STONE MEN OF MALEKULA BY JOHN LAYARD
Malekula is the second largest of the group of Pacific islands called the New Hebrides until independence in 1980, and Vanuatu since then. In 1913-14, it was visited by an expedition of eminent English anthropologists, including for fifteen months John Willoughby Layard (1891-1974), who stayed on one of the seven aptly-named Small Islands off Malekula’s north-eastern coast.
Much later, in 1942, the results of some of his work there was published as Stone Men of Malekula: Vao (Chatto & Windus, London, 1942), the only one accomplished of three volumes he intended to write about the Small Islands. The Vau of the title was the northernmost one of them, half a square mile in area with a population of about 400, socially organised in three double-villages, on two traditionally-hostile “Sides” and speaking their own language.
However, though concentrated on Vau, Layard had much to say about the other Small Islands and the Malekulan mainland, and is more valuable for the latter where the study of Greek love is concerned: there, as in much of Melanesia, some tribes, including the largest, the Big Nambas, held social and sexual relations with women in low esteem and practised institutionalised pederasty. Moreover, though most of what Layard said was based on his own findings in 1913-4, he also took on board the findings of others in the three decades that intervened before he wrote.
Presented here is everything Layard had to say about what he called “homosexuality”, but was clearly from his description all pederasty. However, it will be helpful to understand some of the background to Malekula in 1913-4, as described elsewhere in the book. At that time, the New Hebrides had just become a Franco-British condominium, but “few parts of the interior [had] ever been visited by a white man” and little was known about any of the Melanesian tribes who inhabited them. Some European imports, notably guns, tobacco and metal implements had made an impact. The colonial authorities exercised a certain amount of control along the coastal regions, including the Small Islands, but not the interior. Thus, for example, there was a resident missionary in Vao whose presence was enough to enforce the Government ban on warfare, ineffectively enforced on the mainland.
The limits of European influence can be judged by the results of their efforts against the local practice they most reviled: cannibal feasts where victims, either already killed in warfare or sacrificed on the occasion, were “cooked in a great pudding of yams and other vegetables which, when taken out of the oven, was sprinkled with coconut cream.” The last cannibal feast on Vao was celebrated in 1892, but Layard in 1942 had received recent reports of their continuation on the mainland, though held in secret for fear of French or British reprisals, and of the inhabitants of Vau occasionally going to the mainland to take part.
Layard said nothing in this work about the form of homosexual intercourse practised in Malekula, but, later revisiting the subject, he made it clear that the men pedicated the boys, which “he regarded as universal within homosexual relationships in Melanesia.”
Chapter XVIII. Initiation: General
In a list of the three types of initiation rite into manhood broadly practised in the northern New Hebrides:
(b) The operation of incision, or in some cases a peculiar type of circumcision, to be referred to below, both of which automatically preclude any immediate sexual experience, though in certain districts this is counter-balanced by homosexual practices, either real in which the novice becomes the boy-lover of his already initiated tutor, or mythical when it is said that the active part in this relationship is taken by ghosts.
(One of the four sections of the author’s “brief survey of the North Malekulan rites of Initiation into Manhood”)
Organised homosexuality a feature of circum-incision areas.
I have already called attention to the organised practice of homosexuality existing in the two areas where circum-incision replaces the more usual incision, namely, among the Big Nambas and in South (and apparently also in North) Raga. The explanation usually advanced with regard to the Big Nambas is that the chiefs have so many wives that the commoners have to content themselves with substitutes in the form of boys. This explanation is, to say the least of it, unlikely, and is quite certainly not applicable to South Raga where there are no chiefs.
Homosexuality among the Big Nambas.
If we examine the facts it is found, on the contrary, that homosexuality is in this area intimately bound up with circum-incision. In Deacon’s words, “When it has been decided to hold the circumcision rites, the father of each candidate seeks out someone who will act as guardian to his boy during the period of seclusion. . . . Such a guardian is called dubut; the novice or candidate is usually called mugh vel. The relation between these two is, henceforth, of a very special nature, to understand which it is necessary to know something of the organisation of male homosexuality in this district.
