Copyright © 2005 Tom Ludvigson. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER 7: FURTHER INTERPRETATIONS 1976 - 81
7.1 The Manila folder
7.2 Taking Sulu seriously
7.3 Kleva retaliation
7.4 Kleva and patua
7.5 Versions: spirits, totonos and malaria
7.6 Versions: Patua’s illness and death
7.7 Translating poroporo and tapu
7.8 Translating masulu
7.9 Kava and dreams
Because I wanted to stay true to my experience in the field, and to the simultaneous gradual growth of my understanding of the kleva, I have so far not discussed the often far-reaching changes in my reading of some parts of the material that came about after fieldwork, during the course of writing the above account.
Throughout the writing period I kept a Manila folder into which I put sheets of paper with sketches or summaries of ideas that came to me in the process of turning my tapes and field notes into an orderly narrative. They were ideas that attempted to make more or different sense out of the material in one way or another, relying on connections and patterns that showed themselves as day in and day out I handled my notebooks and diaries, carefully reconstructing from their contents those situations and conversations that together represented and contained what I had learned while on Santo about the kleva and related matters. But it seemed like distorting the record to explicitly discuss those more recent ideas and interpretations earlier on in the account. This would appear to be a more appropriate place for such a discussion. Below I present the more important of those ideas and reinterpretations that gradually collected in my file.
7.2 Taking Sulu seriously
Some of the ideas came out of working on the tapes I had made with Sulu in New Zealand. Transcribing and translating the relevant parts of our conversations into English, with the careful attention to every word and grammatical nuance that such work demands, I noticed a number of details in Sulu’s explanations, the wider implications of which had passed me by at the time of recording.
For example, I checked up on a geographical reference in Sulu's tale about how he became a kleva. The lizard fell on his head as he and his friend Sepeti were passing by a rock named Vurombotani in the Peolape valley. I didn't know the rock in question, though Sulu had said that Memei told a story about it (5:6)(3). Now I went over the traditional tales that I had collected during my first field trip, to see if there was a rock named Vurombotani mentioned anywhere.
There was no rock named Vurombotani. But there was the story told by Memei about the kleva Krai Vurombo, who died trapped by a devel inside a rock named Porovete, "Dreamspell", also in the Peoplape valley (2:14). Most likely they were the same rock: tani meant "cry" in Kiai, so the two names both clearly evoked the same tale, and the location on the south side of the Peolape also fitted.
So the lizard fell on Sulu's head just as he was passing by a rock where a legendary kleva had died, in circumstances involving both a devel adversary and a spirit helper appearing as a kingfisher in a dream - Krai Vurombo's familiar, perhaps? This seemed to me of immense significance. It hadn't happened just anywhere; it was a highly auspicious place for a lizard to behave so strangely. Not only did it fall on Sulu's head; it ran off, and then turned back to climb up his leg. And he knew that old Letelete had been called to be a kleva by a snake coiling around his leg - Sulu had told me so himself (5:5). He had also told me about people obtaining vezeveze from a snake or a lizard, by another named big rock (5:13).
Under these circumstances I suspect that Sulu may have been very conscious of the possibility of the lizard incident being a sign from a spirit, perhaps even thinking as he went to sleep that same evening that the lizard might contact him during the night. If so, waking in the morning the next day and remembering about the lizard encounter the day before, what memories of last night's dreams would suffice to constitute a spirit visitation? Perhaps in dealing with the unseen you always find what you look for, if you have reason to expect from the outset that it is there.
I'm not saying that it happened that way. But by reconstruction one way in which it could have happened which requires neither the assumption that an ethereal being contacted Sulu that night, nor that he just made up the story as part of artfully projection a kleva image, I had found what to me was a more satisfactory interpretation of Sulu's tale. It helped dispel my old doubts of his sincerity - an early suspicion regarding his instantaneous diagnoses that had found fertile soil in several other things that he did, growing into a picture of Sulu and his colleagues as self-interested pretenders; a picture with which I was not entirely comfortable.
