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Gillian Gillison, She Speaks Her Anger : Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women. A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Borut Telban
p. 152-154
Référence(s) :

Gillian Gillison, She Speaks Her Anger : Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women. A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, 290 p., bibl., index, ill. (« Culture, Mind, and Society »).

Texte intégral

  • 1 Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

1Over many decades, Gillian Gillison has immersed herself with almost obsessive devotion in the myths and rites of the Gimi, which she recorded during extended fieldwork visits between 1973 and 1985. The present book is in many ways an in-depth continuation and clarification of their mythic life-world that Gillison explored in her earlier book Between Culture and Fantasy. A New Guinea Highlands Mythology.1 In this part of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands province, women, living with their children in separate houses, were erased from the menstrual-free cosmos of the men, who strove to maintain such erasure. Gillison soon realized that Gimi men and women possessed separate, competing myths and rites, and that the women’s accounts were actually talking about what the men were hiding. She reached a conclusion that visualization was the key to understanding the Gimi myths and rites, and psychoanalysis the tool to unveil their specific primordial realities.

2In the fourth chapter of Totem and Taboo, Freud develops his psychoanalytic observation of how sons (brothers) united to gain courage, murder and devour their violent primal father, a patriarch and an obstacle to their sexual desire. Then, caught in the ambivalent stance between hatred and admiration for their father, the brothers were overcome by remorse and enacted taboos for murder (of a totem animal, their father’s surrogate) and incest. This primeval criminal act, Freud writes, was the beginning of social organization, moral restraints and religion. In the case of the Gimi, however, Gillison, examining their myths and rites, argues that daughters (sisters) who were repeatedly raped by their primordial father joined their brothers to murder and devour him.

3In the Gimi women’s mythology, the primal father was not a helpless victim, but a cannibal ogre, the giant penis, the vicious python, that took up residence in the mother’s womb, where its hunger for blood resulted in woman’s menstruation. Although in the myth of the giant penis a woman managed to cut off a large piece of his penis and throw it into the river, in another myth this severed penis came back to the woman as a giant python, entered her through the vagina (“the killing field”, p. 21) and exited through her mouth, creating a second vagina. Here, a reference to the men’s myth and a secret flute (of the first woman) with two orifices, blown by men (which is seen as an act of copulation), is clear, with the sounds of the flute reflecting the weeping of the newborn.

4In the men’s myth, the first woman invented the flute and played it in her menstrual hut. Her little brother, attracted by the music, sneaked into the hut and stole the flute. Since she plugged a hole in the flute with her pubic hair, he could not play it. When he pulled the plug out of the flute, the boy caused his sister to menstruate for the first time. However, by putting his mouth on the clogged hole, he triggered the growth of hair on his face. As a kind of revenge, the men say they tattoo a “beard” around their sister’s mouth before sending her to her husband as a bride.

5The men’s flute myth conceals the presence of the father and merely states that the men stole the flutes from a woman, the original owner. From the women’s myths, however, we learn that the men’s beards are in fact not their ancient sister’s pubic hair (from the clogged flute), but the marsupial excrement that came from the old man’s face onto the anus of a virgin girl after he had blinded himself with lust. The men’s myth also hides the fact that the boy returned to his sister’s womb, where he encountered the giant penis (the primal scene in which he witnessed the copulation not only of his parents but also of his not-yet-born, powerless sisters), ate its head (the primal crime taking place in the womb), killed it and triggered the sister’s first menstruation (blood of the giant penis). While men purify themselves of the remnants of the primal menstrual blood by bleeding their noses in bloodletting rites and sending the blood back to their sisters (men’s perspective), women say that they end their menstruation by sending the blood to their brothers’ noses, i.e. to its true source.

6If we look at Freud’s primordial father from the perspective of the myths and rituals of the Gimi women and men, we can see that the father is the permanent inhabitant of the mother’s body, transformed from a primordial individual rapist into a perpetually copulating pair, a composite figure forever caught in a primal scene (the primordial Gimi father/mother, p. 163). This composite figure is only separated when the siblings cut off the head of the giant penis, each retaining their part: the women with the bleeding head in their vaginas and the men with the shortened penises. Before the head of the giant penis is cut off, the period Gillison calls not only primordial but also prenatal, the daughters and their brothers are still unborn, not even differentiated, watching their parents’ copulation in the mother’s womb. Only after they have “eaten the head” of the father’s giant penis can they escape and enter the natal era: adolescent boys with beards and blood in their noses, adolescent girls with the father’s blood in their vaginas.