“Among the Big Nambas, as in North Raga, homosexual practices between men are very highly developed. Every chief has a number of boy-lovers, and it is said that some men are so completely homosexual in their affections, that they seldom have intercourse with their wives, preferring to go with their boys. Up to the time that a boy assumes the bark-belt, the badge of the adult male, he should not take a boy-lover, but himself plays this role to some older man. It is only after he has donned the bark-belt that he enjoys this privilege. It is clear, then, that for some time before a boy is circumcised he belongs to one of the older men. A boy-lover, like a circumcision candidate, is termed mugh vel, and he refers to his ‘husband’ as nilagh sen. . . . The association between a nilagh sen and his mugh vel is a very close one; indeed, the former has complete sexual rights over his boy…. The boy accompanies his ‘husband ’everywhere; works in his garden (it is for this reason that a chief has many boy-lovers), and if one or other of the two should die, the survivor will mourn him deeply….
"Whether it is the nilagh sen who is asked to play the part of dubut [guardian] during the circumcision rites is not certain, but after the arrangements for circumcising the lad have been made, the dubut has exclusive sexual rights over him. He is now the boy’s ‘husband’ and is extremely jealous of any other man, not excepting the guardians of other boys, securing his mugh vel and having intercourse with him. So much is this the case that he will not allow him out of his sight. The dubut himself, however, cannot have sexual access to the boy throughout all the thirty days’ seclusion which accompanies the circumcision rites. From the time of the operation until the wound is healed, intercourse is forbidden, and the dubut only plays the part of a guardian who cares for the novice’s physical needs. But when the wound is healed he resumes his ‘marital’ rights and continues to have relations with the boy until some time later the latter purchases his bark-belt. The reason, or rather the rationalisation, which the natives put forward for their homosexual practices is that the boy-lover’s male organ is caused to grow strong and large by the homosexual acts of his ‘husband.’ This growth of the penis is supposed to be complete by the time that the bark-belt is assumed.”
On the thirtieth day the novices issue from their seclusion, and each purchases his newly won penis-wrapper from his maternal uncle. ‘‘He does not acquire the bark-belt on this occasion, but at some later date (the length of interval was not stated and probably varies) the erstwhile novice pays his dubut a few coconuts or some tobacco for it. Until this payment is made the dubut continues to have homosexual relations with the lad, but when once the latter has assumed his bark-belt this bond is severed and he, being now a ‘man,’ can take a boy-lover himself.”
Homosexuality symbolises a spiritual connexion between the living and the dead in the male line of descent.
It is, I think, quite clear from this, and from the facts that organised homosexuality is associated with circum-incision also in Raga and that neither are found elsewhere in the group, that, whatever may be the various causes of homosexuality in other parts of the world, it is here definitely connected with circum-incision. In seeking a reason for this we must, I think, be careful not to dismiss as pure rationalisation the natives’ statement recorded by Deacon that the reason for homosexual acts is to make the boy-lover’s organ grow strong. Such fantasies are common with homosexuals among ourselves, and in the special case now being considered we have to remember two facts. First of these is the high esteem in which the penis is held, as seen in the extreme reverence for the glans due to the operation which is itself a sacrifice. In the second place, the Big Nambas represent an extreme form of patrilineal culture which they have carried to a pitch exceeding all other New Hebrides tribes in the very low status which they accord to women. It would appear, therefore, that both circum-incision and organised homosexuality are an expression of the extreme holiness of men over against women and of the triumph of patrilineal descent over the former matrilineal system. In this way, just as in the Maki on Vao the continuity of divine inspiration is transmitted to each generation by means of physical contact with the kava root held by the Speaker who himself represents all those ancestors who have previously performed the rite, so I suggest that among the Big Nambas the act of homosexuality may well represent to the natives a similar transmission of male power by physical means. That this power comes, moreover, from the ancestors in direct succession and not merely from the active partner in the union, and is therefore a spiritual conception, is shown, I think, by one of the ‘‘hoaxes’’ recorded from Lambumbu. In these hoaxes the actors, who themselves have, of course, already been initiated, represent ghosts, and on one occasion a number of them “lie down on their backs, in such a way that the feet of one man rest by the head of the next. In this way a file of prostrate bodies is made to reach from the door of the seclusion hut as far as the gongs. Nevar leaves (such as are used for cooking puddings) are then rolled up, strapped around with others and fastened to the men so that they reach, like gigantic penises, from one man’s middle, across his belly, chest, and head, almost to the next man’s testicles. These men now lie with their eyes shut and sing in a faint mysterious manner. It is dark. The candidates are led out and made to go up and pull the huge penises, which wobble in a terrifying manner.” We have already seen that the upright slit gongs represent ancestors, so that, despite the farcical nature of the hoax, which is in keeping with all such performances in North Malekula and the Small Islands, there can be little doubt that the intention is to symbolise continuity with the ancestral ghosts in the male line by means of the homosexual act. So, just as in some matrilineal communities the female line of descent is conceived of as an umbilical cord joining all generations to the first ancestress, so here the continuous penis unites all those belonging to the male line of descent.
