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The Keraki were one of the three peoples who lived in villages in the Morehead District of the Western Division of the Territory of Papua (in the latter's south-west, 8° 30' South and 141° 40' East; the Transfly is a geographical term for the region). The Australian Francis Edgar Williams (1893-1943) worked as one of two official anthropologists for the Australian colonial government of Papua from 1922 to 1942. During that time, he made five trips to study the Keraki: from June to September, 1926; from May to September 1927; and three "shorter but successively more profitable visits" in 1928, 1930 and 1932.

The final writing up of the resulting anthropological report,  Papuans of the Trans-Fly was completed in June 1934. It was presented as a thesis for his B.Sc. degree at Oxford University in 1934, and published in Oxford as the 15th in the series of anthropological reports by the Papuan government in 1936. It was reprinted in 2015.

The frontispiece of the first edition, featuring "a native of the Morehead District"

Williams reported of the Keraki: "For many years they have been protected and befriended by the Government and now consequently they show a very hospitable front towards the European." [p 11] These feelings of good-will were due mainly to the protection the Government provided against an aggressive head-hunter tribe to the west.

While some missionary activity had taken place in the area, it had had little impact on village life. Of life in general Williams reported: "In respect of intra-group relations, however, I can say that during the whole of my time among the Keraki I never witnessed a serious quarrel, and that although differences, even carried to the point of bloodshed, are, of course, not unknown, nevertheless the general tone of a village is one of great good-humour. In broad terms, then, the native's life is peaceful, and, in as far as happiness depends on social concord, it is essentially happy." [p 11-12]

Williams reported that polygamy was common, with an average of 1.55 wives per married man. "...girls marry at, say, the age of ten years, whereas men commonly wait until twenty and perhaps much longer." [p. 150]

All footnotes are by Williams.


Chapter IX: Exchange-Marriage and Exogamy


It was frequently maintained that setiriva, or bachelors, remained truly celibate until they entered upon sexual relations with their own wives. Without giving too much credence to this statement, we may note that the hospitable exchange above noted was nominally restricted to married adults. Some informants maintained that setiriva could secure the favours of married women at feast times, but it seems evident that this was not definitely sanctioned.

"Young Man Playing the Boraro"

The bachelors had recourse to sodomy, a practice which was not reprobated but was actually a custom of the country -- and a custom in the true sense, i.e. fully sanctioned by male society and universally practised. For a long time the existence of sodomy was successfully concealed from me, but latterly, once I had won the confidence of a few informants in the matter, it was admitted on every hand. It is actually regarded as essential to the growing boy to be sodomized. More than one informant being asked if he had ever been subjected to unnatural practice answered, "Why yes! Otherwise how should I have grown?"

The ceremonial initiation to sodomy and the mythological antecedents to it will be spoken of elsewhere (pp 194, 308). In the meantime it is enough to note that every male adult in the Morehead district has in his time constantly played both parts in this perversion. The boy is initiated to it at the bull-roarer ceremony and not earlier, for he could not then be trusted to keep the secret from his mother. When he becomes adolescent his part is reversed and he may then sodomize his juniors, the new initiates to the bull-roarer. I am told that some boys are more attractive and consequently receive more attention of this kind than do others; but all must pass through it, since it is regarded as essential to their bodily growth. There is indeed no question as to the universality of the practice.

It is commonly asserted that the early practice of sodomy does nothing to inhibit a man's natural desires when later on he marries; and it is a fact that while the older men are not debarred from indulging, and actually do so at the bull-roarer ceremony, sodomy is virtually restricted as a habit to setiriva.


Chapter XI: Initiation and the Bull-Roarer

"The Game of Hockey", an indigenous games without picked sides or goals played by young men and boys

By far the most important of the ceremonial "occasions" of youth is that of initiation, through which a boy passes at about the age of thirteen.

Williams gives a detailed description of the bull-roarer - its sacred nature and the need to always keep it and any knowledge of it hidden from the women and children. The initiation ceremony centres on the revelation of the bull-roarer to the boy, but also features a ritual beating [perfunctory blow with a banana stalk], a feast, and a parade through the village where the boys are ceremonially beaten by the women.


