THE MILAMALA AND FALLING STARS:
Aspects of Religious Organization in the Trobriands
GILBERT H. HERDT
25 September 1972
Recent analyses of the Trobriand social organization have dealt with aspects of ritual,
cosmology and symbolism in relation to other institutional spheres. These investigations of the
symbolic ordering of social experience have not so much focused on the religious institutional order,
as to stress synthetic bifurcations with other features of Trobriand social life. However, the treatment
of Trobriand religious behavior in terms of the symbolic level of explanation is surely large, firstly,
because the wealth of data now available enables us to see what hope stems from this "doomsday
book" for the understanding of the religious element in the social organization of the Trobriands.
Secondly, there would seem to exist some general significance of the Trobriand case for the
development of a religious anthropology which Levi-Strauss (1962), among others, has argued for.
In this essay I will take up a symbolic approach in the study of the milamala, the return of the spirits of the dead (baloma) to the Trobriands. My concern with this liminal period is that the behavior within it expresses and gives clues to an increased understanding of Trobriand social organization. It is my contention that in Omarakana, at least, the milamala can best be understood as a period when the conflict between persons as members of corporate subclan dalas working towards urigubu obligations, and persons as residents and members of gardening team units, is given expression (Powell 1960:125). Moreover, this is a time of important structural and status change, involving the movement of residence for same individuals, and the vying for control, of strategic marriages and garden lands by subclans. It is also postulated that the exchange of food in transactions between persons and groups can most usefully be seen as a way of expressing (making statements about) these differences and conflicts between categories of people.
The argument thus stated stems from insights of Malinowski (1965), but it is most concisely stated (vis-a-vis Leach) by Powell (l969b:58l) who notes:
In the making of gardens, whole villages, or sections of compound villages where there are more than one owning subclan, operate as organized corporate bodies under the direction of subclan leaders and garden magicians. In the matter of urigubu prestations, however, it is corporate subclans, irrespective in many situations of the actual residence of their members, which operate as corporate units both in giving and receiving urigubu.
If we follow this argument, we arrive at the construction of two "ideal types" of the social composition of Trobriand villages, a "simple" and a "complex" type (Powell 1960:124). Omarakana is clearly a complex type in which the singular political unit is comprised of four clans, 39 subclan dalas, and five villages (Powell 1960:121-124). Leadership in many areas is competitive, Powell advises us, and institutionalized competition insures intracluster cooperation. My understanding of the Trobriand social system leads me to postulate that it is noticeably in the realm of "religious facts"--as denoted in the "cosmic renewal" (Eliade 1970:142) of the milamala--that subclans, villages, and finally village clusters, are pitted against one another, reflecting yet challenging magical and religious potency, unity and politico-economic hegemony. Out of the milamala come rights and duties (social esteem) which denote the economic "facts" of residence, affinal relationships and gardening team membership, as well as subclan affiliation involving urigubu commitments for the coming year.
I believe that an eludidation of the milamala as a set of chronological, symbolic, ecological and historical events is worthwhile for several reasons: In the first place, no one has yet looked at Trobriand religious organizations as characterized by the milamala, except Lanternari (1955), whose psychological analysis remains unsatisfactory to the social anthropologist. This striking omission is all the more curious, since Malinowski’s classic essay, "Baloma the Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands," was also his first piece of field material to be published (1916). Additionally, Malinowski himself focused on the holistic examination of systems of integrated activities, such as the kula, and the gardening cycles (kweluva)--and his approach has proven fruitful. Following this latter approach, the rituals and activities of the milamala may be viewed as "situated activity systems" (Goffman 1961:95 99), which integrate the interdependent actions of a group of individuals towards some inclusively meaningful purpose. The symbolism and structure of such systems of activity suggest analogous and in some instances homologous features, in regard to their institutionalized performances. For example, the regularities existing between gardening practices, rites and related activities before the milamala, and the pregnancy rites and mortuary ritual occurring elsewhere, suggest a common symbolic structure. More importantly, however, is the anomalous position of the milamala kweluva (garden time), coming as it does at the end of one set of harvest activities and a new division of garden plots at the garden council (kayaku), with a consequent pause in these activities due to ecological conditions. Time is created or generated during the lull in the form of feasting and dancing, and these activities point to the coming "New Year's" celebration.
