The Yagwoia people, who live in the remote Angan region of Papua New Guinea, on the sparsely populated, forested fringes of the highlands, are notable among their neighbours for their staunch adherence to their traditional beliefs and their refusal to engage in the politics of witch-hunting. Waves of missionaries have come and gone since the 1950s, but the Yagwoia have retained their cosmology. They take a therapeutic – even psychoanalytic – approach to ‘cannibalistic cravings’. Christian teaching in the region has left the Yagwoia surrounded by witch-hunting neighbours, but womba, the local vernacular for ‘witchcraft’, is not – yet – outlawed.
Qang, a Yagwoia man in his twenties, had repeated dreams of pigs being butchered, dreams that were interpreted as his soul’s desire for human flesh. ‘I am a good man, yet my soul knows to eat man!’ Qang said. ‘Why should I be ashamed?’ Qang and others like him ‘talk out’, as the Yagwoia say in Melanesian creole, so they can get a good night’s (dream-free) sleep and begin the process of family therapy, dream analysis and shamanic exorcism. For Jadran Mimica, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, womba affliction has its origin in local ideas of kinship, which involve people consuming one another’s bodies and energies to make other bodies and energies. Pork offers a substitute for human flesh, but womba can also be seen in infancy, when the baby is parasitic on its mother in the womb and then at her breast. This ‘appetitive passion’ used to take many forms in Yagwoia culture, including endo and exocannibalism, necrophagy, seminal nurture (institutionalised homosexuality) and the consumption of raw or putrid flesh, both human and pig. Eating and being eaten is what makes the world go round.
The Yagwoia know they are unique in their tolerance of womba. Their neighbours, the Pataye, throw the corpses of witches into the river; when accused Pataye women escape this fate, Yagwoia clans accept them, marry them off and eat the bridewealth. (It is a profitable wedding that does not require you to give the lion’s share to the bride’s mother and her people.) Witches have also been killed by members of the neighbouring Ankave clans. One Yagwoia shaman believed that several Ankave witches (ombi’) had tagged along when he and some others returned home after living with the Ankave for a period. He imagined the ombi’ cutting bodies with bamboo knives as surgeons do in hospitals, and styled himself as the leader-turned-betrayer of the coven. But he failed to persuade other Yagwoia to stigmatise these ‘societal cannibalistic desires’, as Mimica calls them. Another Yagwoia man married a woman from Simbu Province, where women have long been killed as witches. On a trip to the market town of Goroka, where migrants from all over the highlands mingle, he took part in a witch-hunt that concluded with the murder of a woman. She had been ‘proved’ a witch, the man reported: ‘When a can of intact tinned fish was placed in front of her, she (i.e. her soul) ate it,’ even though the can remained unopened. Again, the Yagwoia rejected the notion of persecution. The man’s father told his son that he should have brought the woman home with him so ‘a local shaman could have rid her of her womba soul affliction’.
Fire on the Island, an account by the Norwegian anthropologist Tom Bratrud of his time on Ahamb, a small island in the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, offers a contrasting picture. Ahamb had no history of witch-hunts, but while Bratrud was there a Christian revivalist movement took hold, leading to accusations and admissions of sorcery, and rituals of public discipline, punishment and murder.
Bratrud’s account begins in 2009, when two men from Ahamb, Orwell and Hantor, made an agreement with outsiders to lease an outlying island called Lonour to an expat developer who wanted to build a paradisal resort. Many islanders had subsistence gardens on Lonour and were unhappy about the men’s actions, disputing their right to lease the land in the first place. The island’s council of chiefs revised the rules about land ownership, allowing those whose families been on the island longest to take precedence. Unsurprisingly, Orwell and Hantor weren’t included in this group. Four years later, in March 2014, the group cemented its authority by installing one of their own as high chief. The affair was an odd combination of flourish and secrecy: a chiefly ritual that had not been performed for a century was restored and only its finale held in public. This politicking was unpopular with some islanders and jarred with their sense of themselves as Christians who had left these ‘old ceremonies’ behind.
