realities. The collections were sometimes linguistically suspect and often unidentified by genre of oral literature and by sociocultural group. Thus, various kinds of myths, legends, folk tales, and other conventional classes of oral literature, sometimes from different regions, would often be merged in one collection regardless of local or analytic senses of genre. Compilations tended to include an emphasis on origin myths, mythic charters of institutional forms, and myths and legends of culture heroes and migrations. These early collections revealed little about other important aspects of Melanesian myth—of its role in or as a sacred performance and as an assertion of ideology or belief, a map of supernatural landscapes, a model of personhood, a mode of ethnohistorical discourse, a social or ritual charter, and a shared but also contestable collective representation (in the Durkheimian sense). They usually ignored the significance of myth as a vital, flexible, and changing but also enduring aspect of a lived, remembered, and imagined sociocultural reality among those islands of the southwest Pacific that constitute Melanesia.
The boundaries of mythology in Melanesia are sometimes obscure, for the analysis of myth as sacred narrative has been simplistic, uncritical, imprecise, and inconsistent and has not encompassed the many diverse kinds of regional oral traditions. Moreover, scant attention has been given to local genres of narrative, such as the Daribi namu po or po page, Kalauna neineya, Kamano kinihera, Keraki ninyi-ji, Kewa lidi or ramani, and Trobriand kukwanebu, libogwo, or liliu. Indeed, there are few ethnographic portraits of the classificatory complexity exhibited in the seventeen genres of Bimin-Kuskusmin oral tradition, or analytic frameworks that could accommodate such complexity. Nonetheless, the sacred qualities of myth often do seem to be marked in a more or less distinctive manner throughout Melanesia. Thus, myths may be distinguished by certain modes of discourse or language (as among Bimin-Kuskusmin, Daribi, or Kwaio); embedded formulas or linked songs or chants (as among Gende, Kamano, or Trobriand Islanders); tacit contextual associations and symbolic allusions (as among Baktaman, Bimin-Kuskusmin, Fore, Gende, Gimi, Gnau, Hua, Huli, Iatmül, Jate, Kai, Kamano, Keraki, Siane, Telefolmin, Umeda, or Usurufa); entitlements to know, to explicate, and to narrate bound to a complex sociology of sacred knowledge and related rules of secrecy, taboo, and revelation (as among Baktaman, Bimin-Kuskusmin, Elema, Kera-ki, or Marind-Anim); and intricate linkages with forms of art, magic, music, and ritual (as among Abelam, ʾAréʿaré, Elema, Ilahita Arapesh, Kwaio, or Sambia). Most myths are cast in the form of narratives and are sometimes interconnected in complex cycles; examples of these mythic cycles are the delicate mosaics of origin myths among the Nalum of the Star Mountains of Irian Jaya, the narratives of the founding ancestress Afek in the Mountain-Ok region of Papua New Guinea, the key Massim myths of canoe voyages and kula exchange transactions, and the mythic culture-hero cycles that pervade the whole of Melanesia. Other myths, however, may also be both danced and sung (Waropen), embedded in linked cycles of songs (Kiwai), or enacted in magical or ritual dramas (Elema, Marind-Anim) to enhance their performative efficacy or elocutionary force in creating a sacred cognitive-affective ex-perience.
Despite their occasional entertainment value, the casual way in which they are often told, and their abstract literary qualities, the myths of Melanesia are profoundly anchored to the local foundations of sociocultural existence. They are portraits of various phenomena of sacred significance, "charters" (in Bronislaw Malinowski's sense) that both elucidate and legitimate fundamental institutional forms and practices, and narrated performances that are believed to affect the course of events of concern to human communities. The performance aspects of myth in Melanesia are less well understood than similar features of ritual, although there have been numerous studies of the place of myth vis-à-vis male initiation ritual (as among Awa, Baktaman, Bimin-Kuskusmin, Chambri, Gnau, Ilahita Arapesh, Mianmin, Ndumba, Sambia, or Telefolmin) and noteworthy analyses of myth by Jan van Baal (1966) on Marind-Anim, Catherine H. Berndt (1955) on the Kai-nantu area (Fore, Jate, Kamano, Usurufa), Kenelm O. L. Burridge (1969) on Tangu, S. Hylkema (1974) on Nalum, John LeRoy (1985) on Kewa, Roy Wagner (1978) on Daribi, and Michael W. Young (1983) on Kalauna. A linguistically and symbolically sophisticated approach to the ethnography of mythological discourse in Melanesia, however, is evident only in incipient and rudimentary form. Attention has been directed primarily toward more descriptive, functional, or structural characteristics of portrayals of mythic personae, landscapes, origins, migrations, and other sacred phenomena. Analysis of these mythical portraits has focused on varied aspects of their subjects' cultural, existential, psychological, social, or even theological significance in times of both stability and change.
