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Naming, mnemonics, and the poetics of knowing in Vula'a oral traditions.


For the Villa 'a people of south-eastern Papua New Guinea names are a way of knowing that is intimately linked to a particular mode of being. The ethnography of Vula'a naming practices presented here, and an analysis of their stories--traditionally known as rikwana--suggests that names are essential in the Heideggerian sense that they bring the past, present, and future into proximity and thus may be understood as a form of historicity. In certain contexts names are also powerful because they are implicated in the kinds of transformations commonly described by anthropologists as magical. Magical names link knowing and speaking with a vital aspect of Vula 'a cosmo-ontology known as iavu (heat).

Keywords: Papua New Guinea, historicity, mnemonics, naming, stori.


The Vula'a are a population of approximately 5000 who speak an Austronesian language (Hula) (1) and occupy seven villages along the coastal region of Central Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Since 2001 I have studied the Vula'a lifeworld largely from the perspective of one of these villages, Irupara, which lies about 100 km east of Port Moresby, the national capital. For the Vula'a, names reveal persons, places, events, and sometimes their intercorporeity. (2) I will show that names are essences, in the Heideggerian sense, in Vula'a stories traditionally known as rikwana. As Kaelin has suggested, essence as it is used by Heidegger should be understood verbally (Kaelin 1967:69). In its German form (wesen) the word denotes a process, a coming to be (ibid.). Vula'a naming brings the past, present, and future into proximity and thus may be understood as a form of historicity. Moreover, when names are implicated in the kinds of transformations commonly referred to by anthropologists as magical, they can be powerful.

Moving from the ethnography of contemporary naming practices to a study of names contained in rikwana, I will show that names are also importantly connected to a fundamental aspect of Vula'a cosmo-ontology known as iavu (heat or power). It is not, though, that certain words are potent in and of themselves. Rather, they bring into relationship the being who invokes them, the powers which are accessed through them, and another being who is the recipient of an intention. The relationship between words (in this case names), speaking and iavu emerges as an important nexus for understanding the Vula'a lifeworld.


In his book Tree Leaf Talk (2001) James Weiner reminds us of Sapir's observation that the physical and social environment of a language group is reflected in its vocabulary (2001:20: see also Basso 1988; Gell 1995). He makes the further point that this fits well with 'a phenomeno logical approach to language and human action in general' (2001:20). Weiner draws on Heideggerian insights to suggest that for the Foi, a people who inhabit the fringe of the Southern Highlands of PNG, naming is both a poetic act and an existential act (2001:15-30). He is interested in the ways in which place names inscribe human activity in the landscape for the Foi, for whom 'place-names act as mnemonics for the historical actions of humans that make places singular and significant' (ibid. :24). By way of example, Weiner describes unusual or noteworthy events relating to enemy attacks that link the place and the place name (ibid.:21). Foi place names 'encapsulate not only the specific events for which the name was first given, but the lives of the succession of men [and women] who have left their mark there' (ibid.: 19).

I have documented many similar instances in Vula'a oral testimonies. These include migration and settlement stories in which named places become mnemonic markers for events, and battle stories that are connected to the landscape through the ascription of names. For example there is a place now called Vagi Koko which means 'kill all' or 'massacre' because an important battle was fought there. Previously it was known as Vagi Oloko or Olo Kona. The poetics of these names renders literal translations inadequate. For instance vagi can mean to kill or fight but may also be used as an intensive (similar to 'very'). Oloko and Olo Kona both suggest a high place on the beach. These high places were strategic for village security during a period of intense warfare that followed Vula'a settlement to the west of Hood Bay. The event now described as a 'massacre' initiated the renaming of the site. I have written at length about the legendary warrior from Alewai village called Kila Wari (Van Heekeren 2008, 2012). The place where Kila Wari was speared to death is a local landmark situated in the grounds of Babaka village's United Church called Kila Kalana, literally Kila's grave. To say 'Kila Kalana' is to recall not only the death of the great warrior but also many of the important feats he performed in life. This same site was previously called Iome Kalana after an old woman who was buried there. To say 'Kila Kalana' is to also recall Iome Kalana, as a site's renaming mnemonically suggests its past. The former name and previous event are merged with new happenings at the site. When a person enters such a place and speaks of its past, they facilitate future knowing. As Weiner suggests, naming is both a poetic act and an existential act, but it is also a way of knowing.

The mnemonic function of places and objects is widely acknowledged in Melanesian ethnography and beyond (Basso 1988; Battaglia 1990; Kiichler 1987; Weiner 2001). Harwood (1976) has usefully compared the oral traditions of the Zuni people of North America with Malinowski's Trobriand ethnography. She observes that in most cases the named locations suggest a myth (ibid.:192). In the Trobriand myths described by Malinowski 'Each mythical event is closely associated with a particular location, or a series of locations.... By plotting these locations, it is possible to construct a mythical geography of the Trobriands' (ibid.: 787). Drawing attention to similarities with Zuni conventions Harwood cites Malinowski: 'If for each word ... describing the stages of canoe-building we insert a full description of the processes for which these words stand--we would have in this myth an almost complete, ethnographic account of canoe building' (ibid. :789). The condensed form of the myth provides a mnemonic for the entire process of canoe making--which includes materials, technology, and procedure (ibid.:789).

While Vula'a and Foi place names work as the mnemonic condensations Harwood describes, rather than serving as instructions they are ways of keeping the past alive in the present through the association of person and place. Because place names evoke a myriad of associations for the Vula'a, they also exemplify what some anthropologists now refer to as 'historicity' (Geana 2005:352; Hirsch and Stewart 2005:262). It has been argued that viewed in Heideggerian terms 'historicity', as opposed to our common sense understanding of 'history', gathers together the future, the essential past, and the present (Geana 2005:352). This gathering is evident in the relationship between person, place, and event.

