Baloma; The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands
Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 105
Publication Date: 1916
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The Trobriand Islanders of the Melanesian region, as well as many other cultures in the Australian and New Guinea regions, had a belief that there was no cause and effect relationship between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. As detailed in this monograph, the Trobrianders belived that the Baloma, the spirits of the dead, would return from the afterlife and impregnate women when they bathed in the lagoon, thus reincarnating the dead ancestor. This often cited monograph by one of the founders of modern ethnography is a classic of the field. Malinowski makes a breakthrough observation this is not just a quaint lack of scientific understanding by 'natives'; it is part of an entire cultural complex that makes as much sense as any other, relatively speaking.
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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 (see below). 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.
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