The Magic Touch: A Look at Exchange and Ritualistic Magic in Wamira

As Miriam Kahn’s book Always Hungry, Never Greedy shows us, the Wamiran people of Papua New Guinea have a culture that is almost exclusively concerned with control through the vessels of taro and pigs. Two of the ways that express this are strengthening their food through sorcery and then exchanging said food. Both are used as ways to control and keep a balance in tribal life. When comparing Wamiran traditions with other ethnographies and articles, it is clear that there are both differences and similarities in the way that people use magic and exchange.

After watching Ongka’s Big Moka, which takes place in New Guinea as well, it is clear that the Wamirans have a different way of dealing with exchange. One factor that I think sets them apart is the level of globalization in both exchanges. When Ongka delivered his large collection of goods to the neighboring tribe, it included not only pigs, but also a large sum of money, a motorbike, and other western trinkets. Material goods such as the bike were clearly western influenced additions, and Ongka took great pride in including them with the pigs. Though Jeremiah of the Inibuena Wamirans did have some canned goods and a bag of rice in a feast, there were no material goods, just food. The Wamirans were still almost purely traditional, while Ongka’s area was not. Though both ethnographies date from the 1970s, it is clear that global trading was becoming more of a presence in Ongka’s area than in Wamira. As we know from Contemporary Warfare in the Highland New Guinea, the somewhat peaceful moka was descending back into warfare due to the influx of western trade (Podolefsky). Crosscutting ties and reciprocity were breaking down during Ongka’s time, and Kahn even warns of this at the end of her book saying, “We should encourage true independence, as well as equally weighted interdependence, for new nations rather than making them dependent on cash, imported food, and outsiders’ often exploitative ideas of development” (Kahn 156). Unfortunately for Ongka’s tribes, this warning wasn’t heeded.

The Inibuena feasts are also different because of their reciprocity. As Kahn writes, “Jeremiah gave the people a pig. In return, they supplied him with vegetable foods, especially taro and plantains…” (Kahn, 133). The main symbol of male control was given to him, symbolizing faith in his leadership. The male villagers gave up their symbolic babies to him, thus quelling any conflict or unrest since the men gave up control to Jeremiah. Ongka’s moka functioned much more aggressively, mainly as a surrogate to warfare. Ongka shot for the stars politically, clearly to establish himself as an important Big Man. Jeremiah already gained his position and respect; therefore he had no reason to go overboard with his contributions to the feast. He merely was reinforcing the established social order through a more equal trade. Doing otherwise may have resulted in a breach of taboo, similar to Richard Borshay Lee’s mistake in Eating Christmas in the Kalahari. Lee didn’t understand the taboo of bragging, and was subsequently chastised, berated, and beaten down (Lee). Jeremiah was a smooth leader, alternating his food contributions from feast to feast as to not disrupt the social balance, which hinges on taboo.

Before any of this can happen, the taro must be grown with loving care and—perhaps more importantly—magic. Most westerners have great difficulty accepting these practices, but as George Gmelch says in Baseball Magic, “To professional baseball players, baseball is more than a game…they use magic to try to control or eliminate the chance and uncertainty built into baseball” (Gmelch 276-277). In fact, a better word for magic in our society is probably superstition. Growing vegetables has much of the same uncertainty as sport performance superstitions. Weather, planting procedure, and harvesting techniques can falter at any point of the growth, and since taro is such an important facet of male power and livelihood, much like the baseball players who must perform well for their means, failure is a heavy burden to incur. Sorcery becomes a dissociative measure that can be blamed without the sorcerer taking too much psychological damage. It is important to understand that magic is in nearly every culture, and empirical science hasn’t necessarily eliminated it at all.

Taraka’s Ghost dealt with this issue, except vulnerable Indian girls were the ones creating dissociative measures (Freed). Sita was, like many girls her age, married off very young. She was put in a village with no family, friends, or control over her life. To shield her psyche, almost exactly like patients suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, she was “possessed” to manipulate the situation indirectly and keep the unwanted sexual advance of her new husband at bay. She convinced herself that she wasn’t behind the possession. The men of Wamira use magic similarly to shield themselves from the potential failure of crops. They cast spells that “ensure” crop yields and keep their pride from breaking if there is no yield. Magic is a safety net for cultures without empirical science. As Bronisław Malinowski has shown, magic, science, and religion all play important parts in culture, and don’t necessarily override each other as the culture evolves. For example, science is incredibly important to our society, but we still have ritual and religious practice in more limited forms. The Wamirans put much stock into magic, and, as far as Miriam Kahn tells us, don’t have much in religion or science.

Magic isn’t benevolent though, and when wielded often brings strife and conflict. Kahn writes, “Jeremiah, while working his garden, noticed that his taro was withering and developing brown leaves. He, too, accused Osborne of sorcerizing the taro” (Kahn 138). Though Osborne merely sat in another man’s garden, and not even Jeremiah’s, he was still accused of evil sorcery. Feeling that his taro was deficient, he employed magic to seek revenge on those who still had their pride in their work. When Jeremiah noticed his vegetables turning brown, he immediately blamed the sorcery of others to protect his pride. Osborne subsequently was forced to throw a “transaction” type feast to repair the rift he had created. Taraka’s ghost was a malevolent form of magic despite the good it did in protecting Sita from more sexual torment. As the Freeds write, “The various amulets they gave her for protection from Taraka’s ghost relieved her anxiety and helped to reduce stress” (Freed 291). The dissociative episodes were very hard on Sita and her family. Though I would argue that the stress of her early marriage was much harder than the episodes themselves, it was still better for Sita to be done with the entire ordeal. The Wamirans also feel this way, and there was peace for many months after Osborne threw his apologetic mini-feast.

Osborne’s breach of conduct mirrors an event in Ongka’s feast as well. A rival, Reimar, disrupts Ongka’s feast by creating a rumor in the crowd as they watch the moka money being counted. This simple act, just like Osborne’s simple act of sitting in the garden, sets off a huge chain of bickering and fighting. The village that is involved in his rumor even goes so far as to march towards Reimar’s to either beat him, or kill him. Even Ongka’s persuasive speech cannot deter them. As a result, the moka is delayed, Reimar is forced into hiding, and as a consequence has four of his pigs slaughtered by the mob. Osborne also had to slaughter a pig of his own for repentance, and though he does it willingly, it is clear that he isn’t happy about it. Exchange clearly has many facets and variables at play. Reimar upended things politically through a vengeful rumor, Osborne employed the suspicion of magic to get back at more successful taro growers, and the core of reciprocity can either be strong, or weak.

The basic cultural structures at work in Wamira are very close to many other societies and tribes. Ethnocentrism has an incredibly bad habit of making us feel more elite than those in the third world, to the point where they aren’t even really considered part of humanity as a whole. This essay’s function is to break that down a bit, and I think it succeeds in this. Reciprocity and magic aren’t exclusive to Bushmen or Wamirans; they just go by different names in our culture. We have gifts and superstition like they do, and realizing this can perhaps create more of a sense of unity between seemingly disparate cultures of the world.

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