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in Traditional Religion in Melanesia

By:  Theo Aerts
UPNG Press 1996

Introduction | Melanesian Gods | Between polytheism and monotheismWorld of idols |

"Papua New Guinea had not one or two, but hundreds of traditional religions, just as the nation today continues to have hundreds of tribes and hundreds of languages... It is reasonable to say that our traditional tribal gods served us very well " (M. Somare, IRLA Congress, Suva, June 1993).


There are probably no people on earth who do not have something quite peculiar to themselves in their view of their god(s), and get critical of others - and also of themselves - as soon as they become aware of the differences and alternative views. Others then are judged from each one's own standpoint, and prejudices abound in what otherwise might seem detached scholarly investigations. Such flaws showed up already when early missionaries began to learn foreign languages and pressed them in, say, a classical mould. They likewise fell back on biblical and theological categories, known to them, to describe and Judge what evidence they encountered in religious matters. In each case a particular society was pressed into their own ethnocentric, that is: a foreign framework.

Conversely, even today something similar happens when indigenous theologians emphasize that whatever the Bible -and Western theology - can tell us about God was said earlier, and better, by their own ancestors. In fact, one African scholar is quoted as having said of the Christian message: "Il n'y a rien, rien, rien de nouveau !" ("There is absolutely nothing new in this") In both instances we witness apologetic tendencies at work, although in different directions.

What is needed, is an objective and non-apologetic approach which uses all the available resources: oral traditions, artistic representation, written documents, etc. In this endeavour it is especially necessary to have an intimate knowledge of each people's language and thought patterns, so that a fruitful investigation will normally be limited to only one or a few linguistic groups.

Several monographs of this kind do exist, with the volume edited by P. Lawrence and M. J. Meggitt, Gods, Ghosts and Men in Melanesia (1965) easily being the best known of them all.  Nowadays, fieldwork in the same vein continues, especially by students who analyze their own native cultures. The requirement for in-depth knowledge has, however, some drawbacks too, because it tends to omit the insertion of new material into the vast store of religious knowledge from other societies. Hence, there is also a need to come up with some synthetic, regionally limited overviews, based upon the field materials of many different students (Nadel 1956: 172-173).

This poses its own difficulties particularly in Melanesia, the "paradise" of many generations of anthropologists from several different schools or ideologies, some of which make religion their almost exclusive subject, while others tended to neglect it altogether. But a beginning has been made to produce a much needed synthetic study, e. g. with J. Parratt's study on Papuan Belief and Ritual (1976), and with some other essays as well. Although some of these attempts might seem too ambitious or too incomplete, and yield only provisional results, they have their legitimate place next to studies which excel through their painstaking and necessary detail.

It is our intention to be objective and non-apologetic in the study of one small segment of traditional Melanesian religion, that is the people's views of what they consider "god". Our main thesis is to show that in Melanesia, but especially in Papua New Guinea (PNG), several concepts of God were or are found: dema-deities, culture heroes, and sky gods, along with a whole host of masalai and tambaran.

Awareness of the various ways these models relate to the people's cultural configurations in particular will warn us against instant identifications of a local deity with the biblical or Christian God. The same insight will also invite us to appreciate in traditional religion various elements of lasting value. The question will be asked whether, in good conscience, we can relegate the Melanesian gods to the category of the idols of biblical religion. Even though this essay touches both upon anthropological and biblical material, it will try not to confuse these two poles of interest.

By:  Theo Alerts
Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea press, 1996

... to be continued next with 1.  BETWEEN POLYTHESIM AND MONOTHEISM

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