Once the practice of homosexuality became established, though primarily on spiritual grounds, it is easy to see how by a process of secularisation it could be adopted as an everyday practice in the manner described by Deacon, and has led also to the adoption of the very large penis-wrappers worn by these men.
Active homosexuality in circum-incision areas replaced in the Small Islands by threats of homosexual action on the part of ghosts.
So much for the Big Nambas. From Raga, the only other area from which organised homosexuality has been reported, we have no details by which to test the validity or otherwise of what has just been suggested.
When we turn to those tribes in this area which practise only the simpler operation of incision, we find that, though homosexuality exists among them, it is unorganised and not carried to anything like the same extent as among the Big Nambas. Thus in the Small Islands though novices address their tutors (or guardians), as among the Big Nambas, as “husband ” and in some cases the tutor reciprocates by calling his novice his “wife,” they do not necessarily have homosexual relations and the terminology does not extend into secular life, but, on the contrary, the novices throughout the rites are constantly threatened with homosexual action on the part of ghosts.
Relation between incision and circum-incision.
Such threats without action suggest the possibility that the whole motive of ghostly homosexuality has been derived from the circum-incision area, and in this case Rivers may be right in regarding incision as being a degraded form of circum-incision, though not on the grounds he states. On the other hand, the Small Islands attitude towards ritual homosexuality as a spiritual phenomenon connected almost exclusively with ghosts and with initiation may indicate a more archetypal view. In this case circum-incision as an exaggerated form of incision would fall into line with other exaggerated forms of culture indulged in by the Big Nambas such as their extreme cannibalism and the incessant wars they wage among themselves.
I do not propose to attempt to solve this problem, but will content myself with pointing out the fact that, while the operation of incision is spread over almost the whole of the Southern and Central New Hebrides, circum-incision as practised among the Big Nambas and in South Raga occurs only in the extreme north of this area. Here also the moot point is raised as to whether it is the starting-point from which the degraded practice of incision spread south or whether, since according to Codrington incision came from the south, it is an ultimate development and is itself an exaggerated form of incision. In this respect it must be remembered that Codrington’s evidence rests on the very slender foundation of a purely local movement from Ambrim to Raga and very recently northwards to Maewo. But since any coastal movement spreading from Malekula to Ambrim in the way that the Maki has spread might then automatically move northwards along the eastern chain of islands, this is in fact no evidence at all regarding the larger movements of culture.
Homosexuality in Egypt and Fiji.
Two facts of comparative ethnology should be mentioned before leaving this subject. We have seen how in the district of Lambumbu the homosexual relationship takes on a fearful form when connected with ghosts. The same is true also of the Small Islands, where it is always connected with threats. It is therefore of interest that in ancient Egypt ritual homosexuality appears to have been connected with punishment or revenge. This is summed up in an article by Mr. G. D. Hornblower in which he says, “the notion of unnatural vice seems to have been connected in the ancient Egyptian mind with enemies,’’ and cites the case of Set threatening to treat his dire enemy Horus as a woman, adding : “It may be that the word hmti, meaning ‘woman-like,’ which is an insulting term applied to enemies, refers, at least inferentially, to the indignity in question.” He then mentions how, at an annual festival held in Cairo on the birthday of a Sheikh, “a public representation was given on a cart of the act of paederasty,” which appears to have been regarded as a religious act and was suppressed some forty years ago.