Initiates and Functionaries

When a number of boys within the tribe are seen to be pubescent, its villages will combine to initiate them. No chiefly mandate goes forth: the move originates with the suggestion of some man of weight, and if the people at large are in good heart and prepared to undertake the work involved, the decision is reached by a sort of general consent. The people extend the scope of their gardens and set to work therein with vigour, not to prepare for the initiation itself but, looking farther ahead, for the large feast which will celebrate the ending of the boys' seclusion.

"Mekwel", a man of Bebedeben, one of three main villages within the tribal territory of Keraki Proper

... At the ceremony which I was privileged to witness at Bebedeben there were six of them, averaging about thirteen years of age, though one was a good deal younger. Their respective fathers are typically responsible for providing food both for the minor feast at the initiation and the larger one at the termination of the seclusion; but all the men of the villages concerned will combine their efforts for the honour of the tribe.

A number of individuals officiate in the various capacities for each of the initiates...

Tabulamant. There are two functionaries known by this title. (1) The first tabulamant brings the initiate from the village to the waramongo [a hut constructed for the boys' initiation and subsequent seclusion]; he embraces him tightly when the bull-roarers are brought before him, holding his hands over his eyes until the moment of revelation; he also at the end of the day escorts the initiate when he makes his progress through the village and is beaten by the women, bending over him to shield his body from their blows...(2) The second tabulamant is the youth, belonging to the previous batch of initiates, who is privileged to sodomize the boy for the first time.

Uyamade. There are likewise two uyamade. (1) The first is the young man who shows the bull-roarer to the initiate, i.e. who swings it before him... (2) The second is the man who beats the initiate and who strikes the first blow in the rough and tumble which follows the revelation.

Sahanumant. This is the youth, belonging to the previous batch of initiates, who specially provides food for the boy during his seclusion.

"Muank", a Keraki of  "deservedly popular and lovable character"

Yahomant, a fourth term, means fellow initiate.

All these terms are reciprocal, and the indiviuals concerned maintain them until the end of their lives. The elder tabulamant and uyamade continue to have claims on the services of the younger (i.e. the youths whom they have helped to initiate) which the latter are supposed never to refuse. The younger sahanumant repays the services of the elder by subsequent gifts of food, and thereafter the two are pledged to mutual hospitality. The yahomant are alleged to help each other in fencing, hunting, and so on, though I believe this has little practical purport. They do not forget their association, however, and having been thrown together in the thrilling experience of initiation and in the subsequent seclusion they become something like chums. Lastly we should note that the bava or maternal uncle...presents him with a pwatapwata, or melon-shell phallocrypt, at the end of the seclusion. This is of course a definite kinship obligation whereas those afore-mentioned are the result of arrangement.

Parade through the Village and Commencement of Sodomy

Towards the end of the afternoon the initiates parade through the village where they run the gauntlet of the womenfolk, the tabulamant bending over their charges to shield them from the blows. Finally each is brought back to the waramongo and there formally handed over to his second tabulamant, who during the night initiates him to the practice of sodomy. For this purpose he is thereafter at the disposal of his seniors of the opposite moiety.


"Muank playing Cat's Cradles with Metere [the boy mentioned in note 1]"

The boys continue to live in the waramongo for a period of some months, until the food is ready for the feast at which they will make their debut in the village. During this time they must not allow themselves to be seen by the women, but they may come and go in the bush, hunting or fishing when they please. They do not wash, but keep their bodies greased and blackened. They are well fed, thanks to their sahanumant, and on the whole they have a very good time of it. They become familiar with the bull-roarers; they are instructed in the yuvi or tabus; they learn some of the myths which are told in the waramongo (though not all of them, for men may remain ignorant of some until well on in life); and they are initiated to certain hunting rites. Meanwhile they are at the service of those of the opposite moiety, whether fellow villagers or visitors, who wish to practise sodomy.[1]

