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Literally, ‘belly don't know’. The Papuan description of the ecstatic cult that arose in Vailala about 1919. People were seen ‘taking a few quick steps in front of them and would then stand, jabber and gesticulate, at the same time swaying the head from side to side; also bending the body from side to side from the hips, the legs appearing to be held firm’. Such ecstatic possession, an indirect consequence of colonial penetration, found its cult leader in an old man named Evara. He prophesied the coming of a steamer, carrying the spirits of the ancestors on board, who would bring with them the ‘cargo’. Anti-European sentiments were evident in his revelations, since the expected gifts included rifles. However, the idea of a return of the dead was somewhat complicated by the belief that ancestors were white. Later Evara prophesied that an aeroplane would bring the sacred cargo of plenty.

The paraphernalia of modern technology everywhere appeared: an instance was imitation radios for making contact with the ancestors. Tribal customs and beliefs were abandoned as the ecstatic Papuans anticipated the millennium. The deep interest in European material goods, the root of the ‘cargo cults’, was reflected in the mythical attire of their new god Ihova: he wore a coat, shirt, trousers, hat, and shoes. Though the Vailala outbreak was almost over in 1923, its legacy was the modern ‘cargo cult’, stimulated by the Second World War. Aeroplanes, ships, vehicles, supply bases bewildered and intrigued peoples emerging from Stone Age levels of culture. They were also interested after the end of hostilities when the United States Army began to exhume the bodies of its dead. The forlorn watchers of intercontinental flights remain today as witnesses to the mythical possibilities of cultural change.

Subjects: Religion.

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