Gods Ghosts and Men in Melanesia – extract I

I haven’t opened my rpgs notebooks for a few weeks now but I am in the process of reading this fascinating classic of anthropology. I’ll keep here a few interesting tidbits I want to keep record of for later use.

Introduction (P. Lawrence, M.J Meggitt)

Spirit-beings fall into three categories. First, there are autonomous spirit-beings such as deities and culture heroes. Some deities are both creative and regulative : they are thought to have been responsible for the whole or parts of the cosmic order, still to live in or near human society, and still to intervene in its concerns. Others are only regulative: they are attributed no real creative role but are said to be important in human affairs. Culture heroes are only creative: after establishing the cosmos, they left human society and took no further interest in it. Second, there are autonomous spirit-beings who have no creative or regulative functions: tricksters, demons, and pucks who wantonly cause annoyance or harm. Third, there are the dead, who can be subdivided into the recent dead (ghosts or spirits of the dead), and the remote dead (ancestors, ancestral spirits, or ancestral ghosts). Totems belong to either of two categories: first, putative totemic forebears of named unilineal descent groups; and totems from which no descent is claimed but which named descent groups adopt as heraldic badges or emblems because of supposed association with them in the past.

(The Huli of the Southern Highlands, R.M Glasse)

The founding ancestors, both male and female, are rather aloof from human affairs. People regard them more as deities than as human ghosts, and refer to them loosely as dama. Specifically they call them dama agali duo, “half deity-half-ghost”. Thus, conceptually, the ancient ancestral ghosts are intermediate between the deities and the recent ghosts have the power to dissuade the deities from assaulting their descendants.


The Huli conceive the dama to be invisible deities possessing supra-physical powers. Dama control the weather, causing too much rain or too little. They attack humans, sometimes capriciously, causing sickness, infertility or death. At times they punish certain offences, or cause suffering at the bidding of sorcererers. Most dama are capable of causing both good and evil, but a few, such as Korimogo, are wholly malicious.


A number of the greater deities, such as Ni, Lindu, Hone, Dindiainyia and Helabe, are associated with stone objects owned corporately by every parish. Other major dama, such as Kepei, have several hut-like temples each of which is the centre for the rituals of a group of seldom connected with particular objects. A few of the greater deities, such as Korimogo, have no local or object associations at all, except in so far as their evil power emanates temporarily from the body of a person they have slain. The victims of Korimogo are buried with special precautions; the dead man’s fingers- and toe-nails are removed and their positions reversed to confuse the deity and thwart his attacks on people living in the vicinity.


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