Personae of Melanesian Myth
Characters in Melanesian myth are variously and loosely identified as deities or primordial creator spirits, culture heroes, remote or recent ancestors, totemic figures, local spirits, demons or ogres, forest spirits, and tricksters. The notion of a supreme deity or creator is found rarely, or remains doubtful as an interpretation of local belief, in most areas of Melanesia, with the possible exceptions of the hierarchical societies of eastern Melanesia (notably Fiji) and the northwest and northeast coasts of Papua New Guinea. Certain renowned and omnipotent figures sometimes also appear in Melanesian myths, such as Enda Semangko (Kyaka Enga); Honabe (Huli); Marunogere (Kiwai); Oma Rumufa (Siane); Ora Rove Marai (Roro); Parambik (Ngaing); Sinatu, Mubu, and Obomwe (Garia); and Ye (Rossel). Although creative or regulative beings are known in most of the area's mythologies (except among the Tangu), such spirits rarely have the elaborate Polynesian features of the Kalou-Vu and other deities of the Fijian pantheon. Indeed, in eastern Melanesia at the Polynesian frontier cosmogonic myths and their portraits of the generative powers and acts of mythic creators are generally more intricate and are interwoven with representations of social hierarchy. In this subregion, myths tend to place greater emphasis on ideas of duality; totemic concepts; complex culture-hero or trickster cycles (at times almost as elaborate as those of the Polynesian Maui myths); images of regeneration, reproduction, or reincarnation (often in serpentine form and less bound to ideas of garden fertility than in western Melanesia); regional integration; and autochthonous origins—all in support of fundamental creation in and of the cosmos. In other parts of Melanesia, however, mythic creators are usually assigned less than cosmogonic tasks.
Myths of Cosmogony
Myths of origin, found in almost every cultural repertoire of Melanesian myth, generally assume the preexistence of the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos. When described at all, the primeval era is often portrayed either as a mosaic of basic elements, structures, and processes—earth, water, sky, astronomical bodies, the underworld, and the forces of wind, rain, tide, and temperature (Huli, Iatmül, Mae Enga, Marind-Anim, Mbowamb, Rossel)—or as a period of chaos, marked by cataclysms, storms, fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, comets, and earthquakes, to be eventually put in order (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Orokaiva, Tangu, Trans-Fly, Waropen). Indeed, this primordial chaos is often paralleled by the mythical moral disorder attributed by many Melanesian peoples to the fringes of their known world (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Marind-Anim, Trans-Fly).
More often, however, such myths largely ignore cosmogony, focusing instead on subsequent modifications or transformations of terrain or seascape, flora, fauna, humankind, and culture or society brought about by important creators, culture heroes, totemic figures, or ancestors. Some of these mythic characters are both creative and regulative. Responsible for particular facets of cosmic order, they dwell in or near human settlements and supplicants, taking an interest in human affairs and often intervening in them. Other mythological beings are primarily or only regulative, possessing few if any creative powers but monitoring and intervening in human affairs after the establishment of the essential cosmic, moral, and social orders.
Culture heroes, on the other hand, are usually only creative. Soon after completing their acts of creation, they abandon human society, taking no further interest in its continuing affairs. But ancestral and totemic figures—through genealogical or ethnohistorical links with social groups founded on principles of descent or locality—tend to be significantly associated with the ongoing sociocultural life of particular communities. They model, validate, and also regulate aspects of the social, economic, moral, political, and ritual orders.