On reflection, that cynical view of the kleva appeared to me less and less palatable, as I realized that it would always be easier to dismiss a seemingly fantastic tale as fabrication than to address seriously the question of under what circumstances it might be sincere. Put differently, if Sulu is sincere in his accounts of encounters with spirits and witches, it means that he is talking about experiences that he has had; he is not just making it all up. If so, the interpretive quest is better aimed at reconstructing what sort of experiences he could plausibly be talking about in such terms, rather than merely substituting the lazy version that it is all a sham.
Reviewing my skeptical reactions to Sulu from this point of view, I was now able to accept more of his accounts of the unseen as genuine. Even his tale of being attacked by three witches, which at the time I assumed was pure fiction (4:4), could be sincere - isn't it possible that Sulu in fact lived that attack during his bout of illness? Only a week later I was myself floored for over a day, vomiting like he had, and delirious with a high fever (3:2). If Sulu had all my symptoms, how would he describe a fever delirium? In his world dreams were understood to be the experiences of the disembodied spirit of the sleeper. And Sulu had spoken out publicly against sorcery (5:12) - was this enough for him to fear retaliation; to expect an attack? Under these circumstances his interpretation of the events of that night no longer seems so farfetched as to warrant being judged insincere.2
Not all of the added insights that came out of working on the taped conversations led to such critical re-evaluation of my past interpretations as the above. Some of them instead seemed to merely confirm past suspicions. as I found further instances in Sulu's speech of some pattern that had suggested itself to me already during fieldwork.
When transcribing Sulu's tale of how he became a kleva, I noticed for the first time a remark that he made about Mol Kleva. Sometimes Mol Kleva refused to go when people came to fetch because of illness at their home. Sulu said that this was because Mol Kleva was angry, masulu. He complained about people coming asking for women, but not giving any in return (5:6).
I had already during my second field trip noticed instances of the kleva powers quite blatantly being used as a resource in the ubiquitous politicking over marriages (3:4, 3:9). A more recent example was when Tokito Meresin tied leaves to a tree next to Sulu's house and declared that no one was to go to him for maumau again, in direct response to a number of recent setbacks in the quest for a bride for Kavero. Tokito Meresin was masulu, the local people explained (6:16).
The continuities were several between that later occasion and what Sulu had told me about Mol Kleva - the anger, the difficulties over women and marriages to which it was attributed, and the resulting withdrawal of kleva services that made it manifest.
Anger resulting from difficulties over women and marriages was by now a common enough theme not to present any problems of interpretation. But I had puzzled over Tokito Meresin's ban, feeling that I had not quite understood the full significance of what had occurred. In the light of Sulu's remark about his colleague from across the river, it made more sense: to withhold your services from those who refuse to cooperate with your wishes could well be the conventional form of retaliation to be expected from a healer.
Comments made to me by the local people on occasions when someone's behaviour towards me was interpreted as a slight seemed to bear this out. My friends then told me not to give medicine again to the offenders or their children, should they fall ill. Those suggestions bothered me in their lack of compassion, and I never took the advice. But they do suggest that withholding your services was an appropriate response by a healer towards anyone who was being obnoxious.
Another matter brought fresh to mind through work on the tapes was that old man Maloi from Lotunae was a kleva - Sulu told me so at the end of our talk about his craft (5:8). This seemed to me now of new significance, as Maloi was also the man reputed to have put an end to Mol Sale's nocturnal patua attacks on his neighbours, back when the Moris-speakers from further down valley still lived together in the large settlement at Moruas.
According to the story told to me by Usa Pon, Mol Sale had already killed several people with his patua, when Maloi interceded with a special charm to trap and kill him. But Mol Sale found out, and kept away from then on (3:13).
Trying to imagine what circumstances might lie behind that rather fantastic tale, I soon realised that Maloi himself was the only plausible source of crucial parts of the account. Who else could have revealed to other people the part he had played in warding off the witch attacks? And who but a kleva could have identified the witch as Mol Sale? There was no telltale death to form a basis for that interpretation, as there had been in the cases of Patua and Mol Sahau. I imagined a situation more like Tavui Pro's attack on Sulu: nocturnal proceedings revealed afterwards by the kleva involved (4:4).