Replying to this article the late Professor A. M. Hocart wrote a letter to Man which, however, was never published, but from which Mr. Hornblower kindly allows me to quote. He says: “His [Mr. Hornblower’s] facts tempt me to bring forward a suggestion which I have for years had in mind, but been unable to confirm so far. It is that sodomy was once recognised between cross-cousins.” He adds: “This rests on the flimsiest of foundations,” but I include it here because his evidence is taken from the hill tribes of Fiji who, as stated by Dr. Haddon, in certain physical respects resemble the Big Nambas, and some of whom also practise circumcision. The facts cited by Hocart are as follows :
“(1) In the hill tribes of Fiji male cross-cousins address one another as veidhakavi, which means ‘ to do to one another,’ a euphemism for copulation. It may, however, be that the term has been improperly transferred from cross-cousins of opposite sexes.
“(2) There is in various parts of the Pacific a very close bond of friendship which I take to be a survival of cross-cousinship among people who have lost the relationship. In Hawaii it is called lai kane, ‘eating man,’ a term which is also a euphemism for sodomy.
“(3) Cross-cousins continually fight and cheat one another in sport. This sporting, and sometimes rough, feud has in many cases degenerated into earnest.”
Hocart further points out that the custom of cross-cousin marriage was at one time much more widespread than it is today, suggesting that it may formerly have occurred also in Egypt. However this may be, it is interesting to note that in a 4-section system the male cross-cousin is the brother of the prescribed bride, so that, if we may take the evidence that in the hill tribes of Fiji men marry their mothers’ brothers’ daughters as indicating the former existence of a 4-section system in that island, this evidence falls into line with the fact pointed out above that in Western Australia and possibly also among the Big Nambas a man took as his boy-lover a member of his wife’s marriage section,. and that it was only later that this love-relationship turned into one of joking and mutual violence.
Chapter XIX. Initiation into Manhood on Vao
Six to nine years’ interval between rites. Novices’ ages vary between 4 and 22.
Owing probably to this and to the passion for display and the enormous expense which the rite entails in the number of pigs sacrificed and feasts given, as well as the necessity to erect a special Initiation House for the novices during their seclusion, it is usual for a period of six to nine years to elapse in any given village between one performance of the rite and the next. This of itself creates a considerable disparity in the ages of the novices initiated at any one time. This disparity is yet further increased by the fact mentioned above that youths of one “line” only are initiated at once, by which reason the actual time elapsing between the rites for which any given novice is eligible is twice that mentioned, namely anything between twelve and eighteen years. Thus, at the initiation rite in which I myself took part on Atchin the youngest novice was about 4 years old and the eldest about 22!
This sacrifice of physiological considerations in favour of a communal social organisation and pride of display contributes towards a humorously cynical attitude on the part of the natives towards initiation which tends to place considerably more emphasis on the enjoyment of the initiators at the expense of the novices than might otherwise be the case.
RELATION BETWEEN NOVICES AND THEIR TUTORS. THREATS OF HOMOSEXUAL ACTION ON THE PART OF GHOSTS.
I have already referred to the terminology in use throughout North Malekula and the Small Islands between novices and their tutors. In Vao novices and all those not previously initiated are called mov ghal. In contrast to these, all initiated persons are called to-mbat, a term which has been fully discussed on pp. 492 ff. Each novice has a special to-mbat detailed to look after him, to tell him what he must do, to tend his wound and share his beatings. This man, usually a lodge-brother, I propose to refer to as the novice’s tutor. Between these two a special relationship exists, which at first sight would appear to indicate the same homosexual relationship as obtains between novice and tutor among the Big Nambas. Thus, in the ritual terminology of Vao the tutor is said to be “married” (e lagi ni) to the novice, who refers to him sometimes as teme natuk, one of the terms used by a wife for her husband. Older initiates not acting as tutors are referred to as “unmarried” to-mbat.
