Gods Ghost and Men in Melanesia – extract IV

Here’s a ghost with gigantic testicles and a nature spirit with an extremely long leg that he uses to trip people. One could make an incredible bestiary from this book, I’m telling you.

Spells involving the name of the ghost to be called are recited as ginger is chewed. The ginger is next spat on to an object, and the spirit then comes and resides invisibly in this object. The invisible ghost is thus induced to inhabit a bracelet, knife, or a piece of ceremonial paraphernalia for an indefinite period.


The names of some of these spirit forms are translatable or have obvious derivations. Thus the balepa (from a word meaning « wrapped bundle ») is a corpse which flies over the villages wrapped in burial mat. The tarogolo (from a verb meaning « to change form ») impersonates the living and kills human victims by various horrible methods including intercourse made lethal by obsidian blades in the genitals of the spirit. Only two types are limited to one sex. One of these is the bleeding women who have died in childbirth and are known as pigobara (pigo, « to give birth »; bara, « badly »). The other is the leader of the ghosts distinguished by his gigantic testicles and called putuperereko (putu, « scrotum »). The names of other special types have no known translations and appear to be simple class denominations. The visu flies at night, shines with a great light, and gouges out people’s eyes with long fingernails. The savei, which also lights up, and the tausogolo are wild, shy forms inhabiting the forest and seldom seen close at hand.


A special category consist of disease-bearing spirits called taua-la-ilea (« taua of sickness »). These usually appear as gigantic, multi-coloured, four-footed animals like dogs or pigs, though they are also said to take human form. There is such a spirit which is afflicted with and spreads abroad each of a large variety of illnesses. They may appear in groups, coughing and groaning as they come, bringing epidemics to human villages.


The most important powers which this god [Sumua] has exercised over human fortunes have been his control over the food supply and over the volcanic energy of Mt Pago. He has the ability to cause famine or plenty by controlling the growth of taro.


As was the case with the specific forms of ghost outlined earlier, among the bush spirits some of the type names have more or less clear derivations, For example, two forms of mischievous long-haired dwarf, known as pii and tuu respectively, are said to be named for their vocal cries. The suguala (sugu-a, « to push forward, extend ») is a prankster which shoots one extremely long leg out across paths to trip people. The viri (viri-a, « to twist ») is a stunted being distinguished by twisted limbs which it owes to an arthritis-like illness. A form that eavesdrops on the plans of the living and then lures its victims by impersonating a friend or loved one is called the lolomaholi (lolo-a, « to hear, overhear »). The matea lights up at night but seldom injures men. The buata and a number of similar monsters are giant ogres or ogresses equipped with great tusks and renowned as man-eaters.

Several of the dwarfed forms are the least offensive or frightening of the bush spirits. Both the pii and another pygmy type called the patuki constitute exceptions to the general rule that men do not seek contact with such beings. There are several stories of people capturing these little spirits, taming them, training them to be useful workers, keeping them as playmates for human children, and sometimes becoming quite fond of them. It is one more instance of the incompatibility of human and spirit natures that these captivities always seem to end with the dwarfs escpaing to the bush once more.

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