But it was not just finding another kleva at the hub of an incident involving the naming of a witch that intrigued me. It was the fact that in this case the alleged witch was also a kleva. It looked like one kleva defaming another as a witch, by spreading a tale about a hidden confrontation between the two, suggesting in its turn some rivalry or strife between them - especially as the eventual outcome of the situation was that Mol Sale moved away, branded as a witch.
Reviewing my notes I found other instances of one kleva painting another as a witch or sorcerer. A recent case was Sulu reporting on Patua's patua (6:9). Another was the Zaraparo kleva finding Mol Sale's vezeveze in Lulu's cheek. There was also the story of Mol Sale living close to Duria for three years, eventually having to move again, after being held responsible for Mol Kleva's blind eye (3:13). Whoever started that story, it suggested strife between the two kleva. It also seemed significant that the first person ever to tell me about Mol Sale having patua was Mol Kleva. And he didn't tell me that Mol Sale was a kleva: it was not until later that I found that out. An additional suggestion of friction between two kleva was the early rumour passed on to me by Lahoi that Mol Sale was causing Patua's illness with food-leavings sorcery (2:8).
Several different readings of this material seem possible. Was there competition among the kleva, manifest here in attempts by some of them to discredit others as witches or sorcerers? Were kleva perhaps always likely targets for accusations of sorcery and witchcraft, because of the ambiguity inherent in their secret powers? Both kleva and witches dealt with spirit familiars in their sleep, and as all extraordinary powers were known to emanate from spirit beings of one kind or another, a kleva with his privileged access to the unseen could well have acquired also other more dangerous powers. Or, in view of the fact that only one of the accusations against a kleva was not aimed at Mol Sale, was I only confronting the legacy of his reputation for patua from his days at Moruas, making him a prime suspect from then on whenever there was talk of evildoings, his bad reputation snowballing in a vicious circle of cumulative suspicion? Or did the tales about Mol Sale only reflect his status as a relative outsider? Perhaps there were similar tales about my immediate neighbours at Truvos circulating among the Moris-speakers - part of the mutual suspicion between people on the fringes of each other's social universe. None of these interpretations necessarily excludes any of the others, all being speculative in nature, exploring the range of possibilities rather than opting for one before the others.
7.5 Versions: spirits,
Another matter for comment is the plurality of often contradictory versions of current events or other aspects of central Santo existence that were told to me by different people.
For example, while still on the island I puzzled over the several words in Kiai for the beings referred to simply as devel in Bislama.
Maitui had told me about aviriza, ria and tamate, and their characteristic differences (2:13). But Sulu, though supposedly an expert on these matters, had given me a more condensed version: aviriza, ria and tamate were all just different words for the same thing. When I queried his account, drawing on Maitui’s, Sulu responded with what turned out to be a common disclaimer about the unseen: he had not seen these things; he had only heard them talked about (5:2).
Then there was Kavten, who said that pataika was a devel – ria or tamate; they were the same. Eilili, in his turn, stressed the differences between ria and tamate, while qualifying his account: it was only his own understanding of what other people said. Lisa, finally, acknowledged both their difference as beings and their similarity of origin: they were all people who had passed on into another form of existence (6:20).
One way of interpreting this material is to simply say that Sulu and Kavten gave wrong accounts of the spirit realm, whether due to ignorance or to other considerations. This was indeed my initial reaction to Sulu’s version – I had accepted Maitui’s as correct.
But who is right and who is wrong is a moot point when the matter at issue is essentially unavailable for inspection – a circumstance stressed by several of my informants when I approached them with the intent of settling the issue one way or the other. When they themselves recognise the tentative nature of their own versions of matters unseen (Koma kai lesia: “We have not seen it” 5:13, 6:10), it seems not only futile, but even misconceived for the ethnographer to attempt a verdict on the issue, one way or the other. A more realistic approach would be to recognise, like they seem to do themselves, the tentative nature of their interpretations of the spirit realm, rather than project onto the material some processed version of what “they believe”.
Another matter that received several disparate interpretations was totonos. Memei was the first person to tell me about it, when at Vunpepe he commented on little Zeklin's eye trouble, blaming it on the boy's father's totonos. He then explained the idea in terms of unconfessed extramarital sex (2:16).
