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© Pamela J.Stewart and Andrew Strathern
Pamela J Stewart

Posted 2 May 1999  Last amended 23-Sep-2005

[From Millennial Markers, Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern (eds.) 1997. Towsville: JCR,Centre for Pacific Studies, pp 1-17]





Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, Centre for Pacific Studies, School of Anthropology and Archaeology, James Cook University of North Queensland, Townsville 4811 Australia and Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA USA



The volume represents the product of the 1997 Centre for Pacific Studies Electronic Conference. This was the first in a series of such topical conferences that we propose to be held through the Centre for Pacific Studies at the James Cook University of North Queensland. In terms of developing international and inter-institutional links through the Centre we are pleased that this collection brings together scholarly work from the U.S.A., France, and Germany as well as having its home base here in Townsville, and combines the work of established and early-career researchers.


The papers largely address how the millennium may be marked in the Pacific. Highlighted are religious themes relating to notions of world=s end and what the world=s end signifies. Theo Ahrens= contribution, however, usefully reminds us of various persistent traditions in occidental Christianity that have produced the antecedents of millennial markers in the Pacific. The other three contributions all relate to a transect of central New Guinea, from the Huli area in the Southern Highlands, through to Oksapmin and Urapmin in Sandaun Province.




At the outset, it may be useful to outline some general ideas we had in proposing the conference topic and how these relate to the contributions presented here. Common to European millenarianist ways of thinking and those found in New Guinea and the Pacific widely is the idea of history as sign. Historical events are not seen simply as events in sequence with particular causes and concomitants, but as signs of trends that indicate what will happen in the future. Since Christian thought was from its inception marked by such a notion of a telos, the return of Christ, it is hardly surprising that this feature, preserved, as Theo Ahrens notes, in the expansive narrative of missionization, should to some extent be found meshed with pre-existing indigenous notions. Second, there is the idea of the end of history. Here, the correspondence of ideas is less exact but it is sufficient for Christian and indigenous notions in certain areas in New Guinea again to mesh: the imperfection of the mesh gives rise to considerable confusion. Given these two points, then, it is of strategic interest to concentrate on perceptions of markers of the millennium, because in these perceptions and arguments about them we see the struggles of personal and communal semiosis: the effort to produce and process signs as a mode of interpretation of events and of history in general.


Theo Ahrens= paper, although it is not explicitly focussed on the Pacific, reflects its author=s long-standing dual expertise in both Christian history and missiology and in Pacific ethnography. He gives us >reminders= of aspects of recurrent millenarian thinking in Europe that can be carried forward into the three related case-studies from the interior of New Guinea that follow. One is the tension between material and spiritual images of the millennium. Another is the variety of versions of millenarianism, for example whether Christ will return and inaugurate the millennium or the Kingdom of God has first to be established in order to encourage Christ to return. A third is the fact that both Protestant and Catholic churches have been imbued with millenarian ideas -- although it is true that in the Pacific contexts Catholics are seen largely as standing outside of these notions (see a discussion of the Catholic/Protestant relationship further below). Finally, making a point that is relevant to the Urapmin case, Ahrens notes that millenarian notions need not be inconsistent with vigorous attempts to improve community relations in the here and now, although they tend to irritate workers in churches that do not share the millenarian outlook. He also observes that social upheavals produce a dialectical attempt to (re)establish ideal communities projected as end of the world utopias.


We proceed now to a topically organized discussion of some of the >markers= that turn up in discourses of the millennium in the case studies here and elsewhere.


One of the signs of the coming end of time that has putatively accompanied technological development is the >evil= power of computers. These devices are often seen by Melpa speakers, for example, as powerful because their basic mechanisms of action are not understood . The information that they carry is coded in ways that can provide users with detailed information about persons in addition to generating new information from bits and pieces fed into them. Confusion is also created because of discussion as the year 2,000 approaches that the bimillennium will be accompanied by a total confusion and >crashing= of computer programs that were all date-programmed for the pre-millennial years. This is taken as a sign of the catastrophic events that will enter in with the new millennium. The numbers that are fed into computers that are codes for names of people and details about persons are seen as a sign of the fulfilment of the prediction that the Antichrist will mark his followers. These marks are seen to exist in computer generated programs and information as well as in credit cards. The Duna people in 1994 expressed a fear of credit cards which when used can generate information such as the card holder=s name, home address, telephone number, etc. This is seen as yet another mark of the followers of the Antichrist or of those who have fallen under the power of the Antichrist without being aware of it. The bar codes that appear on consumer goods are included in this schema which will supposedly allow the Antichrist to control the sale and purchase of all such marked goods -- preventing access to goods by the Christian >faithful=. This control through coding extends onto the flesh as Robbins describes for the Urapmin. The code 666 is predicted to be imprinted in bar code fashion onto the foreheads of the followers of the Antichrist as a clear sign of his ultimate control over the individual. Some of the Fundamentalist groups believe that their members (the >faithful) will have been taken away by the rapture before these signs appear while others see the signs as indicators of the impending rapture (McGinn 1994:261-2).




