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Malinowski and the Work of Myth

Malinowski and the Work of Myth

by Ivan Strenski

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Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was a wide-ranging thinker whose ideas affected almost every branch of the social sciences. And nowhere is this impact more evident or more persistent than on the study of myth, ritual, and religion. He articulated as never before or since a program of seeing myths as part of the functional, pragmatic, or performed dimension of culture


Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was a wide-ranging thinker whose ideas affected almost every branch of the social sciences. And nowhere is this impact more evident or more persistent than on the study of myth, ritual, and religion. He articulated as never before or since a program of seeing myths as part of the functional, pragmatic, or performed dimension of culture--that is, as part of activities that did certain tasks for particular human communities. Spanning his entire career, this anthology brings together for the first time the important texts from his work on myth. Ivan Strenski's introduction places Malinowski in his intellectual world and traces his evolving conception of mythology. As Strenski points out, Malinowski was a pioneer in applying the lessons of psychoanalysis to the study of culture, while at the same time he attempted to correct the generalizations of psychoanalysis with the cross-cultural researches of ethnology. With his growing interest in psychoanalysis came a conviction that myths performed essential cultural tasks in "chartering" all sort of human institutions and practices.

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Princeton University Press
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Mythos: The Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Malinowski and the Work of Myth

By Ivan Strenski


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07414-6




At daybreak the party leave the Amphletts. This is the stage when the parting gifts, the talo'i are given. The clay pots, the several kinds of produce of the islands and of the Koya, which had been laid aside the previous day, are now brought to the canoes. Neither the giver nor the main receiver, the toliwaga, take much notice of the proceedings, great nonchalance about give and take being the correct attitude prescribed by good manners. Children bring the objects, and the junior members of the crew stow them away. The general behaviour of the crowds, ashore and in the canoes, is as unostentatious at this moment of parting as it was at the arrival. No more farewells than greetings are spoken or shouted, nor are there any visible or formal signs of grief, or of hope of meeting again, or of any other emotions. The busy, self-absorbed crews push off stolidly, step the mast, set sail, and glide away.

They now approach the broad front of Koyatabu, which with a favourable wind, they might reach within two hours or so. They probably sail near enough to get a clear view of the big trees standing on the edge of the jungle, and of the long waterfall dividing the mountain's flank right down the middle; of the triangular patches under cultivation, covered with the vine of yams and big leaves of taro. They could also perceive here and there smoke curling out of the jungle where, hidden under the trees, there lies a village, composed of a few miserable huts. Nowadays these villages have come down to the water's edge, in order to supplement their garden yield with fish. In olden days they were all high up on the slope, and their huts hardly ever visible from the sea.

The inhabitants of these small and ramshackle villages are shy and timid, though in olden days they would have been dangerous to the Trobrianders. They speak a language which differs from that of Dobu and is usually called by the natives 'the Basima talk.' There seem to be about four or five various languages on the island of Fergusson, besides that of Dobu. My acquaintance with the Basima natives is very small, due only to two forced landings in their district. They struck me as being physically of a different type from the Dobuans, though this is only an impression. They have got no boats, and do the little sailing they require on small rafts of three or five logs tied together. Their houses are smaller and less well-made than those in Dobu. Further investigation of these natives would be very interesting, and probably also very difficult, as is always the case when studying very small communities, living at the same time right out of touch with any white man.

This land must remain, for the present anyhow, veiled for ourselves, as it also is for the Trobriand natives. For these, indeed, the few attempts which they occasionally made to come into contact with these natives, and the few mishaps which brought them to their shores, were all far from encouraging in results, and only strengthened the traditional superstitious fear of them. Several generations ago, a canoe or two from Burakwa, in the island of Kayeula, made an exploring trip to the district of Gabu, lying in a wide bay under the North-West flank of Koyatabu. The natives of Gabu, receiving them at first with a show of interest, and pretending to enter into commercial relations, afterwards fell on them treacherously and slew the chief Toraya and all his companions. This story has become famous, and indeed one of the outstanding historical events of the Trobriands, because Tomakam, the slain chief's younger brother, went to the Koya of Gabu, and killed the head man of one of the villages, avenging thus his brother's death. He then composed a song and a dance which is performed to this day in Kiriwina, and has indeed one of the finest melodies in the islands.

This is the verbatim account of the story as it was told to me by To'uluwa himself, the chief of Omarakana, who at present 'owns' this Gumagabu dance, his ancestors having acquired it from the descendants of Tomakam by a Iaga payment. It is a commentary to the song, and begins only with the avenging expedition of Tomakam, which is also the theme of the song.

The Story of Gumagabu

"Tomakam got a new waga. He blew the conch shell and went to the Koya. He spoke to his mother" (that is, before leaving), "'My mother, you remain, I shall sail. One conch shell you hear, it will be a conch shell of a necklace.'" (That is, it will be a sign that he has been successful in getting a good Kula necklace). "'The second conch shell will be the conch shell of the dead man; the sign that I have already carried out my revenge. I shall sail, I shall anchor, I shall sleep. The second day I shall sail, I shall anchor, I shall sleep. The third day I shall anchor in a village, having already arrived in the Mountain. The fourth day I shall give pari, the Kinana (the Southern foreigner) will come, I shall hit him. The fifth day I shall return. I shall sail fast, till night grows on the sea. The next day I shall anchor at Burakwa. You hear the conch shell, you sleep in the house, arise. One blow you hear of the shell—the blow of the bagi (necklace). Two blows you hear, the blow of the dead man! Then the men of Burakwa will say: Two conch shells, two necklaces,' then, you come out of the house, you speak: "Men of Burakwa, from one side of the village and from the other; indeed you mocked my son, Tomakam. Your speech was—go, carry out thy vendetta in Gabu. The first conch shell is that of the necklace, the second conch shell is that of the dead man. I have spoken!'" (Here ends the speech of Tomakam to his mother.)

"He anchored in the village in the Koya. He told his younger brother: 'Go, tell the Kinana men these words: Your friend has a sore leg, well, if we together go to the canoe he will give the pari!' The younger brother went and spoke those words to the head-man of the Kinana: 'Some green coconuts, some betel-nut, some pig, bring this to us and we shall give you pari. Your arm-shells, your big stone blade, your boar's tusk, your whale-bone spatula await you in the canoe. The message for you is that your friend has a sore leg and cannot walk.' Says the Kinana man: 'Well, let us go!'"

"He caught a pig, he collected betel-nut, sugar cane, bananas, necklaces, betel-pod, he said: "Well, let us go together to the canoe.' Pu'u he gives the necklace; pu'u, the pig; then he gave the coco-nut, the betel-nut, the sugar cane, the bananas. Tomakam lay on one side, his leg he wrapped up in a white, soft pandanus mat. Before he had spoken to his younger brother": (i.e., he gave him this instruction also, when he sent him to meet the people of Gabu): "'You all come with the Kinana man. Do not remain in the village.' Then" (after the first gifts were exchanged) "the Kinana man stood up in the canoe. His betel-pod fell down. Spoke Tomakam, addressing the Kinana man: 'My friend, pick up the betel-pod. It fell and went down into the canoe.' The Kinana man bent down, he took the betel-pod. Tomakam saw that the Kinana bent down, he took an axe, and sitting he made a stroke at him. He cut off his neck. Then Tomakam took the head, threw the body into the sea. The head he stuck on a stick of his canoe. They sailed, they arrived in their village. He caught a pig, prepared a taro pudding, cut sugar cane, they had a big feast, he invented this song."

Such was the story told me by the chief of Omarakana about the song and dance of Gumagabu, which at that time they were singing and performing in his village. I have adduced it in full, in an almost literal translation from the native text, in order to show it side by side with the song. The narrative thus reproduced shows characteristic gaps, and it does not cover even the incidents of the song.

The following is a free translation of the song, which, in its original native text, is very condensed and impressionistic. A word or two indicates rather than describes whole scenes and incidents, and the traditional commentary, handed on in a native community side by side with the song, is necessary for a full understanding.

The Gumabagu Song


The stranger of Gumagabu sits on the top of the mountain.
'Go on top of the mountain, the towering mountain....'
——They cry for Toraya.....——
The stranger of Gumagabu sits on the slope of the mountain.
——The fringe of small clouds lifts above Boyowa;
The mother cries for Toraya——
'I shall take my revenge.'
The mother cries for Toraya.


Our mother, Dibwaruna, dreams on the mat.
She dreams about the killing.
'Revenge the wailing;
Anchor; hit the Gabu strangers!'
——The stranger comes out;
The chief gives him the pari;
'I shall give you the doga;
Bring me things from the mountain to the canoe!'


We exchange our vaygu'a;
The rumour of my arrival spreads through the Koya
We talk and talk.
He bends and is killed.
His companions run away;
His body is thrown into the sea;
The companions of the Kinana run away,
We sail home.


Next day, the sea foams up,
The chief's canoe stops on the reef;
The storm approaches;
The chief is afraid of drowning.
The conch shell is blown:
It sounds in the mountain.
They all weep on the reef.


They paddle in the chief's canoe;
They circle round the point of Bewara.
'I have hung my basket.
I have met him.'
So cries the chief,
So cries repeatedly the chief.


Women in festive decoration
Walk on the beach.
Nawaruva puts on her turtle rings;
She puts on her luluga'u skirt.
In the village of my fathers, in Burakwa.
There is plenty of food;
Plenty is brought in for distribution.

The character of this song is extremely elliptic, one might even say futuristic, since several scenes are crowded simultaneously into the picture. In the first strophe we see the Kinana, by which word all the tribesmen from the d'Entrecasteaux Archipelago are designated in Boyowa, on the top of his Mountain in Gabu. Immediately afterwards, we are informed of the intentions of Tomakam to ascend the mountain, while the women cry for Toraya, for the slain chief—probably his kinswomen and widows. The next picture again spans over the wide seas, and on the one shore we see the Gabuan sitting on the slopes of his hill and far away on the other, under the fringe of small clouds lifting above Boyowa, the mother cries for her son, the murdered chief. Tomakam takes a resolve, ? shall take my revenge,' hearing her cry.