E. S. Casey has proposed that a phenomenology of place reveals that places gather. He means by 'gathering' that 'peculiar hold on what is presented as well as represented in a given place' (Casey 1996:25; see also Battaglia 1990:30). He suggests that 'At the very least, we can agree that the living-moving body is essential to the process of emplacement: lived bodies belong to places and help to constitute them.... By the same token, however, places belong to lived bodies and depend on them' (ibid.:24, his emphasis). Casey's intention is to privilege place over space in the manner in which Merleau-Ponty (2002:ix-x) contrasts landscape with 'mere geography' so that we move our attention from the abstract to the experiential. Beyond Casey's idea that places belong to lived bodies, I suggest that some Vula'a persons are places in the particular sense that they may also gather and are sites of 'historicity', which I prefer to call knowing. First I note that genealogies also connect person to place in this form of knowing.

Vula'a genealogies are conceived as treasures to be passed through the lineage to those who have proven themselves worthy of the responsibilities that come with inherited knowledge. They are treasures because they endorse a person's authority or right to tell a story by claiming a connection to ancestor and place. Vula'a stories are always prefaced by the recitation of a genealogy that mnemonically maps connections between people, places, and events. Like lists of place names they are stories in and of themselves. They exemplify a way of knowing that is the nexus of past, present, future and that draws together the spatial and temporal dimensions of Vula'a relationships through connections with village founders. The Hula term for 'genealogy' is gulu ai (generation counting or grouping). The Vula'a identify three generational categories that suggest past/present/future groupings. Gulu kune refers to all past generations--all of one's ancestors--living and non-living. Gulu refers to one's own generation--brothers, sisters, and cousins although it may also include that generation immediately following, that is, one's children, nieces, and nephews. Gulu valigu literally means new generations--those more than one below one's own generation, such as one's grandchildren.


Throughout the course of a lifetime Vula'a people are known by many names. In contemporary times most young people use two first names. The name given at birth is locally described as a 'village' name but later this will likely be anglicized and become a 'town' name. For example, the birth name Laka (lit. walk) might become the town name Lesley and likewise Vavine (lit. female) might become Valerie. It is also likely that a person will have a multitude of nicknames, as the Vula'a generally find great humour in playing games with language. The proximity of the Vula'a to Port Moresby (Mosbi), the national capital, is now an important influence in this regard, as Western popular culture is creatively transformed into local idioms. For instance, wara men (roughly 'sorcerers') are sometimes described as 'hit men' and occasionally (in the street language of Mosbi) as sosmen or mexmen. Motor vehicles are also named playfully. For instance, a red truck that travelled regularly between Hula village and Mosbi when I was doing my fieldwork was called 'Chariot of Fire'. In the villages, though, traditional naming conventions remain important.

Connected to gulu ai (generation counting) there are specified terms of address used to mark one's relationships and position. In the terminology of kinship there are of course classificatory terms. These follow what conventional kinship theory categorizes as the Hawaiian system; mother, mother's sister, father's sister, and father's brother's wife are called inaku, father, father's brother, and mother's brother are called amaku. One's children and one's siblings' children are called nauku, and there are also terms to distinguish older and younger siblings which are gender specific. One's affines are addressed as ivaku. In all these examples the suffix ku refers to the possessive 'my'. Upuku is given formally as the correct form of address for a grandparent although in practice it is shortened to apu; it is a reciprocal term used between the grandchild and grandparent and the relationship is implicit.

The Vula'a also practise teknonymy. After the first-born child is named, for example Kila, the parents will be addressed as Kila inana (mother of Kila) and Kila amana (father of Kila). As Geertz has suggested of Balinese naming practices, this identification in terms of parenthood points to the value placed on social regeneration (Geertz 1973:377). It is interesting, then, that the other Vula'a naming convention that bears significance is the widespread use of bereavement terms. The most common of these are maru used to refer to a father bereft of a child and are for the mother. It was pointed out to me one day at a women's group meeting that by a certain age most women are known as are. Local humour belies the poignancy of their observation that if you say 'areV in such a setting almost everyone turns their head. As forms of address, are and maru commonly eclipse teknonyms, and point to the close proximity of death and consequently the relationships which are central to an existentiality that remains largely under the influence of ancestors. If we can say that teknonymy affirms the value of reproduction--of life giving--and that the special relationship between grandparent and grandchild further acknowledges a social cycle-of-life, we can also say that bereavement terms are a reminder of the enduring possibility of loss on the one hand and the attention that must be paid to the non-living on the other--the place of ancestors in the constitution of social relationships. (3)

It is, though, in Vula'a personal naming practices where we see how persons embody knowing. Unlike the current fashion in Western naming conventions for invention and unusual spellings intended to stand for unique individuals, Vula'a names always convey meaning, although the significance of any name is variable. People I was introduced to during my fieldwork occasionally translated their first name into English so that I could appreciate the humour this elicited. For instance, Numa Nama has the literal meaning 'good house'. So to say 'my name is good house' is uttered humorously in English. Some familiarity with the Hula language revealed for me names such as 'bad news', 'fight', and 'cockroach', but by far the most popular of all Vula'a names is Kila or 'talk'. It is interesting, too. that names are not usually gendered and if it is thought to be appropriate both a male child and a female child in a family might be given the same name. In many instances, a birth name recalls an aspect of the period of birth for the parents. For example, the youngest daughter in one family was called Babaka because she was born during a temporary residence in a village of that name. It also happens that the village takes its name from the abundance of a shrub known as Babaka. The family have mnemonically established an existential relationship between themselves and the village through their child's name. Events of a much greater scale are also held, to use Casey's term, in this way.