It was, however, repeatedly denied by the Small Islanders that this terminology implied actual homosexual connexion between tutor and novice, and, being usually lodge-brothers, there is here no possibility of the two belonging to intermarrying kinship sections such as would appear to be indicated by the more specialised terminology in use between men and their boy-lovers among the Big Nambas. Indeed, so far as I could learn, though homosexuality is not unknown in the Small Islands, it is rare, and such relationships as exist almost always consist in a Small Island boy being the passive partner in a temporary union with an adult native from the Malekulan mainland, for which he is rewarded by the present of a money-mat in the same way as men throughout the group make such gifts to their girl-lovers. The Small Islanders’ attitude towards such relationships are a comic look and the remark, “What a waste of time when there are so many women.” On Atchin, more closely connected with the customs of the Malekulan mainland, the tutor actually addresses his novice as “my wife.” Even there, however, where I myself had the good fortune to witness most of the rites, I was assured that this terminology did not indicate actual homosexual union, and the same is true of Vao where, though the novice does indeed sometimes speak of his tutor as his “husband,’’ the more usual term used is to-mbat na-nuk, “my to-mbat,” to which the tutor reciprocates by calling the novice mov ghal na-nuk, “my novice.”
On the other hand, as will be seen below, the novices are being constantly threatened with homosexual attacks by ghosts, and in so far as during the hoaxes the tutors and other initiates often take the part of ghosts they may be said to have at least a spiritual connexion of this nature.
2. Day of the Operation
First medicinal treatment
Describing the application of seaweed juice to the boy’s wound after the rite has been performed of cutting his foreskin with a bamboo knife:
In the application of this each tutor is assisted by another, who places his hand over the glans penis to protect it, while the boy’s tutor squeezes the juice over the wound.
3. Thirty Days’ Seclusion
Hoaxes. Threats of homosexual activities of ghosts.
During the first five days of the novices’ confinement in the initiation house, no moment is free from the fear that some hoax or other may be played on them. While the hoaxes practised on Vao cannot compare, in number and severity, with those practised on Atchin which continue throughout the whole thirty days and a full account of which will be given in a subsequent volume, their general tone is not dissimilar, being based on terrorising the novices and, in particular, frightening them with the alleged homosexual appetites of ghosts.
4. Thirtieth Day and After
Avoidance of women gradually relaxed. Novices sleep in initiation house till opportunity arises for Initiation into Sex.
While being thus free, however, the aura of seclusion still hangs around them, and for a short indeterminate period they may not speak to women unless first spoken to, this period being characterised by an avoidance of all female companionship, particularly that of a boy’s own mothers and sisters, whom he is not permitted to address till he has himself been first spoken to by an old woman of another village.
Initiation, while thus weaning a boy from the influence of his female relatives and introducing him into manhood, symbolised by the prominent part played by shooting with bows and arrows, and though sexual in that it includes incision and the constant threat of homosexual action on the part of ghosts, does not, however, constitute an introduction to heterosexual life. This is reserved for a later occasion, namely the special rite of sex initiation which is performed not on the island of Vao, nor on the mainland of Malekula, but which forms part of a youth’s first overseas expedition to Oba or some other island in the matrilineal area described in the next chapter. No uninitiated boy can take part in any such expedition, nor, once initiated, may he cease sleeping in the initiation house till the opportunity arises for him to join one. Only after such a sex-initiatory expedition has taken place may he return to sleep in his paternal compound.
Hoax regarding homosexual intercourse with ghosts of the slain.
I did not record any rite held on the hundredth day, such as occurs elsewhere. This may be a case of omission. However this may be, the non-heterosexual character of manhood-initiation receives its final expression in the last rite connected with it, which takes place on the hundred-and-seventh night (na-mbong mow hangawul raman ghe-mbüt) after the operation, when an “unmarried” initiate climbs up inside the house to the apex of the roof, calling out to all those who have died a violent death (ta-mat-oamp) to come and have homosexual intercourse with the new initiates.
 Gilbert Herdt (editor), Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Berkeley, 1993) 97, referring to Layard’s “Homo-eroticism in a primitive society as a function of the self” in Journal of Analytic Psychology 4: 101-115.
 A. Bernard Deacon, the anthropologist widely quoted by Layard, but in the following instance without a precise reference.
