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Panel 12: Haunted Pacific


Roger Ivar Lohmann

Session presentation

Oceania is made up of environments that anyone can travel to and see, plus imaginary locales and place-linked qualities, beings, and powers that one must be enculturated to experience as real. Session participants are invited to present original data on such apparently haunted or mythical places, emphasizing how people have experienced them as real. Questions addressed may include the following: What fictive peoples and places have past and present peoples of Oceania known as real? What are the consequences when emic, cognized environments and their populations differ from etic, operational ones? How do people in particular societies learn to experience and believe in supernatural environments? What relationships exist between people and these culturally created and inscribed lands, seas, and skies? How do communities manage their differences as to which places exist and how they are animated or peopled? What causes indigenous and introduced ways of imaginatively enhancing environments to be maintained, change, or fade? Why and how do people create and come to regard them as real? How can scientific and humanistic methods be directed to understanding places and emplaced characteristics and elements that are subjectively projected onto physical environments?

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Geography of the Dead: How Asabano Places Become Haunted

Roger Ivar Lohmann (Trent University)

According to contemporary Asabano people of New Guinea, traditional wisdom and personal experience indicate that ghosts haunt gravesites and certain regions of forest. I analyze their geography of souls to explain how these and other places come to appear haunted. Folk theories that explain death as the departure of an animating soul conceptualize the difference between living and nonliving human bodies in spatial terms. Such cultural models displace attention from the evidence that consciousness and behaviour are no longer possible after bodies stop functioning and decay. Instead, equating death with soul departure sets people up to imagine that when people die, their souls must have gone elsewhere, and to interpret memories, feelings, and perceptions in certain places as ghostly presence. The exact location of departed souls is assigned in part based on where vivid memories and concerns about the dead appear. Lore and dreams about places where deceased souls are supposed to reside enhance recollections and other poignant or striking images of the dead when people visit such locales. This generates emplaced, vicarious experiences of the dead as though elements of them were still living in those places.

The life of the dead in a Sepik community

Christiane Falck (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Among the Nyaura (West Iatmul) the dead inhabit an invisible sphere of people’s lifeworld and their presence is often experienced. The desire to communicate with the invisible can be described as an existential intentionality people have. Traditionally dreams, séances, or magical spells were means to communicate with the dead, nowadays new technologies are used to set the living into contact with the dead. Charismatic prayer sessions, in which spirits of the dead possess the bodies of the living, or the mobile phone, are means to call on the dead. The dead may also return in the bodies of white people, such as tourists or missionaries. But what happens when the anthropologist is also interpreted and appropriated as being a returning dead relative? When the dead materialize in human bodies and interact with community members on a regular basis, and the anthropologist becomes part of this interaction, personal, moral, and ethical questions arise that influence fieldwork methodology. Following an approach inspired by existential phenomenological anthropology, I elaborate on an existential dilemma between my interlocutors and myself that failed to be resolved but offered a space from which to analyze the life of the dead in a context strongly influenced by religious change.

Malaitan Ambiguities in the Quest for the Ark of the Covenant

Jaap Timmer (Macquarie University)

Recent attempts by religious leaders and government officials to find the Ark of the Covenant in the sacred montane centre of the island of Malaita, Solomon Islands, challenge anthropological assumptions about Christianity as proscription and prescription when analysed in relation to the state. In this paper I highlight the disagreements that arise around the Ark when it becomes part of a government program of post-conflict reconciliation and a Pentecostal attempt to build an island-wide theocracy. This discussion will illustrate the extent to which anthropologists have lost track of ambiguities in Oceanic Christianity.

Between Land and Horizon: Assemblages of Beings, Places and Things in Kiribati

Wolfgang Kempf (University of Goettingen)

In this paper I will explore aspects of real-and-imagined worlds caught between national identification and Christianity in the atoll state of Kiribati. My point of departure is a description of 22 in/visible sites, strung out on the ocean side of an atoll between land and eastern horizon. This terrain is structured around the fundamental opposition of ocean and land. Every space is occupied, and occupants must be recognized and respected. Closer inspection reveals this terrain as comprising a broad spectrum of interlinked actants – such as assembly houses, animals, plants, ritually significant materials, but also spirit beings. The power of ritual specialists depends on their interacting with the various actants from this world between land and horizon. Noteworthy too is how this zone of beings, places and things aligns with observable geographic-ecological realities in atoll environments. The boundary between imagination and reality, the living and the dead, the ancient and the Christian worlds is permeable. Against this background, I argue that the agency of ritual experts and spirits needs to be conceptualized in terms of reticulation with assemblages of beings, places and things.