Before turning to the data, a word about Van Gennep’s insights regarding the rites de passage is relevant to a discussion of the milamala. Gluckman (1962) points out that the significance of Van Gennep’s scheme rests in the demonstration of relatively constant social movements which are displayed in ritual form in small societies. These constants of social life are therefore movements from one social "state" to another by persons and groups, with a reference to shifting qualities of sacredness and profaneness. These movements involve dislocation of relationships and ideological arrangements, and they can most successfully be dealt with at a religious period like the milamala, Trobriand society lacking as it does, a developed governmental structure and processes of litigation of a formal nature. By drawing upon "multivocal" symbols and multiplex relationships, an individual can generate support and esteem, and, of course, fail to do so.
In looking at the events occurring on the baku--the central place of a village--both mythically and behaviorally, such possibilities as discussed above are actualized in the spatial and temporal metaphors of Trobriand religious culture. Sexual license is greater than usual--being legitimized by the return of the baloma--which opposes strategically-existent marriages and intended prearranged (infantile) ones. The competition for butura (renown) and malia (prosperity) is heightened at the time of the harvest and urigubu exchanges, and it is in the latter institution, incidentally, that a"closure" of the matrilineal cycle is augmented. The participation for the first time (or possibly the last) of a male in these rituals becomes exceedingly important when considered in this light. In a"complex" cluster like Omarakana, for example, "impression management" becomes very difficult at these times for a man, his own matrilineal dala, his father’s dala, and his prospective partner's subclan as well. As Gluckman notes, "Every activity is charged with complex moral evaluations, and default strikes not at isolated roles but at the integral relations which contain many roles" (1962:29). The relevant prescriptions of everyday behavior in interaction are not enough at these liminal times to guide action, for the definition of the situation may challenge codes and values that underlie the very prescriptive rules upon which the behavior is based. Through the guise of sacred action and ritual potency, the drama of everyday conflicts take on symbolic form on the baku. The milamala is therefore a liminal period, being chronologically and cosmologically "betwixt and between" as we shall see.
A study of the milamala must commence with the garden council (kayaku), which precedes a series of harvest rites accompanying the harvest of yams and their display, first in the gardens, and then on the baku. The next activity system comprises the urigubu exchanges, repair of the open yam house (bwayma) and the rites of "magic of plenty" (vilamalia). Following these events, I have sketched a brief analysis of the symbolic contrasts encompassing the open and the enclosed yam houses. The focus on the observable transformations in the village just prior to the return of the baloma will be set forth as clearly as possible in a middle section, the left-hand side of the paper presenting the data, while symbolic interpretations will accompany the text on the right. Finally, the summary is intended to deal with the meaning of the key "multivocal" terms that have emerged as important in the essay. These will be discussed with respect to the structural conflict between membership in the corporate dala and gardening teams.
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In Omarakana, the opening of the gardening magic occurs at the kayaku council (Malinowski
1965:278), which is also the initial act of the magical system of kaylu ebila. This system is wielded
by the garden magician (towosi)--a senior member of the Tabalu dala -who in Malinowski s time was
Bagidou. He leads gardening activities corresponding to the sister village of Kasanai that wields the
silakwa magical system for village gardening (including Osapola). Thus, on the lands surrounding the
village cluster, two different magicians practice two magical systems in conjunction with the work
of the gardening teams which are comprised of the residents in these villages. Now the magical
system that a subclan uses is supposed to have sprung from the land which is being gardened;
otherwise myth states that it will be impotent (Malinowski 1965:348-349). There exist a number of
inequities in this dogma on the ground, as a glance at Malinowski s chart of magical systems and
practicing villages shows (1965:423). The discontinuities between myth and fact of residence are
clearly brought out in Malinowski s statement that whenever he pointed out that a subclan's
energence hole and the magical system it used could not have arisen from the same lands, his
informants expressed surprise. They seemed to have been unaware of the discrepancies.
It appears that the garden council, which is called o kayaku, is largely a ceremonious occasion in Omarakana, known to all to be a formal "front staging" activity (Malinowski 1965:88; Powell 1960: 132). According to Malinowski, men would gather on the front of Touluwa’s house and be given food and make speeches about the allotment of garden lands. "Such speeches, telling to all what everyone knows and to which everyone has to consent, are a feature of Trobriand public life" (1965:348) (emphasis added). However, Powell (1969:589) has emphasized "that the urigubu needs of the husbands of the women of the subclan are all met" on this occasion. Here it is important to note that the indigenous kadala, or lineage elder, is formally asked for the right of use of these garden lands (Malinowski 1965:348).  Such occasions are mostly peaceful, but following them, when the gardens themselves are divided up into plots (baleko), disputes often develop. These may turn into yakala, long native litigations or "shaming techniques" (Powell 1960:133) which Malinowski mentions nothing more about (1965:103). It does appear that out of the kayaku comes competition between garden teams and challenges of competitive food exchanges (buritilaulo) for "competitive renown." Exactly what role the autochthonous subclans play in this drama is uncertain. One conclusion we can draw is that the principle of rank is not completely successful in the allocation of lands, and consequent conflict over those resident as strangers (tomakava) working in the gardens, and those indigenous to the land, is probable (Powell 1969:186, 199).