Origins of Humanity
In most Melanesian origin myths, primordial transformations reveal little sense of an original paradise and are attributed to various forms of hostility, to breaches of morality, and to conflict—often incest (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Huli, Marind-Anim, Waropen) but also adultery, desecration, homicide, rape, rebellion, sibling rivalry, suicide, treachery, and theft. The first humans are sometimes created through primeval acts of incest, although myths of ancestral parthenogenesis or virgin birth are also known (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Sambia, Trobriand Islanders). The original humans are depicted as emerging not only from the bodies of primordial humanoid forebears, but also from various sacred or mysterious cassowaries (Bimin-Kuskusmin), earthworms (Ndika), eggs (Rossel), stems (Kiwai), pigs (Tangu), palms (Keraki), and ground holes (Trobriand Islanders). Sometimes they emerge from other sources and sites—land, sea, sky, or perhaps some unknown, unmapped netherworld. Although they are occasionally completely formed, the first humans most often are molded or hardened by hand or by fire or sun into fully human form. They are then endowed with sensory, sexual, reproductive, and judgmental capacities, as well as other attributes of personhood (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Ilahita Arapesh, Marind-Anim, Trans-Fly). Once they are minimally human, these early beings are usually further endowed not only with the essential cultural artifacts—of gardening, fishing, hunting, and other productive activities—but also with such institutions as marriage, child-rearing, ritual, magic, exchange, warfare, sorcery or witchcraft, and other foundations of Melanesian ideas of ethics, morality, and social order.
If the mythic bestowal of life, humanity, and sociality is complex and profound, the advent of death is usually associated with an apparently trivial incident that could well have had a different outcome—often involving some kind of acquisition or display of improper knowledge, emotion, or behavior and sometimes cast in the image of the shedding of skins and the apparent immortality of various lizards and snakes (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Kiwai, Trobriand Islanders). Yet Melanesian ideas of immortality tend to be ambiguous, and mythic beings are often given corporeal forms and mortal fragilities despite their recognized invisibility and supernatural powers. In turn, the complex symbolic relationships of birth, death, rebirth, and regeneration are commonly articulated in myths focused on and perhaps embedded in fertility, initiation, funerary, cannibalistic, and head-hunting rituals (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Gimi, Hua, Keraki, Marind-Anim, Trobriand Islanders).
Contours of the Cosmological Landscape
Myths of origin in Melanesia are often concerned with the primordial roles of sun, moon, stars, and other celestial phenomena and with the fundamental separations of water and land, earth and sky, valley and mountain, plain and river, night and day, and other key contours of a cosmological landscape (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Kyaka Enga, Tolai). The distinctions of forest, garden, and hamlet, or of sea, shore, and inland village, however, are often relegated to a later time when the sense of domesticated space and human community became apparent. Separations of the realms of natural and supernatural or living and dead are more problematic in both conception and representation, for many mythic spirits are imagined to live near human settlements and to be involved with their affairs. Indeed, these spiritual abodes are sometimes described as mirror images of, or as significantly overlapping with, the social world of the living.
The acquisition of fire commonly marks the inception of humanity and community. According to many Melanesian myths, the original fire, which is denied to beings other than the morally human, is usually brought by spirits, created by sacred lightning, or hidden in the body of an ancestral being—perhaps an old woman or a totemic animal (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Marind-Anim, Nalum, Trans-Fly). Sometimes the advent of fire is linked to the origin of a major food or of ritual plants and animals—especially taro, sweet potatoes, yams, sago, and valued wild flora, as well as cassowaries, dogs, pigs, marsupials, pythons, fruit bats, crocodiles, dugongs, and sharks. Such foods and the taboos applied to them are mythically portrayed as key sociocultural markers of self and person (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Hua, Manga, Ndumba). The common mythic theme of interwoven animal, plant, and human fertility is often bound to ideas of the generative powers of male and female substances, anthropophagic symbols, and images of human heads and acts of headhunting (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Marind-Anim, Rossel, Trans-Fly).
Origins of Society and Culture
Throughout Melanesia, the beginnings of particular societies are attributed to both autochthonous origins and primordial migrations, which are often revealed in different contexts and serve distinct functions in the domains of ritual and ethnohistory (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Kwermin, Lagaip Enga, Umeda). It is in the context of these migrations that the culture heroes of Melanesia are often found. These culture heroes—including figures known over wide regions, such as Qat (Banks), Sido (Kiwai), Sosom (Marind-Anim), Souw (Daribi), Tagaro (Vanuatu), and Warohunuga (Solomons)—establish key aspects of sociocultural order, test the limits of morality, institute basic productive practices, introduce significant flora and fauna, and otherwise determine or shape the foundations of community. Often coming from a nearby land, the culture hero journeys across the known world, explores new frontiers, discovers new horizons, encounters strangers, enemies, or unknown women, travels to the realm of the dead, and shapes the world of the living. His exploits transform him profoundly and lend significance to the present condition of humankind. As he embarks on his odyssey of discovery, intrusion, indiscretion, insight, and creation, he is often cast as one member of an elder-younger sibling or cross-cousin set, and he marks the cultural boundaries of both cross-generational and male-female relationships. In exploring the moral boundaries of a community, the culture heroes exhibit some affinity with various local spirits, demons, ogres, fools, and tricksters, such as Gabruurian and Kamdaak Waneng (Bimin-Kuskusmin), Kakamora (San Cristoval), Masi (Ulawa), Muu-muu (Mala), Pakasa Uru and Tulagola (Lakalai), Tukis (Buka), and Yevale (Yéi-nan), but these figures never have the creative capacities of Melanesian culture heroes.
