Marupai Marupai Richard Aldridge The very first marupai I encountered in the Papuan Gulf was owned by an old magician near Biamaru station. I was fortunate that my friend and guide, Kaiya Rove, knew the man personally or it probably would never have been shown to me. It was carved, as most marupai are, from a dwarf coconut with distinctive eyes, symmetrical design and a slit mouth cut in from the side. This was also the first time I heard an impersonation of the eerie high-pitch sound the marupai spirit makes as it flies through the night in search of an enemy to harm. Since then I have been fortunate to hear dozens of other impersonations of that repetitive, ghostly sound in many different villages over a wide area and it is always uncannily the same. Marupai have in the past been described as hunting charms, and although not incorrect, it oversimplifies their function. Marupai are personal spiritual charms capable of several functions. 1. They are protective—defending the owner from being attacked through the spirit world by sorcery. 2. They act as messengers—to send and deliver messages to other people with marupai—through the ether of the spirit world. 3. Travel—they enable a sorcerer to move at high speed (fly/magically transport themselves) from one place to another. 4. Hunting—they bring game such as pigs, possums and cassowary close to the village, making them easier to catch. 5. Warfare—they are used to confuse an enemy during battle, by making an individual appear to be many people or make them appear to be where they are not, so that enemy arrows miss their target. 6. Sorcery—they are able to be sent out to attack and kill an enemy through the spirit world when the marupai is in the hands of a powerful magician. 7. Spirit Boards—some marupai (Overa Hora) were hung from the nose of hohao boards to decorate them. 8. Weather—they are sometimes used to control the weather. They can make the conditions stormy when the owner is grieving the death of a relative. According to oral history, the Marupai cult originated in Ihu/Orokolo area.* Marupai is the Orokolo/Ihu name for this object but it is also known as Lai Kakar Re in East Kerema and Kaiya Muru or Naharo in Opau. No doubt it has other names in other languages I have not recorded. The way a marupai functions is connected to the concept of imunu. Imunu is the belief that all things of significance contain a being, a spirit, a life force or soul that is either inherent or that can at other times instil into objects this essence. To a Papuan Gulf inhabitant imunu is very real and tangible; it is not a mere concept or idea. Imunu is imbued into a marupai when it is first made by being fashioned by an important magician or village chief who is following strict taboos, including fasting and sexual abstinence. The imunu is then increased through feeding the marupai. Traditionally the simplest way to feed or increase imunu is through the acquisition of someone else’s imunu via cannibalism. Marupai can be fed dried human flesh, teeth, bone mixed with magical herbs and aromatic bark. Once fed, a marupai is hot, charged and filled with imunu. The owner can then send the spirit of the marupai to do his bidding by ritually evoking its name. To a Papuan Gulf person, a marupai that is charged with imunu is alive, a being unto itself. Because they are alive, marupai have personal needs—such as requiring to be fed regularly, bathed using coconut oil, treated with due respect and revered appropriately. In former times, when the eravo ceremonial house was still the centre of village life, it was only the most powerful of sorcerers who could openly wear marupai. These publicly visible marupai were the ones used for beneficial practices like hunting and protection. Powerful sorcerers who had many marupai and knew how to use them were often paid to practise his trade. Because of their deadly potential, the vast majority of marupai were, and still are, kept secret for fear of payback or retaliation. Due to their power, marupai are predominantly owned only by initiated men. It is not uncommon for a man to own more than one marupai and they are usually inherited from an uncle who passes along the knowledge of how to control them. Individuals who were not lucky enough to inherit a marupai could purchase one from a renowned sorcerer. If an uncle wished his nephew to inherit a marupai but the nephew was still too young, the marupai would be left in the care of the village’s chief sorcerer until the boy came of age. Marupai are also commonly put into a string bag (okaoka in the Orokolo language) with a large red seed, hepahepa, and a piece of bark, paiha. Hepahepa is used only when the owner feels in mortal danger, at which time he crushes the seed and consumes the pith inside. The seed makes him belligerent and assists in spiritual communication with or through the marupai. The cinnamon-smelling paiha bark is the regular food for the marupai and also acts as both a tongue to the animal/being portrayed and as a stopper to prevent the contents from spilling. If the owner of a marupai dies before he has had a chance to bequeath it, it is believed that the marupai will die with him. Thus it is not unusual for a dead sorcerer to be buried with his marupai. Major damage to the marupai is also believed to cause the marupai to die, especially if the shell is so damaged the contents can escape. Removal of the material from within a marupai causes it to become dormant until it is fed again. DESIGN Like many of the world’s ancient works of art, Papuan Gulf art is essentially religious in nature. The faces on marupai, hohao, bullroarers, drums and masks represent particular religious mythical heroes. Not all these spirit heroes are human, with many being able to take the forms of crocodiles, lizards, birds, pigs and even natural phenomena such as whirlpools—they should, nevertheless, all be considered deities. The number of these deities throughout the Papuan Gulf probably number over a hundred and are usually mythical heroes from specific clan legends who in the distant past have performed supernatural feats. These spirit beings are best identified by the design around the eyes because a particular mythical hero will always share the identical eye design. All marupai have two eyes and are as near symmetrical as the carver is able. They should also all be pierced at the base so a piece of string can be attached for carrying. They all have a mouth with a hollow inside in which substances can be placed. They are most commonly made of dwarf coconut but can also be made from wood (as three are in the present catalog). Many have a “third eye,” or navel, because Orokolo people believe that astral travel and spiritual communication occur through the navel. The majority of marupai have most of the design on the upper half because the bottom portion is said to be extremely hard and difficult to carve. I have also been told that the dwarf coconut can be buried in the mud to allow it to soften. The designs on a marupai are clan specific and may not be copied by another clan. The use of marupai is still ongoing in the Papuan Gulf but it is rapidly dying out as the old spiritual beliefs and practices are replaced by Christianity. A famous sorcerer also pointed out a more pragmatic reason for the declining use of marupai—it just isn’t as easy to obtain the flesh of your enemy as it used to be. In unravelling information about marupai I would like to thank Sebastian Harara of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery; Marepo Karela, an elder of Kanukabu village; the writing of Albert Maori Kiki; and a well-known sorcerer from Novihoho village who does not wish to be named. Rest assured, all mistakes, misinterpretations and wrong conclusions are mine. As a final note to those people who might feel that marupai should remain with their original owners, I would like to point out that when a marupai is sold it is only the beautifully carved physical body that leaves. The locals know that the spirit of the mythical hero remains, where it has always been, connected to the land and in the minds of the people who adore them. *This has been confirmed by numerous villagers from as far away as Hamuhamu village east of Kerema and west as far as Biamaru.