Academic journal article Oceania

Strong Words and Forceful Winds: Religious Experience and Political Process in Melanesia

Academic journal article Oceania

Strong Words and Forceful Winds: Religious Experience and Political Process in Melanesia

Article excerpt

There is a strong tradition among social scientists and historians of envisaging millenarism as the ideological and organizational progenitor of nationalism and other secular political movements.(1) In the literature on Melanesian 'cargo cults', the theme is similarly pervasive.(2) Nevertheless, attempts to secure material benefits through supernatural intervention are commonly manifested in highly fragmented, uncoordinated, and sporadic cults. If the progressivist hypothesis is applied across the board, then fleeting, localized cargo cults appear to be less successful politically than large-scale, centralized movements such as Yali's, Paliau's, or the Pomio Kivung. The former seem to be 'failed' or 'abortive' experiments in political unification and protest. The impermanence of their rituals might also seem to imply disillusionment, resulting from the non-arrival of 'cargo', so they appear to 'fail' in theological as well aw organizational terms.

These conclusions are unconvincing, however, because many small cults are highly successful in consolidating a local experience of unity, often stimulating feelings of solidarity which are far more intense than those encompassing the far-flung members of big movements. Moreover, they cultivate moving and mysterious revelations which, for all that they may arise out of a fleeting experience of cultural transmission, have a highly memorable character. In some ways, these kinds of religious experiences are more evocative and haunting than the routinized activities of large movements. Melanesian cargo cults therefore present not one but two basic kinds of politico-religious process.

In this paper, I explore the web of interconnections between codification, dissemination, frequency of transmission, social organization, and political ethos in two very different Melanesian cults. My intention, initially, is to draw out a set of contrasts as clearly as possible, but I will suggest that the divergent models may be said to coexist in certain cult formations, with important implications for the nature and longevity of new religious movements.

The first movement to be considered, known as the Pomio Kivung, exhibits features of centralization, hierarchy, uniformity, longevity, and micronationalist sentiment which exemplify the progressivist model. The Pomio Kivung affects a large area of East New Britain, principally Maenge, Sulka, and Baining populations. Although it has commanded tens of thousands of supporters over a period of nearly thirty years, it has attracted surprisingly little scholarly attention (but see Panoff 1969, Tovalele 1977, Trompf 1984, 1990a, 1990b). My study of the Pomio Kivung, based on two years fieldwork (1987 to 1989) is the most detailed to date (Whitehouse 1989, 1990a, 1990b, 1991, 1992b, 1993).

Secondly, I consider the Taro cult among the Orokaiva (Northern Papua), which began in 1914 and persisted in localized and sporadic outbursts until the late 1920s. Unlike the Pomio Kivung, the Taro cult was highly fragmented and uncoordinated. Taro adherents did not anticipate Western cargo (although see Lanternari 1963:165); like Pomio Kivung members, however, they sought to obtain material prosperity (in this case, thriving taro) through innovative rituals. The Taro cult was most extensively described by F.E. Williams (1928); a shorter account, also based on direct observation, was published by Chinnery and Haddon (1917).

My starting point is a basic divergence in the way religious understandings are codified. In the Pomio Kivung, considerable emphasis is placed on logically integrated doctrine transmitted in the orations of divine leaders and their official representatives. In the Taro cult, by contrast, verbalized doctrine and exegetical commentary were all but lacking, and revelations were cultivated through techniques of non-verbal transmission, based primarily on feasts and spirit possession. Williamw was frustrated by the scarcity of oral elaboration, and took this as evidence of the 'primitive' nature of the cult (and its adherents). …

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