The mark of the Antichrist (i.e., the mark of the beast) is thought to fall upon those who are >inhuman= in such a way as to mark them in a clear way as >bestial= -- unnatural and under the control of an evil power. Yet, the beast as Antichrist is not described as a visual image, even though indigenous mythologies often describe in great detail the bestial forms of lustful, greedy characters such as ipa tsiri among the Duna and Huli, who steals things as well as forms of sexual activity with women and tricks people in various ways. The only image that we are given is that of the Pope, not a particular Pope but the robed authoritative figure of the Catholic Church, who it is believed will appear on monetary notes at or near the time of the rapture as a sign that the Catholic Church has taken control of the world monetary system (cf. also McGinn 1994:251).


The image of the Pope as the Antichrist shows us the ambiguous place that Catholicism has in the imagery of Protestant millenarianism. This is a topic of great interest that cannot be worked out fully at present, but shows several factors at work. First, in many places Catholicism has been tolerant of indigenous pagan practices, aiming gradually to replace, reform, or blend these with Catholic ones. This may help to explain why Protestant fundamentalists or charismatics make a distinction between themselves and Catholics that seems similar to a Christian vs. Pagan distinction. It also explains, e.g., why when Catholics experience spirit possession in church their rivals may say that the possession is by an >evil spirit= and not the Holy Spirit. Second, the Pope is indeed a powerful political figure, to an extent that is unique among the heads of churches, and could therefore be plausibly seen as a source of world power or government. Third, Catholics are sometimes confused in indigenous discourse with >the Romans= (because of the term >Roman Catholics=) and these >Romans= are seen as having crucified Jesus. These three points have all been found in ethnographic fieldwork in Hagen, but they have a bearing also on Robbins= account of Urapmin perceptions. The Urapmin see themselves as a religious community in some way opposed to the secular state and its instruments such as money and political office. Here the opposition of powers is seen as between the religious community and the secular state, but in other conceptions the >Catholics= stand symbolically in the same place as the >state= does for the Urapmin. In other conceptions again >Papua New Guinea= is seen not as the bureaucratic state but as a >Christian nation= whose members should ideally see themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ (an idea that stems from the wording of the country=s official Constitution).


Both Lorenzo Brutti and Chris Morgan in their contributions point clearly to this theme, inscribed in a widely spread set of indigenous notions that are found in many parts of the Southern Highlands, especially among the Huli, Duna, and Ok peoples. The general form of this marker is that environmental changes are indicators that the earth is altering and is in fact losing its fertility. Equally, such changes are accompanied by moral changes. Children do not grow so well, they are stunted, and yet they are sexually precocious: things are >out of joint=. The conjunction of the physical and the moral/social is what Brutti aptly calls the ecocosmos. Among the Duna it also has a pre-timed aspect, in that in the 14th generation after an initial > creation=, as marked in genealogies, it is expected that there will be fire, floods and sicknesses that will end the world, leading to its implicit cyclical renewal. For the Huli especially, this turning point is marked in the idea of mbingi, as expounded by Morgan. It is highly relevant here that the Huli, Duna, and other Highlands peoples point to the fact that volcanic ash falls have occurred previously and evidence of them can be seen in the ground itself. This is then taken as evidence that they will recur. Evidence and mind-set combine to reinforce the ideas of entropy, cyclicity, catastrophe, and renewal.


It is equally interesting to note, however, that the cyclical notions are not precisely the same among the Huli as among the Duna and Oksapmin. For the latter two, the ash fall is seen more as catastrophe, less as renewal. The difference may reflect actual and perceived differences in fertility between the central Tari Basin of the Huli and the thinner montane soils of the Aluni Valley Duna and their Oksapmin neighbours across the Strickland river.