Austin (1938:242) states that in Kiriwina the milamala is called kabuma (kaboma), which means "tabooed gardens" (Malinowski: 1965:125). This statement simply underscores what Malinowski touches on when he discusses the place of the kayaku as the opening event in the magical system's operation. In other words, the milamala in Omarakana is more closely tied to the gardening cycle than elsewhere in the Trobriands, coming at the time of a pause in activities. The importance of this will become clearer as the nature of the incongruities between the Tabalu claims of control over the garden lands and their own lack of mythical emergence from these same lands is symbolically dramatized as the ritual of the milamala unfolds. Following the kayaku, there occurs an extensive series of gardening practices and rituals that denote later activities which are post-milamala; e.g., the burning, cleaning and planting of the main gardens (kaymata). Some taro and other lesser crops may be planted after the main crop of taytu and before the milamala commences, but the garden generally falls under a taboo lasting until the full moon of the milamala, after which the burning (gabu) takes place. It is at this point that the taytu is harvested and displayed initially in the gardens. For each urigubu prestation represented in a heap, a man will construct an arbor (kalimomio) to temporarily house it. Everyone admires the beautiful arrangement of the heaps and renown is gained by virtue of being a "perfect gardener" (tokwaybagula). There is danger in this, however, for one may only reasonably produce so much without incurring the jealousy of others, particularly the chief. In fact, Malinowski (1965:175) mentions that right before his stay, To’uluwa had reputedly had two men done in by sorcery for the accumulation and display of too much taytu.
At the time of harvest and only then, the competitive exchange of raw food between close villages is held. In former times, such exchanges might possibly have led to war (Malinowski 1965:176, 182). An example of such an exchange is discussed in Coral Gardens, which involves the villages of Wakayse and Kabwaku. It is significant and bears momentary consideration. First, the conditions of the exchange were such that a quarrel already existed between the villages. Since both villages are in the district of Tilataula (and owed their allegiance to Moliasi), they could not go to war, and so they would periodically quarrel through a “garden challenge" or buritila’ulo 1965:348, 127, 184). In these exchanges certain amounts of kuvi or long yams built in structures called yadavi, along with other raw foods, are exchanged in exacting amounts. The competition is offered in terms of as much food as can be mustered without the assistance of one’s affines (dodige bwala). The first village A will bring its food over to the challenging village B, and the latter will reciprocate on the following day; thus:
And now comes the dramatic moment. Community B have been straining all
their resources not only to repay the full quantity but to provide a surplus. The
strict return measure is called kalamelu, which might perhaps be translated
'its equivalent,’ the 'equivalent of the gift received.’ If they can offer an extra
quantity, this will be put on the ground and declared to be kalamata, ‘its eye.'
The word 'eye' is here used in the figurative sense of some thing which is
ahead of, which overtakes, goes beyond.
If an "eye" is not presented, the disagreement terminates at this last ceremony.  If it is, fighting may
result. This will be taken up later. The bringing in of the taytu from the gardens to the baku to be
stacked in front of a man’s yam house as an urigubu prestation, or else to be concealed away in one's own "enclosed" yam house, is the next state in the activities. Prestations of cooked food, fish and
vegetables (kaulo), or perhaps pig or taro pudding, would be given in the village, either before or
after the return of the urigubu carriers, while such raw food as betel nut, tobacco or sugar cane might
be given en passant (Malinowski 1965:177).
The results of the harvest can be defined in terms of several kinds (categories) of yams. The taytumwala, the self-produced and consumed "own taytu," is composed of yagogu (seed yam), unasu (inferior yam) and ulumdala (gleaning after harvest), and, of course, whatever else can be kept back from the urigubu crop, as mentioned above.  The smaller crops: such as taro, pumpkin and squash, also come under this heading. In the same manner, a distinction between urigubu and taytu inwala is paralleled in the garden plots called urigubu and gubakayeki (own crop), respectively. The work of the transfer of heaps from the gardens to the baku is repaid through sagali for those involved. The handling of both the urigubu crop and the "own taytu" thereby generates a great difference in terms of the movement of individuals.