The myths of culture heroes introduce the sociological themes that are the foci of so many Melanesian narratives. Matters of egalitarian and hierarchical ethos and social order pervade the mythologies of western and eastern Melanesia, respectively. Ancestor spirits are genealogically and mythically marked in the descent ideologies of patrilineal, matrilineal, and cognatic Melanesian societies in different ways, but most of these societies—except in the patrilineal Highlands of New Guinea and hierarchical eastern Melanesia—emphasize the recently dead and largely ignore more remote ancestors. Although the myths of the classic New Guinea Highlands are substantially lacking in totemic figures or emblems, many fringe Highland and other Melanesian myths do associate totems with clans or moieties (Abelam, Bimin-Kuskusmin, Dobuans, Iatmül, Lakalai, Mountain Arapesh, Ngaing, Orokaiva, South Pentecost). Such mythic totemic figures may have few ritual implications (Keraki, Kiwai, Yéi-nan) or be associated with elaborate ancestor cults (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Marind-Anim).
Although Melanesian myths concerning ancestors and totems serve significantly as a community's corporate property, as charters of local or descent groups, and as the basis of claims on various social resources, many myths subtly depict a range of relations—between siblings, men and women, and generations—as a model extending from the family to the widest contours of social structure. Sibling relations are significant in almost all Melanesian myths. Emphasis is placed on either elder-younger (brother-brother, sister-sister) or male-female (brother-sister) configurations, with implications for matters of either generation or gender in transformations of the mythic sibling model (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Ilahita Arapesh, Mae Enga, Murik). Mythic portraits of generational relations tend to explore themes of authority and sexuality between parent and child and of amity in grandparent-grandchild relationships (Bimin-Kuskusmin, Mae Enga, Mountain Arapesh, Sambia). In turn, myths depicting gender relations tend to focus on substance, power, purity, and pollution; on the sexual division of labor; and on cultural images of virgins, wantons, witches, and female elders. These myths develop local ideas of primordial matriarchy and their ritual and political consequences (Asaro, Awa, Benabena, Bimin-Kuskusmin, Fore, Gadsup, Gahuku-Gama, Gimi, Hua, Jate, Kamano, Sambia, Siane, Tairora, Usurufa, Yagaria).
New Fields of Study
Although the themes noted above have significantly shaped the described or analyzed character of Melanesian myths as they have been portrayed in more than a half century of anthropological study, several other foci are also worthy of special note. First, there is now a quite considerable tradition of concern with syncretic myths, which are subtly linked to mission Christianity or to various millenarian or messianic cargo cults. These analyses, which introduce the critical element of sociocultural change into the study of Melanesian mythology, extend to all major areas of the cultural region. Second, studies conducted in the second half of the twentieth century on Daribi and Kewa myths stressed the flexibility, metaphoric character, and creative potential of Melanesian myths, which are seen as complex forms of communication that play on ambiguity, trope, and innovation. Third, analyses of Kalauna and Tangu mythology emphasize the ways in which mythic understandings become variously embedded in both personal and public senses of self, person, experience, and symbol. In these studies, the analysis of Melanesian mythology has finally come to the forefront of anthropological interest, field research, and theoretical concern and promises to enrich this field of inquiry beyond traditional measure.
The literature on Melanesian myths is immense and enormously varied, although it has remained primarily descriptive until quite recently. In the earlier periods of scholarly interest in Melanesia, the journals Anthropos (Salzburg, 1906–), Baess-ler-Archiv (Berlin, 1959–), Folk-Lore (London, 1890–), Journal de la Société des Océanistes (Paris, 1945–), Journal of the Polynesian Society (Wellington, New Zealand, 1892–), Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1871–), Man (London, 1901–), Oceania (Sydney, 1930–), Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Anthropologie (Leipzig, 1899–), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (Braunschweig, Germany, 1870–1920), and other publications printed myriad unannotated texts of Melanesian myths. Despite the sterility of this early practice, the tradition of presenting such textual materials on mythology is being continued not only in some of the periodical literature listed above, but also in the exemplary anthologies of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Société d'Études Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France, and the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, as well as in the journals Bikmaus (Boroko, Papua New Guinea, 1980–) and Oral History (Boroko, Papua New Guinea, 1973–). The vital importance of providing appropriate ethnographic context, however, is now recognized in these endeavors to establish an archive of Melanesian oral traditions.
