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Malinowski and the Trobriands: Kula and Magic

Malinowski and the Trobriands: Kula and Magic

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Malinowski and the Trobriands: Kula and Magic

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  1. Malinowski and the Trobriands: Kula and Magic • Trobriand Islands are 100 miles east of Papua New Guinea and 600 miles northeast of Australia.

  2. Introductory Background Subsistence was fishing and yam agriculture, both of which were abundant and produced a surplus. Coastal/inland/highland distinction. Matrilineal society: Descent is traced from the mother’s line. Inheritance passes from the mother’s brother to the sister’s son. A man was required to gift his sister’s husband’s family periodically. Chieftainships: marriage was polygamous for those of high rank

  3. Exchange and Trade Exchanges occurred within villages, from a man to his sister’s husband, and from commoners to the chiefs. Also between villages on Kiriwina island: especially between coast, (fish), plains (yams) and highlands (steel axes). Gimwali, often referred to in derogatory terms. The most spectacular and prestigious exchanges occurred between islands and was known as kula, involving long sailing expeditions across the open sea.

  4. Basic Features of the Kula Separation between utilitarian exchange (gimwali) and ceremonial exchanges (kula). The kula consists of the exchange of ceremonial items: soulava (necklaces) that travel clockwise and mwali (armbands) that travel counterclockwise. These items cannot be kept permanently, at most for a year or 2. Possession of famous kula items brings that person renown and prestige.

  5. Sociological Features of the Kula • The partners in the kula were lifelong trading partners obliged to each other for hospitality, help and assistance. • Minor kula exchanges within a group of islands preceded major expeditions. • Usually one overseas trading expedition per year. • Upon arrival, visitors would be greeted with a soulava. If they could not reciprocate with a mwali of equal renown, they offered intermediary gifts, basi. • If you knew your partner was in possession of a renowned kula article, he would be solicited with various gifts, e.g. yams, pigs. If accepted, you would proceed to the next valuable stage, e.g. steel axes. If enough was given, your partner would be obliged to part with the soulava or mwali, as the case may be. • Example: Sinketa and Dobu: annual expeditions, visitors from Sinketa are greeted with necklaces (soulava). When the Dobuans return the visit, they are greeted with mwali (armbands). • The soulava (necklaces) always travel in a clockwise direction, the mwali in a counter-clockwise direction. • Liberality in exchange brings renown; miserliness approbation and even social exclusion. Attempting to hold onto a renowned soulava or mwali is considered miserly. • Social status: chiefs and high-ranking individuals most often circulate the highest-value kula items; if commoners were to do so, it could be considered a political challenge.

  6. Prow of a Kula Canoe, c. 1993.

  7. The Kula and Magic • Each phase of the kula expedition is surrounded with magical rites. • These include: • Canoe building and preparation (6 months): magical rites to remove wood spirits, rites at the launching. • Rites before the major expedition aimed at ‘softening’ the Dobuans, making them generous. • Rites performed just after the outset of the voyage to prevent shipwreck. • Also rites to be performed in the event of a shipwreck. • Finally, rites are performed just before entering Dobu, involving bathing, anointing with oil, and ritual dressing to impress the Dobuans.

  8. Malinowski’s Functionalist Views on Magic, Science and Religion • Prior to Malinowski, magic was interpreted (by evolutionists) as a primitive form of either science or religion. • For Malinowski, magic and religion were separate, because they fulfilled different psychological functions. Religion answered questions that were unanswerable, e.g. inevitability of death, and of human suffering. • In functionalist terms, magic was closer to science. • He showed how the Trobrianders possessed extensive empirical knowledge of their environment, including gardening, soils, climate and were also good astronomers, i.e. knowledge needed in long-distance sea voyages. Human beings have always been thinking equally well. • Magic began where science ended. “Magic is to be expected and generally to be found whenever man comes to an unbridgeable gap, a hiatus in his knowledge or in his powers of practical control, and yet has to continue in his pursuit." Magic alleviated anxiety and fear in situations which one could not control, e.g. the vagaries of weather during sea voyages, one part of a crop of yams being destroyed due to an unexpected pest invasion, etc. • Magical thinking can therefore be found in all societies, e.g. Gmelch’s article on the talismans and taboos that professional baseball players use to improve their batting or pitching averages. • According to Malinowski’s functionalist logic, can you think of other magical practises in our own society?