Academic journal article Oceania

Cults and Christianity among the Enga and Ipili

Academic journal article Oceania

Cults and Christianity among the Enga and Ipili

Article excerpt


A key volume on Pacific Christianity (Barker 1990a) has noted that much of the anthropology on this topic has tended to focus on the dichotomy between the continuity of traditional religious practices and the adoption or intrusion of Christianity. John Barker writes, 'For some time now Pacific scholars have called for approaches that see Pacific islanders as active participants in their own history. The ethnographic approach to Pacific Christianity takes up this challenge in a particularly radical way by viewing islanders as the ultimate makers of their own religions' (Barker 1990b:22). In this paper, I seek to bridge the dichotomy presented above while also addressing Barker's call for understanding innovation and agency in the fashioning of indigenous Christianity in the Pacific. I am particularly interested in exploring the relationships between precolonial myths and practices and contemporary Christianity and local senses of history in Papua New Guinea (see Robbins 1998, 2001; Jorgensen 2001).

When the western Enga and eastern Ipili of highlands Papua New Guinea (see Figure 1) talk about their religious experiences today, they make numerous references to their participation in a number of cults that were active in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They see these activities, however, not as cultic, but rather as precursors to their full engagement in Christian practices. By 'cultic,' I am referring to the vast literature on so-called cargo cults in Melanesia (Worsley 1957; Burridge 1960; Lawrence 1964; Williams 1976; Lattas 1998, to list a few). I have dropped the term 'cargo' from my own analysis as the cults as practiced by the Enga and Ipili (1) were concerned with much more than material wealth (see also Biersack 1996). The cults occurred simultaneously with the intrusion of white colonialists into the area, and for many of the younger people today, the cult practices actually 'opened the road for the coming of the white man.' Moreover, Ipili and Enga equate many of the cults' activities and lead ers with Christian and biblical practices and personages. In sum, Enga and Ipili are actively engaging in fashioning their own sense of understanding their conversion to Christianity. On an even broader scale, the ethnography presented in this article shows how Ipilis and Engas locate themselves within the scope of world history.

Two of the three cults discussed in this article have been analyzed previously by several scholars (Meggitt 1973; Gibbs 1977; Goldman 1983; Frankel 1986; Feil 1983; Sharp 1990; Biersack 1995, 1998a; Wiessner and Tumu 2001). In particular, Mervyn Meggitt (1973) and Philip Gibbs (1977) provide useful points of comparison with my own analysis as our respective research was located in the same area, yet spans 40 years, beginning in 1957 (Meggitt), again in 1974 (Gibbs), and also in 1999-2000 (myself). The statements that Enga and Ipili participants have made about their involvement with the cults and Christianity have varied over this time period based on larger ecological, political, social, and economic concerns. Building upon the aforementioned scholars work, I also present new information on a previously unknown cult, called Kaiyamba's cult, that is linked to the other cults.


The western Enga, also called the Taro Enga (Meggitt 1973) or the Tayato Enga (Wiessner and Tumu 1998), are one subset of the approximately 200,000 Enga people living in Papua New Guinea (see Figure 1). For this article, I am calling the Enga who live to the west and north of the town of Laiagam the western Enga, although they have a number of self-referential names which depend upon one's relative positioning in the social and physical landscape. The approximately 10,000 Ipili are located in two valley systems west of the Enga, the western Ipili (or Paiela) live along the Pakupali River, while the eastern Ipili (or Porgera) live along the Porgera River and its tributaries. …

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