Smoke Rising from the Villages of the Dead: Seasonal Patterns of Mood in a Papua New Guinea Society

By Harrison, Simon | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Smoke Rising from the Villages of the Dead: Seasonal Patterns of Mood in a Papua New Guinea Society


Harrison, Simon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


This article discusses seasonal patterns of mood in a Papua New Guinea society, showing how these are connected with beliefs relating to cosmology and the afterlife, and with more abstract conceptions of personhood, sociality, and attachment. The argument suggests that cultural factors may play an important role in mediating the influences of seasonal changes on everyday moods, and that such moods may be complex socio-cultural constructs.

But moods ... go nowhere ... Like fogs, they just settle and lift (Geertz 1973: 97).

The question I shall try to answer in this article may appear to concern a quite minor ethnographic problem. I wish to explain why the people of the village of Avatip, on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, say that the sight of heat-haze makes them feel nostalgic. Broadly, then, my aim is to contribute to the cross-cultural study of the influences of weather on mood, a problem which has received little attention in the anthropology of the emotions. [1]

More specifically, a number of societies in Melanesia, and elsewhere in the Pacific, seem to give an especial cultural salience to a complex of emotions concerned with loss, abandonment, separation, sympathy, sadness, and longing (Feld 1982; Gell 1995; Harrison 1985; 1986; Lutz 1985; 1988; Schieffelin 1976; Weiner 1991). This indigenous emotional register has three noteworthy characteristics. First, these emotions are often highly elaborated culturally, and even aestheticized; they may, for instance, provide the theme of important genres of song, poetry, or other expressive forms. Secondly, they tend to be associated with situations of bereavement and mourning. And lastly, they are conceived as the quintessentially pro-social emotions, defining those who experience them, or at least exhibit them, as fully developed social beings. The feelings which Avatip people associate with heat-haze have many close similarities to this affective complex. My question, then, is why the villagers should connect these sorts of emotions with certain climatic conditions.

A distinction is often drawn in psychology (though rarely in anthropology) between emotions and moods. Psychologists tend to treat this distinction not as an absolute dichotomy, but as a matter of degree, with mood and emotion representing regions along a continuum of affective states. The difference between them hinges on the way that emotions concern quite specific 'intentional objects' (see Rorty 1980), particular events, persons, or situations: one feels happy or sad about something, envious of disgusted at, or angry with someone because of something. Moods, on the other hand, are unfocused, generalized, diffuse; they are not 'about' anything specific or clearly identifiable. A mood may be of quite low intensity, perhaps even below the threshold of consciousness. While it persists, however, it represents a pervasive background affective state that colours to some degree the whole of one's thinking and behaviour: one is cheerful, sad, anxious, and so forth, 'globally' (see e.g. Morris 1989: 1-3; Oatley 19 92: 23-4; Parkinson, Totterdell, Briner & Reynolds 1996: 4-10).

Emotions, then, can be typified as specific affective reactions to the mostly quite transient and minor incidents which make up the flow of one's life. Moods are more persistent, general affective reflections of one's overall state of being during some extended period. To understand someone's moods may therefore be, in effect, to understand that person's total life situation as he or she currently apprehends it. Potentially, then, the study of mood might represent a useful perspective from which to view culture from within, and provide a distinctive window onto the ways in which people's entire socio-cultural milieux bear upon them subjectively.

This brings me back to the matter of heat-haze. In trying to understand the cultures they study, ethnographers often find important keys in unexpected or seemingly inconsequential places. …

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