Book Review: Professor Margaret Jolly on Mark Mosko’s ‘Ways of Baloma’

Ways of Baloma: Rethinking Magic and Kinship from the Trobriands by Mark Mosko

(Malinowski Monograph Series, Hau Books Chicago 2017)

Review by Margaret Jolly

The Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea has been portrayed as a unique and sacred place in the genealogy of the discipline of anthropology, and especially that lineage which reveres Bronislaw Malinowski as one of its founding fathers. Mark Mosko’s recent book – Ways of Baloma insists on the centrality of baloma (ancestral spirits) as palpable, perduring presences in the lives of contemporary Trobriand Islanders. We might say that this book also animates the baloma, the ancestral spirit of Malinowski, not so much through rituals of reverence but through iconoclastic arguments which erode the empirical and theoretical foundations of Malinowski’s corpus and much of the voluminous anthropological literature on the Trobriands.

Perhaps this is why in his Introduction Mark describes the Trobriands not just as a ‘unique and sacred place in anthropology’ but also as a ‘ground zero for [our] ethnographic field methodologies’ (p.1) That image – used for the central terrestrial point of impact of a nuclear detonation and later applied to the World Trade Centre in New York after the 9/11 attacks – is surely problematic for a beautiful group of islands where Trobriand people live and practise their distinctive, vibrant cultural forms. But it does evoke how this book aspires to explode received anthropological knowledge, to clear the terrain of this place sanctified in an anthropological imaginary, in both empirical and theoretical terms.

Mark’s fieldwork for this book involved ten seasons over a decade from 2006 to 2016, in the dry season from May through October, a longevity which he celebrates as encouraging rigorous research and sustained reflection. He was, like Malinowski before him, based in the village of Omarakana, in Northern Kiriwina, home of the Tabalu Paramount Chief, presently held by Pulayasi Daniel. He authors a generous preface and assures readers that Mark’s books are ‘perfectly written under my authority and justification’ (p. xxxi). Mark was adopted as his younger brother and ‘sequestered’ in Pulayasi’s ‘elaborately decorated ligisa, his personal hut standing at the very centre of the most sacred [bomaboma] space of the entire Trobriand cosmos’ (p.29).  Mark kept the same ritual restrictions as Pulayasi – not eating with women or even commoner men in public – and not allowing women, even high-ranking Tabalu women into his house. Omarakana-based interviews with women and commoner men had to be held on the visitor’s ceremonial platform. These ritual restrictions pertained to Mark’s wife Cassandra (Cassie) who joined him during some fieldwork seasons and worked as a volunteer nurse at the Losuia health centre near the Kiriwina lagoon. He joined her there at weekends or they stayed in the less sacred wives’ house in Omarakana. Cassie was adopted into another high-ranking dala (subclan) which has customary affinal alliances with the Tabalu dala, but that did not give her the right of entry into the ligisa where Mark lived.

Mark speculates that his married status, in contradistinction to the solo bachelor status of Malinowski, meant he was more able to receive the ‘authentic’, privileged knowledge of the Trobriand ‘sacred traditions’ held by the Tabalu chiefs.  Not only their marital status differed. Whereas Mark drank only ‘clean’, moving water drawn from distant limestone caves or collected as rain, Malinowski insisted on drinking from a well dug by Fijian missionaries, water seen as ‘stagnant’ and tainted by the elite Tabalu, thus affirming his status as a tokai, ‘commoner’.  Moreover, among Malinowski’s interlocutors was the man Bagido’u whom Mark’s confidantes described as ‘crazy’, as exchanging magical spells (megwa) for sex with women and giving Malinowski incomplete spells (while allegedly hypnotised by Malinowksi), thus helping to disqualify him from becoming the next Tabalu or Paramount Chief. Mark proclaims that, unlike Malinowski, he never sought such powerful secret spells, since that would surely have yielded suspicions about his motives and derailed his research.

