Afterlife for the Trobriand Islanders

Trobriand Islanders. 
Mortuary rituals
When one nears death among the Trobriand Islanders, his family gather about him, bringing with them a variety of vaygu’a or valuables, such as the kula shells and necklaces that are regularly traded with neighboring islands.  The intention is not to bury him with these valuables, but only to comfort him with them in his final moments.  Once he dies, each individual who brought such valuables will take them back again, although his own valuables will be buried with him.  In the meantime, the visitors cover the dying man with these valuables, and will even spend hours hovering over him, rubbing the shells and necklaces over his body, holding them up to his nose in an apparent attempt to comfort him in his final days before he must pass over to the netherworld, since such objects were of the greatest value in life and the finest impression he can take with him into the afterlife.  It is believed that, once he dies, he may use the spirit of his valuables to pay the fair to Topileta, the supernatural guardian to the realm of the dead.
Spirits of the dead
Death, as with other cultures, was perceived to be the gateway to another life, a spirit existence.  It was believed that after death the spirit of the deceased might for a brief time, perhaps a few days, haunt the areas of the island where he had spent much of his time in life, such as his garden, the beach, or a waterhole.  The spirit that haunts the island is known as a kosi, although he does not haunt in the sense that many westerners might imagine.  There is no fear of a kosi, as kosis do no harm to anyone.  It is almost as if, for a time following death, the kosi is not yet aware that it has passed on, and therefore it seeks to go about its normal life, attending to its garden, visiting its family, and so on.
Tuma and Topileta
Eventually, however, the spirit, now known as a baloma, will sail his spiritual canoe to the island of Tuma, some 10 miles northwest of the main island, Boyowa.  Some spirits will make the journey immediately after death, rather than haunting the village.  There the spirit steps ashore and sits down on a stone to bewail his fate, mourning his separation from his friends and family.  Other spirits on the island hear him and join him in his mourning as their own losses are brought back to home to them by the newcomer.  After a time, the baloma rises and washes his eyes from a special well called Gilala, which will make him invisible to the living. 
He then encounters Topileta, who inquires as to how the man died.  The manner of his death will determine which of the three paths he will take to the village of the dead.  Women face the same choices, although they are questioned by Topileta’s wife.  Before the baloma’s journey can continue, however, he must pay Topileta with the spirit valuables he has brought with him.  Should Topileta be unsatisfied with these valuables, he could banish the deceased to the sea, where it would take on the form of a stingray with the head and tail of a shark, but the villagers interviewed by Malinowski were not aware of such a thing happening in their lifetimes.
The netherworld
Once the baloma reaches the village of Tuma, his life begins again.  Although he still feels sad, the other villagers seek to incorporate him into his new community by making acquaintances and building him a new home.  And to ensure that he is comfortable, one or more of the female baloma will seek to engage his interest (at least, this is what the Trobriand men believe).  If he proves stubborn in his mourning, they will turn to magic and charm him to make him theirs.  In other words, the same forms of magic that exist in this world also exist in the next, just as one lives out the same kind of life in the netherworld that he lived here – farming, eating, celebrating, loving, aging, and finally dying, at which time the spirit of the spirit goes on to the next world.
Despite the physical separation of the baloma from his native island, encounters with baloma can continue for quite some time.  After all, Tuma is also an inhabited island with a village of living natives, which means that the living from other islands will also visit there for purposes of trade.  Many natives described to Malinowski their encounters with baloma on the island of Tuma, although as with the kosi, the islanders have no need to fear the baloma.  There were also fairly rare individuals who claimed they could travel to the actual underworld of the dead and converse with them and bring back messages to the living.  Sometimes baloma were believed to go themselves, just after death, to deliver messages to the living, such as a mother whose spirit after her death traveled across the water to her son working in New Guinea to tell him that she had died.
Spirits during milamala
The most significant and indeed ritual contact between the living and the baloma takes place during the milamala.  Once a year the spirits return as a group to their native villages during the milamala harvest festival.  They are welcomed there by the living and special platforms are built to accommodate the spirits that they may view the celebrations and especially to ensure that the spirits of chiefs remain higher than all others.  The actual milamala ceremony opens with a feast for the baloma, in which cooked food is laid out on a special platform.  Naturally, the spirits do not consume the physical food itself, but the spirits of the food within.  After an appropriate amount of time has passed, those offering the food to the baloma will now offer the physical food to others to eat. 
The presence of the invisible spirits is made known in a variety of ways.  Malinowski himself noted that during the milamala more coconuts fell from the trees than normally, supposedly an indication that the baloma were plucking them.  If the spirits are not satisfied with the offerings made them, they could also make their presence felt by causing great storms to arise during the ceremony.  Sometimes the spirits actually make themselves visible to the living, which is never treated as something fearful by the living.  After all, the living do not believe generally that the spirits of the dead interfere in their affairs.  That is what sorcerers and witches do.  Sometimes the baloma appear in dreams to the living during the milamala
Just as the milamala opened with an offering to the spirits, it closes with a special entourage of musicians banging drums as they walk from one end of the village to the other.  The beat they are playing is uniquely intended to do one thing – drive the spirits out of the village back to their netherworld.  It is played in two parts, the first meant to drive away the spirits of men, the second to drive away the spirits of women, children, and the infirm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s