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Bronislaw Malinowski

Polish Anthropologist


A selection from

Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki

Download mp3 file: Baloma: The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands

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Among the natives of Kiriwina, death is the starting point of two series of events which run almost independently of each other. Death affects the deceased individual; his soul (baloma or balom) leaves the body and goes to another world, there to lead a shadowy existence. His passing is also a matter of concern to the bereft community. Its members wail for him, mourn for him, and celebrate an endless series of feasts. These festivities consist, as a rule, in the distribution of uncooked food; while less frequently they are actual feasts in which cooked food is eaten on the spot. They center around the dead man's body, and are closely connected with the duties of mourning, wailing and sorrowing for the dead individual. But—and this is the important point for the present description—these social activities and ceremonies have no connection with the spirit. They are not performed, either to send a message of love and regret to the baloma (spirit), or to deter him from returning; they do not influence his welfare, nor do they affect his relation to the survivors.

It is possible, therefore, to discuss the native beliefs in afterlife without touching the subject of mourning and mortuary ceremonies. The latter are extremely complex, and, in order to be properly described, a thorough knowledge of the native social system would be required. In this article the beliefs concerning the spirits of the dead and afterlife will be described.

A remarkable thing happens to the spirit immediately after its exodus from the body. Broadly speaking, it may be described as a kind of splitting up. In fact, there are two beliefs, which, being obviously incompatible, yet exist side by side. One of them is, that the baloma (which is the main form of the dead man's spirit) goes "to Tuma, a small island lying some ten miles to the northwest of the Trobriands." This island is inhabited by living man as well, who dwell in one large village, also called Tuma; and it is often visited by natives from the main island. The other belief affirms that the spirit leads a short and precarious existence after death near the village, and about the usual haunts of the dead man, such as his garden, or the seabeach, or the waterhole. In this form, the spirit is called kosi (sometimes pronounced kos). The connection between the kosi and the Baloma is not very clear, and the natives do not trouble to reconcile any inconsistencies with regard to this matter. The more intelligent informants are able to explain away the inconsistencies, but such "theological" attempts do not agree with each other, and there does not seem to be any predominantly orthodox version. The two beliefs, however, exist side by side in dogmatic strength; they are known to be true, and they influence the actions of men and regulate their behavior; thus the people are genuinely, though not very deeply, frightened of the kosi, and some of the actions observed in mourning, and the disposal of the dead, imply belief in the spirit's journey to Tuma, with some of its details.

The dead man's body is adorned with all his valuable ornaments, and all the articles of native wealth he possessed are laid beside it. This is done in order that be may carry the "essence" or "spirit part" of his riches to the other world. These proceedings imply the belief in Topileta, the native Charon, who receives his "fare" from the spirit.

The kosi, the ghost of the dead man, may be met on a road near the village, or be seen in his garden, or beard knocking at the houses of his friends and relatives, for a few days after death. People are distinctly afraid of meeting the kosi, and are always on the lookout for him, but they are not in really deep terror of him. The kosi seems always to be in the mood of a frivolous, yet harmless, hobgoblin, playing small tricks, making himself a nuisance, and frightening people, as one man might frighten another in the darkness for a practical joke. He may throw small stones or gravel at anyone passing his haunt of an evening; or call out his name; or laughter may be heard coming out of the night. But he will never do any actual harm. Nobody has ever been hurt, still less killed, by a kosi. Nor do the kosi ever employ any of those ghastly, hair-raising methods of frightening people, so well known from our own ghost stories.

I remember well the first time I heard the kosi mentioned. It was a dark night, and I, in the company of three natives, was returning from a neighboring village, where a man had died that afternoon and been buried in our presence. We were marching in Indian file, when suddenly one of the natives stopped, and they all began to talk, looking around with evident curiosity and interest, but without a trace of terror. My interpreter explained that the kosi was heard in the yam garden which we were just crossing. I was struck by the frivolous way in which the natives treated this gruesome incident, and tried to make out how far they were serious about the alleged appearance, and in what manner they reacted to it emotionally. There seemed to be not the slightest doubt about the reality of the occurrence, and I afterwards learned that although the kosi is quite commonly seen or beard, no one is afraid to go alone into the darkness of the garden where the kosi has just been heard, nor is anyone in the least under the influence of the heavy, oppressing, almost paralyzing fear so well known to all those who have experienced or studied the fear of ghosts, as these are conceived by us in Europe. The natives have absolutely no "ghost stories" to relate about the kosi beyond insignificant pranks, and even little children do not seem to be afraid of him.