Usa Pon, on the other hand, denied even hearing the term before, when I mentioned it to him. He had been explaining to me about mataioro - the illness afflicting Pune Tamaravu's child - in terms of unconfessed adultery, when on the basis of what Memei had told me I suggested that totonos was involved (3:7).
Sulu, in his turn, volunteered the term totonos, when during our first tape session in New Zealand I questioned him about mataioro. He told me that totonos was Bislama, and translated it into Kiai as ponana: "its smell /taste". The small of something going dead inside your nose caused the illness. Sulu mentioned neither illicit sex nor confession (5:4).
A further incident that took place during my fourth field trip helps throw additional light on the subject. Trivu Ru's son Kila, the only man of Truvos origin who knew how to read and write, was visiting Vorozenale from his new home at Namoro, where he had attended school for several years in the past. He told me a different version again. On my question he explained that totonos was when you stepped on a rusty nail and had to go to the dispensary for an injection.
Camden's Bislama dictionary indeed has an entry tetanos, translated "tetanus" (Camden 1977:122). This puts Memei's and Sulu's versions of totonos on par with Andi Laman's interpretation of malaria as a devel with mosquito children, and Lahoi's translation of tamate as malaria (2:12). They are probably best understood as partly personal interpretations of alien (i.e. Western) concepts of disease in terms familiar to the mountain people. All cases of use of the words totonos and malaria were after all in statements directed at me. Presumably the speakers were, in their view, speaking my language, in order for me to understand what they were explaining. Totonos and malaria as part of my material can then be seen to be purely an artifact of my investigation.
7.6 Versions: Patua’s illness and
The most spectacular array of different versions in my material is undoubtedly the many interpretations of Patua’s drawn-out illness and eventual death.
During my first field trip Lahoi had talked about Mol Sale being suspected of using food-leavings sorcery against the young Duria kleva (2:8). I myself had been mystified by his alleged illness, finding nothing wrong with him when I examined him at his home village (2:4).
My second stay on Santo saw Kavten voicing his suspicions: Patua had a dead man’s bone, and was ill because he had not confessed the illicit sex he had enjoyed with the aid of that charm. The medical staff at the hospital at Canal took a different view: Patua was not ill at all, he was well (3:6).
Throughout my fourth visit to the island the interpretations multiplied as Patua’s condition deteriorated, each new wave of rumours about his precise state of health giving cause for comment and discussion. Early on there was talk of his wife, confessing to him, a suggestion seeking a cause of his illness in some possible sexual indiscretion of hers. Then Aliki from Tapunvepere hinted to me that Patua’s having “bad things” was the explanation for his illness (6:4).Up until then I heard only lay interpretations of Patua’s state of health (though the hospital diagnosis at Canal can be seen as an exception). As Patua got worse, I was told about kleva interpretations of his condition. Kinglu, with the powers available to a kleva, had “seen’ that someone was using a bit of Patua’s loincloth to kill him with sorcery. Patua himself had dreamed that Meah from Vunpepe was killing him with food-leavings sorcery (6:7). And Sulu had “seen” Patua’s patua, leading Lisa to suggest that the dying kleva had been shot in animal form (6:8) – an interpretation later doubled by the tale of Ravu Liorave killing a most unusual cat (6:9).
When news arrived of Patua’s death, there was talk of both vezeveze, and of the young Duria kleva bringing this sorcery on himself through proud behaviour. Still, the interpretation of Patua as a witch persisted in discussions at Truvos (6:10, 6:14), while at Duria his clansmen took to the view that Patua was killed by sorcery, his in-laws at Vunpepe the prime suspects (6:9).
It is interesting to note that malevolent magic and moral retribution, as theories or schemes for interpretation of disease and death, together permit responsibility to be placed either on the person who is ill or on someone else. The afflicted person can be seen to be suffering because he has “bad things”, or because he is the victim of someone else’s “bad things”, just as he can be seen to be ill because of his own, or else his spouse’s /relative’s illicit sex – all of these views exemplified among the many diagnoses of Patua’s condition.