Beyond the Corporeal and Concrete: Framing Everyday Interactions in Marshallese Worlds

Laurence Marshall Carucci (Montana State University)

Interactions between corporeal and non-corporeal beings in the Marshall Islands are every day occurrences with substantial influences on social outcomes among the living. Equally, features of the land, sea, and sky are dynamic and far beyond that which seems apparent to the naked eye, with effects that are not always entirely predictable in advance. It would be inaccurate to create a radical dichotomy between the ontological status of these Marshallese interactions and the “real” world inhabited by European or American social actors -- a dichotomy rendered meaningless by those enamored with fictive, culturally-generated, “alt-facts” in the United States. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the amazing potency of densely imagined, yet culturally real/visible peoples, places, and events in the lives of Marshall Islanders, differs substantially from the way in which real, observable, encounters are judged by Europeans and Americans. The power of such densely imaginary places and encounters has changed little among Marshall Islanders residing in communities distant from the homeland. This paper shall use several examples of these densely imaginary locales and interactions to explore the characteristics and potencies of such encounters in relation to the shifting contours of life for Marshall Islanders in various locales in bygone years and in the current day.

A Living Past and Uncertain Futures: Creating the Landscape through Historical Narratives on Mugaba (Rennell)

Mia Browne (University of St. Andrews)

Passing Gordan Tahua’s house, the old man could be heard chatting away, seemingly on his own. The ninety-year-old, respectfully and affectionately referred to as the last chief in Niupani, is talking with ‘people from before’. Sometimes they try to persuade him to go with them, at others they advise that mining is a bottomless hole into which money will endlessly flow, with no gain for Rennellese people. His extended family that is the village do not think that this is particularly out of the ordinary. On Mugaba, the mutability of physical and incorporeal/human and non-human is necessarily transformative; the first coconut tree sprouted from the head of an ancestor, kanapu (Brown Booby) migrated to Bird Island at the posthumous behest of a hakahua (leader), spirits of the deceased assume the living bodies of those who disrespect them and dreaming of a death portends one. In this social landscape, the land-life matrix might be understood through tagutupu’a (historical stories) depicting the lives of grandparents, going 25-26 generations from the first arrival, Kaitu’u, and are often animated through narratives of loss and decline- people becoming smaller, failing taro gardens, dying coconut trees, deterioration of language, leadership, cooperation and mutual respect. This paper explores how stories of ancestors’ actions and relations with human and non-human others create spaces in which the past can co-exist with the present, while reflecting anxieties for the future.

Haunted Environments and Doomed Characters: A Comparison of Three Novels Set in Melanesia

Diane Losche (University of New South Wales)

A number of novels set in Melanesia are based on the trope of the foreigner whose immersion in an alien and haunted environment induces a deep personal crisis. In these novels this environment, both visible and invisible, induces in the protagonist a crisis based on the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined. The path by which the protagonist comes to this crisis of destabilization has been seldom examined but these novels raise an interesting question. Do protagonists suffer a crisis because they come to know the environment, or because they fail to understand it? This paper examines three novels, each of which has been praised for its literary merit, to examine the path by which protagonists come to doubt their own ability to discern the difference between the real and the imaginary, with dire consequences. These novels are: The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, which revisits the ethnological field trip of Bernard Deacon to Vanuatu, The Visitants by Randoph Stowe set in the Trobriand Islands, and Euphoria by Lily King whose setting is the triangle of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune on the Sepik River.

The Spirit Within: The Landscape of Bedamini Spirit Seances

Arve Sorum (University of Oslo)

This paper focuses on how the Bedamini in Papua New Guinea experience the culturally inscribed environment in which they live. Important ritual moments like spirit seances are described as a dynamic agency that invents, maintains and changes their world as they perceive it, in the process making it real for participants and audience. Their world includes the natural environment in which humans, animals, plants and a variety of spirits co-exist in a closed and unitary network of dynamic relationships with each other. These entities are all connected with named places in the landscape that take on the qualities of the beings associated with them and the events known to have taken place there. This fundamental process of emplacement is decisive for a production of meaning that thrives on the concretization of ideas in images, objects and acts. Spirits are present beings within the environment, not relegated to a separate realm. People create the spirit world by interacting with it. The experience of spiritual existence is part of the experiences of daily life. The world as lived reality and the world as believed in tend to become one through an ongoing process of reinventing events as meaningful.