It is also important to note that these indigenous notions do not exactly coincide with Christian notions. Catastrophe and renewal on the same basis as before differs from a transcendental change in the order of reality (although Norman Cohn has remarked that in some versions of the vision of God=s Kingdom the idea is that the original plenty and peace of Eden will be restored, Cohn 1993: 197). The precise form in which Christian ideas are presented to local people also varies by sect, and in addition there is a fundamental indeterminacy based on a secrecy /revelation schema, shared between Christian and endogenous ways of thought.


This theme has been remarked on already above in the image of young people not growing properly but becoming sexually precocious (in the indigenous view the latter causes the former). It is most clearly, however, articulated in Joel Robbins= highly original observation that the 666 mark is destined to appear on people=s skins, their interface with the social world. A Hagen image that corresponds to this domain is that in the end times people=s hands and skin will be >dry=, they will lack >grease= or fertility (see Strathern and Stewart 1997, for example). In further research, this theme of the body as marker should be a prime site for investigation. Connected to it is Robbins= observation about the primacy of vision as a source of evidence for the Urapmin, a point that is shared by and large with the Melpa who in talking of ghosts may say ADo you see it or not?@ although their term for knowledge equates with hearing/thinking rather than seeing. The Urapmin predilection for seeing leads to the privilege they give to the knowledge in books since reading is a kind of seeing (an interesting epistemological twist). Similar notions may explain, at least in part, the importance given to reading the Bible in Hagen, as expressed in the film >A Death To Pay For= by Ongka=s daughter Yara in talking of world=s end: AI hear what the pastors say but I can=t read it for myself, if I could I would know@. The body and its capacities, its senses, is, then, to be taken as a crucial source of markers for the millennium.


What is absent from the narratives detailed herein is any detailed description of heaven or the nature of the wonders that will exist in the next phase of being after the rapture has occurred. In Hayara=s narrative the inferno which destroys the current world does not destroy the earth completely but rather purges it so that Hayara can reinhabit it upon return from his flight in his specially equipped space ship. But this is not truly a heaven on earth, just an earth that has been reconfigured with a new power base centered on Hayara=s Huli world (Morgan, this volume). Although the signs of the end of the world are clear as markers of evil and >hell on earth=, the wonders of what is heaven are left as secrets to be revealed to the >faithful= at the rapture. This allows for every possible image, including a Hayara-type one of a heaven on earth, a recreation of the Garden of Eden=s primordial >perfection=, or a place where new relationships would exist between humans and God of a >superior= kind. Another description is that of the Heavenly city, described as golden and jewel-covered, that will be lowered down from the sky onto the earth as a complete unit (the imagery here reminds the authors of a cut and paste icon captured from one computer file and imported into another).


The coming of the end of the world is thought to bring a lifting of a cloud of uncertainty and fog as in the biblical saying Afor now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face@ (1 Corinthians). This corresponds to the Duna Baptist hymns: ALater I will see Jesus@ (Itane Yesu kenda) and AI will go with Jesus@ (Yesu-ne haruru nganda). If these are taken literally then the description of heaven could simply be a place where the >faithful= will be able to see Jesus or be in his presence physically. The Anglican hymn,


>I know not, oh, I know not

What social joys are there,

What transports of devotion,

What bliss beyond compare!=


also describes how a veil will be lifted to reveal the wonders of heaven. The coming of the millennium is thought by many to be a new time in which change will bring new awareness and reveal a better life for the morally >good=.


A comparison can be drawn between the Yuan Hän ritual sacrifice as described by Brutti which creates renewal and brings fertility to the earth with the sacrifice of Jesus, as the biblical saying AGod gave his only begotten son@ expresses (see Brutti, note 30). Jesus was sacrificed so that the earth which had become corrupted could renew itself and humans could learn to lead more >correct= lives. Jesus, however, was also resurrected and thus overcame death, the message being that humans too could overcome death if they adhered to certain tenets of the church.