It is questionable whether they receive much in the way of deliberate tuition. Their knowledge of the myths -- a highly important branch of Keraki education -- is only partly acquired in the waramongo. This and other lore they acquire naturally throughout life by listening to and conversing with their seniors, particularly in the setiriva-mongo [a men-only shelter] and in the hunting camp. During their seclusion they enjoy a great deal of freedom and leisure, and their main business, it would seem, is to grow. The desirability of growing fast is often emphasized, an end to which it is really thought that the practice of sodomy conduces. Here, as elsewhere, it is hoped that the women will hardly recognize their sons when they return to the village, for the difference that seclusion has made to them.

Bestowal of the Pwatapwata

"Children playing Homban, the Game of Ants"

When the great food-rack in the village is stacked from top to bottom with yams and taitu it is time for the guests to be summoned and for the initiates to receive their first phallocrypts [see Appendix III below], the pwatapwata, and to reappear in village life.

The ceremony should by rights take place in the village in full view of the assembled guests, both men and women. But as I saw it in Bebedeben it was performed in an obviously perfunctory manner at the waramongo, since there was no large feast to mark the occasion. After the bull-roarers had been ceremoniously detached from their rods and stowed away, the boys came forward to be invested by their maternal uncles. One after another they step out and confront the assemblage, accompanied each by the bava who is giving him the shell. The bava simply ties the supporting string about the boy's waist, and the boy himself adjusts it as a pubic covering. There is no special solemnity about the procedure except on the part of the candidate, who tries hard to preserve his dignity, and nothing is said except it be for some ribald or jocular comment from the audience.

The youth is henceforward known as setiriva, or bachelor. He wears his pwatapwata continually (unless he prefers a modern calico loin-cloth) and, except at odd times, does not return to a second childhood of nakedness until his old age. He associates more freely with his elders and does not have to flee whenever a subject with religious implications is touched upon. He works in the garden, as he did before; but now he shows an increased predilection for hunting. Before long he and his yahomant, or initiation mates, will have blossomed forth into the young bloods of the village.


The Lime-Eating Ceremony

"A Young Man of Tabaram [one of three main villages in the tribal territory of Keraki Proper]"

The youths continue to play the passive part in sodomy for a year or so.[2] At some stage within this period they together undergo a curious rite of lime-eating, which I describe from hearsay. A feast is prepared in the village and a waramongo once more made in the bush nearby. Here the Maiawa men -- for among the Keraki Proper it is their prerogative and secret -- engage in preparing lime (tumani). They do so in the usual way, by burning bivalve shells (eta); and when these have been thoroughly calcined they are wrapped in a parcel of bark. A barrier of palm leaves is thrown across one end of the waramongo behind which the Maiawa men are found in hiding when the others arrive from the village bringing with them the youths who are to undergo the ceremony. Then the Maiawa men, their faces whitened with their own lime, and to the accompaniment of the ari pipes, come hopping out in the manner of kangaroos. One of them carries the parcel of lime, which he opens before the assemblage, exclaiming, "Here is our taitu!"[3] The lime is thus openly displayed, but the secret of its manufacture is supposed to remain in the keeping of the Maiawa.

I have given this bare description of the preliminaries at its face value. What follows is more interesting. The lime has been prepared for the youths who are to receive the jemberi. Each of them must sit between the legs of one of his elders, his head thrown back and his mouth open. A quantity of the lime is then taken up in a leaf and emptied down his throat. As it is presumably only  partly slaked the effect is instantaneous. The unfortunate youth springs to his feet and dashes off to the bush in agony, to return some hours later with his throat and mouth severely blistered.