This multitude of explanations can be seen as a matter of course, given the protracted nature of Patua’s illness. Note, for example, how during the comparatively short duration of my respiratory troubles during my second field trip I was offered no less than six different diagnoses of the underlying cause (3:15,3:16).(4)
Similarly, the several versions of the cause of Patua’s death parallel the speculations following the death of Krai Kule (3:17). Responsibility for both deaths is sought among people with a grudge – in-laws figuring in both cases, reflecting the all-too-common difficulties over marriages.
More specifically, Kinglu – like Patua a Merei-speaker from the far side of the Peolape river – blames the “strangers” of Patua’s new home in the Ari valley. Patua too blames a local person: Meah from Vunpepe. Interpretations offered by local people on the contrary shift responsibility away from the Ari valley, blaming vezeveze from further inland (i.e. the far side of the Peolape), or else Patua’s own sins.
This nicely mirrors the several assurances I had from local people that no one had vezeveze in our area (2:6, 2:8), coupled with the outsiders’ view that they indeed were held in our valley (2:8, 3:13).
Indeed, witchcraft and sorcery were almost invariably attributed to outsiders. The only exceptions were Maloi’s past allegations against Mol Sale, which resulted in them residing apart, and Patua’s accusation against Meah, after he had moved away to his original home area. The exceptions prove the rule: accusations don’t go with co-residence.
We can continue reading meanings into these interpretations by posing the question of who stood to gain by them. For example, who gains by Sulu’s confirmation of old suspicions that Patua had patua? Apart from Sulu’s thereby reaffirming his own reputation as a kleva, we can see his interpretation as providing the Vunpepe people with a defense against the sorcery claims made by patua and Kinglu, supposedly taken up by Patua’s clansmen at Duria. One can speculate that Sulu is deliberately trying to defuse a potential conflict situation, in the interest – so eloquently expressed in his sermon against witchcraft and sorcery during our joint visit to New Zealand – of peace and community survival.
7.7 Translating poroporo and tapu
There are many references to dreams and dreaming in the account of the kleva. I have since wondered about the suitability of the English verb "dream" as a translation of Kiai poroporo. Even though the word poroporo undoubtedly refers to that same pan-human experience that we call "dreaming", one can question the wisdom of that translation when clearly the meaning of that experience is itself different in Santo from its Western interpretation. In Santo the dream experience is understood as the experience of the disembodied spirit of the sleeper (2:5, 4:1, 5:8, 6:20) - what is commonly known as "exteriorization" or "astral projection" in English spiritist idiom (Walker 1977:11)
A few details in the kleva account make sense in this light. When the aviriza used to "take" Merei Tavui and put him high in a tree, or on a sheer drop (2:13), this presumably refers to his disembodied spirit - the astral/dream experience remembered after the victim returns to his body and regains (ordinary) consciousness. When Sulu during a tape session in New Zealand speaks about poroporo, he calls it vano poroporo, "go dreaming" (5:8) - here "go astral traveling" probably comes closer to an idiomatic translation. And when the disembodied spirit of a dead man renders my food unwholesome by his presence, this gets spoken of as a tamate "dreaming" my food (3:15) - i.e. experiencing it in his (permanently) disembodied state.
We recall the centrality of poroporo in being a kleva. A kleva learns his craft during poroporo (3:5, 5:5, 5:6), and though other people poroporo, it appears like one of the distinctive skills of the kleva. Krai Tui refers to them as "they that dream" (3:12), and Eilili takes it for granted that Sulu has "dreamed" at least some of his protective magic for wet taro gardens (3:5).
This all now takes on a new meaning. The skill that sets a kleva apart from ordinary people (Eilili: olgeta oli no olsem yumi, "they are not like us." 3:5) is then "astral travel" - the ability to leave the body and commune with other disembodied spirits during sleep, thus gaining access to knowledge not available to others. To translate poroporo as "dream" obscures this fact, hiding a relatively exotic understanding behind a too-familiar label.
