Search and Hit Enter

Magic and the Kula

Few studies of material culture have been as thorough, have had as much influence, or have been discussed in as many anthropology classrooms as Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic treatment, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. In the book, Malinowski chronicles a complicated network of gift exchange known as the “kula ring” among inhabitants of numerous Trobriand Islands. By detailing the people involved, the journeys, the items of exchange, ritual practices, et cetera, Malinowski helped to establish the significance of reciprocity in human culture and experience.

Originally published in:
(1922) Malinowski, Bronislaw.
Argonauts of the Western Pacific:
An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure 
in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea.
London: George Routledge & Sons.

In treating of the various customs and practices of the Kula, I had at every step to enter into the description of magical rites and into the analysis of spells. This had to be done, first of all, because magic looms paramount in the natives’ view of the Kula. Again, all magical formulae disclose essentials of belief and illustrate typical ideas in a manner so thorough and telling that no other road could lead us as straight into the inner mind of the native. Finally, there is a direct, ethnographic interest in knowing the details of magical performance, which has such an overweening influence over tribal life, and enters so deeply into the make-up of the natives mentality.

It is now necessary to complete our knowledge of magic and to focus all the dispersed data into one coherent picture. So far, the many scattered references and numerous concrete details have not furnished a general idea, of what magic means to the natives; how they imagine the working of the magical forces; what are their implied and expressed views on the nature of magical power. Collecting all the material which has already been presented in the previous chapters, and supplementing it with native and ethnographic comments, we shall be able to arrive at a certain synthesis, respecting the Kiriwinian theory of magic.


All the data which have been so far mustered disclose the extreme importance of magic in the Kula. But if it were a question of treating of any other aspect of the tribal life of these natives, it would also be found that, whenever they approach any concern of vital importance, they summon magic to their aid. It can be said without exaggeration that magic, according to their ideas, governs human destinies; that it supplies man with the power of mastering the forces of nature; and that it is his weapon and armour against the many dangers which crowd in upon him on every side. Thus, in what is most essential to man, that is in his health and bodily welfare, he is but a plaything of the powers of sorcery, of evil spirits and of certain beings, controlled by black magic. Death in almost all its forms is the result of one of these agencies. Permanent ill health and all kinds of acute sickness, in fact everything, except such easily explainable ailments as physical overstrain or slight colds, are attributed to magic. I have spoken (Chapter II) of the several ways in which the evil powers bring disease and death. The tauva’u, who bring epidemics and the tokway, who inflict shooting pains and minor ailments, are the only examples of non-human beings’ exerting any direct influence on human destinies, and even the members of this restricted pantheon of demonology only occasionally descend among the mortals to put into action their potential powers. By far the deepest dread and most constant concern of the natives are with the bwaga’u, the entirely human sorcerers, who carry out their work exclusively by means of magic. Second to them in the quantity of magical output and in the frequency of their exploits, are the mulukwausi, the flying witches, which have been described in detail in Chapter XI. They are a good example of how every belief in a superior power is at the bottom a belief in magic. Magic gives to these beings the capacity to destroy human life and to command other agents of destruction. Magic also gives man the power and the means to defend himself, and if properly applied, to frustrate all the nefarious attempts of the mulukwausi. Comparing the two agencies, it may be said that in every-day life, the sorcerer is by far the most feared and is most frequently believed to be at work; while the mulukwausi enter upon the scene at certain dramatic moments, such as the presence of death, a catastrophe on land, and more especially at sea; but then, they enter with even deadlier weapons than the bwaga’u. Health, the normal state of human beings can, if once lost, be regained by magic and by magic only. There is no such thing as natural recovery, return to health being always due to the removal of the evil magic by means of magical counter-action.

All those crises of life, which are associated with fear of danger, with the awakening of passions or of strong emotions, have also their magical accompaniment. The birth of a child is always ushered in by magic, in order to make the child prosper, and to neutralise the dangers and evil influences. There is no rite or magic at puberty; but then, with this people, puberty does not present any very definite crisis in the life of the individual, as their sexual life starts long before puberty arrives, and gradually shapes and develops as the organism matures. The passion of love, however, has a very elaborate magical counterpart, embodied in many rites and formulae, to which a great importance is attached, and all success in sexual life is ascribed to it. The evil results of illicit love that is love within the clan, which, by the way, is considered by these natives as the main class of sexual immorality can also be counteracted by a special type of magic.

The main social interests, ambition in gardening, ambition in successful Kula, vanity and display of personal charms in dancing all find their expression in magic. There is a form of beauty magic, performed ceremonially over the dancers, and there is also a kind of safety magic at dances, whose object is to prevent the evil magic of envious sorcerers. Particular garden magic, performed by an individual over his crops and seeds, as well as the evil magic which he casts on the gardens of his rivals, express the private ambitions in gardening, as contrasted with the interests of the whole village, which are catered for by communal garden magic.

Natural forces of great importance to man, such as rain and sunshine, the appropriate alternative operation of which makes his crops thrive; or wind, which must be controlled for purposes of sailing and fishing, are also governed by magic. The magic of rain and sunshine can be used for good, as well as for nefarious purposes, and in this they have a special interest in the Trobriands, because the most powerful system of this magic is in the hands of the paramount chiefs of Kiriwina. By bringing about a prolonged drought, the chiefs of Omarakana have always been able to express their general displeasure with their subjects, and thus enhance their wholesale power, independently of any other mechanism, which they might have used for forcing their will on private individuals or on whole communities.

The basic, food-providing economic activities, which in the Trobriands are mainly gardening and fishing, are also completely magic-ridden. The success of these pursuits is of course largely due to luck, chance or accident, and to the natives they require supernatural assistance. We had examples of economic magic in describing the construction of a canoe, and the fishing for kaloma shell. The communal garden-magic and the fishing magic of certain village communities show to a higher degree even than the cases described, the feature which we found so distinct in canoe magic, namely: that the rites and formulae are not a mere appendage, running side by side with economic efforts, without exercising any influence over these. On the contrary, it may be said that a belief in magic is one of the main, psychological forces which allow for organization and systemisation of economic effort in the Trobriands. The capacity for art, as well as the inspiration in it, is also ascribed to the influence of magic.

The passions of hatred, envy, and jealousy, besides finding their expression in the all powerful sorcery of the bwaga’u and mulukwausi are also responsible for many forms of witchery, known by the generic term of bulubwalata. The classical forms of this magic have as their object the estrangement of the affections of a wife or a sweetheart, or the destruction of the domestic attachment of a pig. The pig is sent away into the bush, having been made to take a dislike to its master and to its domestic habits; the wife, though the spells used to estrange her are slightly different, can be made also to take a dislike to her domestic life, abandon her husband and return to her parents. There is a bulubwalata of gardens, of canoes, of Kula, of kaloma, in fact of everything, and a good deal of beneficial magic is taken up with exorising the results of bulubwalata.

The list of magic is not quite exhausted yet. There is the magic of conditional curses, performed in order to guard property from possible harm, inflicted by others; there is war magic; there is magic associated with taboos put on coco-nuts and betel-nuts, in order to make them grow and multiply; there is magic to avert thunder and resuscitate people who are struck by lightning; there is the magic of tooth-ache, and a magic to make food last a long time.

All this shows the wide diffusion of magic, its extreme importance and also the fact that it is always strongest there, where vital interests are concerned; where violent passions or emotions are awakened; when mysterious forces are opposed to man’s endeavours; and when he has to recognise that there is something which eludes his most careful calculations, his most conscientious preparations and efforts.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: