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The Imdeduya myth of Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea

Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea tell several versions of the tragic love story of Imdeduya and Yolina. Gunter Senft, Professor at the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the University of Cologne, has recently published a book on this important Imdeduya myth and studied its meaning in the Trobriands’ oral tradition.
The Imdeduya myth of Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea

Since 1982, Gunter Senft has studied the Trobrianders' way of communicating, and has analyzed and documented their language, Kilivila. He has published the first grammar of the language, with a dictionary. The Trobrianders use varieties of Kilivila - so-called registers - for specific purposes and with specific intentions. Tales and specific songs, as genres within these registers, reveal the Trobrianders’ ideas about life after death, for instance. Myths, the "liliu", are another one of these genres. Because the Trobrianders believe that the events highlighted in a myth have really happened in ancient times, they contribute to the seriously meant language, the "biga mokwita".

In his recently published book, Senft presents five variants of the important Imdeduya myth: two versions of the actual myth, a short story, a song and the English poem “Sail the Midnight Sun” by famous Trobriand poet John Kasaipwalova. "Once these texts are available in written form, it provides me with the quite unique opportunity to analyze the changes that can be observed in oral literature and the topics that get preserved as important cultural features," Senft explains.    

The language of magic and myth is expiring

Contrary to the fixed poetic text, the oral versions of Imdeduya revealed the changeability of the myth. What remains in the most condensed form of these oral versions is the motif of a man’s quest for a woman’s love. Senft: “This shows how much knowledge and oratory skills get lost in a globalized world. Even on the Trobriands, radios and cell-phones supersede the habits of telling tales and myths, and singing songs."

In 1925, Malinowski, a British anthropologist studying the Trobriand culture, pointed out that “myth lives in magic”. However, the language of magic is highly endangered and even nearing extinction on the Trobriands. "So if myth lives in magic, it will also die with it!" Senft says. "This seems to be an inevitable aspect of language and culture change, but what anthropological linguists can do is to document the richness of oral literature – like myths, tales and songs – in cultures like the Trobriand one." The fact that Senft’s last three books on the Trobriands are freely available brings back these extraordinary pieces of oral literature to the Trobrianders and preserves them for future generations.

The Imdeduya myth

The Imdeduya myth reports the tragic love story of Imdeduya – the most beautiful girl of the Massim area (Figure 1) – and Yolina – the most handsome man in this part of the Pacific. Yolina – having heard of Imdeduya’s beauty – sails from Fergusson Island to Woodlark Island to win her love. Having resisted the sexual temptations of his female hosts in the villages on his long journey to Woodlark, he finally meets Imdeduya and they are enchanted by each other. They marry and stay in Imdeduya’s village, thus breaking the local Massim taboo of living away from the husband's family residence. They have a son, but the situation of Yolina living in his wife’s village results in a tragic failure of their love, and Yolina returns back home to his village on Fergusson Island.

 Map Massim Area PNG

Figure 1. Map of the Massim Area with Fergusson Island (the central island of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands), the Trobriand and Woodlark Island

Further reading

  • Senft, G. (2017). Imdeduya – Variants of a Myth of Love and Hate from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Amsterdam: John Benjamins (download)

In addition, two more recent volumes are also published in Open Acces:

  • Senft, G. (2015). Tales from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. Psycholinguistic and anthropological linguistic analyses of tales told by children and adults. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.(download)
  • Senft, G. (2011). The Tuma Underworld of Love – Erotic and other narrative songs of the Trobriand Islanders and their spirits of the dead. Amsterdam: John Benjamins (download)

More information? Contact:

Prof. Dr. Gunter Senft or visit his personal page here.


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