There are many early but altogether excellent ethnographic studies of Melanesian cultures and societies based on the tradition of field research that give detailed and significant—if not focal—attention to mythology. A fine, sensitive, but highly descriptive presentation of numerous mythic and other texts that provides a rich sense of their ethnographic contexts is to be found in Gunnar Landtmann's The Folk-Tales of the Kiwai Papuans (Helsinki, 1917). A somewhat similar study is well represented in G. Camden Wheeler's Mono-Alu Folklore (Bougainville Strait, Western Solomon Islands) (London, 1926), which provides extensive annotations of many texts and thoughtful comparisons with diverse Melanesian myths, but which portrays a somewhat superficial sense of relevant ethnographic context.
The problem-centered, theoretical analysis of Melanesian myth, however, becomes more prominent in the era of functionalist concerns, which emphasize the intricate embeddedness of mythology in the cultural fabric of social institutions. Thus, the place of myth in a system of morality enforced and sanctioned through oracles is splendidly illustrated in Reo F. Fortune's Manus Religion (Philadelphia, 1935). The intertwined cultural, social, and psychological characteristics of myth and its key functions as a charter of magical, ritual, and social institutions is remarkably portrayed for Trobriand gardening beliefs and practices in Bronislaw Malinowski's Coral Gardens and Their Magic, 2 vols. (London, 1935), and for the theoretical and comparative study of myth in Malinowski's Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (New York, 1948), which draws heavily on a range of Trobriand myths. A sensitivity to the psychocultural nuances of Melanesian mythology, however, is not generally a hallmark of the functionalist tradition and, beyond Malinowski's work, is perhaps best carried forward in John Layard's Stone Men of Malekula (London, 1942), which marvelously explores the cultural, psychological, and ritual character and context of myth on the islands of Malekula and Vao in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).
The analysis of Melanesian myth moves well beyond a simplistic concern with both function and charter in the seminal but little-recognized studies of the Keraki and other Trans-Fly groups and of the Elema, documented in Francis Edgar Williams's Papuans of the Trans-Fly (Oxford, 1936) and Drama of Orokolo (Oxford, 1940). A master of ethnography and no slavish adherent of functionalist dogma, Williams challenges the foundations of Malinowski's faith in mythic charters and opens new ground by raising significant questions about the cultural embeddedness, semiotic construction, and psychological importance of myths in Melanesia and elsewhere. In these several regards, Williams's central concern is to address the subtle relationships between mythic and ritual forms—an issue that is also richly explored in the magnificent studies of the Marind-Anim portrayed in Paul Wirz's Die Marind-Anim von Holländisch-Süd-Neu-Guinea, 2 vols. (Hamburg, 1922–1925), and in Jan van Baal's Dema (The Hague, 1966).
The classic study of the mythology of New Caledonia is beautifully represented in Maurice Leenhardt's Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World (1947; reprint, Chicago, 1979). In his exploration of matters of experience, epistemology, and personhood through myth and the nuances of the anthropological study of myth, Leenhardt provokes a depth of insight into Canaque myth that provides inspiration from Lucien Lévy-Bruhl to Claude Lévi-Strauss in the unraveling of Melanesian mythologiques. Yet the contemporary study of New Caledonian mythology, as admirably exemplified in Alban Bensa and Jean-Claude Rivièrre's Les chemins de l'alliance (Paris, 1982), is far less philosophical in its theoretical foundations and reflective in its methodological moorings and attempts to promote a more "scientific" emphasis on ethnosemantic classificatory schemas and sociopolitical patterns implicated in mythic narratives.
The state of the art in the anthropological study of Melanesian mythology is well examined and summarized for the period ending in the early 1960s in Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia, edited by Peter Lawrence and M. J. Meggitt (Melbourne, 1965). This overview suggests how little progress had been made in the study of the myths and religions of Melanesia before the 1960s, which represented what might be called a renaissance of academic interest in Melanesian religions. Prior to this time, there is particularly little exploration of mythology in the New Guinea Highlands, with the notable exception of the monumental study of Fore, Jate, Kamano, and Usurufa origin, kinihera, and other genres of myth in Catherine H. Berndt's "Myth in Action" (Ph.D. diss., London School of Economics, 1955).
