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Auhelawa prohibitions

Auhelawa is a society on the south coast of Normanby island in PNG.

Every person in this society belongs to one susu, a matrilineal group in which all the members are related to each other through their mothers. The whole society consists of about 30 matrilineal groups like this. Each susu occupies a village, and possesses a cemetery near the village, called a magai. This is where the members of the susu are buried when they die. A susu's magai is forbidden to the susu's in-laws, the men and women who marry members of the susu, and the children of the men of the susu. It is open to the susu members and other susu who have the same totemic bird.

If these forbidden people touch or enter the land, trees or graves in the magai, they will get sick with skin sores, caused by spirits which dwell in the graveyard. They also cannot eat the foods grown near the magai, or drink water that flows through it.

When a man dies, he will be taken to his susu's village and buried in its magai. His children and wife must come to this village to mourn for him. During the mourning period, they cannot wash their hair, wear clean clothes, or go to the market or church. They cannot eat fine foods or meat either. They are prohibited from being clean and tidy, and doing many normal activities, in other words. The children, with the help of their mother and their susu, will also prepare a gift of yams and a fatted pig for their father's susu at a feast. They and their susu cannot eat this feast; instead they eat a small meal prepared with other foods by the man's susu.

When a man's wife and children do this, and avoid contact with magai, they are 'respectful' and this is considered to be 'good'. Everyone praises them for their proper, moral behavior. If the susu of the dead man is satisfied with the mourners' respect, then they may give permission to these in-laws and children of men to make gardens and harvest food from the father's lands near his susu's village, like they did when he was alive.


How does Douglas's analysis of purity and pollution apply to this situation?

How does Ortner's analysis of purity and pollution apply?

Which of these two explanations is more persuasive to you, and why?

Further information

Schram, Ryan. 2007. “‘Sit, Cook, Eat, Full Stop:’ Religion and Rejection of Ritual in Auhelawa (Papua New Guinea).” Oceania 77 (2): 172–90.

———. 2015. “A Society Divided: Death, Personhood, and Christianity in Auhelawa, Papua New Guinea.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (1): 317–37. doi:10.14318/hau5.1.015.

auhelawa_prohibitions.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:31 (external edit)