Brime Olewale, a member of Poerupu kwalu, one of four 'clans' in Hula village, explained to me that the descendents of warriors embody the stories of warfare I spoke of earlier:

   some names that were used for my patriarchs who would have been
   born just before the arrival of the missions reflect this [period
   of fighting], names like Kolu Gerea ('He who wrestles by himself'
   implying that he stood alone amongst many) Agu Auka (literally
   hard/strong legs, implying someone who stood firm in battle). Sadly
   for me another of my patriarchs was called Kureve (Rat) so we
   weren't all strong men.

Olewale went so far as to suggest that discovering why people were given their names is 'the key to unravelling the past', because 'Vula'a children are named according to the events and seasons that surround their birth'. He explained, for instance, that the full name of Laa Lui, the founder of Hula village, was Laa Kovau Lui and that Laa Kovau literally means empty breast so it is likely that he was born in a time of hardship when little food was available. He explained also that

   the names of Laa and Leva [his brother] are repeated in nearly
   every generation of their line. So I have nephews who are using the
   name Laa and also Leva, names that other families in the village
   don't use, names that identify who the descendants of those two
   founders are.

Moreover 'lui' is the Hula word for dugong, which are highly valued by the Vula'a, who consider themselves to be the greatest fishermen in PNG. The names of these village founders, then, also suggest that fishing is central in this lifeworld.

As I have said, in the course of a lifetime Vula'a people may use many names. An important instance of receiving a new name is when it is given to recognize the exceptional knowledge that someone holds. Renaming a person according to their knowing is exemplified in a man whose birth name is Wala Iga (lit. resemble birth). Generally known as a man of great fishing knowledge, Wala Iga is sometimes referred to as 'the man who talks with fish' (Hula: au ma'ani ria ge inaina na). When too old to dive on the reef, he recalled his ability to communicate with fish and to call them to the reef where he waited to spear them. He explained how he learnt to talk with fish as a young boy when he spent time alone on the reef while the older men fished. As a retired Adventist pastor Wala Iga did not speak of spirits or magic yet his account is redolent of other stories that do (see below). The addition of a new name, 'the man who talks with fish', marks a particular identity for the man, and recognizes a unique way of Vula'a knowing. To say au ma'ani ha ge inaina na is as evocative as a place name like Kila Kalana.

In Irupara I was often directed to a local person such as Wala Iga who had knowledge in a particular field. For example, I visited an old woman who showed me the way women used to prepare akwa (a creeping vine) that was used by the men to make fishing nets prior to the introduction of commercially produced nets in the 1960s. The woman's husband, a man said to be around 90 years of age in 2005, was also known for a special skill. He was a renowned canoe maker and had thus been given the name, Pai Gerea. This is a descriptive term that names an ontological inter-corporeity, because it identifies the corporeal relationship between two beings. 'Pai Gerea' is bestowed as a mnemonic marker of the relationship the man has with the marawa (rosewood) tree. The canoe maker has a special ability--he looks at a tree and sees the canoe it contains. The Pai Gerea does not create a canoe in the sense that he produces it; rather he brings forth the canoe from the tree in which it is held. Literally pai gerea means the canoe maker/cutter who works alone. This is significant because there are few solitary tasks undertaken by the Vula'a. If one is alone the implication is ritual seclusion. Wala Iga emphasized that, as a boy, he spent time alone on the reef. Separation from the living community infers closer proximity to the ancestral realm, and proximity to the ancestors infers having access to iavu (heat or power), as I will explain.


When I began my research in 2001 I arrived in Irupara village equipped with a small vocabulary of local terms from Lillian Short's 1939 Hula Grammar. Lillian was the wife of the Rev. A. J. E. Short who was the last non-indigenous London Missionary Society pastor to serve at Hula. I had an interest in Melanesian myths and oral traditions and very soon inquired if people knew any rikwana. This was a term translated by Short as 'story of olden times; folklore' (1963[1939]:68). Today English-speaking Vula'a translate rikwana as 'legend' but the word has almost disappeared from common usage, subsumed under the general category 'stori' (Tok Pisin: story). My familiarity with the word rikwana was hence met with surprise and the response was fruitful. There are, though, some important distinctions between rikwana and stori.

In his 1972 ethnography of Astrolabe Bay, Peter McLaren highlighted the difficulty of interpreting Tokpisin terms when they are incorporated into vernacular languages. He points out that 'stori' has often been misunderstood by Europeans who use it as a direct Tokpisin equivalent for 'story' whether it is referring to fact, fiction, origin myths, or tales of the past (McLaren 1972:31). While stori may indeed mean narrative or story--and Christian usages such as 'Stori Bilong Baibel' to refer to Bible stories are probably correct--this reflects only one usage of the word (ibid.). McLaren's survey of Madang languages shows that stori was used as a substitute for a range of vernacular terms which covered translations such as tale, facts, history, hearsay, myth, legend, and speech (the actual words in a conversation). He found that for the Wenge speakers one use of stori was as a substitution for 'spell' (ibid.). Speaking of Rerau village McLaren noted the complex relationship between stori and a group of spirit beings that control or influence growth and the supply of food. Of interest here is that stori spirits are often identified by a secret name (ibid.: 122). McLaren explains how in the past, when such a spirit revealed its secret name and a rite to a member of a lineage, the knowledge was passed down in the male line and the spells were performed for the benefit of the whole village (ibid.). Similarly a stori might also be revealed through a dream or a chance meeting with an animal or human manifestation of a spirit in the bush. Those who held this type of knowledge were called stori-men (ibid.).

McLaren's description of the way the Rerau most commonly use the term stori is helpful here. It can be divided into three key points; first, as for the Vula'a, stori refers to the narrative or myth itself. Second, it may refer to the chief actor in the narrative 'who personifies the power or authority by which the result of the story is brought about' and finally stori refers to 'the specific means of re-activating this power' (ibid.:32)--what we might refer to as the magic. This summation can be usefully applied as a general description of rikwana. The Vula'a have a tradition similar to that which McLaren identifies for the Rerau, where particular lineages hold what he calls 'secret' knowledge that is linked to various domains of authority; fishing, net-making, warfare, and so forth. And it is clear that rikwana contain some type of moral injunction as well as the knowledge of the magical means to bring this about. What is common to Rerau stori and Vula'a rikwana is that knowledge is related to both a name and to a form of power. For the Rerau it is usually the secret name of the spirit (ibid.). While this is not generally so for the Vula'a, most rikwana are mnemonically contained and, following Heidegger, I suggest that this is its essence and power.