The modern era in the study of Melanesian mythology exhibits two particularly significant trends: (1) a comparative examination of mythological and other aspects of millenarian, nativistic, or cargo cult movements; and (2) a new emphasis on mythology as the focus of ethnographic interest and theoretical analysis. In the first instance, mythological portraits of the significance of sociocultural change, of altered conceptions of personhood, self, society, and cosmos, and of revitalized traditional or newly syncretic images are compared throughout much of Melanesia in Peter Worsley's The Trumpet Shall Sound (London, 1957) and in Kenelm Burridge's New Heaven, New Earth (New York, 1969).
In the second instance, however, the study of Melanesian myth comes fully into the mainstream of the best academic explorations of myth. These new and exciting analytic undertakings are perhaps best represented in a limited set of exemplary articles and in the monographic work of five scholars. The mythic exploration of moral ambiguities and dilemmas is insightfully examined in a Kamano text in Catherine H. Berndt's "The Ghost Husband: Society and the Individual in New Guinea Myth," Journal of American Folklore 79 (1966): 244–277. Subtleties of the conceptual images and internal paradoxes of Kaliai culture and society as represented in a single myth are unraveled in Dorothy Ayers Counts's "Akro and Gagandewa: A Melanesian Myth," Journal of the Polynesian Society 89 (1980): 33–64. These analyses show the power of exploring the nuances of a single mythic narrative in elaborate sociocultural context. In contrast, a comparative examination of the dialectical relationship between sociocultural experience, moral order, and mythic representation in the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea is admirably constructed in John Finch's "Structure and Meaning in Papua New Guinea Highland Mythology," Oceania 55 (1985): 197–213.
Whether focusing within or beyond a particular sociocultural community, the monographic endeavors variously attend to problems of the comparative analysis of myth. The complex and subtle relations between mythology and matters of personhood, self, morality, and experience in Tangu society are elegantly dissected in Kenelm Burridge's Tangu Traditions (Oxford, 1969), which delicately probes the intricate way in which myth is variously embedded in diverse ethnographic contexts and which forcefully demonstrates how myths become crystallizations of cultural themes and of both social and personal experiences. Exploring a tension between the disclosure of immoral realities and the revelation of existential truths, enigmatic and oracular Tangu myths unveil dilemmas of the local human condition. How such mythic crystallizations are constructed and manipulated creatively and through complex understandings of cultural tropes is analyzed admirably for Daribi mythology in Roy Wagner's Habu (Chicago, 1972) and Lethal Speech (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978), which also attend to broader comparative issues in assessing the commonalities and peculiarities of Daribi myth in New Guinea and in Melanesia. The significance of variations among versions of myths with respect to the cultural discrimination of social differences and to the transformational characteristics of a corpus of myths within a particular society is illustrated in exemplary fashion for Nalum mythology in S. Hylkema's Mannen in het Draagnet (The Hague, 1974). The subtle interplay between narrative compositions and pragmatic experiences, between intertextual resonances and textual references, between the surfaces and the depths of constructed layers of meaning, and between the fanciful and the factual of cultural contradictions and social conflicts, is marvelously explored in the "fabricated worlds" of Kewa lidi myths in John LeRoy's Fabricated World (Vancouver, 1985), which is usefully complemented by a fine collection of the analyzed myths in Kewa Tales, edited by LeRoy (Vancouver, 1985). Finally, the problem of how myths—usually conceived as particular forms of collective representations (in the Durkheimian sense)—become articulated with personal symbols and subjective experience and embedded in autobiographical narratives is superbly examined in Michael W. Young's Magicians of Manumanua (Berkeley, 1983). These new studies reach well beyond the descriptive and analytic limits of their predecessors and hold much promise for the future of academic understandings of the subtleties of mythological constructions in the Melanesian cultural region.
Burridge, Kenelm. Mambu: A Melanesian Millennium (1960). Princeton, N.J., 1995.
Kahn, Miriam. "Stone-Faced Ancestors: The Spatial Anchoring of Myth in Wamira, Papua NewGuinea." Ethnology 29 (January 1990): 51–66.
MacDonald, Mary N. Mararoko: A Study in Melanesian Religion. New York, 1990.
Pech, Rufus. Manub and Kilibob: Melanesian Models for Brotherhood Shaped by Myth, Dream and Drama. Papua New Guinea, 1991.
Fitz John Porter Poole (1987)