Mark’s main interlocutors were a respected and reliable team of high-ranking Tabalu men – he calls them his ‘first string’. His second and third strings included less elevated men and women, even ‘commoners’ whom he dubs ‘the rank and file’ from other villages (though few young people it seems). But the ethnography is primarily grounded in daily conversations with that elite team – a trio of male intellectuals whom Mark likens to Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’. (Molubabeba Daniel, Pakalaki Tokulupai, Yogaru Vincent). The title page of the book credits them, along with Tabalu Pulayasi Daniel, as writing ‘with’ Mark, if not as full co-authors. He typed as they spoke, rather than recording and laboriously transcribing, thereby generating digital files and recuperable search words at a fast clip and facilitating collation and synthesis in the field. Given their fluency in English and his lack of Kilivalan, the local language, they spoke in English, although often pursuing deep discussion and debate about Indigenous words and concepts (p. 53). These conversations followed the puzzles emergent from their earlier conversations and from questions which Mark derived from an exhaustive but he says an invigorating search of the published and unpublished sources on the Trobriands. He combed the archives of the ANU, the LSE, the Tuzin Melanesian archive of UC San Diego, and the Digital Ethnographic Project dedicated to the Trobriands – DEP in Sacramento.

The ethnography is framed by two powerful theoretical lens – which in conjunction Mark sees as bringing 20/20 bi-ocular vision to Trobriand realities. They can be distilled, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro does in his celebratory foreword, as the two Ps –  partibility and participation. De Castro suggests that the synthesis of the theories of partibility and participation ‘converge to dispel the profound anthropological misconception – an expression of the bizarre politico-philosophical imagination of a certain group of people who came to dominate the planet – of the atomic and autonomic Self and its spectrally magnified version, the Society as a super-Individual’ (xix).

‘Partibility’ has been passed down through a Strathernian lineage of which Mark has long been a core member. From its origins in Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (1988) and ramifying into what has been called the New Melanesian Ethnography (NME) this challenges the dichotomy of individual and society foundational for much Western social theory (and several other binaries central to a commodified view of the cosmos – subjects and objects, nature and culture). Strathern and her followers rather suggest that ‘Melanesian’ persons are ‘dividuals’, the composite of their relations and that persons are partible, parts of persons are detached and attached in ongoing transactions of gifts which are themselves personified. Mark has extended this perspective to argue that ‘Trobrianders see themselves and other persons as composed of detachable transactable components’ (p. 56), both images and powers, sacred and profane. He argues this creates a novel nexus, indeed an isomorphism between magic and kinship.

‘Participation’ has a longer French lineage which Mark traces back to Lévy-Bruhl (I would rather emphasise his close friend Maurice Leenhardt writing about the Kanak of New Caledonia). Lévy-Bruhl speaks of beliefs in, experiences of and relations of participation with ‘mystical’ or ‘suprasensible’ forces. For Trobrianders Mark sees this as including ‘spirits, deceased ancestors, deities and totemic species’ (p. 79) all of whom humans ‘consider in certain respects to be consubstantial with themselves; that is, as persons’ (p.79). This posits that humans are not a distinct, privileged part of the cosmos but participate in a ‘mutuality of being’ with other living creatures and even non-sentient entities like rocks and rivers. Cognate theories have been revived recently in what has been called ‘the ontological turn’ in contemporary anthropology, a kind of disciplinary vertigo which has involved a thorough-going interrogation of anthropos in the era of the Anthropocene.

In combining these two theoretical lens Mark argues that the ‘persons’ participating in Trobriand life extend ‘beyond the bounds of living people’ (p. xix), including crucially the souls of the dead, the baloma inhabiting Tuma, the invisible, spiritual inverse of the visible, material world or Boyowa.  The bodies of living people are animated by an indwelling, immaterial soul. ‘In short, living people are their ancestors embodied’ (p. 57, emphasis in the original).  Baloma, the souls of the dead may be disembodied and invisible but they are still inherently human with agentive capacities.  They are omnipresent in the daily activities of the living. Mark thus marks Strathern’s ‘dividual’ as a divine dividual in what he calls his Newborn Melanesian Ethnography – acronymised as NBME.

This is a long, dense book so I here offer only a few vignettes of how Mark challenges prevailing anthropological representations of Trobriand life. He frames his book as a correction to decades of ‘ethnographic misrecognitions’ (p. 385) and in particular as a rejoinder to Malinowski’s ‘individualist pragmatism’, (p. 387). His critiques are perforce focused on Malinowski himself –   ‘a litany of his mistakes’  – but many subsequent and more recent authors are also implicated.