Whereas, one action is largely a ceremonial and public event, the other is obliquely private (Malinowski 1965:473 475). Where one is well defined as a public gift, the other can only be guessed at. Not so the plots of land themselves, for it stands to reason that the urigubu baleko would be just as available to inspection as would the gubakayeki plots, which in some instances are mostly comprised of taro. This could possibly explain why there is such a wealth of magic surrounding the taro crop, since, paradoxically, this is supposed to be of much less importance than the urigubu crop that has little magic performed over it. Another explanation might be that the taro and kuvi yams, being heartier than the taytu and capable of taking root most anywhere--even in the "untamed" jungle (odela)--are boundary transgressors. In fact, the boundary poles or tula, which for the taytu are just a frill, actually help to keep the creeping taro vines restrained, although the plants sometimes grow from the garden through the tula stakes into the jungle anyway.
Having arrived at the village with the transfer of the taytu, several days of events yet precede the milamala. The heaps of urigubu are sitting on the baku, many ready to be stacked away into the bwayma of a chiefly class (guya’u) by those offering the prestations. The same men who are doing the offering must come beforehand to repair or do any necessary construction on the open yam houses, since they service them as an additional obligation. Such a period of construction or repair would vary according to whether only a new roof was needed (approximately every ten years), as was the case in 1919, or longer if something like a log cabin is to be built (possibly every 30-50 years; Malinowski 1965:245-247). In the case of an open bwayma, which must be built up from its foundation stones (ulilaguva), these are almost always found in situ, Malinowski comments, since these are supposedly anchored to the bedrock (1965:247). As a consequence, these stones "determine the length of the kaytaulo, foundation beams, the length and width of the log cabin, and consequently the height of the bwayma" (emphasis added). The foundation stones therefore determine the relative size of the open bwayma which the urigubu offerers must fill. Such urigubu prestations rest, moreover, on the size of the foundation beams (kaytaulo: kayta = intercourse, ulo = mine; Fellows 1901:173; Malinowski 1929:56) . This term will take on increased meaning as its symbolic polysemic correlates are discussed later.
Following the repair of the open bwayma, the acts of vilamalia magic are performed by the tovilamalia (magician of prosperity of the village), who was, again, Bagido’u (Malinowski 1965: 246-247). The first act is carried out in the bwayma before daybreak, "at the wail of the melodious saka’u bird" (1965:220) over the sacred binabina stones that rest on the wood floor. The objects used in this rite include leaves of the setagava--a tough weed, kakemna -a dwarf tree with powerful roots, and the extremely hard wood of the kayaulo (compare kaytaulo), which is also the totemic tree of the Malasi clan. This rite is purported to make the bwayma anchored to the village, and paradoxically, to keep the yams in the bwayma from being used up.
At daybreak the yam house is filled, dodige bwayma. The best yams are displayed outwardly. If there are multiple donors, each man will have a boy or man inside who will put away his urigubu gift. The compartments inside run all the way to the top of the bwayma, and even though a man may have several heaps outside, he may have only one compartment inside. In good years, it is said that the yams overflow these compartments to combine at the top. Afterwards refreshments are taken with one’s kinswoman in the village; this consists of raw and cooked food (Malinowski 1965:222- 223). Sometimes pig is distributed in this counterprestation. When the strangers are gone, some of the yams are taken out of the structures into which they have just been stored and return gifts called kovisi are given. The taytupeta gift is also presented, possibly to one’s maternal aunt or uncle (Malinowski1965:423 424)
The same evening of the day of this first rite, one other thing occurs: The magician (tovivilamalia) "spits over them (closed bwayma) with medicated ginger root, and he performs a rite over all the roads entering into the village, and over the central place" (Malinowski 1961:169; 1965:225). This action parallels a similar one which will occur in a day or two at the opening of the milamala, and at its close.
Before going further, it should be pointed out that the vilamalia magic is not only performed at harvest times, but at several other sociologically "dangerous" occasions. In Oburuku, for example, Malinowski states that the magician might be called upon if sickness or serious hunger (molu) threatens the community. Curiously, when a falling star drops near the village, these "adverse vilamalia" rites are also performed. Such an oddity of a thought-system yet unexposed will become more meaningful in a moment.
