Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea

Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea

Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea

Inside the Cult: Religious Innovation and Transmission in Papua New Guinea


For the past thirty years, adherents of a millenarian cult in Papua New Guinea, known as the Pomio Kivung, have been awaiting the establishment of a period of supernatural bliss, heralded by the return of their ancestors bearing `cargo'. The author, Harvey Whitehouse, was taken for a reincarnated ancestor, and was thus able to observe the dynamics of the cult from within. From the stable mainstream of the cult, localized splinter groups periodically emerge, hoping to expedite the millennium; the core of this volume concerns the close study of one such group in two Baining villages. The two aspects of the cult studied here - on the one hand a large, uniform, and stable mainstream organization with a well-defined hierarchy demanding orthodoxy of views, and on the other hand a small-scale and temporary movement, emotional and innovative in its views - stand in sharp contrast one to the other, but are here seen as divergent manifestations of the same religious ideology, implemented in differing ways. This original theory of `modes of religiosity' which Whitehouse here develops draws on recent findings in cognitive psychology to link styles of codification and cultural transmission to the political scale, structure, and ethos of religious communities.


We look back because we are lost in the world of the whiteman's knowledge. Recalling our ancestors, Adam and Eve, we see that their lives were good in Paradise. But they sinned, and now we must all toil and suffer. So we ask ourselves in our confusion today: 'Where are we to go? Where is our home?' All the whiteman's knowledge has blinded us to what we once possessed. Today, the mission tells us that Jesus will come in sight of all of us--those of us who are alive, and those who have died. So we ask ourselves: 'Who will bring back our ancestors? Many people seek knowledge but we--the Baining peoples--are the last to receive it. So, who will transform the old world into a new world?'

(The First Orator in the Kivung community of Dadul)

THE Pidgin word kivung means a 'meeting' or 'to meet'. For thousands of people living in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, the word also refers to a religious movement, based around a mixture of millenarian, Christian, nationalist, and 'cargo cult' ideas. In spite of Christian influences, the attitudes of Kivung supporters are basically anti-missionary. The movement's full title, the 'Pomio Kivung', associates it with the 'Pomio' peoples, living within a radius of some forty miles of a coastal settlement called Pomio in the south-west of East New Britain. There is no language called 'Pomio'--the term has simply become a way of referring to the many indigenous groups of the area speaking a number of languages.

The Pomio Kivung is a larger phenomenon than its name suggests. In addition to its many Pomio supporters, it has loyal followers to the north, extending deeply among the Mali Baining, who live on the borders of a wealthy, cosmopolitan region in the north-east. This region, the centre of modern industry and government in the province, is occupied by the Tolai, whose relations with their poor neighbours, the Baining, have always been basically exploitative. The Tolai have abundant capital, education, and technology, but an extreme shortage of land. Their territory, encompassing some of the richest volcanic soils in Papua New Guinea, was seized from the Baining in the late eighteenth century, when the Tolai's ancestors migrated from nearby New Ireland. The Baining were driven into the less fertile mountains and coastal areas to the south and . . .

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