The Christian revival began in earnest three weeks later. Many people found it a relief to focus on something other than status-seeking men and battles over land and leadership. It offered the possibility of healing a riven community. Church services were held each night, and everyone was exhorted to renounce worldly pleasure in favour of ‘humility, generosity, kindness, helping people, moderation, faithfulness, going to church and full devotion to God’. Children started to receive visions from the Holy Spirit. Many women took part, but fewer men, who preferred to spend their evenings drinking kava and talking politics.
In an attempt to draw them in, a church elder called Cyril ruled that men were not to be criticised for drinking kava and were welcome to join services at the weekends when it suited them better. The revival would enable them to continue ‘doing great things’, Bratrud writes. ‘One of those great things was helping to eliminate sorcery from the island.’ The first evidence of sorcery was discovered by the chief in late May. He found a stone which he said belonged to men who wanted to ‘damage the community’. The same night, some children spotted a cat, which, encouraged by the adults, they identified as a shape-shifting sorcerer. A church elder arranged a prayer patrol to look for dangers elsewhere on the island.
By June, the hunt for sorcerers had gained force. It was led by two formerly church-avoiding men, John and Marcus. Bratrud was present when some children told the men about their visions:
Ralph tapped me on the shoulder and I bent down to hear him say: ‘I see two swords surrounding us in this place. The swords of God’s angels. Nothing can touch us.’ … His own voice was too weak to carry … I therefore announced that Ralph had a revelation and repeated what he had just said.
Anyone who openly expressed doubts about the authenticity of the children’s visions was shamed for creating ‘cracks in the Holy Spirit’s protection of the island’. It was in this atmosphere that the first sorcerer confessed.
Bratrud describes Lincoln standing in the church amid the weeping and howling children. They claimed that a young man who had died a decade earlier had appeared to them and accused Lincoln of killing him. The children chanted ‘God is good’ as they surrounded the old man, who was being held fast by a youth called Martin. ‘We don’t want to kill you,’ Martin told Lincoln. ‘We don’t want to fight you. We want to save your life. You must come back. You must come back to the church.’ Others joined in, including Cyril. Lincoln admitted to the murder the following day and was thanked and praised.
On 21 June, a four-year-old boy called Eliot died. The children named Orwell, Hantor, Levi and Gavin as his killers. Nothing happened immediately, but everyone knew what had been said. Three months later, Levi, Bratrud and about two hundred Ahamb islanders were at a revivalist convention on a neighbouring island. Bratrud joined in the ‘study sessions, common meals, prayer sessions’. One evening, his friend John told him that the children had received a vision of poison in the place where he slept. It was the third time he had been warned of an imminent attack, and the third time it had been averted by the children. Surrounded by the men at the centre of the revival, Bratrud asked Cyril to pray for his protection and was told that, as a man filled with the Holy Spirit, his defences were already impenetrable. The following night was the climax of the convention, a prayer session during which people received the Holy Spirit from a line of pastors:
Between the bodies massed around me, I could see people coming up to the pastors. Many of those who were prayed for fell down like heavy bags of potatoes before they were dragged away by the helpers. Some looked like they were shot by machine guns in an action movie: dead instantly, with such force in the bullets hitting them from the front that their heads leaped forward, while the rest of their upper body was pushed back before they fell, corpse-like, to the ground. This happened every few seconds along the line of twelve pastors. The helpers, who were all dressed in white, had a busy time collecting the fallen and carrying them away before the next in line fell down. This was the first time I had seen anything like this.
Bratrud was anxious but engrossed, singing along and willing himself to receptivity. He stepped forward: ‘The fall felt like it was in slow motion. Paralysed in my body and mind, I could hear the helpers shout “Ambat, ambat” (“The white man, the white man!”) as I fell.’ Soon after this, Levi confessed to killing Eliot by sorcery. A week later, back on Ahamb, the chief said he would hold a community meeting to investigate the death. Bratrud left Ahamb for five weeks and when he returned two men had been hanged and five others had confessed to sorcery.
