Shamanism, Sorcery and Cannibalism: The Incorporation of Power in the Magical Cult of Buai

By Eves, Richard | Oceania, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Shamanism, Sorcery and Cannibalism: The Incorporation of Power in the Magical Cult of Buai


Eves, Richard, Oceania


INTRODUCTION

The distinctive character of this body is its open unfinished nature, its interaction with the world. These traits are most fully and concretely revealed in the act of eating; the body transgresses here its own limits: it swallows, devours, rends the world apart, is enriched and grows at the world's expense. The encounter of men with the world, which takes place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth, is one of the most ancient, and most important objects of human thought and imagery. Here man tastes the world, introduces it into his body, makes it part of himself. Man's awakening consciousness could not but concentrate on this moment, could not help borrowing from it a number of substantial images determining its interrelation with the world. Man's encounter with the world in the act of eating is joyful, triumphant; he triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself. The limits between man and the world are erased to man's advantage.

(Bakhtin 1984:281).

Here Bakhtin points to the central and powerful role played by incorporation in the body's encounter with the world. This rings true for Melanesian culture, where many acts of power are reflected through conceptions connected to eating. But, while Bakhtin is correct in his assessment of the act of eating as one way in which the body's boundaries are transgressed and which facilitates a person's interaction with the world, I argue that the process he alludes to is not necessarily one of unequivocal triumph. The body's boundaries are also sites at which the world can endanger the body. The boundaries of the body, the skin, the orifices, not only reflect the autonomy of the body and its encounter with the world, they also represent the violable and vulnerable nature of the body in relation to that exterior world.

In this paper I explore the acts of incorporation that occur in Lelet society generally and in the forms of shumanism associated with the imported magical cult named Buai.(2) My starting point is the body which is a crucial site of power, both for the appropriation of powers from others, and as the target of acts of power by others. Central to these acts of power is incorporation, the act of taking inside the self that which is external and other. The incorporative act is predicated on the distinction between the inside and outside, which in the process of embodiment is dissolved, temporarily. The body as a consuming object incorporates objects into its interior spaces that were previously outside. Food in Melanesia has importance far beyond its nutritive function, being exceedingly important on a symbolic level. In transgressing the boundaries of the body, food is one mediator of that distinction between the inside and the outside. After a discussion of eating, food and bodies, I will discuss the magical cult of Buai and the modes of initiation into that cult, in which incorporation of substances that give power and knowledge is a dominant theme.(3) Finally I will discuss methods of sorcery associated with this cult which are also laden with acts and images of incorporation, particularly cannibalistic ones.

I.

FOOD, EATING AND THE BODY IN MELANESIA

The importance of food on the symbolic, cultural and political plane has been widely discussed in the literature on Melanesia. As Young says, it is a truism that Melanesian peoples in general value food in ways which go beyond its intrinsic value for them as a necessity of life (1971:146). Rather, 'it is of utmost cultural concern' (Kahn and Sexton 1988:1). Food is widely used to create, maintain and manipulate social relationships or, as Fajans argues, 'Food embodies social relationships' (1988:161). It is the foremost cultural medium of sociality and functions as a means of communicating custom, wealth, political power and status (Kahn and Sexton 1988:6).

Among the Kalauna of the Massim, food is an expression of the 'culture's concern with orality: ingestion as the center of experience' (Young 1983:47-8). …

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