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The Politics of Alterity and Values of Symmetry in Fuyuge Myths and Ritual (Papua New Guinea)

Funding body

Brunel University London


Project description

Eric Hirsch

The Fuyuge of the Papuan highlands perform a ritual (known as gab) throughout the five river valleys where the Fuyuge language is spoken. The Fuyuge narrate myths to account for aspects of the ritual performance, such as dances, pig killing, or exchange. The myths also highlight relations with neighbouring peoples through the movement of characters in the narratives and the places visited. I have recently completed a study of Fuyuge in an area of one river valley, focusing on their ritual and myths in the context of nearly a century of colonial, mission and capitalist incursions. The Fuyuge people who were the focus of my work considered their land and their conventions as the centre of the world. Other Fuyuge in their view had symmetrical myths and rituals that they recognise as similar but also with differences, some profound. At the same time, all Fuyuge are involved in the performance of the rituals of other Fuyuge at some point in time – as dancers, pig killers or exchange partners. I am now engaged in considering the myths and rituals of allied Fuyuge in neighbouring areas and valleys.

My working assumption is that there is a politics of alterity (otherness) in these mythic and ritual symmetries. Lévi-Strauss (and most recently Sahlins) famously asked: ‘But is it not always true… that neighbourliness requires of the parties that they become alike to a certain extent, while remaining different’? Lévi-Strauss’s query concerned relations between ‘societies’: But what if the same applies within ‘individual societies’ such as the Fuyuge? What is the power of such ‘otherness’ and the value of myth and ritual symmetries among people that speak the same language (although with significant dialect variation)? In one respect, following Lévi-Strauss the mythic and ritual variations can be analysed structurally and as transformational. However, myths and rituals are not just narrated and performed but are ‘lived’, following the insights of Maurice Leenhardt and Michael Young. In this sense, the power of otherness and value of symmetries is that the Fuyuge persons living and performing the myths and rituals can imagine that their versions are the cosmologically central one. Otherness or the foreign is valued as it both highlights difference but also because it demonstrates the capacities and power to transcend such difference – when Fuyuge (or other peoples) are challenged to perform in each other’s rituals - creating images of unity and cosmological centrality.