Being and 'Non-Being' in Ambonwari (Papua New Guinea) Ritual

Article excerpt

The poetic idea of eternal life on the whole gravitates more toward a cosmogony than toward theology, and what is often put forward as a measure of the soul is not the degree of its perfection essential for achieving likeness and merger with the Creator but rather the physical (meta-physical) duration and distance of its wanderings in time.

Joseph Brodsky, Footnote to a Poem (from Less Than One, 1987, pp.203-4).


Ambonwari village, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea has just over 400 inhabitants. It is probably the largest of eight main villages in which about 2000 people speak Karawari. This language is a member of the Lower Sepik Family, belonging to the larger group of Papuan languages (Foley 1986). There are 12 totemic clans and 35 patrilineages, including six with no present members. Each clan holds the name of at least one men's house, though not all of them are built. Residence is patri-virilocal.(1)

In this article I examine Ambonwari healing rites and the male initiation ritual? By following the terminology used by Ambonwari people themselves and by relying on those translations and concepts which emphasize the ontological and phenomenological dimension of their existence, I aim to bring out the essential characteristics of Ambonwari rituals. The main concept of Ambonwari life-world is their concept of kay (Telban 1994). As a verb kay captures several meanings: to be, to exist, to remain, to stay. As a noun it is used for being, habit, way, fashion, manner, as well as ritual, custom and law. In this paper, I translate kay mainly as being. However, one should be aware that kay or being is habitualized, fashioned, ritualized, and so on. As Ambonwari do not have a term for or an abstract concept of 'body' (Telban in press), being is not necessarily embodied in material flesh, in the case of spirits, for example. Kay comes into existence through a combination of personal spirit and 'consciousness' or 'understanding' (wambung, lit. 'insideness'), to which I refer also as Heart (Telban 1993, 1994; cf. Harrison 1990, 1993). Though it is an aspect of kay, Heart is always able to transform kay through self-transformation, while personal spirit, by giving 'light to the being', enables kay to exist and act. On the collective level, Ambonwari speak about 'the way of the village' (iminggan kay) and about its origin in 'the way of the ancestors' (kupambin kay). Whenever I want to emphasize this collective aspect of Ambonwari people, their temporalized life-world which is produced by and which underlies their thoughts, feelings and actions, I use the term Ambonwariness. It is the collective essence 'embodied' in every individual Ambonwari being. Ambonwariness as such is equally inseparable from healing rituals as it is from those of male initiation.

I begin my essay with two men's accounts of how, by coming into contact with spirits, they became healers. In the following section I examine the semantic connection between sickness, death and otherness. This is informed by the healers' own views of their practices, with emphasis on the treatment of children. By critically reflecting upon the work of Sartre I explore various forms of negation as a source of Ambonwari being. I then present a case study of a postmortem initiation, and argue that the male initiation rituals should be seen in cosmogonic and cosmological terms as 'being-towards-being' oriented (my words). 'Being-towards-being' can exist both in individuals and in the community only via its 'being-towards-beginning', that is, only via self-reproduction through children (see Mimica 1993:88). The male initiation rituals are not concerned with 'symbolic death' but with the absolute beginning and with the states of being. By following van Gennep (1960[1908]), the understanding of symbolic death in life crisis rituals became commonplace in the anthropology of ritual. What emerges from it is a persistent interpretation of rites of passage as focusing on a symbolic transition between death and life. …