McLaren makes the further point that 'stori', as it is used by the Rerau in its active sense, is ahistorical because it relates the subject to the speaker without reference to time (1972:32). Used in this way 'stori' most commonly refers to an origin myth or a technical understanding, in conjunction with knowledge of the ways of gaining benefit from the information it contains, that is 'the process or spell by which a myth can be made to reproduce itself for living persons...' (1972:32). For the Vula'a, the rikwana I discuss below reveal their participation with a range of entities; other humans, non-humans, ancestors, and places. (4) As I will explain, they are about power as heat in the guise of magical actions, words, and songs. And they demonstrate that access to heat requires knowledge and activity in the form of speech.

The Vula'a use the word stori for rikwana but they also use it to refer to a range of conversational activities; from telling jokes and anecdotes and discussing local gossip to relating events of historical importance. The emphasis is thus on stori in its active sense, and conversation is given great social value. Formal social interaction ideally begins with the chewing of betelnut, is followed by stori, and concludes with the sharing of food. In other words stori is as much about the sociality of speaking as it is about meaning or content. Translating from English to Hula, Short gives rikwana and another term, inaina, as equivalents for the noun, story (Short 1963:108). From the Hula to English she also gives a verbal form of inaina; to make love or to talk familiarly (ibid.:48). (5) So according to Short inaina, like stori, may refer to both action and narrative; however, there are no examples of stories, either offered by Short or that I was able to locate, which belong to a category 'inaina' unless we take it to refer to a 'spell' or 'incantation'. As an intimate form of speech inaina is also a whisper. This is revealed in a rikwana collected by Short, which I will elaborate later. In the Hula language there are terms which refer to the quality of a thing rather than the thing itself, but they are neither abstract in our sense nor are they homonyms. This means that a word can be applied to more than one object and its meaning is inferred in context. (6) For instance kiru kiru is used to identify both tuna fish and ants because they share the characteristic of swarming; kariga is used for sea urchin and armpit, and iru for point and nose. This qualitative association, when undertaken in English, is commonly termed poetic. One of the best Hula examples is the word la'a, which is used to refer to; women's breasts, breast milk, a sail and/or the wind it holds, and when one scoops something up, such as fish in a kora (scoop net). I suggest that inaina, rather than having two meanings; to make love and story, refers to a common characteristic an essence--based on the idea of intimacy, and more importantly the potency of these intimate actions.

In terms of Vula'a naming there are two potentialities that I see as significant. The first is the mnemonic property of the word that I have already outlined and the second, on which I will now focus, is the potency of the speech act itself. For exegesis I draw on Heidegger's interpretation of essence and a close study of two rikwana. (7) As I said earlier, Heidegger understands essence as a coming to be or a process: 'the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is' (Heidegger 1977:3). I suggest that Vula'a stori is best understood in this way. AHeideggerian interpretation of stori develops my earlier argument that myth is an existential modality (see Van Heekeren 2004). There I draw on Maurice Leenhardt's (1979) thesis that the Melanesian person experiences myth as le nrythe vecu (living myth).

Leenhardt drew on Levy-Bruhl's formulation of the law of participation (see my detailed discussion 2004:439-42) which was intended to convey the experience of a reality other than the ordinary or every-day, the particular experience of the presence and action of an invisible power (Tambiah 1990:91, my emphasis). Leenhardt saw the Melanesian lifeworld as cosmomorphic; a mode of being which I take to be a cosmo-ontology in which an entity contains the potential for physical transformation by ordinary or magical means. For instance, the Vula'a and other peoples of the southern coast of PNG undertake certain rituals and observances in order to approximate the being of ancestors, and their corpus of traditional stories points precisely to the possibility of transformation from human to plant and animal, to use our terms of classification. Leenhardt (1979:17) spoke of the resemblances between a sapling and a young boy because both are seen as soft but also as containing the potential to grow and harden. Because they are similar in essence and substance he is not speaking metaphorically. Such potentialities cross-cut the distinctions we usually make between living and non-living and human and non-human existents. Participation then is the experience of inter-corporeity beyond what is commonly held to be bodily experience. For the Vula'a certain forms become useful in certain contexts, so various techniques are utilized to meet particular existential requirements. Transformations are achieved with the assistance of an unseen power known as iavu, which is given physical form as heat. As power which is abstract and intangible for us is articulated as physical heat by the Vula'a, I will use the latter term. Essentially heat is an ontological property that belongs to the ancestors but under the correct conditions may be accessed by the living. Some people may become hot and so, too, the places where rites are enacted. I have described elsewhere the way this fits with the wider cosmology of the Vula'a (Van Heekeren 2004, 2007). As an unseen (yet deeply felt) power iavu bears a significance that resonates with our ideas of the sacred, the magical, and the religious. These are metacategories though, for iavu is heat.

Nigel Oram has discussed a story similar to my examples of the man who talks with fish and the canoe maker. It centres on a solitary Vula'a fisherman who encountered a spirit that taught him the magic that would bring him success in dugong and turtle hunting (Oram 1991:526). Oram takes this to be an example of contact with ancestors, commenting that 'These types of explanations give ancestral authority to any innovation' (ibid.). There are similarities here with McLaren's statements on Rerau stori. First the protagonist 'personifies the power or authority by which the result of the story is brought about and also the specific means of re-activating this power' (1972:32). Further there is a connection to 'a group of spirit beings' (ibid.: 122), ancestors in this instance. Oram does not mention a secret name--McLaren's other observation about accessing the power of spirits--but many rikwana give emphasis to names, as I will soon show. Nor does he identify this Vula'a story as a rikwana, as the term had disappeared from common usage by the time of his research. Oram was not concerned with myth yet his example is clearly an origin myth insofar as it explains the acquisition, through revelation, of a particular type of knowledge. Rikwana often explain the origins of food staples such as mullet fish and sago and more importantly provide instruction, by way of magical knowledge, to ensure their abundance. In every instance good results are dependent upon relationships with the ancestors and the heat which they sustain.


