Chapter 21: Economy and Religion
Simon Coleman Most of the time we were anxious to secure and build up wealth for exchanges. Ritual experts came and made spells for us around the centre post of our men’s house. The expert took a cassowary bone dagger he had and said ‘Some men have planted stakes in your ground, now I’ll make a spell and dig them out for you’. He meant that rival ritual experts had secretly planted little stakes in our ground to prevent wealth from coming to us. (Strathern 1979: 64) What are we to make of this statement? The first thing to note is the identity of the speaker: a New Guinea ‘big-man’ named Ongka. He is providing an account of his life in which he discusses his childhood, his wives, the wars he has fought and the various ways in which he has deployed material resources to gain prestige and the precarious authority associated with being a local leader. Ongka is clearly an intelligent and articulate person. But his description of the process of acquiring wealth might at first seem very strange to Western eyes. We are more likely to attribute relative poverty to bad luck, lack of opportunity or perhaps laziness than to the presence of concealed stakes in the ground. Our attempts to gain resources probably do not involve the use of spells uttered by ritual specialists. And, once we have achieved material success, we are unlikely to perceive our new status primarily in terms of our ability to carry...
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