In the second strophe, the mother dreams about the expedition; the words about revenge to be taken on the Gabu men and the directions to anchor and hit him are probably taken from her dream. Then suddenly we are transported right across to the mountain, the expedition having arrived there already. The strangers, the Kinana are coming down to the canoe, and we assist at the words spoken between them and the people at Burakwa.

Then in the third strophe, we arrive at the culminating scene of the drama; even here, however, the hero, who is also his own bard, could not help introducing a few boastful words about his renown resounding in the Koya. In a few words the tragedy is described: the Kinana bends down, is killed, and his body is thrown into the water. About his head we hear nothing in this verse.

In the next one, a storm overtakes the returning party. Signals of distress are re-echoed by the mountain, and like Homeric heroes, our party are not ashamed to weep in fear and anguish. Somehow they escape, however, and in the next verse, they are already near their village and Tomakam, their leader, bursts into a paean of triumph. It is not quite clear what the allusion to the basket means, whether he keeps there his Kula trophies or the slain enemy's head; this latter, in contradiction to what we heard in the prose story of its being impaled. The song ends with a description of a feast. The woman mentioned there is Tomakam's daughter, who puts on festive attire in order to welcome her father.

Comparing now the song with the story, we see that they do not quite tally. In the story, there is the dramatic interest of the mother's intervention. We gather from it that Tomakam, goaded by the aspersions of his fellow-villagers, wishes to make his return as effective as possible. He arranges the signals of the two conch shell blasts with his mother, and asks her to harangue the people at the moment of his return. All this finds no expression in the song. The ruse of the chief's sore leg is also omitted from there, which, however, does not mean that the hero was ashamed of it. On the other hand, the storm described in the song is omitted from the story, and there is a discrepancy about the head of the Gabu man, and we do not know whether it really is conveyed in a basket as the song has it or impaled, as the store relates!

I have adduced in detail the story and the song, because they are a good illustration of the native's attitude towards the dangers, and towards the heroic romance of the Koya. They are also interesting as documents, showing which salient points would strike the natives' imagination in such a dramatic occurrence. Both in the story and in the song, we find emphasised the motives of social duty, of satisfied self-regard and ambition; again, the dangers on the reef, the subterfuge in killing, finally the festivities on return home. Much that would interest us in the whole story is omitted, as anyone can see for himself.

Other stories, though not made illustrious through being set into a song, are told about the Koya. I met myself an old man in the island of Vakuta, who, as a boy, had been captured with a whole party by a village community of Dobu-speaking people on Normanby Island. The men and another small boy of the party were killed and eaten, but some women took pity on him, and he was spared, to be brought up amongst them. There is another man, either alive or recently dead in Kavataria, who had a similar experience in Fergusson Island. Another man called Kaypoyla, from the small island of Kuyawa in the Western Trobriands, was stranded with his crew somewhere in the West of Fergusson Island, but not in the district where they used to trade. His companions were killed and eaten. He was taken alive and kept to fatten for a proximate feast. His host, or rather the host of the feast in which he was going to furnish the pièce de résistance, was away inland, to invite the guests, while the host's wife went for a moment behind the house, sweeping the ground. Kaypoyla jumped up and ran to the shore. Being chased by some other men from the settlement, he concealed himself in the branches of a big tree stand ing on the beach, and was not found by his pursuers. At night he came down, took a canoe or a raft, and paddled along the coast. He used to sleep on shore during the night, and paddle on in day time. One night he slept among some sago-palms, and, awakening in the morning, found himself, to his terror, surrounded by Kinana men. What was his joyful surprise after all, when he recognised among them his friend and Kula partner, with whom he always used to trade! After some time, he was sent back home in his partner's canoe.

Many such stories have a wide currency, and they supply one of the heroic elements in tribal life, an element which now, with the establishment of white man's influence, has vanished. Yet even now the gloomy shores which our party are leaving to the right, the tall jungle, the deep valleys, the hill-tops darkened with trailing clouds, all this is a dim mysterious background, adding to the awe and solemnity of the Kula, though not entering into it. The sphere of activities of our traders lies at the foot of the high mountains, there, where a chain of rocks and islands lies scattered along the coast. Some of them are passed immediately after leaving Gumasila. Then, after a good distance, a small rock, called Gurewaya, is met, remarkable for the taboos associated with it. Close behind it, two islands, Tewara and Uwama, are separated by a narrow passage, the mythical straits of Kadimwatu. There is a village on the first-mentioned, and the natives of this make gardens on both islands. The village is not very big; it may have some sixty to eighty inhabitants, as it can man three canoes for the Kula. It has no commercial or industrial importance, but is notable because of its mythological associations. This island is the home of the mythological hero, Kasabwaybwayreta, whose story is one of the most important legends of the Kula. Here indeed, in Tewara, we are right within the mythological heart of the Kula. In fact, we entered its legendary area with the moment the Sinaketan fleet sailed out of the Lagoon into the deep waters of Pilolu.


Excerpted from Malinowski and the Work of Myth by Ivan Strenski. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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