ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Cosmologies

Tikopia: the Gendered land

Dr Judith Macdonald, Anthropology Department, University of Waikato Hamilton New Zealand

Land and house provide the two central metaphors which underlie hierarchy, kin and gender relations in Tikopia, Solomon Islands. The specific metaphor for understanding land in Tikopia is that 'the body of the chief is the body of the land'. Indeed, an earlier chief afflicted with ringworm abdicated because he feared his imperfect skin would presage an imperfect island. However, the unexamined aspect of the metaphor is that the land is male. Male and female bodies are differently controlled in this landscape - the island as a whole, the sea and its edges, the gardens and the houses. And while the whole land is embodied in the chief, the house is the body of the male generally (paito means both the physical house and the patrilineage). This raises more general questions about defining the land as 'motherland' or 'fatherland'.

In this paper I examine the result of serious cyclones in the past few years which have devastated the island and its houses. The Tikopia have had to ask why their island has been so badly damaged and what that indicates about their traditional way of life. The current supreme chief is young and there is a regent in his place - does this have implications for disaster? I also look at the potency of the metaphor among those who have left the home island and now live in other parts of the Solomon Islands where different architecture undermines the coherence of the house metaphor. This is further complicated by the ethnic conflict which has devastated the administrative centre of the Solomons over the last four years. While the conflict involves competing Melanesian groups, not the Polynesian Tikopia, they have nonetheless been affected.

At the heart of this paper are recent discussions with Tikopia men living in Honiara (the administrative centre of the Solomon Islands) who have been holding meetings about the distribution of aid to the devastated home island. A sum of money from the estate of Raymond Firth was sufficient to buy a shipload of rice. However, as well as the practicalities of food supply, the discussions also covered the well-being of the island and the future of the people - could they continue to live on the island where the boundaries of villages, the houses and bodies of the dead that were buried in them were either eroded into the sea or buried in landslides? The central metaphors have been severely challenged by natural disaster.

Sewa symbolic geography and cosmology

Patrick Glass, University of Sydney

The Sewa of Normanby Island, D’Entrecasteaux, and the Trobriands were linked mythologically. Both societies are ‘matrilineal’, yet they are organised politically and in kinship terms very differently. In their key ritual feasts (mwadale and milamala) important differences come to the fore. These central rites of exchange are vital to an understanding of the representations of their respective cosmomorphs (Barraud, de Coppet, Iteanu & Jamous [1984] 1994). My interpretations of traditional Trobriand society have implications for the analysis of neighbouring Massim societies (Glass 1986, 1988, 1996). I suggest the Trobriand system effectively separated that society off from its cannibal neighbours in the Koya, the mountainous Islands to the South. Topileta, their androgynous god or ancestor spirit, had a multiple presence everywhere in the Trobriands and the religion constituted a secret fertility cult. The Trobriand findings are compared with the beliefs and exchange practises of the Sewa in their most important feast for the collective dead, mwadale. At mwadale Sewa origins are played out in ritual and cosmology is paramount. I suggest the cosmology is expressed primarily through the yam house (mwadale) design - and its multiple symbols - and the symbolic geography of Normanby Island itself. An orientation towards Bwebweso, the mountain of the spirits of the dead, is incorporated into Sewa Christianity.

  • Barraud, Cecile, Daniel de Coppet, Andre Iteanu & Raymond Jamous (eds)
  • [1984]1994 Of Relations and the Dead: Four Societies Viewed from the Angle of Their Exchanges. London: Berg.
  • Glass, Patrick
  • 1986 The Trobriand code: an interpretation of Trobriand war shield designs. Anthropos 112: 47-63.
  • 1988 Trobriand symbolic geography. Man (n.s.) 23: 56-76.
  • 1996 Oedipal or Tudavan? The Trobriand nuclear complex revisited. Canberra Anthropology 19: 52-104.

King House and the mobile polity; moving in space and centralising power

Susan Drucker-Brown, University of Cambridge

The Mamprusi former kingdom in northeastern Ghana, though weakly centralized in comparison with some monarchical polities, is qualitatively different from neighbouring descent group based collectivities. One major difference is the unique position of the king as a source of chiefly office (naam) and the constitution of courts consisting of the king or chiefs and their non-royal elders. The connections established ritually between chiefs and the king create a web of dyadic relations conceived ideally as filial ties. These bonds connect the myriad small settlements of Mamprusi, spread throughout the territory, to a central point where king and his court reside. This connection is thought of independently of office-holders' location in a specific bounded territory. Villages and the capital are known to move over time, while the relationship between king and chiefs may persist.