The second rite of vilamalia occurs in the next couple of days as performed by the magician. It is called "the piercing of the village" (basi valu). The wild ginger root leya, the hard tree lewo, and the kayaulo totemic tree are all manipulated by Bagido’u at noon in his house. He utters a spell analogous to that used in the kamkokola ceremony in the gardens earlier. This spell (Malinowski 1965:223 224) will be seen to affirm the foundation (u’ula) of the village structure, and to make the food resistant to decay and consumption. Every structural feature of the bwayma is enumerated in the rite, except for the kaytaulo, which is curiously omitted. Later Malinowski (1965:254-255) mentions the discrepancy and states that the term was left out of the litany (tapwana). Old Bagido’u had no more "than a lapse of memory or attention" here. No doubt, but it seems odd that in a spell affirming the u’ula of the village yam house and malia, the magician would fail to recount the u’ula kaytaulo (foundation beams) of the bwayma. Or perhaps in Trobriand religious organization it does make sense.
In commenting on the function of the vilamalia magic, Malinowski notes that everyone believes that the "magic of plenty" is meant to prevent hunger: But whereas the objective facts reveal to us that the whole performance is directed at the yam house, at the food accumulated there, the comments of the natives make the human organism the real subject matter of the magical influence. (1965:226 227)
"Supposing the vilamalia were not made," I was told by Bagido’u,
"men and women would want to eat all the time, morning, noon and
evening. Their bellies would grow big, they would swell all the time,
they would want more and more food. A man takes half a taytu and
leaves the other half. A woman cooks the food, she calls her husband
and her children they do not come. They want to eat pig, they want to
eat food from the bush, and the fruits of trees, kaulo (yam food). They
do not want. The food in the bwayma rots in the liku (log cabin) till next
harvest. Nothing is eaten." (1965:227)
I have quoted this passage at length because the ideological stance of the
speaker, Bagido’u --a Tabalu guya‘u of Omarakana-is revealing for its "message." This
position complements a related belief that the Trobrianders dogmatically assert, ergo,
an ignorance of the physiological necessity for food. Malinowski states: “They believe
that food is transformed in the stomach (lulo) to excrement (popu).” (1965:227). One
may question the idea of a group of human beings anywhere being ignorant of the
physiological need for food, just as the famous question of the Trobriander’s reputed
ignorance of physiological paternity has arisen.
The difficulties here may be that Malinowski has taken what his informant (Bagido’u) has said as being “all” of the Trobriand “true facts” (Powell 1968:652)–and the only version. In both cases the “ignorance” of the ignorance of the location of one’s sources of information is crucial, and both Montague (1971:339) and Leach (1969) have pointed out that this controversial Trobriand procreative belief is “men’s talk,” valid on formal occasions dealing with subclan affairs. Therefore, just as we would expect a lineage elder to deny the necessity for a genitor in procreating children (who belong, along with their inheritable property, to his dala, so we would expect him to deny the need for a kind of food (urigubu yams) which should not be grown on the dala’s own plots, whcih legitimizes marriage contracts annually with strangers (tomakava) and which is the source of his villages’s malia.
The notion of this denial of the necessity for food and its linkage to malia must be examined in the context of the context of such an attitude comprising part of a “thought system.” The statement may be viewd as being one piece of a symbolic code of "cipher” that allows for the elaboration and expression of cosomological statements regarding an activity that is not simple as “natural fact,” but which is also the focus of complex collective representations. Nourishment, as Eliade comments (1962:157), "as a purely physiological act or economic activity is an abstraction. To feed oneself is a cultural action, not an organic process." Thus, a central problem is to discover the religious ideology that underlies such a view.
In order to view these statements about food in their proper social context, it is necessary to look at the arrangement of the bwayma on the baku, both before and during the festivities of the milamala. While the return of the spirits is occurring in belief, important physical changes are transforming the face of the village, and it is the latter that will now be examined.
At various places (1929:10, 71 and 1965: passim) Malinowski comments on the baku of the village. In Coral Gardens (1965:431), he remarks that the baku of Omarakana is very anomalous, in that the chief’s house and bwayma are located on it. Apparently the power of To’uluwa as a Tabalu chief of Omarakana enables him to do this. (Because the baku has been the focus of so many of the activities described thus far, and since it will be even more important in the remaining discussion of milamala ritual, the map of this area taken from Malinowski (1965) has been presented to enable the reader to work with the symbolic contrasts discussed below.) (See Figure 1 on next page.)