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Exploring the Tuma underworld of love
The Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea have a special relation with the spirits of the dead that 'live' in their underworld paradise, Tuma. Gunter Senft, researcher at MPI's Language and Cognition Department, published a new book about the Tuma underworld of love, the Trobriand Islanders' erotic and other narrative songs, and their spirits of the dead.
December 6, 2011
Although Kilivila - the Austronesian language of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea - is not an endangered language, there are two metalinguistically labeled varieties or registers of this language that are now moribund (expiring): the 'biga megwa' (the language of magic) and the 'biga baloma' (the language of the spirits of the dead). The latter language variety is an archaic variety of Kilivila. It is constituted by specific songs - the so-called 'wosi milamala' - the harvest festivals songs that are not only sung during these festivals, but also after the death of a Trobriander during the first mourning ceremonies.
The majority of these songs describe in a highly poetic way the carefree ‘life’ of the spirits of the dead in their ‘underworld paradise’ on Tuma, one of the Trobriand Islands. The songs codify the most important aspects of the Trobriand Islanders' eschatological belief system that explains what happens when someone dies.
"Although the songs are still sung by the Trobriand Islanders because of their ritual impact, most of the singers no longer understand the lyrics they have learned by heart," says Gunter Senft, author of the book. "This volume documents 20 song cycles and thus helps to preserve the knowledge of the traditional belief system of the Trobriand Islanders. It also presents an anthropological linguistic analysis of their eschatological content, and provides a critical review of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnography on the topic."
Malinowski described essentials of the Trobriand Islanders' complex belief system in his articles 'Baloma: the Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands' and 'Myth in Primitive Psychology'. He discussed the Trobrianders’ belief that a 'baloma' can be reborn and claimed that Trobrianders are unaware of the father’s role as genitor. Senft's volume reviews this claim and finally settles this so-called 'virgin birth' controversy.
"Writing this book was something I've always wanted to do ever since I first heard one of these songs in 1982," Senft admits. "These songs sound otherworldly. They have a special rythm, melody and toning, for instance. My book is the only documentation of these songs since 1930, and it will probably be the last, because the songs are dying."
Interested readers can access most of the original data presented in chapter 3 of the book at this link. The films E 3129 and E 3130 by ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (see Eibl-Eibesfeldt & Senft 1991) document wosi milamala and milamala dances.
The Tuma Underworld of Love - Erotic and other narrative songs of the Trobriand Islanders and their spirits of the dead.
Link to the publisher.