The express purpose of this ceremony is to neutralize the effects of the homosexual intercourse; in fact, to ensure that the young men do not become pregnant. At first I could not credit this; but the existence of the implied belief was amply verified. Among a lean and often scraggy people a corpulent or pot-bellied native is a comparative rarity. His condition is possibly due to disease of the spleen. By the natives it is put down to pregnancy. I have recorded the names of five such individuals, well remembered, who were thought to be with child. One of them, Sosopa of Wekamar, whom I knew as a sorcerer and marked because of his protuberant stomach -- an extreme case -- died prior to my last visit. The theory was that he had become pregnant because the lime had not gone down his throat properly and that he died because he could not deliver the child. We must not examine native theories of gestation too critically: it is not thought impossible that a man should go pregnant for years. Cases of what appears to be prolapsus ani have been described to me in awed breath and put down to the unavailing effort of the male mother at delivery. The native indeed fears that such unduly corpulent men may actually succeed in delivering their children and thus betray the secret of sodomy to their womenfolk -- a revelation which, they say, would cause extreme shame to every man. Not long ago, it is said, there was secret discussion as to whether a man named Mangan, of Derideri, should be put out of the way before he could disgrace his sex in this manner; and informants quote a more or less legendary case in which a pregnant man was enticed to join a hunting expedition and killed by concerted attack of his fellows, his body being ripped up, the entrails and foetus scattered, and the news brought home that he had been bitten by a snake and buried in the bush.


Bestowal of the Jemberi

"A House in a Yam Garden"

Some time after the lime-eating rite, when the youths' whiskers are showing themselves, they receive a different kind of phallocrypt, viz. the fusus shell, jemberi. It is given formally by the bava, and is accompanied by other gifts -- the sair belt, a sheaf of arrows, a necklet of pigs' tails called poj, armlets, leglets, and a small bag (kwarat yaumba), the last three decorated with the yellow dendrobium damugwar. There are once more gifts from the boy's father to his tambera, and the same understanding that the services and gifts will be reciprocated.

With the acquisition of the jemberi the youth's compulsory services in homosexuality come to an end. He is now entitled to adopt the opposite role, and he well have an opportunity of doing so when the next batch of boys are initiated to the bull-roarer. The cycle of his own initiation is complete. It only remains for him to marry in order to obtain the full status of manhood. [p. 181]


Chapter XVI:  Keraki Myths

Williams describes a complex mythology, featuring the originator, Kambel, his wife, Yumar, and their son, Gufa...

The Beginning of Sodomy

Gufa, despite good feeding and attention, was a wretched under-sized little boy, described as pot-bellied and constipated. He was the despair of his father until one day, ostensibly with the sole idea of promoting his growth, he conceived the idea of sodomizing him. He took him apart from his mother during the night and put his idea into effect, rubbing semen over the child's body.[4] The result was a miraculous increase in growth. The boy was instructed to keep this a dead secret from his mother, and when she next saw him she was delighted at the change but attributed it wrongly to the good food which Kambel must have given him, just as nowadays mothers are supposed to attribute the size of initiates to the special feeding they have had at the waramongo.[5]


Appendix III: Personal Enhancement

The Phallocrypt and its Functions

"Bringing Home the Firewood; a a Setiriva-mongo [meeting-place] in the Background"

The ordinary dress of males in the Morehead district is confined to the phallocrypt, worn in such a manner as to cover the penis and leave the testicles exposed. This phallocrypt (together with a tail-piece of frayed sago) might be spoken of as clothing; but it is obvious that all other articles of personal wear fulfil one or more of the following functions: they are either meant for ornament, or they possess some social significance, or they serve some purpose which we may speak of as utilitarian. The phallocrypt may fulfil all these functions, and it may be that its use as a shame-covering is only secondary. It might be even argued that, while more or less concealing them, it draws attention to the genitalia and acts as a means of sex attraction.


[1] One of the youths, a promising lad named Metere, whom I saw initiated, died subsequently. Apparently the case involved some severe anal infection.

[2] This is taken by the youths themselves as a matter of course. None of them makes any objection.

[3] I cannot understand this, but it may be recalled that the eta is the common taitu medicine.

[4] Gambadi informants describe the initial occasion more vividly. The father bids his son stoop to drink at a pool and as he does so catches him at a disadvantage.

[5] It is to be noted that nowadays boys are not sodomized by their own fathers. The restriction of moiety exogamy is observed in sodomy as it is in marriage.




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