In general, there is a remarkable absence of superstitious fear of darkness, and no reluctance to go about alone at night. I have sent out boys, of certainly not more than ten years of age, a good distance alone at night, to fetch some object left on purpose, and I found that they were remarkably fearless, and for a small bit of tobacco quite ready to go. Men and youths will walk alone at night from one village to another, often a couple of miles, without the chance of meeting anyone. In fact, as such excursions are usually carried out in connection with some love adventure, often illicit, the man would avoid meeting anybody by stepping aside into the bush. I well remember having met on the road in the dusk solitary women, though only old ones. The road from Omarakana (and a whole series of other villages lying not far from the eastern shore) to the beach passes through the raiboag, a well-wooded coral ridge, where the path winds through boulders and rocks, over crevasses and near caves, at night a very uncanny type of surrounding; but the natives often go there and back at night, quite alone; of course, individuals differ, some being more afraid than others, but in general there is very little of the universally reported native's dread of darkness among the Kiriwinians.

Nevertheless, when death occurs in a village, there is an enormous increase of superstitious fear. This fear is not, however, aroused by the kosi but by much less "supernatural' beings, i.e., by invisible sorceresses called mulukuausi. These are actual living women who may be known and talked with in ordinary life, but who are supposed to possess the power of making themselves invisible, or of despatching a "sending" from their bodies, or of traveling vast distances through the air. In this disembodied form they are extremely virulent, powerful, and also ubiquitous. Anyone who chances to be exposed to them is sure to be attacked.

They are especially dangerous at sea, and whenever there is a storm, and a canoe is threatened, the mulukuausi are there looking out for prey. Nobody, there fore, would dream of going on any more distant voyage such as south to the D'Entrecasteaux group, or east to the Marshall Bennets, or still further, to Woodlark Island, without knowing the kaiga'u, a powerful magic, designed to ward off and bewilder the mulukuausi. Even when building a sea-going waga (canoe) of the large type, called masawa, spells must be uttered to reduce the danger from these terrible women. They are also dangerous on land, where they attack people and eat away tongues, eyes, and lungs (lopoulo, translated 'lungs,' also denotes the "insides' in general). But all these data really belong to the chapter about sorcery and evil magic, and have only been mentioned here, where the mulukuausi interest us, as especially connected with the dead. For they are possessed of truly ghoulish instincts. Whenever a man dies, they simply swarm and feed on his insides. They eat away his lopoulo, his tongue, his eyes, and, in fact, all his body, after which they become more than ever dangerous to the living. They assemble all round the house where the dead man lived and try to enter it. In the old days, when the corpse was exposed in the middle of the village in a half-covered grave, the mulukuausi used to congregate on the trees in and around the village. 7 When the body is carried into the grave to be buried, magic is used to ward off the mulukuausi.

The mulukuausi are intimately connected with the smell of carrion, and I have heard many natives affirm that at sea, when in danger, they were distinctly conscious of the smell of burapuase (carrion), which was a sign that the evil women were there.

The mulukuausi are objects of real terror. Thus the immediate neighborhood of the grave is absolutely deserted when night approaches. I owe my first acquaintance with the mulukuausi to an actual experience. Quite at the beginning of my stay in Kiriwina, I had been watching the wailing round a freshly made grave. After sunset, all the mourners retired into the village, and when they tried to beckon me away, I insisted on remaining behind, thinking that there might be some ceremony which they wanted to perform in my absence. After I had maintained my vigil for some ten minutes, a few men returned with my interpreter, who had previously gone to the village. He explained the matter to me, and was very serious about the danger from the mulukuausi, though, knowing white men and their ways, he was not so much concerned for me.

Even in and around the village where a death has occurred there is the greatest fear of the mulukuausi, and at night the natives refuse to go about the village or to enter the surrounding grove and gardens. I have often questioned natives as to the real danger of walking about alone at night soon after a man had died, and there was never the slightest doubt that the only beings to be dreaded were the mulukuausi.

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