Iavu (heat) is at the centre of Vula'a cosmology, as I have said. From rikwana we learn how magical songs work with heat to effect corporeal transformations. This is exemplified in a stori about dogs and hunting that Short translated in her Hula grammar. First, though, I introduce another stori to make some general points which clarify the exegesis. It is untitled in Short's translation, identified only as Rikwana 3: (8)

   Inauinau and her mother and father lived in that village. She was a
   very good girl and boys ran after her in vain. Boys of many
   different villages she refused and did not marry. Then one evening
   all the village men and girls went to fish for orou [sic i.e., for
   opu (mullet) or went to fish on the reef at night]. Only Inauinau
   did not go to the fishing. Then that boy deceived Inauinau saying
   'Inauinau, your friends have gone up to the orou and kepi fishing
   places, and you stay,' he said. 'Come down and let us go together'
   he said. They pulled out a canoe and poled and reached Navuga. That
   one said to her 'Go to sleep and I will pole the canoe', he said.
   'When we get there I will wake you'. Inauinau went to sleep he
   [sic] poled and took her right out to sea, and stopped the canoe.
   Then while Inauinau slept he walked to the shore and went back to
   his village. He deserted Inauinau. The next morning Inauinau's
   mother and father sought her in vain. 'You come back and where is
   our Inauinau?'

   Inauinau awoke, looked in vain for the land and cried. Inauinau's
   mother and father blackened their bodies. She stayed at sea seven
   days then a boil came on her leg. It burst then because she had no
   food she ate the boil. Out of the boil a little bird rose. She made
   the little bird fly. It did not fly (far). Then she called it back
   and taught it a little song. 'Little bird fly away to my father and
   mother's house and perch on the dear breadfruit tree'. Then the
   bird flew away to the top of the breadfruit tree and perched there
   and sang.

   'O Inauinau, on that faraway blue sea you are floating; a little
   bit of kelu leaf and a little bit of wapuli leaf you have eaten.
   You have gone, let us go, let us go'. Inauinau's mother heard him
   and said to the little bird, 'Little bird, would you sing again',
   they said; and he sang again and they listened. They called him
   down and he came down. Then the bird said to them, 'That man
   deceived Inauinau and she is far out at sea. Tomorrow take a little
   food; I will fly first, you will sail behind me'. Then the bird
   flew first, they sailed after him until they reached Inauinau.
   Inauinau was almost dead when they arrived and took her away.
   (1963[1939]: 126-7)

The version of this stori that I was told in Hula village in 2001 was introduced in the following way: 'My grandfather told me a story called Inauinau. It's a true story'. Space here does not permit discussion of 'truth' (see Van Heekeren 2007). Importantly, though, Intia Amini, my Vula'a stori teller, gives emphasis to the fact that the rikwana has a name, Inauinau. This is the name of the female protagonist and is also mnemonically and essentially the rikwana.

The Vula'a know that one does not make plans after dark because a

sorcerer might hear you. A key difference between the earlier and later versions of the story is that Short avoids any overt mention of sorcery. This is a likely concession to her position as the Reverend Short's wife (The statement that the boy walked to the shore after abandoning Inauinau in the canoe is telling, though). In the version I was told by Intia Amini there is a strong message about the consequences of making plans at night, and it is clearly a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of sorcerers. It begins

   There lived a girl called Inauinau. Every night the boys and girls
   would plan what they were going to do the next day. One night when
   they were planning to go fishing the next day a sorcerer overheard
   them. They were planning to catch mullet. This story is true--from
   my mother's side, (Keapara). It's a story concerning Alukuni,
   Keapara, Karawa [the three villages on the eastern side of Hood
   Lagoon]. It's their story. They [the girls and boys] were planning
   to catch mullet on this side (towards Hula). While the girls were
   talking on the canoe, the sorcerers were listening. Inauinau told
   one of the girls, 'Let's go and sleep for a while. When you are
   ready come and wake me up so we can go'. So the girls broke up and
   went home to rest. Inauinau was fast asleep when the sorcerers
   changed their voices like females and came calling. 'Inauinau! Oh!
   Oh! Hurry up! Our boys and girls have already left for the mullet's
   place and you are still sleeping'. Inauinau was asleep when they
   called. She quickly got up took her basket and rope and, still
   feeling sleepy, she joined them unaware that they were sorcerers.
   She followed one of them who led her to the canoe and he said, 'You
   went to sleep late so you can lie on the canoe while I paddle'.

While Short's version speaks of a 'boy who deceives', and Intia's of 'the sorcerer' we can nevertheless read the 'truth' of the rikwana that is named Inauinau, as the origin and becoming of Vula'a knowing that sorcerers have the power to deceive.

In the second part of Intia's stori it is clear that she capitulates to Western 'truth' conventions, providing evidence for her story on the grounds of geographical fact (the existence of an island). We also see the reiteration of the magical powers of the sorcerer, although what is implied in Short's version is elaborated in detail by Intia.

   So she slept on the canoe. The sorcerer paddled the canoe far out
   into the ocean to an island (the island is there today. They have
   found it). There he anchored her. Being a sorcerer he brought the
   point called Kele Iruna [lit. place of the point] closer and he
   stepped over leaving Inauinau. Morning came. Everyone who went
   fishing returned. Her friends were there at the village but
   Inauinau wasn't. Everyone went out looking for her but couldn't
   find her. Her parents and the village were sad. After some time
   they came to regard her as being dead and gave up hope.

