Ways of Baloma

Rethinking Magic and Kinship From the Trobriands

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Mark S. Mosko
Malinowski Monographs
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , November
     516 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Trobriand Islanders are one of the most thoroughly studied societies in the world. Is it possible, though, that after a century of fieldwork by some of anthropology’s most illustrious figures, including Annette Weiner and the master Bronislaw Malinowski himself, there is still much that has been misunderstood or overlooked? Mark Mosko makes a convincing case that some core aspects of Trobriand culture have eluded us and that comprehending those aspects solves major questions or mysteries in Trobriand ethnography.

Mosko’s two main subjects are the alleged magical efficacy of words and the alleged ignorance or denial of paternity (and therefore the “matrilineality”) of Trobrianders. By applying the contemporary perspectives of “partible personhood” or the “dividual” and of a rehabilitated Lévy-Bruhlian “participation,” he challenges decades of (mis)interpretation of Trobriand thought and social organization. On the first point, Mosko argues against Malinowski’s contention that the words of megwa or magical spells are immediately effective independently of the spirits or balomawhich they reference, to which they are often directed, and from which they ultimately originated. This takes him into a presentation on the nature of the baloma and their relationship to living humans. Significantly, baloma, like the English cognate “spirit,” designates both the disembodied dead as well as the immaterial part of the living, and Mosko maintains, in quite reasonable fashion, that the realm of the living and the dead are in dynamic interaction. The dead baloma are agents, and magical formulae function not directly but through the agency of those spirits.

But the bond between the living and the dead goes much farther and deeper: “the momova [life, vital essence] of any particular being or entity of Boyowa [the realm of the living] is also considered to coexist as, or to be a component of, its invisible counterpart in Tuma, the realm labeled by Malinowski ‘land of the dead’” (119). The baloma spirits impart kekwabu (image, shadow, essence/element) and peu’ula (power) to the living; living humans are constituted of elements of the ancestors and vice versa. Because of generations of reciprocal incarnations, the images and powers of magical language are “contained or stored in the blood of dala [matrilineal group] members from the moment of conception” (130), although ritual specialists alone can fully manipulate those forces. 

Having thereby tied together magic and kinship, Mosko additionally explains that uttering magical words is a kind of creation and procreation, a production and a reproduction: “The complete externalized, vocalized animated megwa … is viewed as a magician’s progeny” (145). This then relates to the supposed Trobriand belief in “virgin birth,” or their unawareness of paternity. It will be recalled that Malinowski asserted that the biological father was a stranger to his offspring, without social or spiritual import to them. Mosko responds that this is quite wrong. Rather, children are the product of both female and male material and spiritual stuff. The medium of this procreative stuff, and of exchange between the living and the dead, is bwekasa or “sacrifice,” a category much neglected by previous researchers. Through these exchanges, “baloma spirits and living Trobrianders participate in sustaining each other’s lives” (159), the spirits literally leaving traces of their images and powers on the offerings. As distributed parts of balomapersons, the spiritual images and powers are incorporated into living humans, resulting in the “participation” that Mosko previously invoked.

Mosko proceeds to use these insights to solve other ethnographic problems, such as the nature of Trobriand taboos and, most evasively of all, what Malinowski called “the supreme puzzle” of the culture—their incest rules, marriage and lineage organization, and  endogamy among the clans of chiefs. Based on everything we have already seen, he concludes that individuals are not only descended from their mothers and that the dala groups are not strictly matrilineal (nor are they exactly “groups” in the formal sense of the term), so that distinctions between same and different dalacannot be construed simply along matrilineal lines.

As Mosko himself admits, not all ethnographers of the Trobriand Islands agree with his analysis; indeed, his interpretation goes against a century of description. For that matter, one of the strengths of the book is his critical engagement with those previous fieldworkers from Malinowski on. And one of the prime strengths of his case is his field methodology, working over a long period of time with a team of local elders and experts. He certainly makes a compelling argument for his view of Trobriand culture, revealing profound and fascinating dimensions of cosmology and cosmogony and proving that there is still much to learn about the culture after all this time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor (Retired) of Anthropology at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark S. Mosko is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Culture, History, and Language at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.


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