7In the Gimi rituals and ceremonial exchanges, the pork and marsupial meat replaces the decapitated primal father/giant penis/python and is called “the head of the child”. These “heads” are presented to the mother’s brothers and other affinal kinsmen at ceremonies marking important stages in the child’s life. Each child is a replica of a giant penis, the primal father who lost his head. Each time the mother’s brother eats the “head” of his sister’s child (pork and marsupial meat), which he receives from the sister’s husband at a public exchange, he purifies himself of the father’s blood (her menstrual blood). The mother’s brother is no longer the unborn child who could feed on the head of his father’s penis. On the contrary, if he returns to his sister, he will be eaten by the angry father. In other words, in the sister’s “flute house”, he is no longer the one who eats the giant’s severed head but is eaten himself. Therefore, the food that his sister’s husband gives him now replaces what he ate in his sister/mother. The more he receives and eats it, the more he distances himself from the woman’s body. The husband’s debt to the wife’s brother is, as Gillison writes, a “remedy” for the crimes of the mythic past. In order to possess his children, the husband must alienate them from his wife’s father and brothers by ceaselessly providing “head” payments, compensating the recipient for the losses suffered during the primal crime.

8Gillison’s book is an example of a life-world in perpetual action, of a culture in continuous primordial reiteration. There is much repetition in the chapters, not only repetition of content, stories and details, but also of endnotes (often word for word) and references that unusually follow each chapter. Some readers may find these repetitions redundant. However, they also reflect recurrences in the life of the Gimi, both in their rites (which send the young people back to the primal scene) and in their myths. In the author’s language, they are part of the visualization of different scales as they zoom in and out of contested narratives. It is similar with parallelisms, such as those of the solitary figure of primal father, monster-father, giant penis, first husband, cassowary hunter, python, moon, dream man, old man, trouble-maker, trickster, and finally the “replacement pork”. The last one “replaces not just the primal Father as monopolist ogre but also the world system he keeps recreating inside Mother” (p. 152).

9I have always been amazed at the richness of Papua New Guinean life-worlds, especially their mythological and ritual variations. There is a common theme in the different societies, especially those that practice initiations, namely the link between copulation and consumption (eating), between predatory and productive acts, and between the death (and sacrifice) of novices and their (re)birth. However, as Gillison has shown in her dense examination of the myths and rites of both men and women, there is a specific gendered division that needs to be addressed, a division that is suppressed by male dominance (and Freud’s explanation). In any case, I would say that a prenatal androgynous unity is required to achieve gendered duality, and vice versa. This corresponds to a state of continuous cosmogony in which copulating with and consuming children corresponds to copulating with and consuming ancestors, which in the final stage points to auto-eroticism and auto-cannibalism. But, as Gillison has again astutely shown, the stage between prenatal and natal is more complex than has been presented in many previous anthropological works, especially those woefully few devoted to New Guinea mythology.

10I regret that so many anthropologists around the world, instead of painfully learning from their immersion in long-term fieldwork and carefully working through their own ethnographic material, are moving away from the hard-to-gain insights of indigenous perceptual and conceptual worlds and their relational ontologies, prioritizing certain kinds of self-centred, fashion-dominated and market-driven domains of an imagined globalized modernity (and postmodernity). If only for her obvious persistence in opposing such approaches, Gillison deserves to be applauded.

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1 Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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Borut Telban, « Gillian Gillison, She Speaks Her Anger : Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women. A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea »L’Homme, 249 | 2024, 152-154.

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Borut Telban, « Gillian Gillison, She Speaks Her Anger : Myths and Conversations of Gimi Women. A Psychological Ethnography in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea »L’Homme [En ligne], 249 | 2024, mis en ligne le 05 avril 2024, consulté le 19 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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