   But Inauinau was on this island stranded. The island was situated
   straight out from Kemp Welch River further out in the ocean. From
   there you can't see the land. Inauinau was surviving because
   coconuts, sugar cane and food stuffs were brought from the river
   [by the current]. One day while chewing sugar cane she cut her
   hand. Eventually the cut became a boil. Upon seeing the swelling
   Inauinau wished that a bird would emerge from inside and it did.
   Suddenly a bird appeared from the broken boil.

   So Inauinau used to teach the bird a song. When the bird matured it
   knew the song and would sing it. So she told the bird 'The land is
   this way. When you find it there are two points. Leave the one on
   your left. Go straight to the point on your right. That's my place.
   Fly in from the ocean. You will see the first houses. Beside a
   breadfruit tree is my parents' house. Rest on that tree and sing
   the song'. Once the bird had rehearsed the song it flew off. Upon
   arriving it got confused so it flew back and came in--left the
   point on the left and went to the right. It flew in from the ocean
   and found a couple of houses. Finally it saw the breadfruit tree
   and there it rested.

   A little while later it started singing. It was about 3pm, the time
   when the fishermen are coming home. As they were arriving the bird
   was singing.

   Inau inau e

   Inau inau e

   Wa marawa kela kelai

   Wae rai o, amu gelu launa

   Iana, amu wapulu launa iana

   Po ani, po ao, peao, peao, peao

   While it was singing the girl's father arrived. He heard it and
   asked it to sing again. The father, hearing Inauinau's name, told
   the bird to wait. He went out and pulled his canoe in, ran up to
   the house and told his wife. 'Hey! A bird is singing Inauinau's
   name. She is alive!' So both went to where the bird was sitting and
   asked it to sing again. And the bird sang. After this they told the
   bird to come down. And the bird flew down. They took it home and
   fed it. After, when the bird had finished eating, the father went
   and told the villagers what had happened. He said 'Villagers, I
   used to think my daughter was dead but she is alive and well on an
   island and this is her bird. Tomorrow we will get ropes and things
   to fix our big canoe'.

   Next day they made the sail from sago leaves, killed a pig for her
   and took it with them. They followed the bird out in the ocean and
   there they found the island and the girl. They took her and brought
   her back. End of story.

   This is a Keapara's story (Amoa clan). The island is visible now.
   In 1954 when I was passing by boat (Malakula) (9) I saw it. It's
   not that big but it's coming out of the sea and soon will be
   visible like an island.

As I have said, in the Hula language inaina, as 'intimate talk', approximates the English word 'whisper'. It can be contrasted with kilakila (ordinary talk). Inaina is also used in reference to an incantation that is uttered quietly, as in the example of sorcery. The addition of the vocative 'u' creates a poetic sing-song form as inaina becomes Inauinau. Intia Amini sang the song of the bird during her narration. It was sung quietly to an attentive audience, and I was later told that the words of the song were in an archaic form and could not be translated. Although Short has obviously made an attempt, it is likely that the song was deliberately esoteric. If we compare the original as sung by Intia with Short's translation the poetics of the original are abundantly clear.

The Vula'a associate certain birds with spirits. It is important, then, that it is a bird who sings the song that brings about Inauinau's rescue because it is also a return to the living. At the centre of the stori is the power that may be used for both good and ill intent; it suggests the battle that two 'sorcerers' might undertake over a person's life but it also suggests the power of female fertility. There are some differences between the earlier and later versions of the rikwana that can be explained historically (for example, the issue of sorcery) but they do not alter its central theme. For instance, as is now commonplace, Intia has inserted clock times (3pm) and calendric dates (1954) into her narrative. We might say that the 'truth' which is asserted by Intia lies not in the story's detail or in the geographical evidence she presents. Rather, the truth of the rikwana is its essence, Inauinau. To whisper to the ancestors under ritual conditions is to access their power--for the sorcerer to enact dangerous transformations. To whisper at night is to avoid invisible dangers. Yet the stori also speaks of another power, that of procreation (the implication of intercourse between a boy and a young girl). It is a solitary girl who brings forth a boil/egg from which emerges a bird whose utterances eventually contribute to her renewed life with her village. There is an equivalence here that is also evident in other rikwana. The heat of the ancestors which is generally accessed by men is matched by fertility and nurturance which is also powerful. Both elicit transformations that are the realizations of the possibilities of a participatory ontology. (10)

I now relate another rikwana from Short's collection, a stori about dogs, heat, and transformation. It is identified by her as 'Rikwana 1'. While I did not hear an account of this story during fieldwork, a number of adult Vula'a with whom I later spoke recall their parents telling it to them as children. The names of the protagonists and the centrality of a magical song are once again brought into focus.

   There was a man called Maru. His dog was called Roroma Kapina and
   he had some little dogs too. Every day he used to hunt. He hunted
   with his little dogs only; they killed wallabies and bandicoots and
   iguanas. But every time he shut up Rorima Kapina in the house, he
   did not hunt with him because (he was) Maru's trusted dog. He used
   to stay at home until one day. He (Maru) [...]" a big pig in the
   hunting place. The little dogs saw it; they were frightened. They
   ran down into holes and bush shelters. Maru climbed up a tree. He
   climbed to the top of trees called gilimo and pawa. When the gilimo
   fell over, he crossed over to another. That one too fell. He
   crossed to another, and so it went on, until Maru sang a song. This
   is the song:

   Roroma Kapina e, Roroma        Roroma Kapina, Roroma Kapina,
   Kapina e
   Ano rauai e, ano rauai e       In a far place, in a far place,
   Nomu pae roaroanana            Is a big bush boar
   Gilimo aua e kopeana pa?       Gnawing a gilimo tree?
   Pawa aua e kopeana pa?         Is he gnawing a pawa tree?
   Kopekopena kopekalia e         Gnawing it down.