The trial took place in the community hall, where the accused were kept under guard. The men said they had ‘gathered to eat the heart’ of one of their victims (a witchy kind of malevolence) and handed over sorcery objects, including old glass bottles containing blood and bones. People gathered in the nearby church to pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal further secrets. As the numbers allegedly killed by the sorcerers grew, the churchgoers became increasingly angry and entered the hall to attack them. At some point, Orwell’s house was torched. In the end, ‘a little group of men’ as Bratrud puts it (without naming them) arranged the double hanging of Orwell and Hantor, the men who had colluded in the leasing out of Lonour. The other men, who all admitted to sorcery, were made to serve as hangmen because they ‘already had blood on their hands’.
Bratrud knows all this because he was on the phone to people on Ahamb every day. He glosses the dilemmas that arose in these conversations: ‘It was hard for the community chiefs to find an easy solution to end the case.’ He presents what happened as a spiritual war pitting ‘the community’ against ‘the sorcerers’, as ‘collective therapy led by the Holy Spirit’ and as an ‘existential panic’, marrying René Girard’s scapegoat theory – in which ‘good violence’ is directed against ‘bad violence’ – with notions of ritual as an unpredictable liminal force. But can scapegoat theory do anything other than bolster the self-justifying ideology of witch-hunters? There is a more worldly story, which we can piece together from the details of Bratrud’s interactions, and by considering his intimacy with those involved in the revival. Bratrud is there when the chief announces the finding of the stone; he is there with the children when they follow the cat; he is there when Lincoln confesses; and again at the convention, lulled by Cyril’s charisma and authority. What he is showing us – though not telling us – is that the chief and the church leaders carefully channelled the community’s attention towards sorcery. Many small acts of aggression and menace preceded the hangings: the threats whispered to Lincoln; the burning and beatings during the trial. These culminated in the masterstroke, the killing of two men resented by the community and the imprisonment of five confessed sorcerers.
I would have liked to know more about what brought the Christian and chiefly authorities so close as to enable all this; and more about the relationship between Herold, who is sometimes named by Bratrud as chief (we don’t know whether he is the high chief), and the church elder Cyril, the leader of the revival. We know that Herold was Bratrud’s father figure on Ahamb and that he lived in Herold’s house; we also know that he trusted and esteemed Cyril. Was Herold the chief installed in the secret ceremony? Was Bratrud speaking to him on the phone during the trial? Near the end of the book Bratrud reports a speech Herold gave at a reconciliation ceremony in 2017, designed to draw Orwell and Hantor’s relatives back into the congregation-community. He allows Herold to tell us in this speech that he chaired the sorcery trial in 2014 and thus oversaw the double murder, though he ‘could not stop it’.
Name and status (kin relationship, clan affiliation, special roles etc) are important to anthropologists because so much of our analysis depends on the way relationships play out in combinations of character and culture, status and social structure. This is part of the reason Bratrud tends to write ‘the chief’ and not ‘Herold’. He presumably also wished to prevent his book being used as evidence against any individual. His solution seems to have been to use pseudonyms and roles, but on occasion a real name is used, leading to confusion.
Bratrud gives Herold’s tale. I wonder what Orwell and Hantor had to say. I wonder what the five who were charged with their hanging have to say. Hierarchy preservation is soothing. In Simbu Province there are two common ways of referring to a witch-hunt: the militaristic euphemism, ‘operation’, and the more direct ‘beating the mothers and making them feel pain’. Women close to the witch-hunter are tortured because, as one witch-hunter put it, ‘women are the weaker vessel’ and can be relied on to confess. When they give testimony, they often name their torturer’s male rivals as the ‘kings’ and ‘commanders’ of their coven, providing evidence that allows those rivals to be destroyed. Among the Yagwoia, where there are (as yet) no victims, and on Ahamb, where the victims were men, a feminist account of the masculinist politics of witch-hunting might seem easy to disavow. That does not make it less relevant.
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