I cringed reading certain parts of this (see, ‘she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood’ and ‘she internalises them as a woman does a child’), but the narrative itself is super interesting and richly layered. There are elements that remind me of a lot of The Djan’kawu actually – a Yolŋu creation narrative that recounts the exploits of a man and two sisters as foundational ancestral figures for the Dhuwa moiety.
*Please note: this excerpt includes references to sexual coercion.
‘The Gimi of Papua New Guinea exchange sisters in marriage, and these dual ceremonies ideally take place at the same time as the initiation of their adolescent brothers. Before their marriage, the pairs of future sister-in-law are secluded inside the house of the mother of one of them, and, while being deprived of food and sleep, they are taught the songs and incantations necessary for successful gardening and the raising of pigs. The women pile wood onto the fire in the centre of the hut and tell the girls that the heat will make them sweat and remove their menstrual blood. Women’s gardening and pig-rearing songs are related to their myths, and to their ‘Blood’ and ‘Moon’ songs that they sing to bring their periods to a close. During the initial phases of the initiation and the rites of marriage, a girl receives spells and songs from older women. These food spells are secret and shared only between classificatory mothers and daughters, and between the mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law (Gillison, 1993: 155-9).
Production and reproduction are linked in Gimi philosophy because a woman is thought to be able to transform her life-force (auna) into food over time. She sends her auna into plants and animals through a repetitive process of singing, talking, cajoling and caressing. In a sense, she makes things grow by magically extending motherhood into other objects. Through songs and chants, a woman joins her auna with that of the plan or animal, and internalizes them as a woman does a child. But her power to make things grow, to conceive a child, originates in the source of her auna, that is, in her menstrual blood (ibid.: 199-201). Thus a woman’s body and its reproductive potential are imagined in relation to specific sets of social and productive relationships.
According to Gimi myth, women’s menstrual blood is something they stole from men. The Gimi term for menstruation means to be ‘killed/implanted by the Moon.’ Women’s myths tell the story of the first man, whose enormous penis awoke in the night and went out by itself to search for woman. The penis found her asleep, but could not penetrate her because the vagina was closed. The penis ate an opening to gain entry and the woman awoke and cut off the enormous thing that had invaded her: the blood of the Moon or first man was the blood of menstruation, which was also the blood of a severed penis (ibid: 217). According to the women’s myth:
‘The woman awoke and took the penis in her hand. She went out of her house and cut a piece of sugar cane. Holding the penis in her hand, she went to the Men’s house and found the man sleeping. She placed the sugar can next to his penis and cut it to the length of the cane, throwing the huge severed part into the river. Other men saw his penis and cut theirs the same. This is why men’s penes have the same markings as sugar cane (ibid.: 113-114).’
Gillison recorded one of her informants as saying: ‘When the woman cut off the man’s penis the Moon killed her for the first time. . . . Moon’s blood is blood of the penis. A woman’s blood is really the blood of a man’ (ibid.: 114). What the narrative describes is the first mythic marriage or copulation, and because women continue to menstruate it implies that they are still filled with the blood or penis of the Moon, that there is something male inside them. However, both Gimi women and men also figure menstrual blood as the Moon’s remains, party of his body, and also as the reside of a dead or failed child. Many Gimi represent sex, marriage and reproduction as a conquest between the husband and the primordial father who already fills the woman, between the man she marries and her own male kin, fathers and brothers. ‘When the Moon kills you and your husband demands sex . . . Tell him the Moon has closed you up completely . . . while the Moon is with you the opening is small, and a man who tries to enter you will hurt his penis’ (ibid.: 187).’
5 responses to “Quotations of note: Henrietta Moore on Gimi creation narratives”
I just want to flag that Moore writes about Gimi based on work that Gillian did in the 70s/early 80s and published in the 90s. Gimi lives are different now. And there are Gimi scholars writing about their lives and well as the 20 years of work I’ve put into Gimi ethnography. Gillian’s ethnography is brilliant but the present tense of Moore’s work is extraordinary problematic.
Hi Paige, thanks very much for your comment. That does seem really problematic. Could you point to any Gimi scholar’s work that I might be able to find online?
Thanks again for your input.
Just to clarify, my Gimi fieldwork extends to the late eighties, not the “early eighties”. And if one is speaking about “years of work out into Gimi ethnography” then the number is far greater than 20. Besides, what does “Gimi lives are different now” mean, exactly? .. that the present is wholly adrift from and comprehensible apart from the immediate past?
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Thanks for the clarification Gillian. I appreciate your point about continuity and the present not being ‘wholly adrift from and comprehensible apart from the immediate past.’
This seems a ‘politics of time’ question that a lot of anthropologists have to deal with when writing: the question of writing tense, continuity and representation. On the one hand, of course there is continuity; history is always necessary context for understanding culture and the present – and we don’t want to deny coevalness and write of Others as existing in different, distant, past time. However, it seems just as problematic to write about past cultural practices etc. as existing in the present *if* it does this same thing and distances ‘us’ from the Other through radical difference. (This is not what I’m suggesting is happening here, but a general point).
I’m sitting in a room with two other anthropologists and I just asked them what tense they write in and we all use a different combination of tense – I use present tense for case-studies taken directly from my field-notes but past tense in analysis etc., my friend Shiori uses all past tense, and my housemate Ben uses past tense for case-studies but present tense for analysis etc. We all agreed, however, that we keep in mind strategies to ensure we don’t distance those with whom we research as Other.
Perhaps then, the issue is more about distancing and less about tense specifically?