Konta shark callers

From: Owen Jones (oj@maths.anu.edu.au)
Date: Mon 16 Jun 1997 - 06:32:09 EEST

I watched a fascinating documentary on the weekend that I thought might
interest some digest readers. The subject of the document was the Konta
people of New Ireland (part of Papua New Guinea).

The Konta live on the coast, and have a complex ritual for catching
sharks. The ritual needs to be performed correctly, or their god Moroa
does not help, and you run the risk of getting eaten. The ritual is a
metaphor for good (the hunter) triumphing over evil (the shark).

The day and night before heading out the hunter must sleep alone, eat no
pork, and take care not to tread in pig or flying fox dung. He then heads
out (usually alone) in an outrigger canoe.

First stop is the reef where he catches a bait fish. Next he must attract
a shark. First he spears the reef and/or drops magic stones, to waken
shark spirits. A magic song must be chanted whilst doing this. He then
paddles out beyond the reef, and calls the wakened sharks by splashing
the water with his paddle, and rattling a special rattle made of coconut
shells. If the ritual has been properly performed, then the shark comes
willingly, prepared to be caught. If not, then the shark will attack the
canoe, and the hunter may be killed.

When the shark(s) arrive, the hunter uses the bait fish to lure the shark
into swimming through a noose made of vine. The noose is attached to a
large propeller shaped wooded float. When noosed the hunter can, if the
shark is small enough (6 foot!), pull it partly out of the water and club
it to death (bloody impressive). Otherwise, with the float firmly
attached, the shark can't do much more than swim in circles while our
hunter furiously clubs it over the head (still pretty impressive).

Having caught the shark, there are strict rules about who gets which bit.
The hunter gets the liver and heart, the men's house gets the fin etc. And
the uneaten bits must be properly disposed of.

Interestingly, there was a story/myth about why they use the propeller
shaped float. An early hero tried catching a shark with just a noose. He
had to tie the noose to his hands, but this resulted in his being dragged
over the side by the shark. He only escaped when he found a sharp shell
on the sea floor, which he used to cut the noose.

Also of interest, it was believed that one man in the village was the
proper source of the magic used to call and catch sharks. He had recently
died without a son, and that magic had been lost. They still catch sharks,
but this is very much under threat from Christian evangelists, who can't
cope with the explicit homage to Moroa involved. I took this belief - that
their magic (or part of it) had died with this chap - as a rationalisation
for why their traditional way of life was falling apart.

Final observation, on the role of beer. Despite being manifestly
introduced, beer was seen by the men as helping them get in touch with
their tradition, and thus a good thing. Of course, the impression given
was more one of escaping from their current uncertain situation into
drunken oblivion.

Obligatory Gloranthan note. Similar to the beer, I think hazia would play
a much more important role in Prax than it does at present. Many men would
come to Pavis and trade hides for hazia, while their wives scream at them
for not getting new knives, needles, medicines etc. However, the men know
that hazia takes them closer to the spirit plane, enabling easy
communication with their gods, which must be a good thing...


Owen Jones
Centre for Maths and its Applications, School of Math. Sciences
Australian National University, ACT 0200
Ph +61 6 249 2897 (office) 249 4552 (direct) Fax +61 6 249 4675
Web page http://wwwmaths.anu.edu.au/~oj/


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