The opposite case can be argued about the deceptively direct translation of the Kiai word tapu as "taboo". For example, Vekrai used Tapu! to little Epin much like an English-speaking mother uses "No!" to a toddler who is about the table-cloth off the table, pick up a knife by the sharp end or knock over the jar full of yoghurt. And the food "taboos" imposed in connection with maumau don't seem much different from for example avoiding strawberries because of an allergy, or sugar if you are a diabetic - i.e. simple dieting. The underlying theory may be different for each of these cases, but as long as people take it on authority, following the proscriptions rather than defying them, the similarities are over-riding. The more mundane translation of tapu as "restriction" bypasses the misleadingly exotic connotations of the word "taboo".
Another item calling for a refined translation is the Kiai word masulu. Throughout the account of my field experiences with the kleva I have translated it according to my understanding while still on Santo - as "anger" or "be angry" depending on its being used as a noun or a verb. I have since come to what I think is a deeper understanding of that word.
Because masulu appeared to an important concept in the way my hosts spoke about retaliatory action in interpersonal relations,(5) I took note when I heard the word used, and later wrote descriptions of each speech-situation in my field notes. Going through these cases of use of masulu while organising my material from my fourth field trip for writing up, my attention was drawn to a couple of entries that seemed slightly anomalous. They were both descriptions of occasions where masulu didn't seem to translate well as "anger", given the situation.
One of the occasions was the casual conversation with Eilili, prompted by two roosters chasing a third across the Kuvutana village clearing. Our exchange went something like this:
"We will kill one soon", said Eilili.
"They chase each other all the time", I replied.
Then Eilili said something about there being too many roosters in the flock of fowl living in and around the settlement, and added: A to etieti kara. Na lesia a to masulu. "They copulate all the time. I see they are masulu".
The link between copulation and masulu seemed to me peculiar. I could not see what anger had to do with sex. This led me to wonder whether "anger" was all there was to masulu, and I made a note to that effect in my books.
The other occasion was at the very end of my fourth field trip, when I had already left the mountains and was staying with some mountain friends at a South Coast plantation, waiting for the day when I was booked to fly out of Santo.
A few of us had just had a swim in a stream, cooling ourselves from the hot and humid weather that prevailed on the coast. I was drying myself with a towel, just wiping my genitals, when Tavui Pulupulu made a joke.
Ku kai tapuru zoia, vanake masulu! he said, laughing heartily. "Don't wipe it too much, risk of masulu!"
Jokes with sexual allusions were a commonplace, and I heard Pulu's comment as a clear reference to sexual arousal. But if masulu could refer to sexual arousal, this also made sense of Eilili's comment about the roosters - the link between sexual arousal and copulation is obvious.
I found further support for this interpretation when I realised that masulu could be analysed into the intransitive prefix ma-(6) , and sulu, meaning "burn". Masulu then translates literally as "catch fire", a metaphor that indeed seems equally applicable to anger and sexual arousal. This is nicely consistent with the fact that both anger and sexual arousal were matters for confession.
The comment on Linsus' confession (6:18) now takes on a new meaning. Mo vavaulu ini na sava? I was asked: "What did he confess?" Nona masulu?
I translated the latter question as "His anger?". Against the background that old man Linsus took a lively interest in younger women - a topic for many a comment around the kava bowl at Kuvutana - a more to the point translation of that question is probably "His arousal?"
7.9 Kava and dreams
In the chapter on my third field trip I remarked on my somewhat unusual dreams and reveries, and the idea that all the kava I was drinking might have something to do with it (4:2). It seemed to me that if there were a connection between kava drinking and dreaming, it would help make sense of the noted cultural elaboration of dream experiences in central Santo (7:2, 7:7).
The evidence in the literature for such a connection is contradictory. Codrington provides the following bit of information from nearby Aoba:
An anecdote of his, also from Aoba, contains the following description:
Brunton states, in an article on kava drinking on Tanna island, that
These quotes are all in support of the link between kava and dreams. Yet Steinmetz seems to rule out any such connection when he states that
A more recent publication throws doubt on Steinmetz pharmacological interpretation of the active ingredients in kava (Fastier 1976). Whether this has any significance as regards the question of dreaming I am unable to judge. The evidence, as it stands, appears inconclusive.
This brings to a close the discussion of interpretations of the kleva material that emerged after the end of my field research on Santo. We now move on to a recapitulation and appraisal of the contents of the account of the kleva, and a consideration of some broader issues that come to light in the account.