   Then Roroma Kapina heard him. In the house he jumped and jumped, he
   jumped out of the house, he jumped down to the ground. He followed
   up Maru's scent until he found Maru. That dog said to Maru, 'What
   place shall I bite?' Maru said, 'His throat.' He bit the place
   (and) killed him. Maru came down the gilimo tree, and the little
   dogs ran out from their holes. This is what they said:

   Maru, I killed him.

   Maru said, 'Be quiet.' Afterwards Maru called out several times
   (keawai) (12) because there was no one there. Then a man came out,
   called Palagu Pokana Vovo. They carried the pig on their shoulders,
   and went with it to the place where they intended to eat it. They
   put down the pig, cut it up, put it in water and cooked it. Then
   Maru said, "Let us look in each other's heads". Palagu Pokana Vovo
   searched Maru's head first. Maru woke up. Then he searched in
   Palagu Pokana Vovo's head and put him to sleep, and tied his hair
   down. Maru got up, he devoured all the food and went away. He
   climbed to the top of a tree called kolu and shouted out. Palagu
   Pokana Vovo woke up, but could not get up because that one had tied
   him down. Palagu Pokana Vovo sang. This is his song:

   Tangled, tangled, untie

   Tangled, tangled, untie.

   He untied his hair and arose. He looked for Maru but could not find
   him. As he could not find him he stood at the crossroads. He took
   out his feather hair ornament. He held it in front of him and sang.
   This was his song:

   O hair ornament, O hair ornament,

   Did you go this way?

   Did you go that way?

   O hair ornament, O hair ornament.

   Palagu Pokana Vovo's hair ornament bent over to the left the way
   Maru had gone. Palagu Pokana Vovo went away from the place; he
   thought he would look up, and he saw Maru. Palagu Pokana Vovo asked
   him, 'Maru, how did you get up?' He said. 'With my back.' Palagu
   Pokana Vovo tried to get up on his back, but in vain. 'Maru, with
   what part of my body shall I get up there?' 'Come up on your
   chest'. He tried to climb on his chest, he went up, until he almost
   touched Maru. He said to Mara, 'What shall I catch hold of?' 'Catch
   hold of the dry leaves.' He took hold of a dry leaf, fell, and died.
   Maru came down, went to his house, and all his little dogs with him.
   (1963[1939]: 121-2)

Short did not see the need to translate the names of the protagonists but, as I have argued, names do not only have a meaning attached, they engender the essence of the story. For example the name of Maru's special hunting dog, Roroma Kapina (lit. dried-up base), refers to the dry under-leaves of the kolu tree (a type of sago palm) that in the stori facilitates the death of Palagu Pokana Vovo. And Palagu Pokana Vovo means the many-mouthed palagu (god or spirit) thus giving us an insight into the story's existential significance. There is a notable resemblance between Palagu Pokana Vovo and a palagu described as Palagu Para (lit. big palagu) by Oram in his unpublished notes: it lived in a swamp near Babaka; had holes (or mouths) in its ribs, and held sway over local pig hunting (Oram Papers n.d.). The poesis of the Hula language evokes the relationship between the physical form of the mangrove swamp and this particular palagu that is the essence of its habitat. Mangroves are many-mouthed places. They have dark holes and ribs and they conceal crabs, eels, and other beings.

The stori I have related here is the most complex account of magical power and physical transformation I have found in the Vula'a repertoire. Typically it tells of a battle of wits and of magic that is sometimes obvious, and other times quite subtle. For instance Pokana Vovo is identified as a palagu while Maru is not. Mara is presented as an ordinary man with a magical dog. Yet because Maru controls the dog he emerges as the victor, and we must recognize him as a man of knowledge and hence of iavu. The scenario reiterates a common theme; one where a being that is manifestly powerful, for example in the form of a snake or a man-eating ogre, is overcome by another being--previously unknown as a holder of magical knowledge--such as a boy who has recently attained manhood. Roroma Kapina is Mara's 'trusted' dog. Mara calls him by name only when he needs assistance beyond the realm of ordinary hunting, and the call is a magical song. Not so apparent is the proof of Mara's trust which lies in the contrasts made with the little dogs: 'Mara, I killed him [the pig]' the small dogs claimed, when it was evident that Roroma Kapina--under instruction from Maru--killed the pig. The small dogs collectively have many mouths (pokana vovo). These mouths were claiming a share of Mara's pig to which they were not entitled--a moral message perhaps. After their claim is dismissed by Mara he calls several times for someone to help him carry the pig but 'there was no one there'. Eventually a being called Palagu Pokana Vovo comes out. We intuit that the palagu is made of the small dogs which do not appear again in the story until Maru overcomes the palagu: 'Maru came down, went to his house, and all his little dogs with him'.


The Vula'a stories I have discussed here help us to make sense of the magical practices that are now too commonly described as sorcery and that persist in the midst of more than a century of Christianity. When considered from the perspective of Heideggerian existential phenomenology rikwana shed light on the way that names are a way of knowing beyond simple classification or nomenclature. Vula'a naming practices reveal a particular way of knowing that is intimately connected to a cosmo-ontology. They reflect the physical and social environment; they serve as abbreviations; and as mnemonic devices but they are more than this. In rikwana we see that a name is the essential substance of magical knowledge realized as power in the sense that iavu infers. Physical transformation is a common theme of rikwana because it is fundamental to Vula'a magical practice and understanding. Transformations are possible because beings are of the same substance and share certain essences. Forms, then, are pragmatic and may be shaped by humans who have the knowledge to effect transformations. This is evident where, for instance, Roroma Kapina is both magical dog and the dry underleaves of a sago palm, and Pokana Vovo is a god with many mouths while he is also many small dogs. The theme is also evident in many other Vula'a stories--some of which are widespread in Melanesia--that link human substances to non-human ones to explain the origin of food staples such as sago and coconuts.