First, he refutes Malinowski’s claim (and that of Stanley Tambiah) that the efficacy of the magic in spells resides in the words themselves, arguing that the agency of ancestral baloma and other spirits is ‘utterly critical’ (p. 56) in all magical performances – the words and breath of the magician invoke and capture the images and powers of baloma, impregnating them in the act, summoning their capacities.

Second, he disputes the conception that Trobrianders are ‘flatly matrilineal’ denying physiological paternity and entertaining notions of virgin birth. Elaborating on his earlier arguments, Mark insists that the Trobriand father or tama is not a stranger, not just the mother’s husband but an intimate, nurturing kinperson. Moreover, headmen or chiefs are seen as tama or fathers to their matrilineage; they nurture and protect their kin with their repositories of magical spells. The oral cavity or mouth of the headman/ father is akin to the vaginal cavity of a woman, open to the impregnation of the spirit children of baloma, in the form of spells. Spells are not passed down matrilineally but patrilineally from father to son.

Third, he thus argues for a radically new view of Trobriand gendered personhood. He critiques Annette Weiner (and far less persuasively Katherine Lepani) as adhering to an individualist conception of Trobriand personhood and women’s autonomy and suggests that it is not just women as mothers who are privileged in the eternal spirals of life and death but men as fathers and chiefs. The reincarnation of a baloma spirit is effected in the wombs of women, but the reincarnation of the images and powers of a person is effected through the mouths of men – and thus men are engaged in parallel and complementary ways in the ahistorical cosmic regeneration Weiner credited solely to women.

Fourth, Mark suggests that what has been viewed as daily mundane gift exchange is better construed as sacrifice, involving reciprocal relations with baloma. Even in daily family meals ancestral spirits are offered the ‘shadows’ of the food, the fruits of the labour of gardening and cooking and in consuming these ‘shadows’ deposit their potent saliva. Thus, the relation of the visible and the invisible, of the living and the ‘ghosts’ of the dead is seen as mutually enabling and animating. He also discerns sacrificial elements previously overlooked in the processes of copulation and birth, death and regeneration.

Fifth, he argues that baloma are crucial to Trobriand taboos or kikila, underpinning both adherence to ritual restrictions and their violation. Such violations are tantamount to incest, an inappropriate ingestion of ‘images that are already components of a person’s maternal and paternal dala [subclan] identities’ (p. 59 ). Illness and misfortune as a result of such violations are punishments effected by ancestral baloma or other spirits. This relates to the supreme taboo on incest or marriage between brother and sister. These kikila restrictions pertain not just to maternal kin but also to some patrilateral relations. And here gender articulates with hierarchy such that quasi-incestuous relations are ‘positively enjoined amongst those occupying the most elevated ranks of society’ (p. 59).

The mythic charter of an incestuous cosmic union is reconfigured in the diarchy of the two chiefly dala who intermarry: the Tabalu and the Osapola-Bwaydaga. They supply each others’ husbands and wives through reciprocal bilateral cross-cousin marriages (tabu-tabu or tama-latu marriages), in alliances tantamount to incest but described as gulagula, sacred traditions (p. 370–371). Such marriages ‘produce children whose [kekwabu] images and [peu’ula] powers are duplicated and compounded. This would amount to sibling incest except that the redoubled personal components of each child are conceived as not being the result of intra-dala transmission along matrilineal lines of connection. They have been acquired by inverse pedigrees. What one child has taken from its mother the other has received from its father and vice versa’ (p. 382, emphasis in the original).

The intermarrying dala are led respectively by the Tabalu (a sacred chief, passive, distant from the living but intensely communing with baloma, and in possession of the most powerful magic that controls the weather, agricultural fertility and famine, health and epidemic illness) and the Katayuvisa (an orator or advisor, who mediates with the living, with the chiefly following ) – a chiefly diarchy in Mark’s words resonant of ‘more familiar Polynesian and Austronesian forms’ (p. 59). When a Tabalu chief dies he passes on his spells usually to his son or else to his sister’s son, (likened to an ‘adopted son’) but it is ultimately the Katayuvisa who chooses the apt successor and suggests his ideal first wife. Their alliance is one of intimate support but also potential deadly rivalry (p. 381). Their alliance materializes the mirrored relation between the visible material world of the living in Boyowa and the invisible spiritual world of baloma in Tuma.