The theme of renewal by resurrection is found also in earlier messianic movements, for example in the Koreri movement as described by Kamma (1972). The return of the dead, reunion with the dead, and the conquering of mortality, all form parts of a redemptive narrative that has a long background in indigenous thought and practices. (Again, the Huli have placed their own twist on this narrative with their concern that they incorrectly sacrificed the youth Bayebaye in 1925 during dindi gamu ritual -- and may also need to pay compensation for Christ=s death in order to obtain redemption, as noted by Frankel 1986:23.)




The ideas found elsewhere are widely spread, as seen in the Melpa and Kwaio descriptions of millennial markers.


One is the belief that the year 2,000 is the precise year in which the apocalyptic world=s end will come and Jesus will return to redeem the >true in the faith=. In conjunction with these ideas is the belief that a sequence of events will occur that will precede world=s end and serve as signs to the faithful to prepare themselves for the event.


Another sign is taken by the Melpa to be the general confusion that they feel about the rapid changes that have occurred in their lives since at least the mid-1980s: changes such as urbanization, the development of class structure, national and provincial-level political upheavals and escalations in tribal warfare accompanied by the use of introduced guns. Also, there are the internal contradictions that many feel from having one foot in the modern capitalist world with its sophisticated financial services and computerized information bases while having the other foot in a world of hostility, violence, and restricted mobility between clan areas that is reminiscent of pre-pacification times.


These changes are thought to be a true sign of the approaching end of the world. Such notions introduced through Christian teachings, especially those of the Pentecostalists, have gained popularity and spread as social change in the area has escalated. One of the kina (the PNG currency) notes, the 50 kina, has the head of Sir Michael Somare, PNG=s first Prime Minister, on it. The note is called Somare peng, >Somare=s head=. In 1991 in Hagen a story that was articulated was that Somare=s head would be removed from the 50 kina notes and in its place a representation of the Pope=s head would appear. The Pope=s head would appear on coins as well as monetary notes. The predicted occurrence of this was thought to be linked to the apocalyptic end of time. This prediction of monetary conversion emanated from a new indigenous sect of charismatic Catholics. In general the main Catholic and Lutheran churches in the area teach that the end of the world will occur in a more remote and nebulous future. But the charismatic Catholics hold all night meetings where they sing in tongues and experience physical possession by the Holy Spirit in a manner reminiscent of services at the local Pentecostal Churches.


In 1995 another sign of the world=s end was stated by a Hagen woman Mande-Kele who grows the cash-crop coffee along with her husband Ru. She said (in an interview for the film >A Death To Pay For=), Athe price of coffee fluctuates and goes down, a bad country may take us over, money will be scarce in our pockets, and it will all be a sign of the return of Jesus@.

Similar stories of this type have been commented on from various parts of PNG. David Akin (personal communication, 1997) has reported that these beliefs have moved through the Kwaio area of the Solomons in the past few years, peaking in 1992 or 1993. Akin notes that in Kwaio, the scenario of the Pope=s seizing of power is referred to as the ATirisekesi@ (Athe three sixes@ or 666). This Kwaio version resembles what has been observed in Hagen, with some interesting differences. It is said that AThe Pope in Rome@ will send his armies far and wide and wrest world power from the Queen of England. All Protestants will be ordered to become Catholic, and those who resist will be summarily executed, along with their children. A new currency will be issued by the Pope, and thereafter only his money will be accepted in stores. The money will have a representation of the Pope on it. Also, every bill will bear the serial number 666.


In Kwaio, the Seventh Day Adventists were the Christians most worried about the Tiriisekesi, although some South Seas Evangelical Church were also distressed. Fears seem to have died down somewhat in 1994-6 but many people still worry that the predictions will prove true. As with most apocalyptic rumours in Kwaio, pagans are less concerned about the Pope than are Christians. Pagans are thought to be exempt from the Pope=s final solution. Pagans will neither be murdered nor pressured to become Catholic. Christian promoters of these beliefs have told this to pagans. The pagan community do not suffer from the same anxieties as does the Christian community. Christians have long been much more engaged in and dependent upon the cash economy than are pagans. Most Christians converted at least partly to gain access to cash and European affluence, (as Brutti suggests for the Oksapmin also) and most have been disappointed. Most converts gave up residence rights on their own land when they relocated to the coast, so their subsistence base is also more precarious. The Solomons economy is in difficulties and those most hurt are isolated rural people like Kwaio Christians who are increasingly dependent up on the cash economy but find themselves with decreasing opportunities profitably to take part in it. Many Kwaio attribute their problems to partly-understood global economic causes.