 The bark-belt has nothing to do with initiation, and is assumed apparently without ritual some time later. [Author’s note]
 Nilagh probably consists of the indefinite article ni- and lagh, the equivalent of the Vao laghe, “to marry.” Sen is clearly the third person singular possessive pronoun meaning “his,” so that ni-lagh sen means “his ni-lagh,” and Deacon’s subsequent phrases “a nilagh sen” and “the nilagh sen” are anomalous.
Deacon points out that this term is that usually used for the “sister’s husband,” adding, however, that when employed by a tutor for his boy-lover “it is used in jest, for the rules regulating the behaviour of relations by marriage make it impossible for a man to have homosexual connection with his wife’s brother,” this individual being equivalent to the sister’s husband through the operation of sister-exchange marriage. Whether Deacon was right or not in saying that this kinship term is used in these circumstances only in jest (and he never himself penetrated the Big Nambas country), it is not without interest to note that, according to Professor Radcliffe-Brown quoting from Klaatsch, in the southern part of the Kimberley district of Western Australia, where there is a 4-section system of kinship, the rules governing homosexual intercourse are in fact similar to those governing marriage. That is to say that it is there the custom for a man before marriage to take as a boy-lover a member of the prescribed kinship section from which he must later obtain his wife, and who is therefore sociologically equivalent to the wife’s brother and sister’s husband, such intercourse being forbidden with a boy of any other kinship section as strongly as if the relation were a heterosexual one. The custom differs from that among the Big Nambas in that, in Western Australia, homosexual intercourse is not usual after marriage, but the kinship regulation is so similar to that indicated by the Big Nambas terminology that it may be questioned whether this is in fact used only “in jest,” and strongly suggests a similar regulation among these North Malekulan people. [Author’s note]
 A. Bernard Deacon, Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides, London, 1934, pp. 260-2. [Author’s note]
 A. Bernard Deacon, Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides, London, 1934, p. 267. [Author’s note]
 Compare also the Tanna belief that the operation itself makes a man fruitful (Gray, quoted by Felix Speiser, Ethnographische Materialen aus den Neuen Hebriden und den Banks-Inseln, Berlin, 1923, p. 204). [Author’s note]
 Atchin ro-war. [Author’s note]
 A. Bernard Deacon, Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides, London, 1934, pp. 253-4. For other hoaxes see ibid. pp. 253-5, 263-6 ; also T. H. Harrisson, Savage Civilisation, London, 1937, pp. 47-8. Yet others will be given in my forthcoming work on Atchin. [Author’s note]
 G. D. Hornblower, Man, August 1927, No. 97. [Author’s note]
 A. C. Haddon, Preface to A. Bernard Deacon, Malekula: A Vanishing People in the New Hebrides, London, 1934, p. xxii. [Author’s note]
 W. H. R. Rivers, The History of Melanesian Society, Cambridge, 1914, vol. II, p. 436, quoting Fison. [Author’s note]
 This long interval between initiation rites and the consequent disparity in the ages of the novices is a feature of the introduced Kwat society complex and does not occur outside its sphere of influence. Thus in the Qeta (Bweta) society of North Raga initiation takes place at intervals of six to ten years (R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians, Oxford, 1901, p. 92). In Ambrim and the greater part of Malekula, however, it takes place about every three years, the age of the novices varying between 8 and 12 (Felix Speiser, Ethnographische Materialen aus den Neuen Hebriden und den Banks-Inseln, Berlin, 1923, p. 203) or 7 and 10 (ibid. p. 288). In South Raga it takes place when the boys are 5 or 6 years old (E. Tattevin, Sur le bord de la mer sauvage. Notes ethnologiques sur la tribu des Pornowil, “Revue d’Histoire des Missions”, Paris, 1926, p. 401).
 In Atchin each tutor, who is addressed by the novice as “husband,” has one or more assistants called “lovers,” and it is one of these who assists on such occasions, and performs all the more menial duties allocated to the “husband.” I do not know whether the same holds of Vao, or whether the assistant in this case is simply another patrilineal relative or the tutor of another novice. [Author’s note]
 These words being used, of course, in a classificatory sense. [Author’s note]