Here, as in the several other chapters of the book, what Malinowski understood as contradictions, dialectical tensions (e.g. between mother love and father right) or the consequence of natural passions like sexual desire exceeding rules, Mark rather construes as a coherent, tightly logical structure, enshrined as sacred traditions plotted in creation myths of a cosmic union: ‘All began with an androgynous divinity of dual personhood, a male and a female  who were both brother and sister and husband and wife’ (p. 383) .Their coupling and their separation created all else in the universe.

Given the book’s intense focus on continuity and especially a continuity of gulagula ‘sacred traditions’, promoted by a cultural elite from a political capital configured as a cosmic centre, it is important that in the final chapter Mark confronts critics of ‘continuity thinking’ like Joel Robbins and the challenges of discontinuities and ruptures.  In the conclusion he offers an approach to how we might construe Trobrianders’ conversion to Christianity.

Against the verdict of Malinowski and others that the patriarchal religion of God the Father entailed a major rupture with an indigenous matrilineal culture which revered women as mothers, Mark points to the way in which indigenous Christianity assimilates many of the principles of partible personhood and participation inherent in indigenous structures of the divine. Good sermons and prayers like good spells can change minds; Mary’s virgin womb is likened to that of an indigenous ancestor, Marita, whose vagina was opened up with dripping water; church tithing is akin to the annual tribute given to local leaders at harvest time; maleficient baloma are now refigured as ‘devils’, and the principles of sacrificial reciprocity with baloma are transferred to God. Mark challenges those Christians (especially Pentecostalists) who see their conversion as a rupture, preferring the ‘continuity thinking’ of his interlocutors who see Christian conversion as similar to indigenous adoption, adding new parents but sustaining natal ones. He quotes the words of an Indigenous theologian ‘Jesus must have been a Trobriander’ (p. 410).

This final telegraphic analysis of indigenous Christianity,  is framed by a spirited defence of how any major social transformation perforce embraces both continuity  and rupture, and the assertion that ‘ it seems to me perfectly logical that the nature or state of that which is undergoing the change at the outset of its unfolding, be understood as completely as possible’ (p. 396).  But can we presume that the logically coherent and powerfully collaborative view of ‘sacred traditions’ offered by Mark’s philosopher kings between 2006 and 2016 is a simple retelling of what existed prior to the combined forces of Christianity, capitalism and colonialism rather than a contemporary reconfiguration formed in relation to, and even some resistance to, those external forces? Can we believe that the indigenous cultural forms of 2016, are primarily those that Malinowski observed in 1915 and those of Trobrianders who first settled these islands in past millenia? What is the moment of that state – the outset of its unfolding? I suspend these critical questions here and give Mark his last concluding words:

[O]ther dimensions of postcontact transformation which have accompanied Islanders’ conversions to Christianity—commodification, colonialism, electoral politics, formal education, egalitarian gender ideologies, Western medicine and legal institutions, and so on—cannot be accurately grasped without a sound grasp of the dynamics of partibility and participation inherent in their indigenous sociocultural precursors, where concerns over magic (or religion) and kinship have been predominant.

Of course, this is not all that is required to account for the course of change in any specific context. But neither can the attentiveness to endogenous understandings of personhood, sociality, and cosmology be dismissed as items of mere antiquarian ethnographic interest or as irrelevant to Islanders’ contemporary lives. Even in their currently transformed guise, the ways of baloma remain as pertinent today as they were in Malinowski’s time, and most assuredly before’ (p. 411).

As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro suggests in his foreword, this book is obviously not ‘the whole story’ (xiii) about the Trobriands, but it is a holistic story. It offers a particular perspective from a ‘privileged sociopolitical section’ (xxiii)—arguably the Brahmans of the Trobriands, with a distinctively abstract and coherent view. It subordinates or marginalizes the views of the less powerful, the less privileged.  But it is still a very interesting, a very provocative, even an explosive story.

So, let me now launch Ways of Baloma. It is a fitting culmination of Mark’s anthropological corpus and a splendid example of what our hyper-productive Emeriti can do in retirement.  Echoing a canonical Trobriand botanical idiom, I declare that the base has risen through the body to the tip and has borne fine fruit.


This wonderful book can be purchased on Hau’s website at

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