The Vula'a way of knowing that I have described is existential rather than epistemological insofar as it is intimately linked to a particular mode of being that is illuminated by Heidegger's discussion of the Greek term techne. (13) Heidegger applies the term to identify a kind of knowledge that reveals rather than produces (Inwood 1999:209). He writes that 'techne signifies neither craft nor art, and not at all the technical in our present-day sense; it never means a kind of practical performance' (Heidegger 2001:57). Rather, the word names a way of knowing:

To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing, which means to apprehend what is present, as such. For Greek thought the nature of knowing consists of aletheia, that is, the uncovering of beings. Techne, as knowledge experienced in the Greek manner, is a bringing forth of beings in that it brings forth present beings as such beings out of concealedness and specifically into the unconcealedness of their appearance; techne never signifies the action of making. (Heidegger 2001:57)

As Inwood so elegantly states, the possessor of techne 'primarily knows how to reveal beings, not how to make them' (1999:209). The idea of a non-productionist metaphysics is not new to Melanesian anthropology. In his ethnography of the impact of the Ok Tedi mine on the Yonggom of PNG Kirsch reiterates Weiner's argument that 'Melanesians see art and magic as means of revealing those aspects of the world that make creation and production possible' (Kirsch 2004:184). What we see as art and magic though is a Vula'a mode of knowing how to bring forth or reveal; as Wala Iga does when he calls fish to the reef, as the Pai Gerea does when he sees the canoe in the marawa tree, and as Brime Olewale does when he recalls the names of his ancestors.


Vula'a names of persons, places, and rikwana are sites of knowing that bring the past, present, and future into proximity and into comprehension. They have a mnemonic function but more importantly naming is also a form of techne because it brings forth beings. Names are powerful when they come into relation with the heat of the ancestors and magical transformation becomes possible. Beyond Heidegger's interpretation, then, Vula'a stori is about the potency of speaking. The heat embedded in the names of rikwana suggests an important connection between knowing and speaking. Knowing in this sense is different from our commonsense understanding of knowledge because not only does it bring forth rather than produce and is given rather than made, it is always material, enacted, and negotiated.



As always I am grateful to the people of Irupara village, especially the Rupa family. An earlier version of this paper was presented in the Anthropology seminar series at Sydney University in October 2010. I have benefited from comments made by Jadran Mimica and Neil MacLean, as well as discussion with Michael Goddard.


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Deborah Van Heekeren

Macquarie University


(1.) As a result of colonial mispronunciation Hula is the name given to the Vula'a language.

(2.) I have elected to use the term 'inter-corporeity' here because it best suggests the mode of being I am trying to express in the following arguments. No reference to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty is intended.

(3.) The other commonly spoken bereavement term is wapu or widow. After the death of a husband, the widow is permanently known by the title Wapu followed by her husband's name, for example, Wapu Kila or Wapu Geno. The Hula equivalent of widower is roae. There are also specific terms for those who have lost a sibling; koa for the brother of the deceased and rapu for the sister of the deceased and oru is a general term for orphan.

(4.) I use the term 'participation' in the sense in which it has been developed by Levy-Bruhl and Maurice Leenhardt (see Van Heekeren 2004).

(5.) Although I am not linguistically trained, it is apparent that by denoting a verb form and a noun form for some words Short's translations are sometimes clumsy. Alan Jones in his incisive analysis of the Mekeo language (which is also Austronesian) argues that the general division between nouns and verbs that appears in Indo-European languages is not appropriate for describing Mekeo. Rather 'Mekeo grammar is highly productive in its unrestricted use of lexical bases--roots or stems--as nouns or verbs' (1998:33).

(6.) Jones' Mekeo work is helpful insofar as he highlights the indeterminacy of the language (Jones 1998:549-53). He points out that 'Linguists have acknowledged that some languages are more implicit than others, leaving far more interpretive responsibility to the hearer, in terms of the pragmatic reconstruction of a prototypical scene' (ibid.: 550). Writing of Mekeo Jones says that 'The grammar tolerates a considerable degree of referential uncertainty.... Pragmatic principles provide the main strategies available to hearers in identifying the participants, in relation to the argument structure, of a predicated event' (ibid. :549). An anthropological consideration of Hula would, though, need to think past the conventions of grammar to take into account the relationship between language, perception, and environment as suggested by Gell (1995).

(7.) I have discussed these in a different context elsewhere (see Van Heekeren 2012).

(8.) Short's convention of not giving a name to the stories she collected is unusual and stands in stark contrast to Western and Melanesian traditions that often identify a myth, folktale, etc., by the protagonist's name. In a somewhat different context Goddard (2011:288) has discussed the names of the central characters in Motu mythology.

(9.) Intia intentionally inserted the name of the boat in her narrative.

(10.) Rikwana in general relate battles between two powerful opponents and the victor is invariably the one who has the greatest magical knowledge. This stori is particularly interesting in terms of what it has to say about male/female relationships. It can be read as the victory of life over death or female fertility over the magic of men.

(11.) Omitted by Short.

(12.) Short leaves this word untranslated. In the original Hula it appears to be the call Maru makes and is possibly a poetic form.

(13.) Heidegger introduces this concept in the latter part of his well-known essay 'The Origin of the Work of Art', a text which first appeared in English in 1971. The ideas he developed in this essay, in fact, build on the key theme of a series of lectures delivered at Freiberg in 1931-32 and which were not published until much later as The Essence of Truth (Heidegger 2002 [1988]). Heidegger's thinking on truth, which he explores through another Greek term aletheia, predates the emphasis he gives to techne in 'The Origin of the Work of Art' where the two are importantly connected.
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Date:Jul 1, 2014
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