These Christian rumours reflect the Protestant and Seventh Day Adventist composition of the Christian communities in Kwaio and reflect the opposition between these churches and the Catholic church in a new and millennial context. It is interesting that the problem is seen as confined to the Christians themselves in contrast to the situation among the Urapmin who see themselves as all Christians. Exactly how disappointments over cash income are translated into fear of a Papal take-over is not readily apparent, but must have to do with the other widespread rumour that a new >world power= will take over in cases where Pacific island countries= economies falter: a notion that itself would seem to be derived from the World Bank rather than from Catholicism. The perception of such outside agencies as potentially hostile and despotic differs markedly from the image of the World Bank that was projected in the Hagen money cult in 1968-71, when one of the songs invented and sung by a Kawelka group leader at the time included the lines:


Okla ndop kant-mel o e

l Mbeng mana omba poka ronom e


I look up and I see

The World Bank comes down and breaks open.


>Breaking open= here meant the apocalyptic moment in which wealth, freely available for all, would be made manifest.






In many parts of the world the beginning of a new decade is a time of reflection and reminiscing about the events that have occurred with an emphasis on specific achievements and advances, unusual disasters, and unexpected events that have markedly altered history. Often the tone is one of a time of closure and healing and a sense of hope that a period of new beginnings will bring a renewal or refreshing of the human condition. It seems likely that the media will bombard us with imagery of past events as a form of preparation for what changes the millennium will bring among those of us using the Gregorian calendar. This kind of imagery has also to be seen as a millennial marker and it will continue to feed into the markers discussed here.


And if all these >markers= should fail - what? How will all the semiosis be retrospectively reinterpreted? After the >money cult= of 1968-71 in Mount Hagen had failed (its market >crashed=), people resumed their pragmatic mode: it failed because certain procedures were done wrongly or because it was all lies or tricks or for unknown reasons. Will the response to the passing of the year 2,000 and the countdown to it be the same, or will matters be more convoluted?


We cannot say. Meanwhile each of these papers probes aspects of the situation now. Theo Ahrens quietly charts the various pathways that led to the colonial creation of millenariansim in the Pacific and shows how its themes have themselves recurred over time. Joel Robbins picks on two classic themes, >the skin= and the >666' sign, and elegantly shows how they mutually configure in contemporary Urapmin eschatology. Lorenzo Brutti gives us a startling new account of a ritual of renewal through sacrifice in Oksapmin and an intricate argument on cycliciy, ecology, the cosmos, and millenarianism among Christian sects. Chris Morgan makes a sophisticated and succinct restatement of Huli entropic epistemology and conducts a careful examination of the thought-world of one idosyncratic end-of-the-worlder, showing how his personal mytho-logic is based firmly in the wider Huli view of the world as well as in an anthropocentric picture of transcendence through escape in a spacecraft. Biblical images and video clips fuse with Huli pureremo in Hayara=s thought, producing a familiar bricolage of the extraordinary, the unexpected and the mundane. Of such are millennial markers made.





Cohn, Norman 1993. Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come. The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Frankel, Stephen 1986. The Huli Response to Illness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Kamma, Freerk C. 1972. Koreri: Messianic Movements in the Biak-Numfor Culture Area. >s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff.


McGinn, Bernard 1994. Antichrist. Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. San Francisco: Harper (Harper Collins).


Strathern A.J. and Pamela J. Stewart 1998. Melpa and Nuer Ideas of Life and Death: the rebirth of a comparision. In M. Lambek and A.J. Strathern eds. Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 232-251.



The other papers in Millennial Markers are:

-Millenarianism in Christian Missions: A Few Historical Reminders.

Theodor Ahrens, pg 19-34.

-666, or Why is the Millennium on the Skin? Morality, the State and the Epistemology of Apocalypticism.

Joel Robbins, pg 35-58.

-The State at the End of the Universe: Madness and the Millennium in Huli.

Christopher Morgan, 59-86.


-Waiting for God. Ecocosmological Transformations among the Oksapmin (Sandaun Province - PNG).

Lorenzo Brutti, pg 87-131.


-A forthcoming issue of the journal Ethnohistory entitled Millennial Countdown in New Guinea edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern will also address some of these issues and was scheduled to be published early in 2000.